Social Media, Branding And Prince Harry

Mar 11th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The Social Media phenomenon is staggering in its cultural impact.  Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other media forums dominate the time, the energy and the psychology of so many!  For many teens, life without social media is unimaginable.  When this phenomenon began, only a few years ago, no one envisioned how powerful it would become.  Social media is not evil, per se, but it can be both enslaving and harmful.  I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:12:  “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.  ‘All things are lawful’ for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.”  [ESV]

One of my favorite Christian writers today is Tish Harrison Warren.  A recent essay of hers focused on social media and “branding.”  It is filled with insight and wisdom.  Permit me to summarize some of her salient observations about the hazards of social media.  In an Opinion essay last August in the New York Times, Ezra Klein noted that Neil Postman, the author of the influential 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued that television turned everything, no matter how serious and important, into entertainment. This development transformed society; it changed how we relate to ourselves and one another. “Today social media inevitably turns everything we share online, from political opinions to a heartfelt profession of love to a Bible verse to an expression of grief, into content, ideas for public consumption that elicit cheers or jeers as part of our personal brand. The notion of our very selves—our thoughts, beliefs, family, friends, feelings, images and vulnerabilities—being part of a brand would have been incomprehensible for most of human history. Now personal branding threatens to encroach on every moment of our lives.”

  • “Of course, the fact that people become well known [i.e., branding via social media] is not itself evidence of a problem. Plenty of public leaders, artists, writers, scholars or politicians have become visible not through branding but by way of their skills, accomplishment, dedication to service or good governance. But the point of online branding is often less about doing excellent work, building healthy institutions or contributing to society and more about gaining notoriety through personality or spectacle. We’ve all become familiar with public servants performing for the public rather than serving it.
  • “In a recent Times article, the reporter Emma Goldberg wrote about how the rise of social media and influencer power has made it such that young people, in particular, find their livelihood, success and sense of self inextricably entwined with an online presentation. She wrote, ‘With personal branding, the line between who people are and what they do disappears. Everything is content.’ A strange, exhausting new twist in being human is that each day, each of us must decide how much of ourselves, our family life, thoughts, work, photos and feelings we will share with strangers online. Goldberg quoted Tom Peters, a marketing writer, who explained that, we are each ‘head marketer for the brand called You.’”
  • “To reduce ourselves to brands, however, is to do violence to our personhood. We turn ourselves into products, content to be evaluated instead of people to be truly known and loved. We convert the stuff of our lives into currency. This new way of interacting with the world is driving institutional dysfunction, personal anxiety and the hollowing out of ourselves. In this morass, religious faith ought to have something to offer. Though the Gospel that Christians proclaim has never needed to be put in quite these terms, increasingly part of the good news that churches must offer people is: I am not a brand; you are not a brand; we are not a brand.”
  • “Churches and other religious institutions are meant to be places where people in all their maddening complexity might be truly known and loved not for their performance but for their inherent value, not as avatars or online personalities but as whole human beings. These institutions, at their best, offer a reaffirmation that there is an internal essence of a person that can never be reduced to a brand, that we have parts of ourselves that are beyond the reach of likes. They can remind us that we are made for embodied relationships with people who are committed to us and that looking to an online crowd to fulfill our desire to be loved will most often leave us more lonely and insecure. They can assure us that we are made, as the Christian faith teaches, not to perform but to live as people known and loved by God and by others.”
  • “Faith also challenges us to exist for something higher than ourselves. A faithful understanding of vocation calls us to the common good. Jesus even spoke in the stark terms of ‘dying to self.’ A modern paraphrase of his teaching might be, “What good is it for a person (even a congressperson) if he gains tens of thousands of followers but loses his soul?” A pastor, and a church, is not a brand. A key part of religious communities is that they are not merely a spectacle or a show but are primarily a people, a community living life together. What we need most at the end of the day has nothing to do with influence or brands. We need quiet beauty and enduring truth that we share with those who walk this journey with us. Local faith communities and faith leaders can offer this, but only if we give up our quest for a winning brand.”

