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Choosing life or second life? Discipleship and agency in a mediated culture.

Abstract

Liberationist theologies gave rise to a re-emphasis on Christian life as being primarily historical life, and Christian spirituality as rooted in faithful and honest attention to the immediacy of historical reality. However, for many people living in media-saturated, overdeveloped societies, any distinction between actual reality and a mediated pseudo-reality is blurred. Another facet of life in a media-saturated context is that of being regularly confronted with impressions of destitution, violence and ecological degradation, whilst at the same time being further distanced from the realities represented through communications media and their 'virtualizing' tendency. This rapid change in our relation to reality has, I suggest, profound theological and missiological consequences. The ways in which electronic media have modified life, including religious life, are complex and varied. Consumption of electronic media does not seem to have replaced religion as such but it has tended to shape religious life in its own image. With particular reference to Slavoj Zizek's reading of "the Real" after "9/11", I have attempted to sketch how some of these sweeping social and cultural changes may impact on the interpretation of Christian discipleship and mission. In the end, either the Christian life is vulnerable to potentially disruptive reality, or it is at risk of collapsing into a version of the pursuit of happiness mediated by and through late-capitalist culture.

The problem with reality

In light of certain Latin American realities of the 1970s and early 1980s, Jon Sobrino identified three prerequisites of a genuine spirituality which might maintain and foster the vitality of faith: "(1) honesty about the real, (2) fidelity to the real, and (3) a certain 'correspondence' by which we permit ourselves to be carried along by the 'more' of the real." (1)

By "the real", Sobrino simply means actual, historical experience: life as it is lived, rather than the kind of alienating idea that "spiritual life" can become if detached from its historical foundation. There are times when, and places where historical realities demand attention. In the face of widespread poverty and oppression across Latin America, Christian life, "gradually came to be seen as a practice in the midst of the poor," (2) and a "re-discovery of the real life of the impoverished majorities." This real life experience is not only a necessary starting point. Rather, "Honesty with and fidelity to reality is more than a prerequisite for spiritual experience of God. It is its very material as well. Apart from and independent of this honesty and fidelity, we neither grasp revelation nor respond to it." (3)

To someone embedded in a context of committed pastoral practice amongst impoverished or disenfranchised people, the meaning of "honesty with and fidelity to reality" may need little explanation. Is the same true for people who, in a media-saturated context, have become accustomed to experiencing reality as simulated, recorded or "time-shifted"? There is a problem with reality, and it is one that simply did not exist in the 1970s, when liberation theology was maturing. Much of humanity now lives with unprecedented access to information about life on earth, including unprecedented awareness of critical human and ecological conditions. This information, and these impressions and images, however, are not experienced with the kind of immediacy Sobrino was describing. Inhabitants of a media-dominated, globalizing society are not so much living Christianity, "as a practice in the midst of the poor", as living with an array of persistent impressions of the poor, of violent conflict, ecological crises and endless contradictory images and entertainments. If, as Sobrino states, we can neither grasp revelation nor respond to it apart from fidelity to reality, then the recent and rapid shifts in our relation to the real have profound theological and missiological consequences.

Context-less life

The supposedly three-dimensional virtual world known as Second Life (www.secondlife.com) was born in 2003 and by early 2007 had attracted an official population of more than eight and a half million residents. (4) The way in which Second Life meshes with first lives becomes increasingly sophisticated (in form rather than content) as computers evolve and participants collaborate. One social commentator predicts that if, in virtual worlds such as Second Life, "potential sources of growth, leisure, education and commerce take off together, then the distinction between virtual and real worlds will become hazy to the point of disappearance."(5)

