Selah, Social Media, & the Spirit’s Divine Rest: Or How Bo Burnham Punched Me in the Brain

Have you ever had a thought just punch your brain in the face? Or an idea that leaves you with trace amounts of insomnia as it ravages what’s left of your rational thinking? I have. I’ve been hit with a right cross in the left brain. I haven’t been able to dodge the punches of this idea for a while. You’d probably be right in saying that this notion has been brewing in me for the better part of a year, and is just now coalescing into something more solid. It’s an idea so powerful, though, that I nearly shut down the blog you’re reading this on right now.

Let me explain.

I recently read Michael Schulman’s powerful profile in The New Yorker, “Bo Burnham’s Age of Anxiety,” in which Schulman delves into the life and career of Bo Burnham, a comedian and creative who made a big splash during YouTube’s infancy. But Burnham’s career hasn’t always looked like it did when he started. He’s often afflicted by anxiety and panic attacks, sometimes in public, sometimes on stage. So much so that he was forced to take a siesta from shows for upwards of two years. He returns now to the limelight, of sorts, with Eighth Grade, a film he wrote and directed, in which he attempts to give a voice to all the anxiety he’s endured in the form of a 13-year-old middle school girl.

Perhaps you’re more familiar with Burnham than I am. Schulman’s piece in The New Yorker, however, was my first introduction to Burnham’s story. And though he’s making headlines because his film is making the festival rounds, there’s actually something he said back in his 2016 comedy special Make Happy that has literally stopped me in my tracks. (If you’re uncomfortable with cursing, skip the video.)

“What’s the show about? . . . It’s about performing. I try to make my show about other things, but it always ends up becoming about performing . . . Social media — it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform, so the market said, ‘Here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason.’ It’s prison. It is horrific.

If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.”

I’ve written more about “normalcy” and “ordinariness” this year than ever. That’s likely because I’ve been learning about my own insignificance in extremely vivid ways, of late. And perhaps the underlying unrest with all those blogs on being okay with not being important and doing unnoticed things is that I was ignoring a big area in my own life — I had sequestered a cubby of things from being touched by this movement towards the unremarkable: social media.

Now, before you roll your eyes and think that I’m just going to get all preachy at you about how much you’re Facebooking or Twittering or Instagramming or Snapping, let me reiterate that I’m preaching to myself first. All that I’m about to say is merely a reflection of my own thoughts working themselves out and congealing into something sensible.

When I read Burnham’s incisive quote, though, it exposed the prison I had put myself in. I stupidly read this profile around 10 PM, which activated the afterburners in my brain, making it so that I didn’t fall asleep until after 1 AM. I was struck not only by the honesty in his words but by the stark reality that I, too, was a prisoner. A captive of my own making. I was in bars that I, myself, had forged with my own hands. I looked introspectively at my social media and blogging endeavors, and was made all too aware of the self-imposed pressure that was slowly, devastatingly crushing me.

Such is why I’ve been on a rampage to erase my online footprint. In the last few days, I’ve shutdown my Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Flickr, and GoodReads accounts, along with a few others. I’m scaling back the meticulousness with which I craft these blogs, too. Not that I’m going to start sloppily slapping together content. Rather, I’m just no longer worrying about the small stuff that often crowds online writing platforms such as these. I don’t have to have the perfect photo to boost online interest. I’m no longer worrying about Yoast SEO scores or readability ratings. I’m not going to die if a blog of mine publishes and doesn’t “perform” well. That’s not even why I started writing in the first place.

From the very beginning of my online writing journey, I’ve always wanted it to be a place where I could learn and, effectively, think out loud about important topics or just the stuff that’s resonating with me at the moment — theological or otherwise. But I think the allure of creating content that’s more attractive pulled the wool over my eyes, blinding me to the bars that were going up all around me. I was subjugating myself to self-tyranny that removed the gift of writing and turned it into a gig.

I was performing.

And that’s horrific to me.

