Take the Engagement Ring and Run!

That’s what we do with God’s good gifts, writes Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung in her new book Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Eerdmans, 2014), 39–40:

In Augustine’s words, “My sin consisted in this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in God but in myself and in his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”

You can do this with wealth, pretending that having enough stuff will give you self-sufficiency and the security you really need; or you can do this with sexual pleasure or the pleasures of eating and drinking, pretending such pleasures will satisfy your desire for love or your desire for your emptiness to be filled, and so on. Material possessions and security and pleasure are certainly good things. But our desire for them becomes excessive and corrupting when we forget that they are only created goods and not ultimate ones. Only God, the source of all created goodness, can have first place in our hearts. The good gifts of God are meant not to claim our ultimate loyalty but to turn our hearts to their Giver in gratitude.

In Augustine’s own memorable example, falling prey to a capital vice is like being a woman whose beloved proposes to her. A typical story, except for this twist: after he shows her the engagement ring, her delight in the ring he offers causes her to forget all about him. She doesn’t even hear his proposal, much less think to answer it. Can you imagine her taking the ring and walking away without another thought for anything but a piece of beautiful jewelry?

She has made a lamentably tragic mistake about what the ring is.

Her fiancé’s gift is not meant to be appreciated merely as a lovely diamond. It’s meant to signify his undying love for her and to bind them together in a lifelong relationship. The ring is not just a ring; it is a sign of their love. Accepting it is to accept that gift of love and to return it. The ring, like all good things, is not an object that can be comprehended or held in our possession without essential reference to the one who gave it to us and our relationship to him.

And if Augustine is right that only God himself can fulfill our deepest longings, this attempt to substitute love of created goods for the Creator’s love is a mistake that also dooms us to dissatisfaction.

How We Get Programmed to Crave Twitter Attention

RKDRebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, is an insightful diagnostician of sin. I recently finished her book on the seven deadly sins, Glittering Vices (Brazos, 2009). The scope of her book and the depth of her thinking were impressive, and so I eagerly anticipated her newest book Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Eerdmans, 2014).

As one who works in social media, a world driven by the approval of big stats and the stoking of viral trends, her book serves my soul by calling out our modern lust for self-glorification for what it is.

On page 117 she exposes the breadth of the problem in how comprehensively our culture reinforces the sin.

How do social media encourage expectations of instant audience response and routinize all sorts of information about ourselves?

When we digitally capture and post every event our children participate in from their babyhood on, do we unwittingly send a message that everything they do is a performance for an adoring audience? With cameras in every electronic device we pocket, how can they avoid living as if they were actors and performers? What if we want a day off or some privacy? The difficulty — given both the internal craving and the external social pressure — of opting out for a time brings home the startling fact of how ubiquitous these social demands and our visceral responses to them really are.

When we watch TV sitcoms, we learn the witty put-down and hear incessant cues to laugh or cheer. Commercials pair images with reputations: people at bars and beaches in beer ads are fun and laughing and beautiful, neat-and-organized mothers have spic-and-span kitchens and perfectly pressed clothing, rough-and-tough males drive rugged pickup trucks, business executives get reports and dictate orders while walking briskly to their next meeting, working women look harried but attractive in heels and tight-fitting suits. Whether we like it or not, they also teach us, by contrast, that when we fail to mimic these images, our painfully awkward self-display will earn us shame and cut us off from others’ esteem and approval (like Seinfeld’s George, who will never, ever get a decent date). These images shape our self-image and the image we want to project to others.

Led by the example of rock stars and movie stars, teens use Twitter and Instagram to cultivate their own following, and screaming, face-painted sports fans revel in ritualized chants and spectacles designed to signal their identity as loyal fans. Because these are social rituals and institutionalized practices, the draw of vainglory here is not a simple matter of individual weakness. Our culture forms us to crave recognition. Our social world — online and in person — is a whirl of attention-seeking, an expected way of life. Vainglory is a social vice; its pollution is the very air we breathe.