In 1985 American media critic Neil Postman wrote an important book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it he argued that Americans were being dumbed down by the media, especially television. They had become a nation of zombies who were addicted to the tube and its brainless entertainment. As a result, they were escaping reality and living hollow lives. Indeed, the tube is altering reality itself, argues Postman. Thus television junkies are living lives of falsehood and illusion.
It certainly seems to be the case that truth and reality are being undermined by the new media technologies. So what is truth? One helpful definition of truth goes like this: truth is that which corresponds with reality. Known as the correspondence theory of truth, this definition argues for a correlation between a given claim and a given state of affairs. Truth, in this view, is simply telling it like it is.
A good example of this is a map. A map is only helpful if it fully corresponds with the location it is depicting. If a map shows Sydney, Australia as being north of Tokyo, then that is not a helpful map. It is not describing reality as it really is.
The biblical Christian worldview makes much of truth and reality. Indeed, believers would argue that the Christian truth claims best cohere with the real world. What Christianity says nicely matches what we find in the real world. So the further one is away from reality, the further one is away from truth, and vice versa.
Christianity is – among other things – about helping us come to grips with reality, and leaving illusion behind. For example, sin is delusory, and blinds us to realities about God, about ourselves, and about others. Christ came to liberate us from false views of reality, and to help us get back into the real world.
Thus the importance of truth in Scripture. The cosmic opponent of God, Satan, therefore greatly dislikes truth. Indeed, he is called the “father of lies” by Jesus. Satan comes to kill, steal and destroy. He seeks to undo God’s truth and reality by his lies and illusions.
All this provides a somewhat circuitous introduction to a recent phenomenon which I wish to discuss. I refer to the huge popularity of virtual reality games such as Second Life. These games take the participant into a world of make-believe, where imagination runs wild. In such a fantasy world, the real world can greatly fade in comparison.
Here is how the Second Life website depicts its product: “Second Life is a 3-D virtual world created by its Residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by millions of Residents from around the globe. From the moment you enter the World you’ll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity. Once you’ve explored a bit, perhaps you’ll find a perfect parcel of land to build your house or business.”
Or as Wikipedia describes it, “Second Life (abbreviated as SL) is an Internet-based virtual world launched on June 23, 2003, developed by Linden Research, Inc (commonly referred to as Linden Lab), which came to international attention via mainstream news media in late 2006 and early 2007. A free downloadable client program called the Second Life Viewer enables its users, called ‘Residents’, to interact with each other through motional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse. Residents can explore, meet other Residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade items (virtual property) and services with one another.”
As mentioned, it has become very popular indeed. “At the end of March 2008, approximately 13 million accounts were registered, although there are no reliable figures for actual long term consistent usage. In January 2008, residents spent 28,274,505 hours there, so on average about 38,000 residents were logged on at any particular moment.”
Downsides of the game have been noted; these include problems with child pornography, cyber crime, online gambling, and privacy issues. And with people becoming addicted to SL, other problems are arising. In today’s papers there was a report of a woman stalking and kidnapping (in real life) a man she met on the online game.
A major concern is how games like SL are allowing a whole generation of people to opt out of reality altogether and live in a world of fantasy and unreality. Of course people have always had fantasy lives, but games such as these enable people to live in fantasyland 24/7. And these new virtual reality realms are very, well, real, and life-like, making them much more compelling and addictive. People really can get sucked into them, and devotees can easily prefer living in such worlds to living in the real world.
Sure, the real world can be a real stinker, and we all need a bit of relief, in the form of games, hobbies, entertainment or sport. But the concern is that some people prefer the virtual worlds to the real world. This is especially problematic when children or young people get too heavily involved.
Of course there are plenty of virtual reality games. Think of the various Sims games for example. Many can be harmless fun and entertainment. But many can become worlds in which people tired of this one prefer to spend their time – and too much time.
Scripture tells us to keep our minds focused on what is really important. We are told to keep our minds fixed on what really matters “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).
Believers and non-believers can both be pulled away from reality and the important issues of life by getting too involved in these sorts of games. True, believers can perhaps try to claim things like SL for the Kingdom. And some have. Several churches have now set up shop online on SL in the hopes of reaching others. There may be a place for that.
But in the greater scheme of things, we realise that the enemy wants us to concentrate and focus on anything other than the state of our souls and where we will spend eternity. And the enemy is quite happy to sidetrack believers as well, getting them so involved in virtual reality games that they become ineffective in the service of their King and the Kingdom.
In the old days the rulers kept the masses in check with “bread and circuses”. As long as the crowds were fed and entertained, they could be easily managed and controlled. Today the enemy of the church is quite happy to use various types of entertainment and amusements to keep our attention from what is really important, what really matters.
By all means, allow a bit of time for relaxation and entertainment. But be aware that both believers and non-believers can be lulled into a false reality by means of various diversions, and one day wake up to find that the real world has passed them by. Indeed, life is short, and they will wake out of their slumber to find themselves standing before the living God, asked to give an account of their lives. That truth – that reality – should keep us vigilant about how we spend our time on this earth.
We are called to live a life of truth, in accord with reality. Sure, in a fallen, sin-soaked and pain-ridden world, one is tempted to seek an escape. But we are not to escape from reality, but to the real reality, Jesus Christ.