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Perils of the Virtualist Age

Wallace Henley Portrait
Wallace Henley |

In 1946-47, I was Superman something like Elizabeth Warren is an American Indian.

That is to say, at five or six, I was a virtual Man of Steel, having appropriated the identity of Superman.

My career as the caped hero was played out at Cascade Plunge, one of the nation's largest swimming pools, which was a single bound from my house (directly across the street). My mother, a delightfully witty and creative person, and a superb seamstress, made me a Superman outfit. I would wear it proudly to the pool, and relished soaring off the high dive, cape flowing.

The bitter day came, however, when I had to learn the hard difference between virtuality and actuality. My mother had forbad me going into the ten-foot deep section, loomed over by the high dive. One afternoon she paid a surprise visit to check on me, and spotted me on the diving tower.

In the way she saw the world it was not a place a first-grader should perch.

The cape and S-shirt had to go. Hard reality popped the virtual world where I was Superman.

The crisis of our time is that increasingly we are beguiled by virtualism and are having a hard time distinguishing the imaginary from the factual. Many of us are Clark Kents searching for a telephone booth from which we can emerge to stop rushing locomotives.

We have entered a new age in which we can go into the quietness of our rooms and slip into whatever identity we desire—virtually.

Coming into a new age is not all that novel historically. It is the pattern of history to go from one stage to another as it is the pattern of a train passing through several stations en route to its ultimate destination. The Bible reveals this when it speaks of various "dispensations", "seasons", or "ages".

Thus, the Medieval period was shoved aside by the Renaissance, from the Renaissance came the Enlightenment, which gave rise to the Age of Reason, which led to the Modernist Age, which faded into Postmodernism.

Now, say many cultural observers, we are in the post-Postmodern period.

But what do we call it?

I suggest The Age of Virtualism.

We have virtual identities in the form of avatars, or even "appropriated" ethnicity.

We have virtual church. People are discovering they can "attend" church online, not having to bother with all the messy relationships in a gathered congregation of real humans.

On a larger social scale in the Age of Virtualism many have virtual friends in virtual communities.

We have virtual history by which we re-form the facts of the past in light of our experience of the present, producing a new narrative more suited to our existential tastes.

We have virtual politics through which we assume someone with "rock star" charisma or "reality"-TV celebrity is qualified to govern.

In fact, in the Virtual Age, fame of any sort makes one a policy-sage, able to make pronouncements on foreign affairs, economic issues, immigration, and much more.

The Virtual Age even has its version of what some Bible students call the "Rapture"—when the church, they say, will be "caught up" into the clouds. In the Age of Virtualism our thought is stored already in the "Cloud".

The Virtual Age is "sensate". For Virtualists, personal feelings are the measure of reality and the good within it. Sensation rules. In his study of historic cultures Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin found a cycle in which the sensate follows the mystical and metaphysical, then gets swept off its feet by idealism.

Thus, if Postmodernism sought the spiritual, the Age of Virtualism was sure to follow.

The Virtualist pulpit focuses on making congregations feel good about themselves. The hard truth of sin and judgment lies back there in the dust and ash heaps of an old age long dead.

Yet the Bible does give us hope, but also socks us with hard reality. In a sinless virtual world we are all "pure" but the Scripture tells us that we are all like sheep that have gone astray. We have all sinned and fallen short of God's glorious image in which we were made.

In the real world sinners need redemption. Jesus Christ comes into that gritty, bloody dimension, and through suffering that was anything but fantasy, wins the victory for us. Our holiness in Him is not virtual, but imperishable fact that will withstand the Judgment. That is, we go from being sinners to becoming saints through our identification with Him and embrace of His atonement and resurrection.

Meanwhile, back in the Age of Virtualism, people refuse "to receive the love of the truth so as to be saved." The Lord gave them what they wanted. "God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false." (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12)

This desire for delusion is a perfect set-up for the antichrist—Paul's point in this passage.

The Age of Virtualism is a dangerous time to live. My mother knew that if I didn't face the fact I was not Superman, in my intoxication with my virtual world, I might try to leap off a building rather than a high dive over deep water.

In such an age as this we need hefty doses of truth and reality. The Word of God supplies it.

Wallace Henley is senior associate pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church, and founder of Belhaven University's Master of Ministry Leadership degree. He is a former White House and Congressional aide, and co-author of "God and Churchill", with Winston Churchill's great-grandson, Jonathan Sandys.

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