The Incarnation in a Virtual World?

Part of Hacking Christianity's mission is to examine Christian symbols and find parallels to contemporary culture. To that end, consider what you can do in Cyberspace these days:

  • You can create a virtual character in World of Warcraft and spend years perfecting her. This isn't your daddy's SimCity, this is a way of life and pasttime for some people.
  • You can create a blog with dozens or hundreds of readers, a virtual congregation whom you have never met.
  • You can have more Facebook "friends" than real friends. You can make online friends with people when the real world friends let you down. So completely can this impact your life that if someone is malicious to you, it hurts just the same as being bullied at school.
This poses a problem to Christianity. One of the tenets of Christianity is that Jesus is God-with-us, Emmanuel, human. How do we preach the Incarnation in a world where we can craft virtual space so easily and completely?

The Bible is of little help. The Bible was written to agrarian societies where all they had was what was real and tactful...if there were any PlayStations on the shepherd's hills, they haven't been found yet. Even hallucinogenic drugs that would create virtual experience were not common.

So the best biblical metaphors are real, tactile: gathering manna like dew, lost sheep, raising people from the dead, unbinding Lazarus, touching cloaks, the rugged wood of a cross. In a society where that was the real deal, this was powerful. In our society where we can make our own reality, how is the Incarnation relevant?

I don't have an answer yet...that's why this is a pondering. My first steps may be towards the imminence of God's presence, where you can't log off from God's love, where you can never unplug and step away. But that is not Incarnational directed at Christ, that's a statement about God.

Perhaps a better step would be to compare the life of Jesus with the actual crafting of characters in WoW, of a blogging conversation, of immersing in the rhythms of a twittered life. The story of Jesus is unfinished, still in process. Christ is ALIVE, not dead, but alive forevermore. Because of his eternal life, Christ invites you to be a part of Christ's life. Because Christ's life involves transformation, you can be involved in the crafting of Creation.

No one wants a level 99 Orc, or a finished blog, or a Facebook account that "has enough friends." There is an invitation to an unfinished project, and perhaps that's how virtual never-completed crafting of worlds can be linked to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Thoughts? I'm really struggling with this this morning after I found a new "hacking Jesus" conversation partner. I'd like to invite you to the conversation.
Zemanta Pixie


E. I. June 20, 2008 at 11:25 AM  

Like you said, God (Emmanuel) is all about personal relationships.

We cannot rely on facebook or myspace to bring people to Christ.

We need to continue the great commision old school.

One soul at a time through personal relationships with our neighbors and friends.

The virtual tools are there to enhance the conversation but are not important.

pastorbecca June 20, 2008 at 12:57 PM  

Jeremy, this is central to what I tried to ask Bryan at our conference as well, and I'm no closer to the answers than you are.

I think you're right that it has to do with process. We are unfinished people, and we experience Christ as a living, ongoing part of our lives.

I think that it's about communication. That's evangelism, anyway, the good news. In as much as avatars and blogs and facebook profiles are attempts at self-expression, they are a part of the narrative we tell. For those pre-industrial agrarian types, the language and medium of a book was radical (you mean we can take God outside the one Temple?). This is the next place where the narrative of God's love is unfolding.

I think it's about praying without ceasing, making our lives and our actions-- all of them, acts of worship and service. Can we find sacred virtual space? Can we prayerfully blog?

I think its about understanding what relationship is-- and isn't. There are friends I've never met who are dear sisters and brothers in faith to me. I'm not saying that takes the place of the people I can touch and hug and smile at. Those emoticons don't really convey the love I want to share. :-/ But I can hear from loved ones I can't be near, and encourage and be encouraged by them. I can reach out to ones I haven't met yet, and maybe touch and be touched by them.

(I think it's about time I cut and pasted this over on my blog...)

Imagine, just for a moment, that Paul, rather than writing letters, blogged. That his epistles were blog entries: "@church of corinth: enough with the fighting already! love you guys still, and so does God." That's kind of where I'm going with that.

Someday, in the future, when we are colleagues, we'll work together on this in person! Till then, I'm game for building whatever hacking-journey we can together virtually. It may not be perfect, but it's moving toward...


Becca Clark June 20, 2008 at 12:59 PM  

*re-reads* by future colleagues, I mean in the same conference. someday. if, you know they let me in. and you.

perils of the interwebs: foot-in-mouth disease is much more prevalent.

Ken Lowery June 20, 2008 at 2:50 PM  

The virtual tools are there to enhance the conversation but are not important.

