This summer, my family acquired one of the latest revolutions in virtual reality — a headset that uses a smartphone as a display. It looks like a giant visor, and once you hold it up to your eyes and strap it on, you are immersed in a wide variety of 360 environments — from standing in a dense forest with a very real-looking computer-generated dinosaur to balancing on a surfboard gliding under giant curved walls of moving water.
Some of the environments almost feel like the real thing — and many people are drawn to it.
“This technological paradigm shift brings a level of immersion unlike any that has come before it,” says Monica Kim in “The Good and the Bad of Escaping to Virtual Reality.”
Like many technological developments, there are concerns about how it will affect us and our culture — but immersion itself is nothing new.
“We are always immersed in something, whether it is narrative, a form of media or just our own thought process. It can be difficult, though, to see what we are immersed in and influenced by; in part because it is all around us and defines us,” says Kevin Brooks, the principal staff researcher and technology storyteller for Motorola.
This kind of immersion can be an amazing tool — especially when it comes to stories. Some of the most engaging virtual reality environments are documentaries that put you up close and personal with refugees or endangered rhinos or stories that plunge you into the life and experiences of another. (There is even a VR film about Jesus, coming out at the end of the year.)
Virtual reality environments “might help us see our daily real world a little better, because by creating new virtual worlds, we can see what we might have left out, through comparison with our daily life,” says Brooks. “Story gives us both a method for expressing that comparison and a key element for bringing closer similarity to the two worlds.”
All this intrigues me, not only from the storytelling standpoint but also as a part of God’s people — his church — who are, you could say, a virtual expression of the reality of God and his kingdom.
In Scripture, the kingdom of God is already present and yet still in the future. The church lives in this tension, as New Testament scholar Scot McKnight puts it, partially redeemed and on our way to full redemption. We are the virtual expression of God and his already-and-working redemption in the world today.
This is designed to be an immersive experience — in Christ.
In Reimagining Church, Frank Viola says “we gather together so that the Lord Jesus can manifest himself in his fullness.” None of us alone is a full expression of Christ, says Viola, but when we gather together we “reassemble the Lord Jesus Christ on the earth” and reflect “the self-emptying exchange of life, love and fellowship that has been going on in the triune God from before time.”
This expression of God will draw others to the kingdom and its king. We are, as Dallas Willard puts it, the people in whom God “is tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.”
Where are we today? Are we immersed in and defined by this kind of living-together in which Jesus is manifested and reassembled in our midst? Does our life-together story help others not only see the world a little better but also what they are missing through a comparison with our daily lives-together?
If not, maybe we are immersing ourselves in the wrong thing.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.