Reflections from Perelandra.
I’ve been reading Perelandra again. That is, C.S. Lewis’ fantastical tale of man sent to the planet Venus to prevent that world’s Eve from falling as our own did. Ransom (the man) finds himself in a warm, wet world of exotic floating islands on a sea of copper and emerald. He meets Perelandra’s Eve, a green woman of radiant beauty whose wisdom is merry, whose peace is that of a deathless world, who dwells in an unbroken, inner communion with “Maleldil,” known on our own planet as God.
But Satan is quick to follow. He arrives in the form of another earthly man, a scientist whose long dabbling in darkness has finally turned his body into a vessel of evil. Through him, what Ransom soon calls “the unman,” (because his flesh is human but his spirit is devil) a dialogue begins in which the unman attempts to persuade the green woman that God secretly desires her to become independent, to grow “wise” enough to take destiny into her own hands and disobey His command.
What struck me recently as I read that passage was the way in which Lewis presented the beginning of temptation. The unman’s very first line of attack is on the green woman’s inner being, specifically, the source of her thoughts. And that attack begins with the unman causing the woman to stand apart from her own self in thought, to replace Maleldil’s inner voice with her own. Until that point, she never had cause to think about herself in the kind of analysis that stands apart. She was herself, a ceaseless unity of body, soul, and mind in communion with God and experience of her world. But the unman fractured her unity, gave her a mirror and showed her her own form and caused her to contemplate herself from the outside and to conceive of herself as an agent independent of Maleldil.
In Lewis’ words: “The image of her beautiful body had been offered to her only as a means to awake the far more perilous image of her great soul. The external, and as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.”
The phantom self. An inner obsession with an image we make of ourselves. The compulsion of self-expression that follows, not the healthy sort that comes from being made in the image of God, but the kind that weighs each word and deed against a certain persona we want to create. When I read the passage above at first, I liked Lewis words, but didn’t feel any particular affinity with the Green Woman’s plight.
Until I closed my book for a few minutes of Facebook. I turned from his words to scan a few recent photos uploaded by friends, to check stats on my blog, to see who had commented on my profile. I stopped short halfway down the page when I realized that I was looking at a phantom image of myself, a persona not unlike the one Lewis described in the Green Woman’s mind. Through Facebook and blogs, through the picture I choose for my profile (or the ones I untag because they are unflattering), the movies I “like,” or the clever quotes I put forth as my favorites, I have created a surface face that presents a certain persona to the world. The problem is that the persona exists in my mind as well, the ideal kind of girl I want to become, and more, want others to assume I am.
We live in an age in which we are daily creating our public personas. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Instagram; we have unparalleled control of the image we set forth to the world and limitless opportunity to attain a local celebrity. We choose the pictures and quotes, the photos and friends who will cast us in the light we desire, prove us to be the persona we have chosen for ourselves.
Let me just say to begin with that I know how harmless this can be. I know that social media gives us the chance to express our tastes, claim our friends, proclaim the quotes or events that shape our lives, and that can be a right and joyful celebration of all that is lovely and true. I know it can be used honestly. But the recurrent concern I have with every use of media technology apples here again; our use of it is never neutral – eventually it forms us to itself.
The Green Woman’s plight makes me think that my unexamined use of social media – a stage on which I project the image I desire – can be perilous. I find that I need to approach it with a dose of caution because it puts me in the habit of creating a self in my own image rather than the one God speaks to me through Scripture and quiet and prayer. That inevitably means that I quietly cull the parts I don’t want anyone to see. I want to reveal only good; the photos that show me happy and beautiful, strong and brave. I quote poets and Scripture with abandon, presenting the ideal. My communications are short and peppy, encouraging, my words always loving.
But I rarely reveal the bad. Or even if I do, I show only my poignant struggles or artistic darkness. I’ll admit my loneliness or grief at the broken nature of the world. But I won’t admit my own sharp tongue, my struggle to love, the unkind words that escape me, so different from the upbeat messages I leave on public profiles. The online world allows me to post a quote about God’s goodness and have the whole world assume I’m in a holy state of mind, even as I walk with heavy heart and darkened soul.
In the end, if I do not examine my use of media to create a public image, I think I really do create a phantom self. A self who sparkles across the stage of my mind and captures my imagination. When I am busy, when screen time becomes an increasing habit, I contemplate that self more and more. I tweak it. And when I have spent enough time creating the image of that self, I begin to work to make it real. I dress and speak and act in a constant determination to embody my own ideal of myself, to live into the energetic, popular, spiritual person I want to be.
But what if in seeking to embody my own image of myself, I cease to seek the embodiment of Christ?
The Green Woman’s tragedy was her inner division from God by the creation of a self that stood apart from him. Before, she loved and spoke, moved and expressed her own, unique embodiment of the God whose love set her in life. After, she struggled to choose between God (who now seemed separate from herself) and the phantom image set in her mind. Before she moved as one with the “Love that moves the spheres,” afterward, she hesitated, torn between two inner images of what she might become.
I find myself challenged by Lewis’ story to step back from the online world in which I am ever seeking affirmation, tweaking my public face, perfecting my image, hungry for another “like” to prove that I am the lovely person I desire to be. I need to turn my eyes back to Christ. It’s funny; I used to fear that if I became one with God, I would lose my own self, lose the wild and joyous freedom of independent thought and desire. I didn’t want to be a divine automaton, thinking God’s thoughts and having none of my own.
What I’ve found through years of loving God is the ever-deepening truth that my life is hidden in Christ. He truly is the vine, the life and song from which every life on earth draws its vibrance. To be severed from him is to die. There is no real self apart from him, no true thought, no fresh creation, only a phantom self that will slowly, slowly fade. A phantom self that will never fulfill my hunger for love, my will to create, my hope for a beauty beyond the confines of my own frail mind. Only with the life of God as blood and heartbeat within me can I become the true, unique creation I was carefully designed to be.
So, here ends my small tirade. Sometimes, when life is swift and stressful, when screen time becomes a habit I cannot escape, I feel the need to rebel. To yank my head out of the screen and back into the quiet where the Holy Spirit speaks. I usually discover he was calling all along…
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.