Discipleship in the Age of the Spectacle

An Interview with Kevin Vanhoozer on Technology

I enjoy making the people I like uncomfortable, especially favorite theologians as I push them outside the comforts of their field of expertise to hear them address pressing contemporary issues.

So when I first suggested Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer address connections and conflicts between Theo-drama (his specialty) and community gaming (not his specialty), he wrinkled his nose a bit, but agreed. At the same time I asked, a summer gaming league (Minecraft) had come to his city, and a newspaper story on a community gaming competition at a Chicago theater had already caught his attention.

Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer serves as Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of incredibly valuable books like The Drama of Doctrine (2005), Remythologizing Theology (2012), Faith Speaking Understanding (2014), and his latest, the forthcoming title Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, which releases May 1.

What follows is my interview with him on imagination, CGI, info overload, community gaming, and the relevance of the word.

Dr. Vanhoozer, thank you for your time. In your forthcoming book, you write: “The irony of our time is that, though we have more powerful image-making technologies than ever, we continue to be caught in what the poet Paul Claudel called ‘the tragedy of a starved imagination.’” Explain this. How does CGI technology and this age of the produced image and of the HiDef smartphone screen, how does this all undermine our imagination? And why is this detrimental to the Christian life?

Exposing the irony in question was one of my main motives in writing the book. The underlying premise of Pictures at a Theological Exhibition is that a picture holds many evangelical Christians’ minds captive. In itself, this is nothing new. Ancient Israel was held captive by a picture of how great it would be to be ruled by a human king, like the other nations. The pomp and circumstance of the royal court was apparently more impressive than God’s invisible lordship.

Faith is “the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The fact is that we now live in a visually dominated culture. Years ago Jacques Ellul was already speaking of The Humiliation of the Word. If a picture is worth a thousand words, moving pictures — especially those that are digitally enhanced — are worth even more. Or are they? Ellul worries that images cannot bear the weight of glory: At best they represent the material world. Even computer-generated images typically don’t get beneath the surface of things. A visual culture, Ellul laments, sentences us to superficiality.

That’s the background to my comment about the starved imagination. Images are simply the icing on the cake of imagination, but there’s little nutritional value in sugar. The meat and potatoes of the imagination, the really nurturing part, involves words: in particular, stories and metaphors. To make sense of a metaphor or to follow a story is to make connections between things and, at the limit, to build a world. The imagination is more than the ability to reproduce copies of what is no longer there; it is rather the ability to create or discover meaningful patterns.

Back to your question: How does 3D subvert the imagination? Well, imagine having a servant or a robot that would do all your physical work for you: wash the dishes, open doors, carry out the trash. After some time, your muscles would atrophy. You would lose the ability to lift things on your own. You would have less rather than more capacity.

Something similar, I think, happens in our age of special effects. Nothing is left to the imagination. Computers generate more details than the eye can process. Contrast that with the way the Bible tells stories, where there are typically gaps for the reader to fill in. Less is more: The Bible’s reticence to color in the details actually makes it more liable to be understood in a variety of different times and places. If we let an artist or filmmaker supply all the details, our imaginations begin to atrophy. It’s the difference between passive and active reading. Why is being a passive spectator detrimental to the Christian life? Let me suggest three reasons.

First, these image-making technologies contribute to what the Peruvian novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa calls a “culture of spectacle.” Llosa observes that, in the past, the purpose of culture was edification: building society by civilizing one person at a time, teaching them character and values of good citizenship. In contrast, a culture of spectacle serves mainly to cure boredom: to distract and entertain. The problem with cultures of spectacle is that they fall prey to the law of diminishing returns. One has to find an ever-faster, steeper rollercoaster to keep the thrill alive. The dinosaurs have to be bigger; the destruction has to be on a grander scale. Eventually the spectacular special effects dull our senses to the marvels of the everyday. In addition, all these special effects make the ministry of the word — speaking into air — appear weak and uninteresting.

Second, well-meaning Christians who want to tell others about Jesus are tempted to use the cultural forms of the day, perhaps without asking whether the forms are suitable vehicles for the cruciform content. Think for example, of the number of cinematic retellings of biblical stories that rely on special effects (e.g., Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings). And did you know that there is a whole genre of Christian superhero comic books? Do Christians need superheroes? I don’t think so. The people in the roll call of faith (Hebrews 11) had no superpowers, only the obedience of faith.

The third and perhaps most important cause for concern is that the church’s imagination is in danger of being captured by spectacular images that owe more to contemporary culture than to Christian faith. The vocation of discipleship is learning to view our world with biblical categories and then learning to live into that reality. The challenge at present is knowing how to do that in a culture of spectacle where the special effects seem more real than everyday life and where images of the good life or worldly success (fame! riches! power! a good singing voice!) tend to colonize our imaginations and lead us to idolize them in our hearts.

