In September of 2021, the New Yorker published an essay titled, “On the Internet, We’re Always Famous.” The essayist, Chris Hayes, argues that our fundamental human desire is the desire for recognition. We yearn to see and be seen, to know and to be known – to experience a mutual gaze. He then goes on to effectively describe the unsettling feeling created by social media, that of being seen and known by others whom we cannot see and do not know.
This yearning for a mutual gaze, for recognition, is the precise desire into which social media, and the internet more broadly, taps. Hayes’ entire essay is fascinating and I recommend it, but I was most struck by a summary statement toward the end. He writes:
I’ve come to believe that, in the Internet age, the psychologically destabilizing experience of fame is coming for everyone. Everyone is losing their minds online because the combination of mass fame and mass surveillance increasingly channels our most basic impulses—toward loving and being loved, caring for and being cared for, getting the people we know to laugh at our jokes—into the project of impressing strangers, a project that cannot, by definition, sate our desires but feels close enough to real human connection that we cannot but pursue it in ever more compulsive ways. (Emphasis added).
This project of impressing strangers through social media has profound impacts on children and teenagers, driving higher rates of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicide. But lest we think this is confined only to teenagers, take a moment to examine your own life. The project of impressing strangers is pervasive. We engage this project on social media, in job applications, at church on Sunday mornings, in the workplace, and on the street. It influences the clothes we wear, the people we associate with, and the jobs we aspire to. The very shape of the internet bends us toward consuming depersonalized and desacralized versions of ‘our most basic impulses’ – love, care, and even humor.
Nor does this project stop with our horizontal relationships. Is it just coincidental that the explosive increase in internet availability and usage corresponds to an increase in disbelief in God, with this disbelief disproportionately affecting Gen Z?
Even among those of us who do profess belief in God, is this belief in the personal God of Scripture or a distant strange being whom we feel a vague responsibility to impress? I fear that the Christian faith is often communicated in the latter category. It is this belief, that God is a stranger whom we must impress, that leaves so many to walk away from the faith, and this (malformed) theology is why our faith is not as compelling as we hope.
While the medium for all this might be new, the basic project is not. One of the most haunting stories in the Christian Scriptures takes place in Mark 10:17-22. The story depicts a conversation between two people: Jesus and a man with great possessions.
This rich man is evidence that the project of impressing strangers was alive and well long before Instagram. He is evidence of the worldview that lumps God into that category of strangers. Yet, the story makes clear that this man is missing something. In a sense, he is missing everything.
17 And as Jesus was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)
Now, this story has everything to do with our project. The conversation between Jesus and this wealthy, yet unnamed, man reveals his desire for recognition and the misplacing of this desire away from its proper place.
Before, however, we examine this, a few words must be said about the story itself. Is this story merely that? Perhaps evocative of certain general moral truths or useful in distilling widely applicable, yet ultimately non-religious, wisdom, but still just a story, nonetheless? Scripture is a story, but it is more than a story. It is revelation. It is only insofar that the Bible reveals God that it reveals anything true about humans and the way we interact with one another. As the Bible reveals God himself, the Bible reveals us – for it is in Scripture that we are confronted by Word of God by the working of his Holy Spirit.
This story, then, of Jesus and a wealthy man is a true story, one that reveals something of God and something of ourselves.
It starts a little oddly for modern ears: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Eternal life? What a strange way to start a conversation! Indeed, this might be all the evidence we need to lay aside this story as a relic of a superstitious age. But before we dismiss the concept of eternal life, we must realize that we are dismissing the deeply held belief and conviction of the vast majority of humanity across time and space. Lack of belief in eternal life is historically and sociologically quite new – and not everything new is progress.
This man’s question to Jesus is a question of the heart. Notice how the text describes the man’s approach. He ran to Jesus, desperate to catch him before he left. This is a man, as we learn, who has great possessions. He is successful in the eyes of most of the people around him. And yet, something deep inside of him prompts him to run to Jesus. One commentator sees the man’s question as an expression of the “piety of achievement” so common to the human heart. What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to find meaning? What must I do to find peace?
Based on 10:21, it can be inferred that Jesus was not yet looking directly at the man as he first responded. Remember, Jesus and the disciples were “setting out on [their] journey” (10:17). The scene was busy – Jesus might have been packing a bag or tying a sack to a donkey. The response of Jesus seems almost distracted in 10:18-19. He is nearly saying, “You already know the commandments, don’t you? Do these and you’re good.”