The experience of virtualization is not just about participation in virtual online worlds or similar pursuits. Those who live in a media-saturated world, have, claims Thomas de Zengotita, "been consigned to a new plane of being engendered by mediating representations of fabulous quality and inescapable ubiquity, a place where everything is addressed to us, everything is for us, and nothing is beyond us anymore." (6) Whether intentionally spending time in virtual worlds or not, many people have experienced a relatively rapid virtualization of everyday life that continually modifies (and arguably confuses) our sense of the world and of life itself. Although the experience of virtualization or media saturation is far from universal, the implications extend beyond the immediate worlds of those directly impacted. De Zengotita acknowledges the limitations of his own thesis, whilst highlighting its implications:
   [M]illions of human beings are trapped in realities so restrictive,
   so desperate, that the possibility of applying to them what I have
   to say ... does not arise at all. But the issue of the trend
   remains, for it is global. And so does the issue of mediated
   reality in relation to the immiseration of those millions, not as
   it is lived but as it is experienced by the rest of us, by
   privileged citizens of the overdeveloped world who can choose to
   deal with it. Or not. (7)


The global trend towards ever-greater media-saturation and virtualization changes the way in which we conceive of and participate in urgent or critical realities. That trend is symptomatic of a technological evolution and dominant social-political currents which together paved the way for a media-saturated culture and its endemic virtualization.

Is discipleship different in a media culture?

Stewart Hoover deduces that in present-day late capitalist societies, "Media and religion have come together in fundamental ways. They occupy the same spaces, serve many of the same purposes, and invigorate the same practices in late modernity. Today, it is probably better to think of them as related than to think of them as separate". (8) There are many people for whom this would clearly not be true, as de Zengotita implies. Hoover, who also tends to identify "religion" as Protestant Christianity in the USA, does not make this point explicit. Nevertheless, his work does illustrate the complexity of thinking about religion and of living religiously in a media-saturated context. He describes a new paradigm in both media and religious scholarship that is based on the discovery that religion, "remains 'vital' at the same time that its form, location and practices of meaning-making no longer occupy the traditional spaces". (9) From his analysis of the convergence of religion and (mostly electronic) media, Hoover notes significant trends in the personal and social practice of interviewees:

* The pervasiveness of television is not questioned but assumed;

* e-media mesh interactively and in continuity with the rest of life;

* e-media are deemed important in as much as they deal in important symbols, and power fully present a common set of symbols, ideas and information (or, "infotainment");

* they convey a, "common culture", a "norm" that is both challenging to faith and alluring;

* media reception is religiously significant but doesn't replace religion.

Hoover describes, on the basis of this research, the way in which media practice enables people to be what he calls, "fluid, yet grounded" where:
   the "fluidity" is in the process, whereby it is possible to always
   be on the lookout for new insights and resources. At the same time,
   "grounding" is important, and the resources of tradition, history,
   doctrine, "shared memory" and "imagined community", as well as
   resources from unconventional places and of unconventional types,
   such as those avail able in and through media, are important touch
   points to this "grounding". (10)


Evidently, there are people who interpret life and make meaning with reference to a variety of cultural resources including, for Christian people, specifically Christian resources and practices. In overdeveloped cultures and contexts, people simply cannot imagine living without electronic media but experience the world through media images and impressions in a way not readily distinguished from immediate experience. At the same time, a range of everyday virtualizations shape our sense of the world, and this is a process accelerated in recent decades by the rapid evolution of television culture, followed by a more rapid evolution of the internet. Virtualization is but one dimension of the endless range of effects whereby sophisticated media technologies can distance or distract us from what Sobrino describes as the real. Nell Postman, following in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan, described one of those effects in his seminal work of more than twenty years ago (that is, before the advent of the domestic internet and the widespread use of mobile technology), and claimed that we have reached "a critical mass in that electronic media have decisively and irreversibly changed the character of our symbolic environment". (11) Even print media such as newspapers and magazines are designed to look like television screens and, particularly through advertising, continually deliver impressions of idealized, artificial worlds that fuel both aspiration and general dissatisfaction whilst effectively hijacking attention. Postman laments the decline of print into a, "residual epistemology", with the concomitant decline in rational, linear thought. With careful focus, he argues that, "a television-based epistemology pollutes public communication and its surrounding landscape, not that it pollutes everything." (12) He then goes on to describe the reception of ever more information that has no impact on our living, and rarely provides insights that impinge directly on our lives. Under these circumstances, how can a person be honest with and faithful to the real? Even if media-consumption as an activity is restricted, the effects of "mediatization" persist: Postman decries the trivialization of public information, a process which he points out is not all achieved on television but rather is influenced by television becoming the paradigm for the conception of public information. In short, a television-based epistemology can undermine our sense of the world as a serious or hospitable place, whilst the medium itself can create a sense of displacement. "The damage is especially massive to youthful viewers who depend so much on television for their clues as to how to respond to the world." (13) Referring to Daniel Boorstin's description of the "pseudo-event", (14) Postman suggests that:
   A more significant legacy of the telegraph and the photograph may
   be pseudo-context. A pseudo-context is a structure invented to give
   fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use. But the use
   the pseudo-context provides is not action, or problem solving, or
   change. It is the only use left for information with no genuine
   connection to our lives. And that, of course, is to amuse. The
   pseudo-context is the last refuge, so to say, of a culture
   overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence. (15)