Culture is always in the process of spiritual formation, by the way. Culture cultivates; culture forms people to be producers and consumers of worldly goods. Many of the images in cultural circulation are the invention of marketing gurus who sell pictures of the good life: Of making secular gospels there is no end!

Don’t get me wrong: Disciples need vigorous imaginations. I believe Scripture sets our imaginations free from the culture of spectacle so that we can see the world as it truly is: a good but fallen creation in which God’s kingdom is advancing in mysterious and often quite unspectacular ways. Jesus was able to convey this with simple stories: parables. What’s striking about the parables is not the special effects but the extraordinary in the ordinary. The Christian imagination is not distracted by superficial surface images (spectacle) but penetrates to the depth dimension of things. No computer-generated special effects come close to doing justice to what Paul sets out in Ephesians 1: God’s plan to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). Can you imagine that?

That is an absolutely critical point, yes. . . . It seems we receive content in three distinct ways. God has spoken in his Son in his word (special revelation), and he has spoken to us in creation (general revelation). On top of this we are fed a constant stream of the produced content, either mass-produced by corporations, or on smaller scale by artists, or now via social media by our individual followers, friends, and family. Christians need to prioritize Scripture and nature, but we are so often drawn to feed on the produced media that comes to us in various forms that seems so “relevant” in the moment. What are the spiritual consequences if we ignore God’s revelation in favor of feeding on what is produced?

“Feeding” is the operative term, though it may seem to contradict what I was just saying about the starved imagination. It doesn’t. Malnutrition is a kind of starvation, but it doesn’t have to do with scarcity. On the contrary, our informational plates are getting bigger and bigger. We’re stuffed! We have more information than we’ve ever had before, much of it literally at our fingertips (if we have smartphones). We’ve become a fast food nation both literally and metaphorically. Both food and information are available for our consumption 24 hours a day. As a result, T. S. Eliot’s haunting question is more relevant than ever: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?”

Calvin called the Bible the “spectacles of faith.” If he were around today, perhaps he would say that the Bible is the “software of faith.” It’s one thing to have data, quite another to process it. As Eliot suggests, we moderns are awash in information. The question is how to process or make sense of it all. It’s so easy to lose perspective when one is subject to the tyranny of the immediate. Wretched analog thinker that I am! Who shall deliver me from the megabytes of this data (cf. Romans 7:24)?

One spiritual consequence of ignoring God’s revelation is that we lose perspective on our lives — the proverbial big picture — and with it, wisdom. Bereft of the perspective of eternity, we feel overwhelmed by temporal things and tyranny of the immediate. What is overwhelming is not only the amount of information in front of us but also the number of choices we have to make.

As I mentioned earlier, culture is in the full-time business of spiritual formation and there any number of handbooks, personal assistants, and even cognitive functioning coaches that offer advice about decision making. Yet unless we have a clear end in sight and a vision for what’s good for us — for what makes us and others flourish — it is hard to know what to decide. Modern culture encourages us to choose whatever is most efficient, convenient, pleasurable, or profitable, but these criteria apply only if the goal is consumerism, as if our god is our belly or whatever else contains what we consume.

The Bible provides precious orientation with which to navigate the seas of data that otherwise threaten to drown us. The Bible tells us why we are here, who we are, and what we should be doing with our time and energy, our most precious resources. Without our holy script — the metanarrative software as it were for being human with others before God — all the content in the world won’t help us become wise or flourish. Relevance is a chimera: What we need is rightness and righteousness. What we need is insight into how to walk the way of Jesus Christ after him.

Amen, and we need one another. Embodied, face-to-face fellowship among Christians is superior to disembodied communication, whether via epistle or text. Paul and John knew this (see Romans 15:32; 2 Timothy 1:4; 2 John 12). I think we all understand the value of vocal tone, hand gestures, warmth of voice, etc., all in aiding communication and helping to interpret meaning. But beyond these, what is distinct about face-to-face fellowship that proves itself to be irreplaceable for Christians when determining the joy of our fellowship?

One way of thinking about church — the biblical way! — is as the gathered assembly of believers. In the New Testament, the church is always located in a particular city or region: Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, and so forth. There is a reason for this. Although in an important sense the church is with Christ “in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6), most biblical references are to earthly assemblies: specific locations “where two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:20). The Christian life is for all intents and purposes tied to place — hence the expression, “the local church.”

