Say Cheese? – The Blurring of Public and Private

Not too long ago, I was listening to the story of a guy (I’ll call him Mark) who went to see one of his favorite sports heroes.  There was quite a queue to meet and talk with the man, and Mark waited his turn.  Finally, he found himself face-to-face with his hero and wanted to capture the moment with a photo, but couldn’t because, as he explained, he didn’t have his phone with him.  A comment like this only highlights how reliant we have become on mobile phones not just to make calls, but to take photos.  The prevalence of smartphones has enabled us to capture on film or video nearly every moment of our lives and easily upload and share those moments with the rest of the world.  I believe this turn towards instant documentation and distribution of our daily activities may increasingly influence the way we go about our lives by making what was formerly considered private into something public and that this, in turn, points us to a deeper reality.

Over the past couple of weeks, our town has been filled with shiny old-fashioned cars in fancy dress, the sound of bagpipes, men in kilts and women in frilly hats.  It all adds up to one thing: weddings in Scotland.  Weddings are traditionally full of pageantry, teeming with colour and sound; as such, they make tempting subjects for photographers and videographers alike.  In the not so distant past these roles were primarily taken on by paid professionals wielding their cameras with the approval (and funding) of the bride and groom.  Today, however, it seems like anyone and everyone who happens to be nearby takes on these roles by whipping out their camera-ready smartphones and snapping or filming away.

Now, granted, if a couple chooses to be married in a church in the city centre, they can scarcely hope for it to be a completely private affair.  However, the addition of random tourists and passersby filming the proceedings surely imbues the wedding with the feel of a public media event.  Such scrutiny has a variety of effects on people.  Some will play to the cameras, others will avoid them as best they can, still others will tacitly welcome or at least tolerate their presence but, nonetheless, feel self-conscious.  All of these responses, I would argue, lead people to act and interact differently with others than they would otherwise.  When people feel self-conscious they are often less spontaneous and feel compelled to act in such a way that they ‘put forward their best face’.

Of course, regardless of the reason or venue, the near omnipresence of cameras (be they in the form of a smartphone or otherwise) only highlights something that is true all the time: we are being observed and anything we say or do could be considered public.  A number of recent high-profile examples bears this out.  But, this steady observation occurs even in the absence of people.  Scripture indicates that God ‘looks down from heaven on the children of man’.[1]  If this is so, it raises the question: what effect, if any, does this knowledge of outside observation have on us and our behavior?

If we hold to the idea, so well articulated by Hans Urs von Balthasar, of the world being the stage (the theatrum mundi) on which the drama of God unfolds, it should be neither surprising nor odd to consider ourselves actors being watched by a number of audiences, including God.  But it is one thing to subscribe to this theological theory and another to live as though it were theological truth.  If we are on stage, being watched by other people, should this motivate and inform the ethics of our behavior?  If so, how?  Or, should the course of our conduct, perhaps, be determined independently, without consideration of an audience?

[1] Psalm 14:2 (ESV)



  • Before making his way to St Andrews, Dave played the part of a peasant and a street sweep at a Renaissance Festival and Walt Disney World respectively. However, his interest in performance and communication were also put to use for over a decade as a corporate communications trainer in Charlotte, NC where he and his wife, Carrie, lived before moving overseas. Since then, they’ve welcomed their daughters Molly and Abigail into the world and Dave completed his M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. At the moment he’s busy researching the theological significance of embodied expression in pursuit of a PhD from St Andrews.

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  1. says: Wesley Vander Lugt

    Thanks for this post, Dave, and I think it can be beneficial to consider our performances as being watched by an audience, but without a fourth wall. In fact, I think a closer model is that the church is interacting in and among the audience like actors in interactive theatre. This definitely motivates and informs ethics, because we want these interactions to be ‘effective,’ that is, we long to see this audience suspend their disbelief and join in as believing participants. We should not craft our conduct in order to impress or ‘put on a show’ for the audience, but we should craft our conduct in order to serve the audience and invite them to participate in a drama where they will experience fullness of life.

    1. says: Dave Reinhardt

      Thanks, Wes, for the helpful, and I would say ‘spot-on’ reminder that, if our performances as Christians are informed by the life and teaching of Christ, then it would follow that the line between performing and serving ought to be indistinguishable. And, your description of the church being ‘like actors in interactive theatre’ brings to mind my Renaissance Festival days. Part of the charm for patrons of this kind of festival is the possibility of being swept up into the action and life of the alternate reality being played out around them. Many would even come in costume to signal their willingness to join in. I wonder if the church could learn something from this festival dynamic?

  2. says: Alan

    Another important consideration in this regard, is the awareness of the reality of our thoughts and feelings; their colour, meaning, intention and essences – if this is taken seriously, and we give them the same importance as our words and actions, it makes us confront the implications of our behaviour (interior) in a way that does not allow
    us to ‘act’ out a part (exterior behaviour) with some element of deceit (including of the self).
    I think that the interior reality has to be given this kind of serious belief, not just as the mere ‘intellectual game’ Owen Barfield identified.

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