Swipe, swipe, pause. Swipe. Text something witty. Swipe. Repeat.
Welcome to digital dating in the 21st century. At 50 million users as of summer of 2018, the Tinder phenomenon is radically re-writing how strangers make first contact in the hope of something more, and dozens of similar platforms are vying for a piece of the pie. Dating apps are a hot grab because its developers market something that lies at the core of human desire: connection. Of course, this is interpreted differently between the sexes, roughly bifurcating into sexual gratification and long-term hopes among men and women respectively. Tinder’s reputation as the app for “hook-ups” and “casual sex” ought not dumb down its fundamental promise that pierces deep into the soul. And although millions of users worldwide seem to find it a fun way to burn an average of 35 minutes a day, it is well worth being reminded of the gravity of interacting with another human being with the purpose of developing a relationship beyond the platonic.
The success of the app seems to be tied to how it resonates with its target group: Millennials—the generation with more options and screen-time than it knows what to do with. Where meeting someone that led to dating and courtship once flowed seamlessly into the everyday routines of work, church, and participation in the community, dating apps promise the most while requiring the least. Tinder creates isolated enclaves, where swipers are nodes in a net stretched so wide that users often feel awkward when encountering profiles of their colleagues and churchmates; people seem to want to make connections with the truly Other.
In so doing, [Tinder] taps into the soul’s quest for perfection while inviting the user to advertise themselves for mass consumption.
The key to remote-controlled person-selection lies in the public profile, the avatar that presents who you want to be to the scanning community. While intuition as well as qualitative study have revealed that a few photographs and a curated few lines limited to 500 words is simply not enough information for whether a person is a compatible partner, Tinder knows its audience well; the addictive fun is in the shallow and showy, not the common and truthful. Thus, the Tinderverse is flooded with pics of people proudly atop Machu Pichu or sprawled out on beaches, in Mr. Universe mirror poses or a twisted yoga positions, sipping red wine or ready to pounce on gourmet cuisine. To be sure, some profiles are freakishly normal, people who expose their workplace, their pets, and their favorite poems, with upmost sincerity. But, let’s be honest, the general populace isn’t spending time on Tinder to gaze upon the mundane.
Nor are pictures the only element in this mass experiment of human advertising. Words of self-introduction are necessarily brief—on the off-chance that someone spends more than two seconds on a profile and becomes interested enough to read about them. Actually taking time to read them, I think, is rare. Where people do write about themselves, they are pressured to abide with the laws of modern writing: Avoid needless words. Scores of blogs mentor the inexperienced to be punchy, winsome, and mysterious. Preach yourself at all times; if necessary, use words. Most importantly: Never be boring.
Seen as a whole, one wonders what’s really going on. Tinder isn’t about relationships, it’s about choice—a choice heavily dependent on visual attraction. In so doing, it taps into the soul’s quest for perfection while inviting the user to advertise themselves for mass consumption. With 1.6 billion swipes made each day, it would seem that users are never in search for any one person in particular but the next person, and the next, and the next. Once the day’s quota of likes have been exhausted, there’s the dreaded 12-hour refractory period before the next round of swiping can continue.
Were we to put Tinder in dialogue with religious practice, we find similarities with iconography. Ancient Christian traditions have proliferated painstakingly crafted, sacred images of religious figures as a window into the ethereal realm, where the saints and the Lord are pious in their escape from the ordinary. Where text appears, it’s only their name and location. It’s the legend that’s pressed upon the image that invites the faithful to venerate them with kisses and longing to join them. Christian opinion concerning the use of images in worship has vacillated violently over the centuries, and the divide remains deep. The Orthodox traditions hold that icons affirm the communion of saints and the reality of Christ’s incarnation. Iconoclasts, however, both in the early centuries of the church and in most sectors of the Protestant Reformation, repudiated the veneration of images as violations of the First and Second Commandments. Because Jesus’ divine nature cannot be imaged, they argue, any visual representation of Jesus is inadequate at best and is idolatrous at worst; and adoring other saints simply obscures devotion that belongs to the invisible God alone.
Confessional positions will certainly vary among readers, but I wonder whether the Tinder phenomenon sheds light on the powerful link between affection and visual stimuli. The Tinder profile is a manicured attempt at what could be, which reaches deep into our visual psyche to draw a longing for more, an approach toward the ideal, the promise of communion and embrace. With each session of incessant, unsatisfied swiping, we are painfully reminded that the perfect does not exist in this world; the better is always next, ahead of us, eluding us.
To be sure, the veneration of icons is well-attested in Christian history, but the deafening New Testament silence on the religious use of images is well worth noting. It’s not until John’s Revelation that spiritual persons and events are envisioned in a form that is amenable to sight and picture. But even then, the imagery is shrouded in apocalyptic symbolism. In vain have scores of Christian artists in history attempted to reconstruct John’s visions in paintings and sculpture, for we are not expected to imagine seven-headed dragons emerging from the waters or four horsemen galloping across the plains. By and large, the visions were coded sermons of encouragement to persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire—a visual song with the repeated refrain Jesus will win. In the meantime, as we live out our spiritualities through eyes of faith, however, New Testament authors would rather follow their Jewish forebears in casting suspicion on images, if not condemning them out right. In fact, the only indirect reference to Christ’s appearance describes it as marred; “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2).
If Scripture is so resistant to definition via the image, to which medium can we turn as a model for an interface for connection? The church may have resorted to iconography, but the original symbol through which Jesus sanctioned for us to identify, remember, and commune with him is, primarily, the eucharist. Far from the ideal snapshot of unblemished skin, we are presented with a broken body of bread; separated from the ideal of individuals eating life at its fullest, we are made to drink the wine of blood spilled and poured out as an offering for others. Christianity reverberates its age-old formula against the grain of our Tinderized strategies for fostering contact. Away with the pseudo-perfect image, and replace it with words, stories, the gathered meal, the creed! These are designed to help us see beyond—to see with faith. It is the narrative that fosters communion; memory brokers beholding. And rather than pithy paragraphs that foreground our highlights, Jesus’ words are ominous recollections that invite us into his lowest moments. “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26). Here lies true identity, self-definition par excellence with which we are to participate and make our own.
Applying this to our knowledge of one another takes an investment of more than a few seconds of passing glance and knee-jerk judgment. Knowing and being known in this fallen world are exercises in being still. Because we see as in a mirror darkly, the fleeting, swiped image simply will not do. Defining comes through the pain of constant beholding by way of remembrance—and that through our communion at a common table, which dispenses of our titles of Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female (Gal. 3:28). Thus we find our true selves in a mode that does not reflect our earthly selves at all; that which has made us most real is deeply interior and essentially spiritual. We find ourselves truly defined when we are defined not in reference to ourselves, our accolades, nationalities, or aspirations, but in the one who emptied himself of everything to give us everything. In a Tinderverse that is kindled by short and shallow ads of self-promotion, Christianity understands true identity not by shows of strength but signs of weakness. It refuses to swipe in search for something better because it already landed on what is best. The self in the eyes of the world is only as good as the blinking click of a sinful beholder. An objective perspective is needed—a view from above. As Paul writes “I take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of me, not a perfection that comes from me, but that which comes as I trust in Him” (Phil. 3:12, paraphrased).