We might note in passing that another use created for fragmented and irrelevant information is to win money on almost-interactive television quiz shows such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, a global flagship of late capitalist media culture. More seriously, we might ask whether some forms of church also function as a kind of "pseudo-context", in which they inadvertently retreat from engagement with the real to tinker with inconsequential fragments of nostalgia. Postman pessimistically concluded that the world into which we (the media-engrossed society of the mid-1980s) emerged was not so much like George Orwell's tyrannical vision of Big Brother (which ironically became the name of another television flagship of late-capitalist self-consuming culture) but more like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in which people grew to enjoy their oppression:
   All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to
   incoherence and been amused into indifference. Which is why Aldous
   Huxley would not in the least be surprised by the story. Indeed, he
   prophesied its coming. He believed that it is far more likely that
   the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into
   oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled. (16)


It is not immediately self-evident that the public has in fact been amused into indifference, though our collective inertia does indicate widespread disengagement from critical aspects of historical reality. (17) Huxley's intuition hovers over attempts to nurture or promote the kind of genuine Christian spirituality Sobrino described in relation to the real. How, in fact, is a person to respond to mediated information about the relentless suffering of desperate and ensnared people, or to urgent concern about ecological disruption? Indeed, how are we to choose what to respond to at all? Sustaining daily life is effort enough, in which case, what is the effect of other people's misery (to quote passages from Sobrino again), "not as it is lived but as it is experienced by the rest of us, by privileged citizens of the overdeveloped world who can choose to deal with it"? How indeed can those of us with choices about commitment, action, lifestyle and so on actually know something at a level that catalyses action in the world, such that we, "permit ourselves to be carried along by the 'more' of the real"?

What we experience as reality

In a world becoming accustomed to the disappointments as well as pleasures and opportunities of virtual reality and electronically mediated relationship, it may be no surprise that people seek something more real than what is experienced as the thin, fake, unsubstantial nature of much of our existence and the commodities that are accessories to it. However, the situation is more complex and nuanced than this quest for reality might imply; the more-real life people seek may have little to do with the, "more of the real" that Sobrino describes. Slavoj Zizek can perhaps explain why. Philosopher, psychoanalyst and cultural critic, Zizek scrutinizes ordinary life with the theoretical tools of Jacques Lacan, blended with Hegel, Marx and uncompromising wit. Hailed by Terry Eagleton as the most formidably brilliant exponent of cultural theory to have emerged in Europe for decades, Zizek has been dubbed, "the philosopher of the real" not only for his delightful vernacular style and attention to ordinary life but also and primarily because he is steeped in the Lacanian system that categorizes mental activity according to three orders: the Imaginary; the Symbolic; the Real. In contrast with common usage, the "real" in Lacan (and in Zizek) has a precise definition: it is that which exists prior to interpretation, prior to meaning. It is the world before language describes and thereby "knows" it. Zizek's "real" is not quite Sobrino's "real" but Zizek may provide a bridge between Sobrino's earlier context and our present postmodern one.