There is a sense of Jesus’ weariness here. And yet, these observations should not be taken too far. In Mark’s account of this story, the reader gets a clue that Jesus was much more engaged than he initially appeared to be. In addition to citing several commandments from the Decalogue, Jesus commands this man, “Do not defraud.” Possibly Jesus added this command because of its relevance to the rich man. Further, it is likely that Jesus recognized the young man’s reverence and true desire to do what he could to earn salvation. In reciting a portion of the second table of the Decalogue, Jesus is telling the young man what he already knows. As is clear from verse 20, the young man knew these commandments and believed that he had kept them. This young man, then, was not coming to Jesus for further instruction in keeping the law. He was coming to Jesus because he had, in his view, kept the law and yet was still lacking. In this sense, Jesus’ initial response regarding the law was one of kindness. He was reminding the man of what he lacked. Jesus was already moving in love toward the young man, albeit in an unexpected and rather surprising manner.
What does this have to do with where we began, with the project of impressing strangers? The wealthy, yet unnamed, man of the story is engrossed in this project. He did not yet recognize who he was speaking to. Hearing Jesus’ response, the man, chastened and even saddened, says back, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
This young man is deflated. He has come to Jesus because he recognizes something that many people throughout time have recognized. He’s done all the right things (so he thinks), and he externally appears righteous and good. He approaches Jesus and desires to be affirmed that he’s done all the right things – that he has impressed God.
Jesus surprises the man. “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus turns his gaze upon this man, holds him in his sight, and loves him fully. To understand the weight of this, we must remember what the Bible (as God’s true Word!) says about Jesus: He is the Son of God, indeed God himself. Everything was created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
This unnamed man misses all of this.
The man in the story shows us why it’s safer to engage in the project of impressing strangers than to be truly seen. Jesus saw this man – and his sight was defined by love – and in this love he made a demand on the man. “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” This man was about to realize that his deepest desire, to be seen and known, meant to be truly seen and known.
It’s easier to impress strangers because we control the narrative. Social media is attractive for the very reason that you can be seen without being seen. One’s image is cultivated and curated. A truly mutual gaze is costly and vulnerable. To know and be known is to be known for your beauty and your ugliness. It is to be known in your success and in your failures.
It is easier to conceptualize God as a stranger because then his reality makes no claim on you. For God to be a real, personal being embodied in the God-man changes everything. Jesus not only reveals himself to us but also makes claims upon us. If God is a stranger, he sees the good in you but has no bearing on the bad. But only if God is a stranger…
What happened when this man was caught up in Jesus’ gaze? His face fell; he dropped his eyes. His gaze was captivated by something else. In this one movement of going away sorrowful, the man rejects the gaze of Jesus, preferring to remain hidden in the impossible project of impressing a stranger god.
Zora Neale Hurston, the famous writer of the Harlem Renaissance, stated, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” This is certainly true, and yet I’d argue that love can have the opposite effect. Or perhaps more accurately, our souls have been conditioned to reject love in favor of their hiding places. It did with this young man in the Gospel of Mark.
This is what impressing strangers is all about: Creating and crafting an ideal hiding place with safe boundaries and walls. If love really does make our souls crawl out from their hiding places, it means that love simultaneously exposes our hiding places – and that is painful.
It is a reality truly as old as time. Genesis 3 tells of the first game of hide and seek with disastrous consequences. Following their disobedience to God, Adam and Eve lose the comfort and security of a mutual gaze. No longer are they naked and without shame as they once were. In their sin, they recognize their nakedness and, for the first time in human history, experience shame, which drives them to hide their bodies under fig leaves and their very selves from the presence of God. In other words, they hide their bodies from the gaze of one another and their very selves from the gaze of God. They were alienated from each other and from their Creator.
What was God’s response? In love, he called out to them, “Where are you?” He called out not because he truly did not know, but for the same reason Jesus in Mark 10 lists the commandments to the man. Both the words of God the Father in Genesis 3 and the words of God the Son in Mark 10 are the words of love calling souls out of their hiding places.
God is not a stranger. Since the fall, human beings have been engrossed in this project of impressing strangers, whether the stranger of their spouse or the stranger of their God. The project has only been intensified by the advent of social media and the enmeshing of our lives in and with it. Are we surprised we are anxious and depressed? We’ve rejected the mutual gaze of God and one another in favor of carving out hiding places where we remove vulnerability and true relationship. Hayes was right. Our most basic impulses have been channeled into the project of impressing strangers, which is “a project that cannot sate our desires but feels close enough to real human connection that we cannot but pursue it in ever more compulsive ways.”
Today, we are confronted by the same God who spoke in Genesis 3 and Mark 10. The same God looks at us, hiding in shame and fear, and loves us. And here’s the big twist. The God of the Christian story is not a stranger. He entered into human history in the person of Jesus – to see and be seen by us. His words to us remain. Where are you hiding? Jesus calls, “Crawl out and come, follow me.”
 William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 364.
 James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 310-311.
 “One great moment,” 14 February 2018, accessed 6 April 2022, https://nieman.harvard.edu/stories/love-makes-your-soul-crawl-out-from-its-hiding-place/.