It is in this context of branding via social media that I want to consider Prince Harry, now a resident of California.  He recently published his book, Spare, which is now a best seller.  The book is not really an autobiography; it is a series of personal revelations, thoughts, complaints and rants about the “Royals” and the gilded life they live.  His rants, among others, focus on his dad Charles and his brother William.  He argues throughout the book that he is telling his story in order to help others (e.g., those with mental illness or those traumatized by war).  But as Peggy Noonan suggests, “I don’t think this book is about others.  I think it’s about his own very human desire for revenge, to hurt those who’ve hurt him.  And to become secure with a certain amount of wealth.  And to show his family and Fleet Street that [he can be successful on his own terms].”  He contends that he wants “reconciliation but writes things that alienate; he says he reveres the monarchy and isn’t trying to bring it down, but he has gone beyond removing bricks from the façade and seems to be going to the bearing walls.”  Prince Harry is trying to shape his own “brand.”  The book is a tirade against everything he hates and reviles.

But what does he stand for?  Who is Prince Harry?  Dominic Green adds another dimension to Prince Harry’s brand—his religious/spiritual convictions.  Indeed, he contends that Spare is a “spiritual autobiography.”  “Harry says that he is ‘not religious,’ but that he is spiritual.  Christianity leaves him cold, but he pursues enlightenment with a zeal that would have warmed the heart of a Puritan divine.  He travels this path alone, guided by drugs, spiritual animals sent by his late mother, Diana, and daily yoga and meditation.”  Harry, born is 1984, is a therefore typical millennial, who are typically less religious that older Americans; have no religious affiliation; and are less likely to pray every day.

  • Harry was 12 when his mother died. The Christian rites at the funeral did not console him. “His regular contact with the Bible came when a teacher, punishing teenage misdemeanors, delivered a tremendous clout, always with a copy of the New English Bible.”  This made “me feel bad about myself, bad about my teacher, and bad about the Bible.”
  • Graphically, he describes his killing of a stag at age 15.  In a gruesome manner, the family guide during the hunt put Harry’s head into the animal’s carcass, filling his face with blood.  He writes, “So this is death.  I wasn’t religious but this ‘blood facial’ was to me a baptismal.”  He concluded that “culling the herd is being good to Nature and good to the community.  Managing nature is a ‘form of worship’ and environmentalism is a ‘kind of religion’ . . .   For the first time Harry feels ‘close to God.’  This pagan rebirth carries strong symbolic overtones for Harry.”
  • He recounts his participation in the Afghan war followed by more drinking and drug use.  “Lost in grief, Harry is a pilgrim in a world of sorrow.  Christianity is a language of dead metaphors . . . Therapy and self-medication with psychedelics made life bearable but only love can return Harry to life.  Encouraged by his new girlfriend, Meghan Markle, he takes up yoga, visits a medium, and stops eating takeout.”

Harry’s brand is one of a confused millennial seeking purpose and meaning in life.  He tries everything and, with brutal honesty in great detail, he recounts his story in this book.  Prince Harry resembles the journey one sees in the book of Ecclesiastes:  King Solomon tries everything (e.g., hedonism, materialism, self-indulgence to the extreme) and ends in utter despair, declaring that all is “vanity.”  Only when he brings God into his worldview does he begin to understand life with a new meaning, purpose and value.  Solomon recognizes that God makes “everything beautiful in its time;” that He places “eternity in the heart of every human being;” but that His sovereignty and providence are difficult, perplexing and ultimately unsearchable. [See Ecclesiastes 2:24-3:14].  Prince Harry will only construct a satisfactory brand in Jesus Christ.  Galatians 2:20 perhaps best summarizes that new “brand”:  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  The struggles, tensions and confusion about personal branding that the Prince Harry’s of this world experience are resolved in Jesus Christ.  To be “in Christ” is the vital center of the new identity offered by God.  As with all things in this broken world, the Gospel is the answer.  May Prince Harry find that answer!

See Tish Harrison Warren, “What good is it for a person to gain thousands of followers but lose his soul?” in the New York Times (29 January 2023); Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (14-15 January 2023); and Dominic Green, “Prince Harry’s Pagan Progress” in the Wall Street Journal (19 January 2023).

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