Thursday, August 24, 2006
Simulation and Pseudo-Events: Travelers or Tourists in Culture and Spirituality
Yesterday was the first day of the new semester for seminary. During chapel the president, Dr. Don McCullough, presented a message that was interesting not only in the application he drew, but also in applications in other contexts.
Don’s devotional presentation touched on the topic of the early disciples and what it meant to follow Jesus. Of course, McCullough read a New Testament passage as his point of departure, but then referenced the book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin (Vintage; Reissue edition 1992). Boorstin is a historian who, in this book, developed the idea of simulation as a social category. The main thesis of the book is that Americans live in an “age of contrivance” and that our public lives are filled with various “pseudo-events” or “artificial products” that simulate reality and which leave the individual who experiences the events or utilizes the products feeling as if they have experienced reality when in fact they have had their stereotypes confirmed by an encounter with the simulation. Although this book was first published in 1961, Boorstin’s cultural analysis might be considered somewhat prescient if not prophetic.
During the chapel devotion McCullough focused in on chapter three of Boorstin’s book, “From Traveler to Tourist: The Lost Art of Traveling.” In this chapter Boorstin notes the etymological connection between the words “travel” and “travail.” In the not-so-distant past travel was a dangerous experience that exposed the traveler to various hazards such as the mode of traveling (consider cross-Atlantic seafaring), disease, robbery and the like. In the past a traveler would literally experience travail if she wanted to experience another culture. There was a cost and great personal investment in the process.
Today, of course, travel is very different. It is possible to leave the comforts of home and get on a train or jet with controlled climate, good food, and entertainment and travel around the world, only to check in to a hotel with all the comforts of home in establishments catering to the desires of pampered Americans and other Westerners. Little travail often accompanies modern travel.
Beyond this, travelers today are more often tourists, crossing land and sea ostensibly to experience another culture, but instead they encounter a series of pseudo-events, simulations of culture that conform to the expectations and stereotypes of the tourist.
McCullough applied this concept to Christians and their spiritual journey with Jesus. Are they following the difficult path of the traveler who willingly experienced travail, or are they the modern tourist content with a pseudo-event and a pre-packaged discipleship experience?
As I reflected on these ideas I thought of other applications in terms of our understandings and sojourn. First, in our American and broader Western contexts, does our understanding of the various subcultures and their spiritualities reflect the complex and messy realities of the subcultures themselves, or is our understanding really a pseudo-culture and pseudo-religion, an oversimplified and reified image that conforms to our evangelical presuppositions that then become all too easy to dismiss and demonize? And second, in terms of our spiritual sojourn, are evangelicals willing to walk the difficult path of the traveler rather than the tourist, not only in terms of our own spiritual journey with Christ, but also to come alongside other spiritual travelers on differing paths? Or perhaps we’re more spiritual tourists, content with the prepackaged simulations of what we think other people’s spiritual journeys are all about?
Image source: http://www.polyu.edu.hk/~or/photo/Artificial%20eye%202.jpg