Almost Book 5 (I gave it my best shot)
Late last year, Douglas Estes, New Testament professor at Western Seminary, posted at a few well-known blogs some thoughts from his upcoming book about virtual or online churches—SimChurch. His arguments there weren’t well developed or supported, but he attributed that to the blog format, which is a plausible defense.
At the time I was eager to read his full treatment on the subject, but didn’t have the chance. I was recently able to borrow a copy and sat down with it. The result has been one of the most frustrating reading experiences of my life. He redefines many terms and concepts in an unconvincing attempt at persuading the evangelical mainstream that these virtual churches need not be associated with physical institutions; online meeting—tele-presence—is just as “real” as physical presence.
One of the arguments that was so unsuccessful in one of his blog posts was that “virtual” doesn’t mean fake:
An even greater concern is the proliferation of a related myth: The myth of the “virtual” church. As a result several of the churches who have launched virtual campuses are telling their pastors and people, “Don’t use the word ‘virtual,’ because people think it means fake.” For the record, virtual doesn’t mean fake, it means synthetic.
“For the record,” virtual means “being actually such in almost every respect; existing in essence or effect though not in actual fact.” The argument is also present in the book, and its validity is assumed throughout, which makes for some entertaining sentences: “Even though virtual worlds differ in significant ways…in their essence and nature [they] are just as real as the real world.”
He also asks for a level of trust in his authority that he doesn’t work for in the first portion of the book. He’s constantly expecting us to rely on his testimony, with no supporting argument: “A few people may try to argue that the virtual world is not real, but I was there, they weren’t, and I’m telling you it was real in my experience…”
I think my least favorite portion is his attempt to debunk the Western notion of presence, and open things up to his idea of tele-presence. He attributes our idea that presence necessitates physicality to Descartes and mind-body dualism. He is right to point out that physicality isn’t the only determiner of presence (if our minds are elsewhere during worship, we aren’t truly present), but goes too far in his assertions.
He ends up saying that critics of virtual churches are using Cartesian laws to argue, rather than biblical principles, and if we accept those laws, “it means that my prayer life, telephone conversations, watching astronauts in outer space, and online gaming are all imaginary experiences that aren’t real because I can’t experience them with my body.”
Again, he is right in his denial of this dualism, but his examples aren’t very strong. They are easily rebutted:
- God is present everywhere, so we are with him when we pray.
- We would all prefer to have conversations in person (I think), and if there is a person with whom our relationship is strictly long distance, we long to be physically present with them, as Paul did in his letters.
- You did not go to outer space and watch the astronauts. However, your experience of looking at a video on a TV screen is real.
- Ditto for online gaming. Unless you really became Master Chief.
He follows these examples with a practice I can’t stand: comparing plights of necessity with free choices. I believe it was a Matt Chandler sermon I listened to recently, in which he was talking about the importance of reading the Bible: “And before anyone says, ‘What about the guy in Africa who doesn’t have access to a Bible!’ let me ask you: when’d you get back from Africa?” Estes gives the reader a quiz to test how deeply ingrained this Cartesian mindset is:
- A man who comes to worship on Sunday, but thinks about the Cowboys game;
- A man who attends a megachurch and sits in the mezzanine where he must watch the pastor on an overhead TV;
- A man who works in the nursery, and only hears the sermon by sound system;
- A man with a broken leg who can’t make it, but either prays and listens to the service, or attends a virtual church;
Which is present? He says that, according to the Bible, both are (I would disagree about the first). But he is convinced that, though the first is the “least biblical and the most Western”, it is “the one many readers will give the strongest yes to.”
My major problem with the list is that the determining factor for Estes seems to be hearing the sermon. Perhaps at some point he should examine how deeply Western is his idea of presence in Sunday worship. Historically the sermon has not been the main focus of the worship service. It seems to be in most evangelical churches, but it was not always so, nor should it be. The megachurch attendee may be present, depending on his interaction with the congregation, involvement in worship, etc. The nursery worker is most definitely present, active and working in service to the congregation.
The man with the broken leg is not present. Nor would it be healthy to consider him such. And, knowing from the experience of my recent knee surgery, if you asked him, he would likely not consider himself as present. I wanted to be present at the worship service just three days after surgery. The following week I tried to attend (though much too soon). I didn’t feel like this out of obligation, but out of a desire to worship in the gathered community of believers. This just doesn’t translate online.
Estes as much as admits this when he says, “Many virtual churches reach people with the gospel who would never go to a real-world church but over time might become interested in getting involved in a safe real-world church.” In this argument virtual church is an introduction to true church…it is an evangelistic tool; but involvement in a virtual congregation is not itself the goal.
These and many other reasons (far too many for the 80 pages I read) made this a really unenjoyable read. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? In a discussion of avatars – our projected identity in the virtual world – he gives an awkward introduction to his own Second Life avatar. He admits that avatars aren’t always representative of the person playing, but this doesn’t concern him (except for those that cross genders). He talks about wearing his “pastor cap”, and says that playing the pastor when speaking to parishioners is the same as an avatar. Not really parallel, but close. The last sentence I read was this:
Let’s face it, one of the Christians’ biggest dilemmas with becoming an avatar is that the word avatar originates from a non-Christian religion.
It’s simply not true. I don’t know if he addresses the other major problem (you never know who’s behind the avatar, which is not exactly the same as those who “play church” on Sundays) because I stopped right there. I decided that I wouldn’t spend anymore time on something with such a lack of seriousness.
For a more balanced and generous review, check out John’s at Don’t Eat the Fruit.