The Satanic Ideology of Photoshop | From the Gospel Coalition

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The Satanic Ideology of Photoshop

A cover photo for Intelligent Life magazine caused a small stir recently because it dared the unthinkable: show a celebrity’s actual face. Cate Blanchett, 42, appears on the cover in little makeup, her smile lines and wrinkles un-retouched. She looks less like an Hollywood star and more like a dignified human being, like someone you might see drinking tea at a neighborhood Starbucks.

Compared to this photo, other images of Blanchett look plastic. The April cover ofHarper’s Bazaar also features her, but it shows her with perfectly smooth porcelain skin and smoky eyes. Her neck looks carved out of stone, her appearance as timeless as Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, an unnatural immortality brought about through the magic of Photoshop.

She isn’t the first to go enhancement-free in a photo. I remember Jamie Lee Curtis doing something similar a few years back with a bit more fanfare, featuring a photo spread that showed every step of enhancement along the way in a normal shoot. The makers of Dove beauty products have been pushing the “Campaign for Real Beauty,” a series of promotions celebrating beauty that doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold for cover models. But these efforts, like the Intelligent Life cover, are significant only for their rarity. Photoshop is the norm, whether you’re shooting family photos, senior portraits, or billboards.

It’s become so normal that we hardly even notice it anymore, and that’s what makes it all the more insidious. Behind the wrinkle-removing, curve-enhancing, waist slimming work is a satanic ideology of youth and beauty.

Assault on Contentment

When Satan came to Eve in the garden, his assault (amongst other things) was an attack on her contentment. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1) To paraphrase: “Has God held out on you? Has he given you less than you need, less than you deserve?” The temptations of Jesus in Luke 4 are likewise assaults upon contentment. For Jesus to turn stones to bread would have been to deny the sufficiency of God’s provision. To worship Satan in exchange for the kingdoms of the earth would have been to deny the sufficiency of Jesus’ inheritance to come. In these cases, Satan’s message was the same: God is holding out on you. You’re lacking what you really need. You don’t have what will really make you happy.

It’s an appeal to inner narcissism—one that worked with Eve. Once convinced the fruit would make her wise and “like God,” she ate. Similar appeals to our narcissism work just as well.

Which is why the covers of newsstand magazines are covered with plasticine starlets and starving models. These are the icons of a youth-worshiping consumeristic religion, and like the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy, they are windows into a version of heaven. They promise a world where aging—and thus death itself—is suspended, where the secret knowledge of success, beauty, happiness, love, and sex is revealed.


Of course, we can read over-the-top hyperbole on the covers of Vogue or Cosmo and reason that they’re absurd. We can look at images like Blanchett’s on Harper’s Bazaar and know, rationally, that this isn’t the real world. But it isn’t reason that these magazines are after. As James K. A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom, we aren’t fundamentally rational creatures; we’re desiring creatures, and though the promises of Hollywood and consumerism may be irrational, their picture of the ideal human life has captured our hearts. As Smith says:

It’s not so much that we’re intellectually convinced and then muster the willpower to pursue what we ought; rather, at a precognitive level, we are attracted to a vision of the good life that has been painted for us in stories and myths, images and icons. It is not primarily our minds that are captivated by rather our imaginations that are captured, and when the imagination is hooked, we’re hooked.

That’s why, in spite of the nakedly obvious lies that fill magazine covers, they continue to sell. Consumers aren’t rationally convinced that they’ll learn to flatten their bellies in four weeks, preserve their youth, and discover a satisfying sex life. But they are compelled by this hope for the good life and an image that seems to hold it forth at the low, low price of $5.99.

To the flesh-and-blood human being, whose body ages and whose face wrinkles, these ageless icons whisper, “You’re not good enough. You too fat, too old, too thin, too flat, to curved, too poor, too pale, too tan. Your Maker has held out on you. You’re a fading, dying thing that doesn’t measure up . . . but you won’t surely die. Follow me, and you can be young, beautiful, and successful forever.”

They hold forth an impossible standard of beauty, and consumers religiously pursue that standard—this dress, that makeup, this Botox, that surgical enhancement, this lipo, that diet, this tuck, that lift—on and on it goes like a sacred pilgrimage where ageless beauty can be yours for a pound of flesh. It rebuts the Creator who made us fearfully and wonderfully, numbering our hairs and our days, and called grey hair our glory because it signifies a life wisely lived (Proverbs 16:31).

It’s sad to me that in recent discussion about plastic surgery among some believers, there has been little attention to what creational theology has to say about it. We worry about lawfulness—is it forbidden?—but ignore what it says about who we are, who God is, and how he’s made us.

There are, of course, good medical reasons for many of these surgeries. There is a place for healthy diet and exercise (and many Christians should consider these more seriously as they prepare their body a tool for service and mission)—but, of course, this is the exception and not the rule. The rule—the force that drives the market for diets and cosmetic surgery—is not health and healing but enhancing and improving.

I think about this every day as I watch my daughters grow up. My Dorothy, who is four with flax-colored ringlets envied by everyone who sees them, already laments that she doesn’t have straight hair like Cinderella or brown hair like Belle. My wife and I feel like soldiers at these little ones’ gates, attempting to safeguard them from an onslaught of discontentment-breeding lies. How can we affirm that their Maker knew just what he was doing when he knitted them together, while a whole world tells them he got it wrong? We can bar the door and wall them in . . . but they’ll have to go to a grocery store eventually. Every trip through the checkout will be another salvo.

Bigger Hope and a Better Promise

Our only hope for them—and for ourselves—is to catch a vision and hunger for something greater, for our imaginations to be captured by a bigger hope and a better promise. Rather than hoping for agelessness and resisting the marks of time on our faces and bodies, we can hope for resurrection and trust in one who raises the dead. Rather than conforming to the fickle standards of beauty, we can worship the God who knew us before we were born, made us fearfully and wonderfully, and called us “good.” Then, when we see the Photoshopped and retouched icons around us, we can respond with a resounding, “Get thee behind me.”

Tim DeLisle, editor of Intelligent Life, commented on the un-edited photo of Cate Blanchett, saying:

When other magazines photograph actresses, they routinely end up running heavily Photoshopped images, with every last wrinkle expunged. Their skin is rendered so improbably smooth that, with the biggest stars, you wonder why the photographer didn’t just do a shoot with their waxwork.

Rather than celebrate these creations as they are, as their Maker made them, we want to transform them into something else. Something made flawless with human hands or something ageless and unaffected by the Fall. Something that, this side of Eden and apart from the Resurrection, will never be.

Mike Cosper is pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He writes on the gospel and the arts for The Gospel Coalition.