One of the problems with globalization, transportation and communications technology, and modernity in general is that these benefits also come with a cost: displacedness. Skype may make the world our oyster, but the result of our ability to talk to people anywhere in the world instantaneously, or to travel to the other side of the planet in a matter of hours, is a loss of the sense of belonging to any one particular place. Distance is no longer an impediment. That’s potentially a good thing, to be sure. But, on the other hand, our connectedness to places near and far makes it harder for any one place to feel like home. And it’s not only individuals who no longer feel as if they truly belong anywhere; our whole culture is suffering from what Oliver O’Donovan calls a “loss of a sense of place.”

What has place to do with face-to-face conversations? Everything. The local church is a community that assembles in a particular place. Our communications technology is indifferent to place: It has conquered space. We can talk instantaneously to people anywhere on the planet, or in orbit around the plant, or on the moon. The distance between things is no longer significant. Or is it?

The local church inhabits a particular place on earth. This is not insignificant. Human beings are embodied souls. Our bodies locate us: Our position is fixed. We can be physically present only at one place at a time. And that, I think, is the beginning of the answer to your question. Just as in the Lord’s Supper we celebrate the “real presence” of the body of Christ, we also celebrate our “real presence” to one another. When the believing assembly gathers, it does more than fill up empty space. No, the church as a gathered assembly says and does things that give meaning to place. A place allows persons to interact with one another.

In one sense, the most important space in a church is the space between people: that betweenness is the condition for meaningful personal interaction. There’s something sad about having to pass the peace of Christ electronically rather than by personal embrace. Face-to-face fellowship is necessary if members of a local church are to be really present to, for, and with one another. It is hard to partake of the one bread (1 Corinthians 10:17) unless we are sitting at the same Table.

This brings me to community gaming. Video games are a strong temptation for the isolated user. But we have seen a recent surge in community gaming, of encountering a virtual world with friends, together engaged in the same virtual reality, even if remotely. What is it about community gaming that echoes Theo-drama, your emphasis on theology as a living and dynamic thing being embodied and lived out collectively in the people of God? Are there any positive formative parallels? And how is gaming, even community gaming, perhaps a deformative escape?

My experience with video gaming is fairly limited. My play was motivated primarily by a “faith seeking understanding” mentality: I wanted to know what all the fuss was all about and what some of my students were taking about. A handful of students in my Cultural Hermeneutics course chose specific MMORPGs (multiplayer online role-playing games) on which to write their term papers (they were to provide theological commentaries on selected “cultural texts”). That’s how I found out about Second Life and World of Warcraft.

These games are big business. Millions of dollars are being spent in their production and consumption. Many are marketed and reviewed the same way Hollywood blockbuster films are marketed and reviewed. As I tell my students in Cultural Hermeneutics: If you want to understand what’s really going on in contemporary culture, follow the money.

Frankly, it had never occurred to me that there might be parallels between online gaming and my encouraging disciples to see their lives as participating in the drama of redemption centered on God’s reconciling activity in Jesus Christ. I suppose the main commonality is the idea of participating in a story that is bigger than yourself, but in which you can contribute something meaningful — perhaps even heroic.

Many MMORPGs involve mythic battles. In an age of increasing cynicism where nothing ultimately matters (because how can individuals change the “system”?), gaming may meet a need to feel that one’s actions make a difference. And the fact that there are other players means that there may be opportunities for developing a kind of online virtue: Greater love has no one than this, that an adolescent lay down his avatar for his friends. . . .

Less charitably, but more realistically: I doubt that MMORPGs have much if any redeeming social value (I’m vaguely aware that some Christian ministries view virtual reality as a new mission field and that there are now Christian video games, so the cautionary remarks I make here may be only half the story). MMORPGs are basically one more symptom of our culture of spectacle. Games make our computers “consoles of spectacle.”

I’m no expert, but I am aware of a number of studies on the deleterious effects of online gaming on both teenagers and adults. (To be fair, some studies note helpful effects of gaming, such as the experience of online friendship and cooperation). Last year there were two separate news items about adult gamers, each of whom died in internet cafes after a three-day “gaming binge.” [There is an excellent website devoted to video game addiction].

Addiction is the opposite of virtue-formation.

Not all gamers are addicts, of course. Yet there may be serious negative physical, social, and spiritual consequences even to those who are not addicted. The church needs to address this issue, and Christian parents need to do much more than encourage their children to “Game responsibly” or “Game safely.” Gaming can become an alternative to having to deal with real-life problems. Withdrawing into any virtual or fantasy world also risks damaging the gamer’s sense of self and real-world personal relationships. Some gamers prefer their online identity to their real world identity, “screen time” to “quality time” with friends and family. At the limit, gaming can become idolatrous: Many gaming addicts become not only preoccupied but enslaved to their games to the point where hours and hours are lost. One cannot serve God and MMORPGs.