I can't tell if I agree with this or not. Doubtless a lot of the same sort of thing was said about radio and TV -- and there's no doubt at all that those two mediums dramatically impacted how people lived in Christ throughout the 20th century.

I believe you're right to emphasize one-on-one relationships, but I think how people now define those relationships is changing. I have several friends who live in other time zones and other countries; it's quite likely I'll never meet a good portion of them face to face. I don't consider those friendships to be any less authentic than face-to-face ones. The may be more superficial in some ways, but I'd say they're also deeper in other ways.

Maybe that's the ideal form of blogging, for the world at large and for living in faith: an ability for people to communicate on a community level in an increasingly lopsided noise-to-signal-ratio atmosphere... and we're even less limited by geography than we were before.

I have no idea if that was a coherent thought, so someone help me out here...

twiceinfinity June 21, 2008 at 12:01 AM  

"How do we preach the Incarnation in a world where we can craft virtual space so easily and completely?"

I think that at least part of the answer lies in a conception of the Bible and of the Gospel as story - a narrative of life, love, death, and resurrection. The universal idea of narrative transcends any specific medium; it's something everyone can relate to, allowing all to experience common emotions and shared thoughts. It's not bound to print, or film, or voice. And it's active, engaging not just the story-teller but also the story-receiver, allowing both to share in what the narrative offers. In Christian application, story makes the Gospel real, even (in a sense) makes Christ himself real to us, in a way that can appeal to our deepest instincts even while using our latest technologies.

This formulation of the Gospel, simpler than whatever systematic theologies, doctrinal texts, or religious philosophies exist at any given time, is universal. It has survived the ancient, the medieval, the modern, and the post-modern epochs, adapting all the time to varying technologies (scrolls, illuminated texts, books, and digital media). This should be no surprise, for "the word of the Lord endures forever."

Ken Lowery June 21, 2008 at 9:08 AM  

The universal idea of narrative transcends any specific medium; it's something everyone can relate to, allowing all to experience common emotions and shared thoughts. It's not bound to print, or film, or voice.

Nail. On. Head.

Protea Boy June 21, 2008 at 11:42 AM  

There is no substitute for real community. I believe online social networking sites like Facebook and Blogs and augment face time. Unfortunately, for some they become addicted and lost in the online component.

The Reconciling Movement is a great example. I was able to meet people from around the nation and through facebook and can keep some connection with them.

I guess like so many things it has a good side and a bad side.

Justin Long June 21, 2008 at 9:40 PM  

I think part of the answer to this is the fact that Jesus incarnated once, but then He made us his witnesses and we are to incarnate his message into a number of different contexts. One of the unique things about the Gospel and about Christianity is that it can be contextualized and translated into numerous settings. Islam is different, for instance: the Koran is not supposed to be translated. But the message of Christianity is intended to be translated into numerous settings, and virtualization is no different. But we are not so much about virtualizing the incarnation as in incarnating our witness into a virtual setting, perhaps... living out the life in a way that witnesses to the Kingdom that we belong to. How do we incarnate the good news, the redemptive news, into or to address politics? into situations of conflict? into situations of slavery? into situations of abuse? into the virtual world? One way that I do this is by sharing links and commentary through social networks that I think are of interest and have a redemptive perspective.

Ted,  June 21, 2008 at 11:33 PM  


Before I respond to your ponderings, I have a question:
"Why did you give Becca a hankie when you met her at NE Conference?"

The simple answer is you knew of all the hardship she had been through at Troy.

Were you physically there. I know the answer is no.
Did she phone you?
Did she send you a physical letter?

The primary means by which you understood her emotions I believe is through her blog.
Across the internet.

It is a REAL tool for communicating between people.
(Can you hear me now?) :)

It's labeled as virtual because we're not physically next to one another.
It's also virtual because someone can become lost in an electronic character they create.
But that same person could become lost in something very physical. (the local bar down the street?)
There is no difference if "Facebook" friends can hurt you emotionally as well as friends that we know physically.
What your examples point to is the strength of the ability of human beings to communicate using the internet.

This is NO problem to Christianity.
Yes, Jesus is God-with-us, Emmanuel, human.
With you.
With me.
With everyone that reads this.
With everyone that isn't reading this.