In Welcome to the Desert of the Real, (18) written in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001, Zizek attempts to analyze the public reception of those events and the public discourse in which terms such as "war on terror", "human rights" and so on only served to obscure public perception rather than enabling people to think creatively. What did it mean that the traumatic attacks were dreamed in endless disaster movies before the event? How did the media-disseminated options for response disregard and work against more differentiated alternatives? Zizek's essay is an extended meditation on, "what Alain Badiou has identified as the key feature of the twentieth century: the 'passion for the Real',"(19) which paradoxically, "culminates in its apparent opposite, in a theatrical spectacle". (20) Analyzing the complex effects of the wowing virtualization of life experience in an over-developed, electronically mediated culture, Zizek points out the inadequacy of the simple conclusion that, "The experience that we are living more and more in an artificially constructed universe gives rise to an irresistible urge to 'return to the Real, 'to regain firm ground in some 'real reality'." (21) In the aftermath of that 11 September, a more complex effect became the shared experience of many:
   The Real which returns has the status of a(nother) semblance:
   precisely because it is real, that is, on account of its
   traumatic/excessive character, we are unable to integrate it into
   (what we experience as) our reality, and are therefore compelled to
   experience it as a nightmarish apparition. (22)


In other words, the traumatic World Trade Center explosions were not, as often implied, the intrusion of "the Real" into an illusory world but were for most people a "fantasmatic screen apparition" that "entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e. the symbolic co-ordinates that determine what we experience as reality)." (23) As implied in de Zengotita's preface, our reality, i.e. the world in which many of us lived, moved and had our being, included the perception of human tragedy, war, disaster and "Third World horrors" as distant and not actually part of our social reality. Instead, these things were "something which existed (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) screen". Our reality included images of other realities, enough to inoculate us against what would be the overwhelming emotional impact of those realities face-to-face. Yet, they come at us with increasing realism as technology evolves, whilst being received in an epistemological framework conditioned by what Postman called the "now ... this" culture. At 9/11, (24) uniquely effective as it was witnessed "live" (as we say), most people affected by the WTC attack experienced another semblance, so traumatic and excessive as to defy integration into a familiar reality. This was more than inoculation or "infotainment" but was something experienced as a kind of nightmare that rendered the public vulnerable to reactionary interpretations of one kind or another. "The 'terrorists' themselves," concludes Zizek, "did not do it primarily to provoke real material damage, but for the spectacular effect of it." (25)

Zizek concludes that rather than being cautious about mistaking fiction for reality, "We should not mistake reality for fiction--we should be able to discern, in what we experience as fiction, the hard kernel of the real which we are able to sustain only if we fictionalize it." If this is the ease, and if theology is in this sense a "fictionalizing" of experience (and a fictionalizing that sustains the hard kernel of the real), then a vital question seems to concern how theology functions as a vocabulary through which we "grasp revelation" (as Sobrino might put it) and respond to that revelation with meaningful presence and action. Apart from this will to grasp revelation and response, a kind of theological and ecclesial virtual reality functions instead as a veil or shield to protect threatened privilege or emotional vulnerability. In other words, theology may constructively fictionalize intense reality in such a way that we are carried along by "the more of the real", or it can have the opposite effect.

What do we really, really want?

