Thoughts on the Problems with Internet Theological Conversations
Pastor William Cwirla, posted some good thoughts:
If you haven’t seen The Truman Show,
a 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey, go out and rent it. It’s a clever
movie in which the main character named Truman Burbank is the unknowing
star of an ongoing virtual reality TV show called “The Truman
Channel.” Adopted at birth by a television corporation, and raised on
a set built as a town on an isolated island where even the weather is
controlled, the show is the ultimate piece of performance art directed
by none other than Cristof, the performance artist. Truman’s real life
is a virtual world watched by millions every day. Everyone around him,
including his wife, is an actor playing a scripted role.
been thinking lately about what goes on in cyberspace. The internet is
a virtual world populated by "avatars," from the Sanskrit word for
"descent" referring to a manifestion of a deity in Hinduism. Avatars
in cyberspace are personae representing real people in a virtual
world. When you enter into a conversation on the internet, whether in
a chat room or a forum or a blog, you are not actually dealing directly
with people. Your avatars are interacting in a virtual world, a game
of Dungeons & Dragons. Virtual role play. Many people get drawn
into the internet world in the same way some who role play lose touch
with reality. If you think you’re engaging real people in a chat room,
you’re just like Truman in The Truman Show.
Avatars may be
entirely fictitious with names adopted from the characters of Star Wars
or Lord of the Rings or even video games. Or they may just be little
nicknames like “Fred23” or like the one I use on a scuba diving forum
“scubarev.” An avatar may be an alter ego or it may be a close
approximation to the person hiding behind it. One never knows for
sure, and therein lies the problem. You never know for sure.
are created for life in a virtual world. They are like the masks worn
by actors in Greece to hide their actual identities. The Greek word
for actor, by the way, is hypocrites (pronounced hipo-cri-táce), one who hides behind a mask. You never actually know with whom you are dealing; you are dealing with hypocritai.
Some avatars are projections of a person’s actual personality, a
mini-version of the real person. Some avatars are alter egos. A shy,
withdrawn girl might take on a very outgoing, sociable avatar. A weak,
insecure boy might be an action hero. Some even swap genders in
creating their avatars, but let’s choose not to go there. Even when we
purport to be “ourselves” on the internet, it’s only an avatar
representing whatever we wish to project to others.
what reader response critics call the “implied author” in literature.
The implied author is the person the real author projects through his
text and with whom the reader actually engages when he reads. Have you
ever met your favorite author in real life? In all likelihood, he or
she was nothing like what you imagined. People occasionally come to
our congregation because of what they read on the internet and are
surprised at our simplicity and ordinariness. The implied pastor and
congregation were much different in their own minds than the real
ones. Most of us usually look better on paper.
from transparent to opaque with varying degrees in between. Totally
transparent avatars accurately reflect the person behind them. For
example, my avatar here is “revcwirla” which reflects my actual name
and title and can easily be traced to the real me. I write the way I
always write, which is pretty much the way I speak, save a few colorful
phrases that the Higher Things mommy filter won’t permit. Most of this
blog is simply sermons and writings that have actually been preached
and published elsewhere. And I’m accountable for every syllable, even
the off-color humor.
Opaque avatars completely mask person
behind them. You have no idea who is behind them, and for that reason,
they cannot be trusted. In The Truman Show,
Truman’s best friend, Marlon, says to a distraught Truman who is
beginning to catch on that his life isn’t real, “You’re the closest
thing I have to a brother; the last thing I would ever do is lie to
you.” Marlon’s lines are being fed to him from the control booth
through an ear piece. That’s what opaque avatars are like. Don’t take
them seriously; it’s a game.
Even avatars with real names can’t
be completely trusted, since they may not be run by the people who own
them. Identity theft happens in the virtual world. The apostle Paul
had to write the last few sentences of his epistles with his own large,
clumsy penmanship in order to demonstrate that the letters were
actually his and not a forgery in his name. His letters were also
carried by real people who knew him, and he always included extensive
greetings as “insider information” to ensure that the implied author of
the letter was the actual author Paul.
In the real world, people
are accountable for what they say, do, and write. When I write an
article or preach a sermon, I’m accountable for my words. People can
question what I mean or challenge what I say. As a pastor, if my words
violate my ordination vows, I can be removed from my office and
stripped of the authority to preach and preside in my congregation.