Interestingly, it was sometimes Christians who were accused of being “other-worldly” by critics like Marx and Freud. I believe that, on the contrary, Christians should be the people who are most attuned to what is truly and ultimately real. We have one life to live, and there are many things that Christians should be doing and saying as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. The watchword for serious disciples is “get real,” not “get virtual.”

To that end, you have written: “disciples cannot afford to sleepwalk their way through everyday life.” We need to think here about the push and pull of influences on us. What are some warning signs that digital communications technology (specifically smartphones, tablets, social media) might be preoccupying too much of our lives and changing the nature of how we view life? What influences would you be watching for?

My working premise is indeed that many people today are sleepwalking: going through the motions of life but not really attending to what they are doing, and often oblivious to the presence and activity of God. What ultimately counts – what has enduring significance — is what the Father is doing in the Son through the Holy Spirit. Renewing and restoring creation: Now that’s dramatic!

Disciples have the great privilege and responsibility of witnessing to and exhibiting new life in Christ. As I mentioned earlier, however, too many church members have had their imaginations captured by other stories, usually the ones on the front page. CNN and other news organizations offer up “breaking news” on a regular basis, and if you aren’t careful, you might miss it (cue “disconnection anxiety”).

The simple truth is that much of what is going through our heads and before our senses is not the story of Jesus, but some other story — perhaps of a celebrity or, what is more likely, the most recent YouTube sensation. I recently read in a TIME magazine story about the CEO of YouTube that more than 400 hours of video content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. Images and videos clamor for our attention throughout the day. As earlier ages moved from orality to literacy, we may be witnessing a tectonic cultural shift to “videocy.” We may not be programmers, but we make up what we could call the “digitality”: We are people of pixels.

Studies show that Americans spend on average about five and a half hours a day with digital media of one kind or another. Apparently female students at Baylor University admit to using their cell phones about ten hours a day. Sherry Turkle has sounded the alarm in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. As with video games, the net effect of the new digital communications technology is deleterious on interpersonal interaction.

Turkle believes that when people become absorbed in their devices, they lose the ability to be alone and to cultivate their inner lives. Those who suffer from an impoverished inner life have more difficulty empathizing with others, perhaps because they’re oblivious to them. I’ve seen children as young as four and five totally engrossed with their video games at restaurants while their parents are busy texting on their smartphones. What used to be a shared experience has become another way to be alone together.

Teens like to use Snapchat to communicate, in part because the messages disappear once they are read. However, it is difficult to “let your ‘yes’ be yes” (James 5:12) when words are so fleeting. The problem, again, is that these newer communication technologies may inadvertently subvert the very aim of communication, which is to “make common.” People who are not fully present cannot really share themselves.

This does not mean vocal speech is less ephemeral; in fact, it isn’t. Snapchat words last for seconds. Vocalized words exist for hundredths of seconds. Nevertheless, Snapchat raises the questions about the ethics of intentionally self-destructing messages that are shared under the premise that they will be scrubbed from record. That seems to be a different phenomenon.

Disciples who want to follow Jesus in the 21st century need to wake up and to stay awake. One way to do this is to be aware (mindful) of the nature and effects of our new communications technologies. We need to understand what the modern communication culture is doing to us — what kind of humanity it is cultivating and what kind of spirits it is forming. Just as gaming can be addictive, so can the apps for your smartphone. Did you know, for example, that to design a good app you need not only software architects, but applied psychologists and behavioral economists too?

Many of Silicon Valley’s app designers study how to create obsessive-compulsive patterns of behavior in the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University (I’m not making this up!). The lab was founded in 1998 by B. J. Fogg, the founder of a new field of study called “captology,” which is an acronym for “computers as persuasive technology.” Captologists look for ways to capture people’s attention and cultivate compulsive patterns of behavior that center on using the app (see further Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products).

Two anxieties drive much of what we do today: status anxiety (what will people think of me?) and the newer disconnection anxiety, which is tied to FOMO (fear of missing out). Put briefly: I connect, therefore I am. The question, however, is: connect to what? I’m afraid that, for many, the answer too often is the empire of the entertainment-industrial complex. We live in what has been described as an “attention economy,” and the Sunday morning sermon seems weak in comparison to a Safari surfing session. The latter enables us to ride the waves of popular culture and opinion. The sobering question for the disciple is whether our attention is being drawn to something worthwhile.

Spectacles are ephemeral, which is why those who suffer from FOMO are always on the lookout for The Next Big Thing. Disciples who are awake to reality have their attention fixed on the only breaking news that ultimately matters; namely, the news that the kingdom of God has broken into our world in Jesus Christ. This breaking news demands our sustained attention and a wide-awake imagination.

Dr. Vanhoozer, this has been an honor. Thank you for letting me push you outside your comfort zone. And we will be watching for your forthcoming title, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, which releases May 1.