Zizek challenges the simple notion that people seek "something more real" than their everyday reality, even if that reality is experienced as thin or virtualized, and especially so if they are haunted by anxiety as a result of trauma. Many inhabitants of the overdeveloped world experience extreme human suffering as something distant, and that rarely impinges directly on them, and would presumably choose to keep it that way. It is quite acceptable to seek out stimulating, adrenalin-pumping, exotic, even risky experiences that vivify but in no way threaten the co-ordinates within which life is experienced. However, to seek a more real experience of hunger, pain, poverty or severe restriction would in late capitalist culture generally be considered eccentric, and possibly psychotic. But is not this the meaning of Sobrino's "more real", spoken out of his 1970s/80s Latin American pastoral context? Honesty about and fidelity to the real conditions, struggles and longings of disenfranchised people might coincide with a yearning for a more authentic and full-bodied life but it does not necessarily do so. Sobrino describes a Christian spirituality that sustains a liberationist faith commitment but his talk of "the real" and the "more" of the real is experienced differently within the virtual bubble of a media-saturated culture than it is in a context where harsh realities are less avoidable. Zizek's discussion of the, "twentieth-century passion for the Real" goes some way to identifying the problem, and the way in which relatively secure populations generally experience other people's harsh realities as distant apparitions, whilst the "more reality" we want is generally pleasurable rather than disruptive.

The title of Zizek's essay, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, is an ironic line in the 1999 blockbuster film, The Matrix. (26) The film (which became a trilogy of films, much discussed) is set in the aftermath of a global war that people no longer remember because they are living wholly in a virtual reality generated by the victorious machines, and to which they are all in reality attached and drained as sources of energy for the machines' own continuation. A small resistance group has broken away from this grand illusion, and battles against the domination of the machine. One theme therefore deals with the risks inherent in developing technologies without constraint. However, the core thread is about perception, illusion, reality and the extent to which "experience" can be trusted. When the film's hero, Neo, a skilled hacker, has his suspicions confirmed that life is founded on illusion, he receives the news with palpable relief. We might usefully pause at this moment.

Though the implications of the confirmation to Neo are enormous and harsh, he is nevertheless relieved and grateful. The information makes sense to him, whereas another person might wish their eyes had never been opened in this way. Is not this the threshold of a typical conversion experience? Considering for a moment audience reception rather than the narrative itself, the film evidently resonated with a postmodern mood. The script chimes emotionally and intuitively with a feeling that there is something more substantial, more real, hidden from our eyes. The Matrix fictionalizes an instinctive suspicion of the potential of sophisticated electronic media to manipulate a person's experience of the world. A section of its audience seems to have received the film with a sense of relief and gratitude not unlike the response of the hero Neo, when his own suspicions about the world were confirmed. (27) Is this kind of audience response in any way equivalent to Christian talk of religious experience?

Another character in The Matrix opens up the question of why indeed anyone might choose "more reality". Cypher, a member of the resistance, knowing full well that he lives within a computer-generated illusion, chooses to betray his comrades because he prefers the sensations of the illusory world to the harsh barrenness of the actual landscape. Digging into a juicy steak, whilst ruminating that his experience of the steak is only simulation, he confesses to the agent of The Machine that after years of resistance he has discovered that, "ignorance is bliss". Meanwhile, the faithful and insightful remnant press on in their war for liberation, and this means, in essence, not being manipulated and controlled, not being enslaved to The Machine. It is too easy to read Cypher as representative of those people who literally lose (and re-create) themselves through an internet-based Second Life. Nevertheless, he surely stands for any of us who knowingly inhabit and help sustain a fabricated existence that masks less hospitable realities and does so perhaps at the expense of other people and the very fabric of existence. When the symbolic co-ordinates of one's regular reality are disrupted, one option is simply to collude with what causes least distress or disruption, to choose the self-consistent illusion that, though known to be a simulated experience, is nevertheless more pleasurable than the alternative "real reality".

