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Smug Media

Has there ever been another time when more people have wanted to be someone else?

You have to hand it to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These were big men who heard God and shaped history. The first to perceive there was one God. The ones to whom he whispered love and promised a covenant. They also had big faults. A tendency to lie ran in the family’s DNA but Jacob took things a step further. Like a steroid enhanced athlete who ‘accidentally’ misses the drugs test, Jacob knew how to twist processes to his advantage. His twin brother Esau, in particular, was putty in his scheming hands.


The Book of Genesis laconically notes: Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. And Jacob, the library nerd wanted to be Esau, the school jock. Their sibling rivalry was intensified by the preferences of the parents, neither of whom tried hard to hide their favouritism. Isaac loved Esau for his alpha maleness; Rebekah adored Jacob’s dreamy introversion.


Jacob’s genius for manipulation got an early outing when he was able to trick his distracted and impulsive brother into selling his birthright for a bowl of stew. But it was the stealing of their father’s blessing which plumbed the depths of grubby deception. Disguising himself as the hairy, muscular Esau before a blind and confused Isaac, Jacob pulled off his greatest heist: the burglary of his brother’s blessing. On hearing of the scheme, Esau plots murderous revenge, causing Jacob to flee for his life. Amid the crowds of global refugees, it is easy to lose sight of one truth: some people run for their lives because they have got on the wrong side of family. The risks are as high as with a political refugee; the protections even less.


We are Jacob’s children. It is hard to believe there has been another time in history when more people have wanted to be someone else than today. Sibling jealousy is a seemingly renewable resource but something different is in play now. We know more about the lives of others than ever before thanks to media and especially the internet. The vacuous category of celebrity promotes the lifestyles of the rich and famous and, to a credulous eye, these may seem peerless. Photographs may airbrush cellulite but the stories of such people are removed of blemish by an ingratiating media eager for sales. Though some may succumb, many people feel sufficiently inoculated from the envy this is meant to provoke yet face a more insidious challenge.


The dominance of social media as a way of presenting ourselves and interpreting the lives of others may be distorting long held values. Only a decade ago, much fun was made of those who boasted about their lives in the annual Christmas circular. As these missives came round only once a year, others were capable of seeing off their challenge. Now the growing range of digital platforms allow us to present carefully edited highlights of our lives for others to admire, like Match of the Day sexing up a drab game of Saturday afternoon football. Studies are beginning to show that the more exposure we have to the lives of friends via social media, the more unhappy we become by comparison.


As others varnish their lives for wider consumption, the reciprocal temptation falls to us. If they are doing it, why don’t we? And thus social media becomes smug media. Most of us would deny these traits in ourselves, but quickly see them in others. This evidence alone might help us to stop and think about how we post online.

Jacob sought a blessing which did not belong to him. He was insecure in his own skin and wanted to be like the brother he could never attain to be. The nerd is not the jock. Equally, the jock is not the nerd. God wants us to be immersed in the blessing he intends for us personally. One he had ready for Jacob himself. We share our identity in Christ and in the good thing he has stored up for us. Our personal spiritual blessing is rich and particular. It is just not the same as the next person’s, for they cannot inhabit our skin, as Jacob ultimately discovered.


In Isaiah 43:1, God is renowned for saying:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Try substituting the word ‘envy’ for ‘fear’ from time to time. It may be a word for our generation.



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© 2017 Simon Burton-Jones All Rights Reserved