Myke Hurley and CGP Grey discuss their first virtual reality (VR) experience in hushed tones. They joke of sounding like drug users talking about their first high. “I feel my life is fundamentally different now,” says Grey, “I see the world differently.” The hosts of Cortex, a popular podcast on work and technology, are convinced that VR will quite literally change the world.
Early reviews of VR have drawn a range of responses from anticipation to alarm, with some even suggesting that VR will change the way we experience church. In an interview with Hypergrid Business, Presbyterian pastor Christopher Benek explained that with VR “we may soon be able to easily develop virtual worship and Christian education experiences. This would be a great asset to the church universal, as it will enable the infirm, homebound, and potentially even the poor to participate from afar regardless of their personal mobility or lack of affordable transportation.” Depending on your ecclesiological convictions and perspective on new technology, you are probably experiencing either anticipation or alarm after reading a quote about “virtual worship.”
In reality (no pun intended), virtual reality is unlikely to totally transform life as we know it, though it is likely to improve the way we share information and revolutionize the way we experience entertainment. VR may also benefit the church as long as we do not ignore the danger it may pose to the church, culture and individual Christian. The church would be wise to gain an understanding of VR and weigh its potential benefits and dangers.
We need to think through the benefits and dangers of virtual reality.
A Virtual Crash Course
Virtual reality is a totally immersive 3-dimensional visual and auditory experience of a digitally created world. Think about it like jumping inside your TV and experiencing a movie or video game from within. You turn left and see William Wallace’s army in Braveheart preparing to charge and turn right to see the English waiting for them. This experience is made possible by wearing a mask with an electronic screen inside which responds to you as you move around.
Currently, VR devices are exploding onto the market. The devices range from Google Cardboard ($15)–a cardboard headset using your smartphone as a screen–to the Oculus Rift ($599) and HTC Vive ($799)–high-tech headsets that provide much higher quality experience. With a high-end device users can experience virtual locations, interactive experiences and total immersion gaming with hand-held controllers. Users can move around, pick up objects and interact with virtual characters as well as other gamers within the virtual environment.
Creators of this technology desire for it to be totally immersive. Inventor and cofounder of Oculus Palmer Luckey fantasizes about VR’s future predicting, “We will work, have sex and even die there.” When asked whether he would want to permanently abandon the real world in favor of VR Luckey says, “If the VR is indistinguishable from real life, yeah, very possibly.”
While people like Luckey are understandably fantastical about its future prospects, even more modest success has the potential to alter the landscape of human entertainment in a similar vein as radio, television or the internet. Understanding VR as a link in this chain of new technologies will help us take its effects seriously while not panicking that it could be our undoing as a society. When examining the potential benefits and dangers of virtual reality we will see that a world with virtual reality will have some real differences, but at the core it will stay fundamentally the same as it always has been.
Oh the Wonder of it All…
Virtual reality does not present any entirely new benefits to the world, but it does enhance some that we already possess.
First, VR can enhance the way we share important information. VR is already being used to aid the police and military in training their personnel. For instance, in a hostage situation Special Forces can do a virtual walkthrough of a building before entering to attempt a rescue, thereby greatly increasing their chance of success. VR can also be a great help in the classroom. Teachers may employ VR experiences to take a field trip to the pyramids or give medical students the chance to practice surgery on a virtual patient. Virtual reality will have many opportunities to improve the way we share information.
Second, VR can enhance the way we communicate with each other by improving our perceived proximity. Video calls have given us the ability to chat with our loved ones face-to-face no matter where we are. Virtual reality may eventually allow us to (virtually) sit in a room together and talk. Some companies are even working on ways to experience physical sensations such as touch and feel where you could hug or hold hands with a loved one from another continent. (The more sci-fi sounding elements of VR may frighten some of you, but hold off on your “but what about” questions for now and just let the wonder of it sink in for a moment.) Virtual reality could greatly enrich long-distance communication.
Third, VR can greatly enhance our experience of entertainment. It takes little imagination to think how VR can improve the way we watch movies (running alongside William Wallace in a Braveheart battle), watch TV (standing on the sideline of an NFL game) or play video games (being a character rather than watching one on a screen). You have to admit the potential of VR is at least a little bit exciting!
Coming Back to Reality
Alright, I have put you off long enough. Astute readers are likely itching to have their pushback heard. And yes, there are a lot of reasons to push back against the potential wonders of VR.
Again, virtual reality is unlikely to pose any entirely new challenges to Christianity but could make several existing temptations drastically more enticing and dangerous.
First, VR can increase the allure of sexual sin. Given its great potential to immerse the senses, perhaps we should not be surprised that the porn industry is at the forefront of supporting virtual reality technology. Without going into needless detail, VR has the potential to further enslave millions of people including many in our churches to porn addiction and digital sexual sin. The danger of pornography is nothing new, but with VR the entanglement may be all the more insidious and deadly to many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, not to mention to a lost and dying world.
Second, VR can increase our temptation to the sin of discontentment. In the same interview with the Rolling Stone, Palmer Luckey admitted, “The more time you spend in VR, the grayer the real world gets.” Technology becomes problematic when it promises to make users bored with the real world God has created. Many people already use entertainment as a retreat from the struggles of the real world. VR can greatly increase the allure of virtual retreat and further increase our discontentment with our lives.
Third, and a corollary to increasing discontentment, VR can cause many to live in greater seclusion from family and community. The irony of nearly all 21st century technologies is how they promise to connect us but in reality tend to make us drift apart. Facebook purports to connect us to friends, but their business model is keeping us on Facebook and away from our actual relationships as long as possible. Time on Facebook equals revenue. It is not hard to imagine VR prompting people to retreat into virtual worlds and in some cases abandoning family relationships, friendships and real-world responsibilities. A technology with the ability to erase physical borders will likely build walls within families.
Virtual reality could make existing temptations drastically more enticing and dangerous.
Making Sense of Virtual Reality
The Bible teaches us everything we need to know about what will happen with virtual reality. In Genesis 1, God created Adam and Eve in his image and commissioned them to fill the earth and care for it. From the beginning this included making new technologies to help us fulfill our purpose as humans made in God’s likeness. Adam could not tend the garden without inventing tools to do the work. Technology is not limited to electronic devices. Humans have been inventing new things to help us fill and steward the earth for as long as we have existed. We should not be surprised that we are capable of making something so stunning and useful as virtual reality.
At the same time we should not be surprised when human beings corrupt a new technology and use it to rebel against God and sin against their neighbor. This corruption has happened from the beginning. In Genesis 11, mankind came together and used their amazing ingenuity to build a tower reaching into the heavens, but its purpose was to oppose God and flaunt their power in his face rather than honor him as Creator. Many will use VR to further their sin and rebellion against God.
We have the opportunity as Christians to encourage God-honoring uses of virtual reality while opposing sinful and rebellious uses at every turn starting with our own hearts and lives. We must all continually fight sexual sin, discontentment and seclusion within the church, while promoting the beauty of sex within marriage, godliness with contentment and true biblical community. The church is at its best when we realize our ability to present real goodness and pleasure, thereby exposing the world’s counterfeit versions. Christianity is true and consequently agile. It has the answer to any and every new question technology can throw at it. The real question is whether we are sufficiently rooted in our faith to know what the answer is.
Before leading a conversation about how to use this new technology, we need to know some things about it and think through the benefits and dangers we have discussed. We should all strive as Christians to be experts on how to apply the gospel to sinful hearts and a fallen world, and VR is just one other area to practice that skill. Hopefully this article has equipped you to have gospel-centered conversations about VR and gives you confidence that the gospel is the timeless answer to every technology.