The pursuit of (virtual) happiness

A negative question: In the fictional circumstances of The Matrix, why would a person not choose to collude with the illusion and its simulated happy state? Why not choose the virtual world over the harsh Desert of the Real? Cypher may be plugged in but it doesn't hurt and "ignorance is bliss". The trouble is, Cypher is not ignorant. He knows about the "real" desert. He is, and will remain, continually aware of that reality. And awareness changes things. The fictional Cypher manages to suspend his knowing because his impulse for pleasure is stronger than the insistence of actual (as opposed to virtual) reality. There is, I suggest, an equivalent tension within which we work out our spirituality and mission in a 21st century overdeveloped world. For a self-aware subject who senses that something is wrong with the impression of the world portrayed through dominant media (for example), the prospect of casting solemnity to the wind in favour of a pleasurable collusion may indeed be appealing but nevertheless seems unreal and prone to frustration in as much as it requires the suppression of a deeper impulse that calls for some resolution. Any of a range of psychotherapeutic or theological interventions might achieve the subject's adjustment to the world but the price may be betrayal. "In psychoanalysis, the betrayal of desire has a precise name: happiness," writes Zizek. He goes on to describe such happiness as, "a pagan concept: for pagans, the goal of life is to be happy (the idea of living 'happily ever after' is a Christianized version of paganism)." Zizek concludes that happiness, "belongs to the pleasure principle" and is undermined by the insistence of something beyond the pleasure principle:
   In a strict Lacanian sense of the term, we should thus posit that
   "happiness" relies on the subject's inability or unreadiness fully
   to confront the consequences of its desire: the price of happiness
   is that the subject remains stuck in the inconsistency of its
   desire. In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we
   do not really desire, so that, ultimately, the worst thing that can
   happen is for us to get what we "officially" desire. Happiness is
   thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about
   things we do not really want. (28)


On this basis, Zizek notes, conservatives are, "justified in legitimizing their opposition to radical knowledge in terms of happiness: knowledge ultimately makes us unhappy." The Philosopher of Ecclesiastes would doubtless agree. The missiological question is whether a Christian community (implicitly, even unintentionally) discourages the pursuit of a full-bodied "grasping of revelation", thereby curtailing full-bodied response, in favour of a pursuit of the kind of virtual happiness promoted by and through late-capitalist culture. That which Zizek describes in Lacanian terms as "desire" might be interpreted in a Christian framework as "calling" or the impulse to conversion. The question, then, is whether ecclesial communities can permit our being "carried along by the 'more' of the real."

A Christian community (church) or faith-talk (theology) can under certain conditions mimic or mirror a culturally legitimized notion of happiness that disallows the honesty with and fidelity to a reality experienced most directly "in the midst of the poor". Where this happens, Christianity is functioning no differently from other instruments of the virtualizing culture of late capitalism. By contrast, an adequate multi-dimensional theological vocabulary can deal with what Zizek calls the necessary "fictionalizing" of experience, such that even harsh or threatening realities can be borne in such a way that the "hard kernel of the real" can be sustained in collective mind and body rather than held at bay and constantly feared. In this possibility lies a constructive mission that contrasts sharply with the kind of reactionary posturing or violent nihilism evident in the events of 11 September 2001 and its aftermath or, on the other hand, by the lingering depression and apathy described almost thirty years ago by J. B. Metz:
   Everyone can see the signs of this looming social apocalypse: the
   atomic threat, the arms race madness, the destruction of the
   environment, terrorism, the global struggle of exploitation, or
   North-South conflict with its attendant danger of a worldwide
   social war. And yet the catastrophe remains mostly an awareness "in
   the mind", not in the heart. It generates depression but not grief,
   apathy but not resistance. People seem to be becoming more and more
   the voyeurs of their own downfall. (29)


The burden of Metz's The Emergent Church is that a "cultural Christianity" that does not adequately distinguish itself from what he describes as bourgeois religion generates an identity crisis by failing to realize and manifest its difference from that bourgeois religion. And, he claims (in West Germany in the late 1970s), "The messianic religion of the Bible has been largely changed into bourgeois religion" the function of which is to safeguard its adherents' happiness.