What I write, even in jest, can deeply affect the spiritual life of a
member of my congregation or any random person who happens to see my
post. If an employee of a company writes something that is damaging to
the company, he can be fired from his job. Human society depends on
personal accountability; it goes along with personal liberty. I’m free
to say whatever I want, but I’m also accountable for what I say in
Words written cannot be unwritten; words published
cannot be controlled. Whatever the author’s original intent might
have been, once published, his words are now in the hands of readers
who will do with them and conclude from them whatever they will. When
Luther posted his 95 thesis in Latin on the campus bulletin board to
announce his academic debate, some people copied it, translated it into
German and published it on their version of the “internet” (ie printing
press). People, ripe for revolution, used Luther’s writings as a
manifest for the Peasant’s Revolt in 1525, much to Luther’s chagrin.
old Adam in us likes to hide. Hidden behind a virtual personality, we
can say things we otherwise couldn’t get away with in real life. There
is very little personal accountability, unless you know the person
behind the avatar. This is why porn is so huge on the internet, and
why cyberbullying and cyberstalking are such a problem. What would be
considered sociopathic behavior in the real world is acceptable, at
least to some, under the cloak of anonymity in the virtual world. And
the compulsive click of the computer keyboard doesn’t help the
Anonymity can protect the identity of the
innocent on the internet. This especially applies to kids, though kids
would be better served playing with some real friends. Forums and chat
room for kids need to be closely watched on both the real and the
virtual sides. The same issues still arise among the kids. Some are
turning out to be among the worst cyberbullies and stalkers imaginable,
a virtual “Lord of the Flies.” An opaque avatar provides a wonderful
cover for the old Adam in all of us to wreak havoc without
consequences. Go to any forum discussion, including the so-called
“Lutheran” ones, and you’ll see precisely what I mean.
opinion, it isn’t terribly healthy for human beings who are made by God
for communion to spend inordinate amounts of time engaging in
compulsive, raw communication in a virtual world. In some cases, it
can be psychologically debilitating. This is the downside of the
technology, what Neil Postman analyzed so well for the television in
Amusing Ourselves to Death. As human beings we are created for
communion, not just communication. Communion embraces our entire
being, involving all the senses. When you reach out to someone in the
real world, you actually touch someone. That’s why there’s no such
thing as “church” in cyberspace. C.F.W. Walther rightly noted that the
proper distinction of the Law and Gospel is taught by the Holy Spirit
in the school of experience. That would be the real world, not the
virtual world you see staring at a computer screen.
can be great source of ideas and information, not to mention the
ultimate swap meet and shopping mall. Bargains abound. Just remember,
virtual purchases generate actual credit card bills. And of course,
caveat emptor, buyer beware. Email is a great form of rapid written
communication, but its speed and ease are also it’s weakness resulting
in flame wars and misunderstandings. Cyberspace can be a great library
for research, provided you know what an actual source is. You can find
all sorts of theology, too, but caveat emptor applies here even more.
“Test the spirits to see if they are from God.” Just because someone
claims to be “Lutheran” or shows up on a Lutheran blog role doesn’t
make it so. What is actually “Lutheran” is measured against an actual
Book of Concord, not a virtual claim of being Lutheran. That goes for Blogosphere too.
has become a popular form of self-publishing and public discourse.
It’s the ultimate free marketplace of ideas. For the cost of an
internet connection, you too can be a published author. Blogging is
still in its infancy, and it remains to be seen how much of it is
useful and how much is verbal white noise. I think it has great
potential. Blogs by design are posts with commentary. A piece is
posted, a poem, and article, or just a question or observation, and
people in the worldwide blogosphere comment. Unfortunately, comments
breed faster than rabbits in spring. Debates among commentators are
less than successful since the flow is fast and loose in grammar,
syntax, and thought. Logical fallacies abound, especially of the ad hominum and straw man
categories. Hijacked threads rarely land at any destination. The same
can be said of forum debates. Here’s a good rule for this medium of
instant raw communication: Read three times and think twice before you
hit “Send.” It isn’t bad advice for email too.
wouldn’t waste too much precious time sparring with the avatars. They
can morph at a moment’s notice and play games behind your back when you
least expect it. You can try to practice your apologetics with them, I
suppose, if you have a little free time on your hands. But don’t get
sucked into the game. Not being real, avatars can pose hypotheticals
and situations that don’t actually exist in the real world, and so the
value of the exercise is greatly diminished. And since avatars can’t
die, they can’t really be converted and saved anyway. Let’s face it.
You don’t become a real linebacker playing Madden Football in front of
your TV set. You may become a good shot at the firing range, but that
alone won’t make you a warrior. Only the real battlefield can do that.
At the end of The Truman Show,
Truman rows his way to the edge of the set that is his virtual life to
a door that leads out into the real world and an actual life. He
hesitates for a moment at the door. The real world is frightening to
those who know only a virtual one – real blood, real death, real
people, real sin, real salvation, real Body and Blood, real
forgiveness. Truman is a real person, not an actor He walks through
the door into a real life of uncertainties and responsibilities, as we
all must, sooner or later.
And in case I don’t see you in the real world, “Good afternoon, good evening, and good night!"