Till We Have Faces: Our Digital Veils Keep Us From Being Known and Loved
God not only sees us and knows us, but also created us to be seen and known both by and for others.
A few years ago, a Philadelphia area Apple store featured a display in which a vibrant rainbow of the latest iPhones broke through a greyscale crowd of people. What was particularly striking about the advertisement wasn’t the use of contrast nor that this was not some thinly veiled “Pride” month display. The multi-colored iPhones were positioned like veils, so that no face, or even part of a face, could be seen.
A Place to Hide
If Apple hoped the display would inspire new eagerness to join the technicolor life awaiting customers behind their screens, instead, by veiling human faces, the campaign unveiled the depersonalizing effects of our most ubiquitous technologies, especially smartphones, social media, and the internet. This combination — which makes up our brave new world of new media — regularly functions as a barrier to other people and to the outside world, behind which we hide. Think of the socially anxious teen whose face is “glued” to the screen or think of the man who surfs for sexually explicit content online. New media offers them and others a place of anonymity, where they can live and move and have their being, unencumbered by others.
The Power of the Veil
Our “digital veils” also function as a source of power and control, in a way depicted long ago in C.S. Lewis’ classic, Till We Have Faces. The main character and narrator in the story is Orual, the unattractive and tomboyish older sister of the goddess Psyche. Orual convinces Psyche to disobey her husband, the god Cupid, who then banishes Psyche and ends their marriage. As a result, Orual decides to live out the rest of her days wearing a black veil.
The veil, which starts off as “a sort of treaty made with [her] ugliness,” quickly becomes a form of power and control. Whereas her ugliness and mannishness caused others to disregard her, the veil gives her a kind of power over others. Her father, the king, takes her seriously, suitors flock to her, and enemies respect her. By shrouding her face in mystery, the veil even led some to imagine she was a dazzling beauty or even a spirit.
Like Orual’s veil, new media can become a kind of digital veil that enables us to hide from others, influence their perceptions of us, and control our personal images. Social media especially functions in this way. We build profiles of perfectly lighted and cropped snapshots, snippets of the latest vacation, nights out with friends, and personal projects. Through this, we shape others’ perceptions of us, giving them the impression that our lives are constantly happy, fun, and productive. Through the process, some even become online “influencers,” influencing what others post, buy, or do.
Ultimately, the veil’s power and control are short lived. Despite their apparent advantages, digital veils leave us anxious and unknown. As one popular YouTuber, Samuel Bosch, shared in a video earlier this year:
I sometimes think that many of you have this very wrong impression that I’m always happy, traveling, and productive, that I can buy anything I want to, get any job I desire, or date whoever I want to.
Yet, for all his success as an online influencer, MIT Ph.D. student, and tech entrepreneur, Bosch is, admittedly, unhappy.
This is because we were made by God to be known. It is, in fact, a central conclusion of the psalmist David that, wherever we go, we are known.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,’
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
The psalm begins with the definitive statement that God has indeed searched and known him and ends with an invitation to God to search and know him. That’s the tension, isn’t it? Years ago, as I wrestled through Psalm 139 with a group of college students facing graduation, they articulated that tension, of both comfort and fear, that they are always known and always seen.
Let Go of the Illusion
Ultimately, all veils are an illusion. They may hide us from others, but they cannot hide us from God, who not only sees us and knows us, but created us to be seen and known both by and for others.
Toward the end of Lewis’ masterpiece, Orual visits the widow of her beloved servant Bardia. Upset that the widow might be jealous of the time Bardia spent with her, Orual jumps up in a burst of rage and lifts her veil to show the widow that she had nothing of which to be jealous. However, rather than being met with fear or hatred or disregard, Orual is met with the widow’s compassion and kindness. Orual finds herself no longer alone, no longer unknown, no longer unloved.
Like Orual, we can lay down our digital veils. When we do, we will find that we are already truly seen, truly known, and truly loved by God, and we can be truly seen, known, and loved by others.
John Stonestreet serves as president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s a sought-after author and speaker on areas of faith and culture, theology, worldview, education and apologetics.
Jared Eckert is a Breakpoint Contributor at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. A former researcher at the Heritage Foundation, he has focused his work on social policy and cultural analysis with a special interest in the intersection of gender and tech.
Originally published on Breakpoint.org. Republished with permission of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.