Disrupting the "merely-believed-in" faith

Despite the radically changed social, political, technological and globalized context, it would be interesting to test out a suspicion that the current stream of literature on "Emerging Church" has by and large ignored the cri de coeur Metz addressed back in 1979 to the West German church, and to ask whether Christianity in West Germany was ultimately only a bourgeois religion, i.e. a religion (Metz acknowledges) that may have great value for society but which is essentially devoid of any messianic future. By this, Metz meant that when the church talks about the reign of God and of God's future, "It is speaking primarily in this case to people who already possess a future. They bring their own future, as it were, into the church with them--the powerful and unshakeably optimistic to have it religiously endorsed and uplifted, the fearful to have it protected and confirmed by religion." (30) Metz describes an ecclesial world that, in resisting any disruption of its symbolic co-ordinates, manages also to resist, "the messianic future proper to Christian faith" that never merely confirms or reinforces a preconceived bourgeois future but necessarily disrupts it:
   The meaning of love cuts across the meaning of having. "Those who
   possess their life will lose it, and those who despise it will win
   it." This form of disruption, which breaks in from above to shatter
   the self-complacency of our present time, has a more familiar
   biblical name: "conversion," change of heart, metanoia. The
   direction of this turning, the path it takes, is also marked out in
   advance for Christians. Its name is discipleship. (31)


The kind of disruption Metz describes is quite unlike the traumatic disruption that was our distant experience of the WTC attack, though both could have the effect of shattering complacency. The violence we vicariously witnessed shattered the symbolic co-ordinates of an ordinarily mediated life in a way that, for many people, simply could not be integrated into an interpretation of the world but which continues to linger as a phantasm, which renders the once-familiar world a more frightening and unstable reality. One reasonable response to such an experience might be to seek out a "virtual world" that can be more closely controlled, that is reassuringly predictable, and where threats cause no real harm. Such a virtual world may be electronically mediated. Or it may be a train set. Or it may be a church. On the other hand, the disruption of divine love, the "resurrection experience", the "call to conversion" experienced as grace, reconfigures the coordinates by which all of life is interpreted, not in a threatening way (though there may be some trepidation) but in an integrating and enervating way. The experience will not be one of superficial "happiness", though it may involve a profound sense of relief and a good deal of laughter and dancing. If church can adequately describe or enact this kind of experience of God, then church will be the context where such liberating "disruption" is known to be welcomed and sustained. Metz describes one way in which a bourgeois form of Christianity is not only impotent in face of critical realties but actually works against the flourishing of vital, liberationist faith by simply adopting the mores and attitudes of a prevailing culture whose portrayal of undisrupted happiness may be altogether different:
   The absence of this change of heart is being further concealed
   under the appearances of a merely believed-in faith. Are we
   Christians in this country really changing our hearts, or do we
   just believe in a change of hearts and remain under the cloak of
   this belief in conversion, basically unchanged? Are we living as
   disciples, or do we just believe in discipleship, continue on our
   old ways, the same unchanging ways? Do we show real love, or do we
   just believe in love and, under the cloak of belief in love, remain
   the same egoists and conformists we have always been? Do we share
   the sufferings of others, or do we just believe in this sharing,
   remaining, under the cloak of a belief in "sympathy", as apathetic
   as ever? (32)


As "bourgeois theology" conceals the absence of metanoia beneath the appearance of a merely-believed in faith, so mediated "news" and (pseudo) events can effectively conceal the absence of actual engagement with historical realities. This process is not merely achieved on television or online hut media-saturation determines the paradigm for engagement with, or disengagement from, the real. The risk for Christianity in a "mediatized" society is that theology and mission follow the same trend, and deal with potentially disruptive experiences (such as an irruption of grace or a call to discipleship, or the presence of the poor) in a way modelled on public reaction to the very different kind of disruption which was "9/11". In other words, efforts at self-protection and building against anxiety actually undermine the possibility of honesty with and fidelity to reality that, according to Sobrino, is the very material of spiritual experience of God, and essential if we are to recognize and respond to revelation.