As I said at the beginning, I almost shut down this very blog you’re reading this on right now. And that’s not hyperbole. That night of sleepless musing not only revealed my prison and the performance I had been keeping up for everyone but led to a sundry of thoughts that concluded in a plan to close this blog, stop the podcast, and delete my Twitter account. It was my wife, though, who convinced me to slow my roll in my “social media detox” mission. As I conveyed to her the night I had and the thoughts that had kept me up, she reminded me, again, why I did this stuff in the first place. She reminded me of the God and the gospel and the grace that had so revolutionized my life, and how that was the reason behind it all.

I had lost that reason for a while, I think. But I want to refocus my writing again. I want to read the Bible without looking for my next blog post. I want to relate with God in a way that doesn’t involve having to Instagram my devotions. I want to feed my soul in a way that’s not just searching for that next tweetable phrase. And, you see, for me, I think that’s accomplished by resting from the performance of scrupulous blogging.

I’ve been simultaneously struck by a seemingly inconsequential word that appears all over the Psalms. That word is “Selah.” “Selah” occurs 71 times throughout the Psalter. (See [note]) To be honest, I used to skip over this word as a young Bible reader. I remember always thinking how awkward it was for this word to interject the flow of the text. But I think that’s precisely the point.

The LXX renders “Selah” as “interlude,” and seems to be a symbol which indicated to the singers for a pause or silence in the singing. Rest was scheduled into the sound and service of the worship. I think there’s a fascinating study to be had in looking at the verses that immediately precede all the incidents of “Selah.” After briefly surveying the occurrences of the term, I was struck by how often it was prefaced by profound statements that exalt the sovereign might of God. And, knowing my own tendencies, these striking stanzas are often glossed over without much reflection. But I think these divine pauses in the sound of our adoration are precisely where God would have us “taste and see that [he] is good.” (Ps. 34:8)

The goodness and grace of God is chiefly known by those who’ve been stilled from all their religious performing, and know that “It is finished.” Christ has done it all so that we might rest in the Sabbath of his righteousness. The grace of God invites us into the divine rest of God. His proclamation rings, “Come to me, all you weary and wrecked performers, and I will give you the perfect Selah of my grace.” (Matt. 11:28) I can slow down and find the beauty in the stillness, in the silence, because God ordains it. His grace is the loud quiet that interjects my noisy busyness.

I like how Chad Bird puts it when he says:

“The Spirit works hard simply to get us to sit at the feet of Jesus, take a deep breath, and not do anything but rejoice in the Sabbath rest of Christ’s accomplished work.” (178)

When I’m tempted to take matters into my own hands, and control the outcomes, and meticulously craft and curate my performance, I can bathe in Jesus’s Selah. I can stop and pause and reflect on the perfect deliverance that’s gifted to me in the gospel. I can be okay in the quiet solace of God’s illimitable mercy that frees me to be small, obscure, and insignificant.

So thank you, Bo, for punching me in the brain. Because now I feel free.

References

  • [Note]: For all the instances of “Selah,” see the following: Ps. 3:2, 4, 8; 4:2, 4; 7:5; 9:16, 20; 20:3; 21:2; 24:6, 10; 32:4, 5, 7; 39:5, 11; 44:8; 46:3, 7, 11; 47:4; 48:8; 49:13, 15; 50:6; 52:3, 5; 54:3; 55:7; 57:3, 6; 59:5, 13; 60:4; 61:4; 62:4, 8; 66:4, 7, 15; 67:1, 4; 68:7, 19, 32; 75:3; 76:3, 9; 77:3, 9, 15; 81:7; 82:2; 83:8; 84:4, 8; 85:2; 87:3, 6; 88:7, 10; 89:4, 37, 45, 48; 140:3, 5, 8; 143:6. The term can also be found in 3 additional times in Hab. 3:3, 9, 13.
  • Chad Bird, Your God Is Too Glorious: Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018).