Rebecca K. Reynolds

Honest Company for the Journey

The Uncanny Valley

The face is terrifying -- a waxed doll with features that seem almost natural, but not quite. Staring at her is like staring into bad dream. She is surreal. Distorted. At a quick glance, I felt my brain straining to process her appearance, first leaning toward engaging her as another human, then bristling at the horror that she and I are not really the same after all. In fact, she is a 117-year-old mannequin head, created for use in in a cosmetology class. (Credit:
There is an aesthetic term for the freakish tension we feel when looking at an image like this. “The Uncanny Valley” describes revulsion that results from a human-like object which seems nearly real but isn’t. Sometimes I feel this uncomfortability in wax museums or while watching the baby in Pixar’s short “Tin Toy.”

The website “Creepy Girl” ( also manages to be disturbing because of this same reason.

What is it about visual inauthenticity that puts us on guard? Why is a false face a trigger? What spiritual lessons can we learn from looking at how The Uncanny Valley works inside us?

To explore this, I want to take you on a rabbit trail. The path we will take is a bit quirky because we're going to go way back in time, past Pixar and internet sites, past wax museums, and even past cosmetology models.

We're going to go all the way back to the end of the Gothic era and take a look at four sculptures that were created within about two hundred years. Over that time span the art world changed significantly in ways that impact our culture still to this day. If we are observant about these changes, we can find truths in those four sculptures that relate to how you and I should communicate to the world.

The first two sculptures were created by an early Italian Renaissance artist named Donatello (1408–1409 and 1430–1440). The third sculpture is by High Renaissance Artist, Michaelangelo (1501-1504). The last is by an artist who helped launch the Baroque period named Bernini (1623–1624).

Donatello’s first “David” was created when he was a young man in his twenties. Though the marble work of this sculpture is beautiful, there's something about the form that feels dull, and the facial expression feels vacant. Remnants of Gothic stiffness are evident. When you see this David, you probably don't feel like it's about to speak to you, and it might be difficult to imagine that such a wooden young fellow would have had the vigor or mobility needed to sever that big giant's head.

Donatello’s second “David” came several decades later, and though he keeps the contrapposto stance (when a figure's weight is on one leg), there’s a bit more warmth and flesh to this piece. Still, when I look at this sculpture, I see nothing of the masculine David that I know from Scripture in it.

Frankly, I can't imagine this pretty boy guarding sheep all night in the dark. I can't imagine him being all that interested in Bathsheba... whether she was gorgeous and bathing naked on a roof or not. This David seems to represent the artist’s ideals for young male beauty, and that's about it. In both of these images, we find the artistic restraint of the Early Italian Renaissance.

Next comes Michaelangelo’s “David,” which is one of those pieces of art that most people recognize, even if they haven’t had much art history.  It’s a perfect example of the sculpture of the High Renaissance.  Classical Greek and Roman influence is evident, and Michaelangelo's "David" seems to hang in the balance between inanimate and animate life. This David looks like he could move, but we know that he will not. He is too composed, and nothing about him threatens to break out of his solid, stone form.

I don’t care for this sculpture much. I value the artistry of it, of course, but like so much of Michaelangelo's art, the form seems to overpower what the form represents. 

If you are familiar with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, you probably remember that famous image of "God" and Adam touching fingers at Creation. It's common fodder for meme-making atheists for a reason. Even nonbelievers sense that Michaelangelo has reduced the transcendent Almighty to a regular old man. I think this painting would be almost comic if it didn't somehow feel irreverent-- for Michaelangelo's God is nothing at all like a burning, other-wordly real God, whose holiness might slay us if we stared upon Him.

Yet during Michaelangelo's time, the spirit of humanism was raging, and the strength and beauty of humanity was exalted. In the zeitgeist of the Renaissance, part of our humanity was diminished -- the full truth of how humans are weak as well as glorious. We are fallen as well as bearers of imago Dei. 

In Michaelangelo's "David" I cannot find a passionate, honest poet, a warrior, a lover, a doubter, an overlooked last child in a family full of hearty brothers. I see only the beautiful, physical form of an ideal man. "David" is so generic, so material, that I feel nothing but a flat admiration for the sculptor's ability when I see him.

After Michalangelo a movement developed in art which we call Mannerism. The Mannerists looked at Michaelangelo’s work (and the works of other Renaissance artists) and tried to push the techniques of the masters to the next level. However, instead of exploring nature or life for inspiration, the Mannerists zoomed in primarily on existing art. What resulted was over-stylized and false. There was too much focus on "how" and too little focus on "what." Encylopedia Britannica writes that this era demonstrated:
"an obsession with style and technique in figural composition often outweighed the importance and meaning of the subject matter. The highest value was instead placed upon the apparently effortless solution of intricate artistic problems, such as the portrayal of the nude in complex and artificial poses. Mannerist artists evolved a style that is characterized by artificiality and artiness, by a thoroughly self-conscious cultivation of elegance and technical facility, and by a sophisticated indulgence in the bizarre. The figures in Mannerist works frequently have graceful but queerly elongated limbs, small heads, and stylized facial features, while their poses seem difficult or contrived. The deep, linear perspectival space of High Renaissance painting is flattened and obscured so that the figures appear as a decorative arrangement of forms in front of a flat background of indeterminate dimensions."

I find Mannerist art some of the most miserable art ever created. It is so self-aware that it barely communicates anything at all. For example, look at this painting by Giorgio Vasari. Does it move you when you see it? Does it feel sincere to you?