Jesus communicated with many different types of people.
The bible is of GREAT help regarding this matter; since it describes how Jesus communicated: directly and indirectly.
Agrarian society or not.
Jesus spoke in the most current forms of communication of the times.
Speaking to congregations in the temples. Speaking to people in the streets.
Speaking individually to the undesirables of the time. (Radical)

Jesus communicated with as many people as possible.
With no radio. No phone. No email. No internet.
These are real methods of communication of today.
If they were available, Jesus would have used it.

The real heart of your ponderings lies in your words: "In our society where we can make our own reality, how is the incarnate relative?" and your discussion of the "imminense of God's presence."

While "we" can make our own reality, there are many, many more on this planet that don't have that ability.

The world is becoming more and more connected to the internet. But not everyone is digital.
The most "undesirables" of our world do not hear our digital speak.

"Christ is ALIVE, not dead, but alive forevermore. Because of his eternal life, Christ invites you to be a part of Christ's life. Because Christ's life invloves transformation, you can be involved in the crafting of Creation."

THAT'S IT! Spead the good news! That is relevant to everyone today! Across the entire world!
It is only when "we" step out of our "reality" that "we" can be truly radical and communicate what you clearly stated to EVERYONE!
The human race has "logged on and logged off" to the presence of God over the centuries.
With or without computers.

It is imperitive to use the gifts given to each of us to pass on this message.
The impressive part is "we" have this unbelievable medium in which to share with one another.
To communicate with one another.
To support one another.
To express our emotions and have people understand them whether they are walking beside us or not.

This is the journey we are on together. (You call it a process.)
While milestones pass by ("a level 99 Orc, or a finished blog, or a Facebook account that 'has enough friends'"), we all continue on and move forward to (a new character, a new blog or a new account) a life TRANSFORMED by the love of Christ.

Jesus is God-with-us, Emmanuel, human.

I look forward to our "Trek" together. All of us.

Ted (aka "The Human Hankie")

pastorbecca June 22, 2008 at 4:54 PM  

Wow, Jeremy, what a topic!

@twiceinfinity, particularly, AMEN. Well said.

@Ted, "But that same person could become lost in something very physical. (the local bar down the street?)" hey now, I resemble-- I mean, resent that! ;) But excellent examples.

@the general discussion:
On further reflection, I think there are a couple of big pieces to this. Okay, three.

1. Relationships. To what extent can relationships via the internet be 'real' or 'human' or 'personal'? Ken and Ted, among others, write of the viability of these relationships (I'm partial to Ted's wording, but that's just narcissism on my part!), while e.i. and protea boy rightly caution against the dangers of letting the digital supersede the tangible.

2. Communication/Evangelism. How can and should digital media including the internet be used to convey the Word? Most seem to agree that this is a question of language, context, and media and does not dilute the message itself. Justin addresses this very well when he says, "But the message of Christianity is intended to be translated into numerous settings, and virtualization is no different." He and Ted go on to raise discussion about other places in need of interpretation and access, that the message continues to spread.

3. That God Thing. To what extent can or should the internet be more than a tool, but an actual means of encountering God in Christ, a kind of sacred space itself? Here's where I think the huge debate will lie in the years ahead. This is where it matters if, like twiceinfinity, we consider an essential aspect of the Incarnate God to be narrative. Here's where it matters if, like Ted, we consider an essential aspect of the Incarnate God to be present in human interactions, whatever form they take. And, for the record, I consider threaded discussions to be uplifting both intellectually and spiritually, so I think we have a piece of it right here.

For what it's worth, thoughts from a tired preacher's brain.


Rev. Jeremy Smith June 23, 2008 at 9:19 AM  

Well, Becca came in and went ahead and categorized the conversation for us...and I'm thankful! That's what effective pastors do is reframe the conversation.

As for me, I'm driven by two questions:

(1) What relationship-building tools are appropriate for the church to use in an increasingly virtual world?
- E.I., Ken, and protea boy all note that virtual tools for kingdom-building are only supplements to real-world relationships. The question is how do we "hook" real-world interactions into virtual interactions? Also, how do we "hook" people when the church is more and more out of the daily lives of the people (see The Starfish and the Spider)
- justin's final sentence is gold: constantly emphasizing the redemptive perspective in a world filled with news overload may be enough to cross the threshold of interest. Very valuable insight.
- I'm the type of person that usually jumps right to the practical, so I'm thankful for these challenging questions of how do we put the incarnation into practice.

