Friday, February 27, 2009

Christian Research Journal: cyberspace and the assault on reality

As I scanned the magazine titles at Barnes & Noble yesterday the cover picture and title from Christian Research Journal 31, no. 6 (2009) caught my eye, with "cyberspace and the assault on reality." This cover feature points toward an article by C. Wayne Mayhall, the journal's associate editor, titled "What Price Cyber space?" I have been researching and reflecting on the cultural, social, and theological implications of digital or cyber identity and cultures for a while now, and was pleased to see a Christian publication exploring this arena as well.

As I read the article I appreciated that Mayhall and the publisher recognized the significance of cyberspace in culture, and that its subject matter was worthy of interaction from a Christian perspective. However, in my view, while the article is better than many Christian treatments of both the Internet and other aspects of popular culture, it still tends towards the critical, even somewhat alarmist end of the spectrum, rather than a more positive and balanced stance of critical engagement. The following aspects of the publication's discussion of cyberspace would seem to bear this out.

First, the cover image and title convey a message of threat and attack, perhaps even supernatural and evil in its source. The image of the creature on the cover will likely invoke the symbolism of the satanic and demonic, rather than a monstrous creature from any number of fantasy games available on the Internet. In addition, the cover title positions the subject matter as an attack to be defended against and postures Christianity as once again under attack and largely or wholly at odds with yet another aspect of popular culture.

Second, the article is correct in drawing attention to concerns about problematic aspects of cyberspace that have resulted in some individuals (explored within the article and in a sidebar on Internet addiction), but the broader context is not presented that contrasts these unfortunate episodes with the vast majority of Internet users who do not demonstrate such problems. We should also keep in mind, as anthropologist and Second Life ethnographer Tom Boellstorf has written, "scholars of cybersociality [have] long cautioned against analogizing biological dependency to virtual contexts." In his research he "did not find the notion of addiction etically useful; it did not transparently diagnose an existent psychological disorder" (Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human [Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008], 176).

Third, in keeping with the cover imagery and title, the main thrust of the article focuses on critique by asking whether Christians should understand virtual reality as a form of "viral reality," that is, as "a toxin or poison." Mayhall answers this question in the affirmative and states that if abused, "VR can be an assault to all that makes our world have meaning." He then explores this assault through the acronym of "P-R-I-C-E" which stands for assault on place, assault on reality, assault on identity, and assault on community, and then concludes his article with a call for a return to essentialism.

In response a few thoughts come to mind. While I appreciate that Mayhall prefaces his concerns with the inclusion of "if," if abuses occur within cyberspace we might expect difficulties in certain areas, the author does explore the positive aspects in each of these areas where new experiments in play, creativity, identity, and creativity are taking place. It would have also been helpful to remember that new forms of technology and artistic expression have always impacted human conceptions of self and community. Cyberspace is but the latest expression of this, which also includes the ability to create extremely realistic and immersive environments, thus intensifying the experiences associated with these new conceptions. Finally, Mayhall seems to envision a far greater divergence between actual world concepts of place, reality, identity, and community than seems warranted by those expressed by video game players and digital culture participants in academic research on this topic.

Mayhall's article makes for an interesting contrast with my chapter, "God, Video Games and Digital Cultures: Theological Reflections on the imago Dei and Cybersociality," for the proposed volume Halos and Avatars to be edited by Craig Detweiler of the Brehm Center. My discussion draws upon the inductive theological method of Peter Berger in his book A Rumor of Angels that is informed by anthropology as well as sociology, and which results in a search for "signals of transcendence," by which he meant those "phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our ‘natural’ reality but that appear to point beyond that reality.” In my chapter I present the thesis that aspects of the cybersociality experienced in video games and digital cultures represent signals of transcendence that can be understood as an expression of human beings in their reflection of the divine image. The biblical concept of the imago Dei (humanity created in God’s image) is expressed through our activities as homo cyber (the virtual human), including homo ludens (humans at play), homo fantasia (the fantasizing and imaginative human), and homo faber (the human as maker, in this discussion the maker of cultures).

My theological reflection in these areas will be dialogical and reflexive as I bring theology and popular culture into dialogue and consider not only what theology may “say” to digital technologies, but also what these technologies may “say” back to the church. Such a dialogical and reflexive posture is crucial, because as Gordon Lynch reminds us,

"Judging popular culture on the basis of our own preformed religious and cultural assumptions, without allowing the possibility for these to be challenged or changed in some way by our study of popular culture, will not help us become better cultural critics or more thoughtful theologians." (Understanding Theology and Popular Culture)

I encourage those interested in theological reflection on cyberspace to add Mayhall's views to the mix of perspectives on the issue while also being open to a broader and more positive assessments of this phenomenon.


Paul Emerson Teusner said...

Hey John,

A great critical eye of the Christian Research Journal. I had read an abstract of the article and thought it more like a sermon than a piece of research. But that's more or less what I would expect from CRJ.

Please, please, please, please tell me when Halos and Avatars comes out. I'd love to grab a copy.

Hope you're well mate.

John W. Morehead said...

Paul, thanks for the comments. I was disappointed that CRJ could not put together a more balanced piece even with their concerns over this new frontier. I will let you know when Halos and Avatars comes out. We're supposed to turn in our chapter submissions to the editor, Craid Detweiler of the Brehm Center in just a couple of months, so I hope the volume might come out by the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010, but I'm not sure of the publication date. I'll keep you posted.

I hope you are well too, and thanks again for your fine work, and the interesting interview you gave me a while back at TheoFantastique.

John L said...

JM, wish I had the patience you show with essays like the CRJ piece. Why do some want to treat this conversation with such stark black and white duality? There is great nuance in the converging worlds of Spirit and cyberspace. Many dangers, but ample opportunity for balanced, positive change. I'm looking forward to your piece in Craig's anthology, and miffed that he didn't invite me :-)

John W. Morehead said...

John, thanks for your comments, and for making me aware of your blog through them.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be interesting to explore cyberspace through the lens of apocalyptic, as metaphorical ways of exploring real life events, with a hat tip to N T Wright and William Gibson.

C. Wayne Mayhall said...

Hello, John,

Thank you for commenting on my article "Cyberspace and the Assault on Reality" which appeared in the Christian Research Journal.

I am very interested in reading your ongoing research in this area!

Warm regards,

C. Wayne Mayhall

John W. Morehead said...

Wayne, thank you for stopping by and reading my response to your article. I would be happy to send you a copy of my draft chapter mentioned in my response. And I hope that CRJ will review Avatars and Halos when it is released through John Knox.

Finally, my thanks to you and the editors of CRJ for the article on Burning Man in the current issue which presents a balanced exploration of this cultural phenomenon, and which also incorporates my MA research on the topic.