Being real in a virtual world
Inspired by the discussions during faculty retreat on the serious potential impacts of social media and other kinds of technology on our students and ourselves, I shared my thoughts on being real in a virtual age in a devotional for the TWU faculty of science (Sept. 1, 2011).
If we really believe Christ was real and came to save a real world encompassing our bodies, our souls, our spirits and all creation, that should guide our thinking on technology that subtly draws us away from reality at times.
“ 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
I have been thinking about the potential threat of virtual reality to holistic creation stewardship for a long time. Here is something I wrote in the winter of 1997…
Excerpts from a Letter to the Editor of Green Cross, Winter 1997
“I very much appreciated the discussions of television vs. environmental awareness. It struck me that this basic issue could be taken one step further…You’ve probably already thought about the Internet vs. the environment, but so many ideas flooded into my system that I thought I would share some with you.
The speed at which this new medium is infiltrating our culture is alarming, seeming to preclude any ethical reservations from offering resistance. The very nature of the medium tends to override questions of morality or value on many fronts.
Many of the same reasons for shunning the overuse of television apply equally to the Internet. Some environmentalists might interject with cries of, ‘But look what information can be disseminated on behalf of the cause, and to such a large and receptive audience,’ in the same way progenitors of cyberspace churches would lobby on behalf of the promotion of the gospel. I think the overriding concern should be with the very nature of the medium and the messages it must carry. Just as television tends to turn long-term natural events into short, attention-grabbing video clips, messages on the Internet are always truncated.
Someone attempting to derive most of his or her wisdom of the natural world could never match the thoroughness of a Solomon. If we take the view that God created the world to be enjoyed in the flesh, in a face to face encounter, then we might suffer serious deficiency by relying too heavily on virtual sources of reality. Jesus was an incarnation, IRL (in real life).”
So that was my advice on the internet in 1997 – but how much have I followed my own advice? In my teaching I use a lot of google images, youtube videos and images from the textbooks and justify this because biology is a highly visual subject. But sometimes I think back to the hours of preparation to get just the right images and wonder how much the students appreciated and got out of the images as they flashed by. I have succumbed to facebook realizing it was a good way to share photos from field courses etc., but sometimes it feels weird when I meet one of my facebook friends in person in a lackluster encounter – who is more real, the facebook version or the real version? In many ways, the internet that I warned about in 1997 is my friend and a very distracting friend, distracting me from real live friends.
On the other side of the ledger, many years ago I took up bird watching thanks to my oldest son Vincent’s insistence. The hundreds of photos of birds and the sound of their songs available on the internet pale in comparison to the real birds we encounter together and the magical early mornings we enjoy as birding buddies. My second and third sons took up football a few years ago. Some people decry the violence in contact sports, but both my sons had the common experience that the hitting was the spark that fired up their interest in the game. I’ve become a football fan and the team reporter for the North Langley Bears in the process, and I agree that the gritty aspect of football makes it a good parable on living whole heartedly. My fourth son is a video game virtuoso – alas that’s a virtual kind of thing – but once and a while I take him on on the wii and it’s a real workout for both of us – my arms hurt for two days afterwards the last time, but I actually beat him in wii boxing.
The challenge in all this is how to go beyond the superficial…A pastor of mine often referred to God as a 5-mile-an-hour God – one who walks beside us as Jesus did with the disciples. A God who shares stories and wisdom rather than quick soundbytes in the media or “likes” on facebook or brief tweets on twitter or terse texts on a cell phone. As we mentor our students and come alongside our colleagues, can we be more like Jesus this year? Can we really take hold of the fact that God came in the flesh to redeem the flesh that we discuss in our science classes? Can we read God’s word as something that should spring into life as Christ did, and still does, in His resurrection power?
In this world hungering for real meaning we can’t afford to live as though the physical world doesn’t matter, as though sitting behind a computer screen is equivalent to being out there moving among flesh and blood. Our sinews and tendons are made for stretching as we walk among our friends and fellow creatures, and the expressions on our faces should be rippling thanks to well-practiced facial muscles and speech apparatus. Life is a contact sport, and God calls us to live head on. Be prepared to be hit, knocked over, tackled, twisted, bruised, turned around, backed into a corner, pushed out of bounds, penalized, piled on, and pummeled. And then be prepared for high fives, slaps on the back and full on hugs in the next life.