(2) What theology touchpoints can we continue to use in an increasingly virtual world?
- I really enjoy what Infinity(x2) said about narrative, and I think it hooks into what I was trying to get to about being part of the life of Christ. When you are part of a story, and realize the Christian story is your story, then you are a part of it. Like you said, it transcends any medium.
- To Ted (the human hankie in the flesh!)...I must be persistent and say that we are facing a difficulty much more difficult than any Christian community in the past. We are now able to create virtual worlds. No other Christian community or secular society has been able to do this. So, what does the incarnation mean in a virtual world? How can we make it relevant?

One final note: From Ted's post, I do appreciate how you call me back to task and remind us that it is only the privileged who can create virtual worlds, which are not usually who Jesus was focused on anyway. :-)

ted,  June 23, 2008 at 10:50 PM  


I understand the United Methodist Church and the Christian church are facing some difficult times.
But “more difficult than any Christian community in the past”?
I can only reply, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Maybe relative to the last 60 years in the United States.
I’m not a theological scholar, but wasn’t the early church persecuted for their beliefs?
I hope you’re not saying I’m going to be physically attacked for posting these words.
I think those early church people that had to gather in secret because of the fear of being killed for worshipping their faith would have been overjoyed at the ability to share their thoughts of praise with many in a fairly (somewhat) anonymous fashion.

I am, however, keen to this thought and will expand on later.

As for the virtual world,
Let me provide a metaphor.
You are a pastor who leads a congregation
In what I assume is a church building.
A structure constructed by people of wood and nails.
A site some would consider sacred.
Sacred by its design and by those that gather within it.

You are also a pastor who leads this web address.
A structure constructed by people of ones and zeros (basically electrons).
Why can’t (shouldn’t) it be sacred.
It depends on its design and who gathers within it.
Do you consider it sacred?

Or basically,
Civil engineers -> Building Structure
Pastoral engineers -> Faithful Followers
Together they produced the sacred corporate church worship environment

So why not this.
Electrical engineers -> Web Site Structure
Pastoral engineers -> Faithful Followers
Together they produced the virtual church worship environment
Why should we consider these different?

It is up to the designers of the website, just like the designers of the church to make it as relevant or irrelevant to those who are to be transformed by the love of Christ.

According to Webster’s, being incarnate is “having bodily and especially human form and substance.”

I agree with Twiceinfinity about “the universal idea of the narrative transcends any specific medium.”
This is the substance that we need to communicate.

Coupled with the strength of the ability to communicate our humanity using the internet,
aren’t the possibilities therefore endless?

Going back to the idea of the early church,
Isn’t that where we are today, relative to this electronic medium?
We started with simple postings of information.
We expanded to emails (letters) between one another.
We further expanded to smaller group discussions with the faithful.
We now have the ability to post sermons on-line.
The next step that I assume people are already taking is to expand that further into a complete virtual church worship environment.

While each step may pose a new problem,
And there is much work to be done,
I am excited by the possibilities before us.

Continuing the journey with you,


Rev. Jeremy Smith June 24, 2008 at 6:47 AM  

Ted, thank you again for keeping me accountable to my words. If I can restate my previous sentence with one missing word, I think we'll find clarity together.

I must be persistent and say that we are facing a evangelistic difficulty much more difficult than any Christian community in the past.

Evangelism for an oppressed community is sneaky. Evangelism for an imperial Constantinian religion is persuasive. Evangelism for a brick-and-mortar religion in a virtual world is difficult.

I love your parallels between creating worship physical space and worship virtual space. The challenges of discipleship and worship are nearly identical to real-world efforts.

However, what is difficult may be making the theological touch points relevant, especially the Incarnation. While we will always live in the real world, people find increasingly more meaning in the virtual world.

Incarnation in the virtual world looks very different than real-world Incarnation because in the virtual world, there is full control of the Creator over the Created. The Warrior goes to the left when I press left, the NintenDog is scratched when I tell my hand to scratch it. That's not the Incarnation as I understand it; that's embodiment that overrides any personal choices of the Created and removes their "humanity" if you will. That's a theological difficulty if we talk about God the Creator becoming Jesus the Created ( know what I mean).

As I'm writing, perhaps that's a good touch point: that Jesus is the perfect avatar of God who is not controlled by God, but has aligned Jesus' will so completely that he acts in Godlike ways without being prompted. :: puts into future blog posts pile ::

Anyway, I'm trying to be clear that at no point in Christian history has the human race been able to create virtual worlds. And the challenge for Christianity is how to remain relevant with a book full of tactile real-world imagery and a virtual world that has more and more meaning to this generation.

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