When you attempt to connect with it, do you feel any sort of gap between what you know about Christ's heartbreak in Gethsemane and what is presented here visually? Does this show you our Lord's weeping, his sweating of blood, his crying out to his father for mercy? What do you feel about this happy-go-lucky Christ, arms-wide and face serene? Is He in emotional agony? And why is a male Honey Boo Boo popping out of the clouds with a golden goblet? If a non Christian encountered this picture, what are the chances that he or she could understand the main conflict Jesus experienced in the garden?

Can you see how over time, as artists attempted to create art that was perfect in itself instead of art that was sourced in sincerity of experience, they ended up producing artificiality? They created false art that evokes an Uncanny Valley-type response in the viewer. When we try to take such bad art down inside us, we feel like we are being lied to. Hold on to that thought for a moment, because we'll come back to it.

The "David" that I relate to most was created by a sculptor named Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini and a painter named Caravaggio launched one of the most important movements in art, the Baroque Era.

These two guys chased something more like naturalism. They showed humans being human, and you can see that in this sculpture, can't you? It is absolutely audacious in light of what has come before. Look at his posture! Look at his expression!

Bernini's "David" is the sort of man who could have cried out in prayer,
"I am poor and needy! Hurry and come to me, God!" He is the sort of man who could have danced with abandon in the streets after a victory. He is the sort of man who could be tempted by a woman. He is the sort of man who could have failed, and repented, and learned to trust God all over again. Look at his face. See how different it is from the blank stare of Donatello's first "David." This David moves out of a stiff, established space into my realm. He threatens to burst out of his rock, and breathe, and yell. I want to wipe the sweat off his face. I want to sing about God's power with him!

The Baroque era of sculpture tended to be stormy and passionate. Dynamic. Mighty. Brilliant. Energetic. Tense. The gap between idealized spirituality and a vulnerable human acting in God's strength is gone. Yes, Bernini's "David" is beautiful, but that beauty doesn't matter in light of the larger narrative expressed here. This is about more than just beauty; it's about the fuller truth, told well.

When I think about how Christians try to share their faith with the world, I see some of us working like Mannerists. We are almost authentic. We are almost honest. We are almost human. But in the gaps between what we are and what we are trying to be, we can sometimes give the impression that we are lying.

I can understand why that happens; in fact, I've done it myself over the years. Sometimes life is painful behind the scenes. Our finances are strained, our marriages are lonely, we are afraid about our children and the future of our country. We grow disappointed in friends and leaders. We wonder what those disappointments mean. There are things we want to believe about God that (in truth) we are doubting this week.  Our hearts break, and it becomes more and more difficult to go deep into God for one reason or another. Before we know it, our obedience gets snarly.

Still, we tend to keep on saying the same holy things so that people won't notice we are quivering under the surface. We tell ourselves that it's just a passing mood, anyway. There's no need to 
cause destruction by blasting our instability all over the place.

But when that passing mood stretches out into
a long, dry season, we can end up presenting a distorted projection of God into the culture. We can find ourselves encouraging others to drink water from a well that we haven't dipped into for a long time. We try to project what we should feel instead of what we do feel, and our words begin to get tinny and hollow. Nonbelievers can tell that we aren't being entirely straightforward.  Like that creepy, smiling mannequin at the top of this post, our hypocrisy frightens people away instead of drawing them in to the gospel.

My friend Pete Peterson has said something like this: “Write what’s true. People can tell if you are lying.” And he’s right. For the most part, humans are intuitive creatures, and – for many of us - triggers tend to go off if someone isn’t being honest.

When I read the New Testament, one of the things that strikes me is the absence of pretense of any sort. Even though writers like Paul, Peter, Timothy, and John had such different personalities, they all seem comfortable in their own skin. They yielded to a living God who moved through their unique voices to do the specific work He had prepared for them. In modern times, the evangelical church tends to exalt the CEO-type leader. However, there was room in the early church for the leadership of a philosopher like John, for a logician like Paul, for a gentle soul like Timothy, and for a reactionary force like Peter.

I would imagine that each of the apostles experienced the sorts of temptations that typically follow those
types of personalities. Maybe Timothy struggled with passivity and Peter struggled with a hot temper, for instance. However, if I could hear specifics about the private temptations of those men, I don't think I  would be shocked. I think the private struggles those men faced probably aligned somehow with the public personas they offered.

I think that because their optimism isn’t forced. Their exhortations are not unrealistic. While reading their writing, I can tell that these are men who have been made to see their own limitations and who have learned faith in the midst of difficulty. People like that project a different sort of ethos, don't they? We trust them, because we can tell they are trustworthy.

In recent years, it seems like one Christian leader after another has been exposed for hypocrisy. These men are smiling on television one day, urging us to be faithful in our marriages and families. The next day, they are exposed for secret wrongs. We've experienced this duplicity over and over until we now flinch at anything that rings of artificial, cheesy, or pretentious "Uncanny Valley Christianity."  

That suspicion is uncomfortable, but it's not necessarily bad. It reminds us that human efforts to create religion are pointless. It shows us that we are unable to sustain a religious machine in our own power. It teaches us that a living God is essential to this equation we are working. It urges us to remember that Jesus holds our identities firmly in his worth so that even during the spiritual "troughs" (C.S. Lewis) our expressions of hope, of fear, and of worship can still resound with honesty.

We don't have to make a single thing up. We don't have to fudge or cut corners. His life and his love are enough. We don't need to copy shallow, religious language that we have heard others speak. We don't need to flash false smiles. We can be simple and sincere in the presence of God and in the presence of humanity. He's big enough that we don't have to fake anything.

Remember the story of Uzzah? He tried to catch the Ark and keep it from falling. We don't have to do that here. We can trust God to make even our hard truths and hard times beautiful. By this sort of active, honest dependence, we can let go of false, strained religious effort and speak sincerely into a culture that despises artifice.