Metz notes how in a bourgeois theological discussion of the last things, "The messianic future has long since been relieved of all apocalyptic tensions: no dangers, no contradictions, and no downfalls remain." Apocalyptic theologies are regularly evoked in a perverse reaction to anxiety, and to compensate for uncertainty about the future, so we tread carefully. But, as Metz continues, he seems to offer a clue as to why a spirituality that echoes the secular pursuit of happiness never quite satisfies:
   Hope within bourgeois religion repeatedly conceals from itself its
   own messianic weakness, the fact, namely, that it is still awaiting
   something ... Hope becomes a power without expectation, and hope
   without expectation is, in its essence, hope without joy. This, I
   think, is the root of the joylessness of so much of what passes for
   joy in bourgeois Christianity. (33)


Metz follows in the footsteps of Kierkegaard, who railed against a civic Christianity indistinct from the "natural" existence of the bourgeois at the price of "the abolition of Christianity itself, the Christianity of discipleship". If Huxley's intuition was accurate, the way of Jesus Christ will not be abolished; it will simply be ignored in favour of the pursuit of a virtual happiness, or re-packaged as the same.

(1) Jon Sobrino, Spirituality of Liberation: Towards Political Holiness, NY, Orbis, 1988, p. 14.

(2) Ibid., p. 3 (his emphasis).

(3) Ibid., p. 21.

(4) The meaning of Second Life "total residents" numbers are regularly queried and disputed.

(5) Victor Keegan, "Virtual Worlds and Second Lives", Prospect Magazine, Issue 133, April 2007, p. 53.

(6) Thomas de Zengotita, Mediated: How the Media Shape Your World, London, Bloomsbury, 2005, p. 11.

(7) Ibid., p. xi (my emphasis).

(8) Stewart M. Hoover, Religon in the Media Age, Oxford, Routledge, 2006, p. 9.

(9) Ibid., p. 71.

(10) Ibid., p. 281.

(11) Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, London, Heinemann, 1986, p. 28.

(12) Ibid., p. 29.

(13) Ibid., p. 107.

(14) Daniel Boorstin, The Image--A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), New York, Vintage, 1992.

(15) Postman, op. cit., p. 77.

(16) Ibid., p. 113.

(17) This state, if true, may be either a symptom of or contrast to what Ulrich Beck has described as the "Risk Society", where low-probability/high-consequence interventions in the natural world have led to a sense of inescapable fragility and uncertainty regarding our common future. Slavoj Zizek's reading of the postmodern condition (as below) is influenced by Beck's reading of the Risk Society.

(18) Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London, Verso, 2002.

(19) Ibid., p. 5.

(20) Ibid., p. 9.

(21) Ibid., p. 19.

(22) Ibid., p. 19.

(23) Ibid., p. 16.

(24) This North American nomenclature had to be explained time and again in my British context, where the numbering of dates is written in the order of day/month, and where the emergency telephone number is 999 not 911.

(25) Zizek, ap. cit., p. 22. Though not the first time that destructive power had been exercised for its spectacular, provocative effect, this was a turning point because it was globally witnessed in "real time". But why did this happen for this event and not for, say, the later atrocity at School Number One, Beslan, in September 2004?

(26) Writers and directors were Andy and Larry Wachowski. The Matrix was released 11 June 1999 (UK). See, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093. There are blatant religious allusions throughout the film.

(27) I came across an example of this kind of response in a review of de Zengotita's book: "Having just finished reading this explosive book, I am about to do something I have never done with any other--immediately start it again. After what is at heart a pessimistic and rather fatalistic vision of our present and future, I feel strangely uplifted and inspired. Maybe it is the feeling that a crucial truth is being unmasked." dubleducer from Walthamstow, posted 22 September, 2005 at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mediated-Media-Shape-Your-World, accessed 7 February 2008 but no longer available.

(28) Zizek, op. cit., pp. 59-60.

(29) Johann Baptist Metz, The Emergent Church--The Future of Christianity in a PostBourgeois World, London, SCM, 1981, p. 9.

(30) Ibid., p. 1.

(31) Ibid., p. 3.

Gary P. Hall is a tutor in practical theology at The Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies at The Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, UK. He is also an honorary lecturer at the University of Birmingham, and a Methodist minister.
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Author:Hall, Gary P.
Publication:International Review of Mission
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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