I recently wrote about The Robloxian Christians (TRC), a church created and pastored by 18-year-old Daniel Herron in the virtual world of Roblox, an online gaming and social media platform. A growing community that boasts over 16,000 members, TRC features worship services, bible studies, and fellowship for those who log in to Roblox. While it is impossible to know the average age of TRCers without self-reported data, Herron estimates it is early teen. And this goes for the community’s leadership as well; associate pastors, small group leaders, and other volunteers (more than 100 of them) are also teenagers.
TRC is not the only virtual church; Christian communities exist in virtual worlds such as Second Life, Twinity, and ActiveWorlds. However, the fact that TRC is a church of youthful members suggests that this is a growing phenomenon. And the fact that TRC is so popular suggests that it is meeting a felt need. Now, there may be some disagreement as to what that need may be, but that disagreement is not limited to virtual worlds; there are plenty of brick-and-mortar churches that trade in a consumptive mix of entertainment, a sense of belonging, and worship of God. There is no question that people attend any church, virtual or not, for lots of different reasons. The question is, rather, if TRC is a “real” church in the first place.
It is notoriously difficult to define “real” as a predicate. Usually, “real” is defined as having “existence,” while “existence” is defined as having objective “reality.” This circularity indicates that “reality” is a highly intuitive notion, and yet it is understood to be more than merely notional or subjective. Something is real if it is believed to lie beyond representation or symbolism. And this begs the postmodern question: Is reality ever really knowable? Or do we merely interact with a bunch of representations of reality? Where does representation end and reality begin? Can we tell the difference? Questions such as these lie behind the idea of “hyper-reality.”
The concept of hyper-reality was first popularized by philosopher Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1981), long before the emergence of computer-powered virtuality, and describes a state of affairs in which representation becomes reality for us. For Baudrillard, our lives do not participate in reality, and have not for a while. In a progression that can be understood either historically or existentially, Baudrillard posits our experience of the lived world as having gone from interaction with reality to interaction with simulation to, finally, interaction with mere “simulacra,” or pure and untethered representation.
At some point, our “simulations” of reality – meaning the reproduction of our experience of the world – may have been more or less faithful representations, and we were fully aware of their limitations; Baudrillard calls this state of affairs a “sacramental” order. However, especially with the technologically-enabled mass production of images, we come to be aware of their shortcomings, and begin to wonder how closely a representation aligns with the reality to which it is meant to point; Baudrillard terms this “malefice,” a state of affairs that tends to be iconoclastic as suspicions arise that representations are merely “fake news.” This, then, gives way to a disconnection between reality and representation in which our simulations pretend to image reality, but really do not; in fact, they hide the fact that they are fictive. Baudrillard playfully understands this as “sorcery”; think of clothes that are pre-faded and pre-torn, masquerading as something they are not. Finally, our images take on a life of their own, such that the signs and symbols with which we live are never intended to correspond to anything outside of themselves. The simulation become more real to us that its referent, if there is one at all. At that point, the representations are their own reality, and they become “simulacra.”
It is a simulacratic order in which the distinction between reality and simulation finally breaks down. The representation logically and epistemologically precedes the real, and determines it. Our representations are now more “real” to us that what was being simulated and we interact only with a bundle of imitative signs and symbols that no longer have any basis in what is true. In fact, “truth” becomes debatable. Simulacra mask the reality that there is no longer any such thing as reality; we are too far immersed in representation to be able to access it. Instead, the simulacra is now what is true. “Hyper-reality” refers to this experience in which one cannot discern the difference between reality and its representations, and, if the pessimistic Baudrillard is right, no longer needs to.
Imagine a much-less literal form of The Matrix without being hooked up to feeding tubes, but also never waking up in the Nebuchadnezzer. In fact, in a nod to Baudrillard’s influence, there is a scene toward the beginning of the movie in which Neo hides his code cache in a hollowed-out copy of Simulacra and Simulation. Later, Morpheus quotes Baudrillard: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”
With the proliferation of internet and communication technologies, it is not hard to see that our cultures are becoming more and more hyper-realistic as we struggle to discern the difference between reality and representation. But it also causes us to ask what precisely we mean by “real.” To what extent does the avatar I portray on social media, and through which I interact with most people most of the time, reflect who I am? How real are the virtual connections made between people? How do the images around me reveal the “world” with which I interact?
To an extent, we’ve always dealt with questions of hyper-reality. Because our perception of the world is mediated through our own lenses, and because we cannot help but interact with a multitude of signs, symbols, rituals, and simulations in our day-to-day lives, we have always had to ask the question of representation versus reality. But our increasing use of ICTs has made this even more the case and, in fact, forces us to deal with a question that has, perhaps, been less-acknowledged for millennia.
And, to boot, Christianity may be especially hyper-realistic because, since it holds to a God that is ontologically prior to the existence of our universe, it must represent God in signs and symbols. And yet Christians holds the referent to those representations as the ground of all that is real, lending a unique sort of power to its simulations. This means that faith is particularly bent toward embracing hyper-realistic simulacra. Baudrillard muses: “But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say can be reduced to signs that constitute faith? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum – not unreal, but simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real, but exchanged for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.” And this goes for all those sacred things we consider most intimately connected to God – our spiritual disciplines, our sacraments, our liturgy, and our churches.
Thus, maybe the problem is not that our virtual representations – such as TRC – replace reality. Christianity has always had to deal with hyper-reality. Perhaps the emergence of virtuality has masked that fact, giving us a scapegoat upon which to place all our simulacra whilst we continue to walk in a hall of mirrors. Perhaps one of the blessings of churches like TRC is that it has forced us to reckon with this reality.