Tangible Faith in an Age of Distraction

Craig DetweilerBy Craig Detweiler

Anybody feeling a bit overwhelmed? I find myself drowning in a sea of (mis)information. So many headlines, updates, and videos stream across my screens. The flood of emails, links, and relationships I process in a given day can feel maddening. And yet, I'm in the media! I'm a professor of communication, writing films, publishing books, posting blogs. I feed the media stream every day, adding to the torrent. I am chastened by T.S. Eliot's prescient questions, written in 1934, as choruses to his play, The Rock:

The endless cycle of idea and action

Endless invention, endless experiment

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

This Rise of the Image and Fall of the Word has been brewing for some time now. In the MacWorld of iPhones and iPads, everything is an icon. The introduction to a product, a service, or a network is through visual shorthand -- some form of graphic design. This visual era is challenging to Protestants, especially evangelicals, as people of the Word. Yet we are rooted in a visual faith. Christianity spread rapidly amongst preliterate people. We draw upon so many powerful signs and symbols, from the Cross to the Eucharist. We can lift up tangible sacraments -- water of baptism, bread and wine of communion. But we also must empower visual artists and storytellers within our congregations.  

While the Word has allegedly declined, epic stories have made a pop cultural comeback. The predicted death of the meta-narrative has been followed by mini-series, sequels, and trilogies. Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga have reawakened reading amongst young people. Celebrated television series like "Lost" and "The Wire" offer sprawling and complex narratives. From Star Wars to Inception, audiences hunger for more details, more back-story, and more time in intricate imaginary worlds. The most popular video games feature even longer stories. Players will invest fifty hours in solving a puzzle like Myst or saving the world in Halo. So how might church leaders respond?



I recently gathered a team of younger scholars to figure out how we might find God amidst video games and virtual worlds. While parents have worried about violent content in Grand Theft Auto, teen crime statistics have dropped precipitously. Perhaps young people are inside playing games rather than outside causing trouble. I am more intrigued by the structure of games than the actual content or stories. As we engage in God games like The Sims, how are our hearts and minds being reshaped?

In video games, knowledge is cumulative. Players must master one area before they can move on to another. A code or passkey is needed to unlock the next door, to face the next challenge. Perhaps we can rethink the Bible as a series of challenges to master. Rather than making the story easy to digest, perhaps we need to reawaken complexity. After a century of packaging and compressing the Christian message into a bite-sized Gospel, maybe we need to expand Bible history, revel in the scope and scale of the narrative. The Word of God can be thought of as sixty-six interlocking stories.

Perhaps we need to grasp the Jewish canon before we leap to the New Testament. The prophets remain a riveting precursor to the Gospels. Obscure names like Habakkuk, Nahum, and Obadiah could acquire the same mystical ring as Neo, Trinity, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Technology might become the Bible teacher's greatest friend. We need graphic designers and Bible scholars to demonstrate how things are connected in a robust "Hyperlinked Bible."

Virtual worlds are arising even faster than video games. So much of our daily business and relationships are played out via avatars. Email and text messaging are digital stand-ins -- mediated voices. Perhaps the biggest challenge to church attendance is the rise of online communities. We are increasingly comfortable interacting with friends and family through Facebook, texting, and video chats. We actually feel safer sharing online. It has a level of anonymity. We turn to the virtual world for substantive conversation about music, politics, and God. We may hide behind projected selves in MySpace or Second Life. Yet the same projection could also take place at a Sunday morning church service. Where are we most honest, most forthright, most ourselves?  The church must encourage caring community wherever it may be found.