The Surprising Theological Possibilities of Virtual Reality
Image: Monkey Business Images / shutterstock

The future arrived in a cardboard sleeve just before lunch on a rainy Wednesday morning. I don’t believe the delivery woman knew what she had in her hands—otherwise, she might not have dropped the parcel in a pile of soggy leaves and then vanished up the driveway with no more ceremony than a perfunctory rap on the door. I brought the future inside, followed the assembly instructions, and strapped it to my face. Moments later, I was yelping and flailing my legs as computer-generated seagulls flocked towards me on a stony cliffside in virtual reality.

The future is not as graceful as I imagined.

In the eyes of some industry observers, 2016 is the “year of virtual reality” for tech and entertainment. Three high-profile virtual reality (VR) consumer devices launched this year, each promising to deliver immersive visual and aural experiences that radically change the way we consume our media. Oculus Rift, Facebook’s $2 billion investment, released earlier this year, as did the Vive, produced by hardware manufacturer HTC and videogame developer Valve. Sony released its PlayStation VR accessory for the PlayStation 4 on October 13, which will likely be featured front and center in the electronics retail space this holiday shopping season. After decades of false starts and dashed hopes, it seems 2016 is the year that virtual reality technology leaves the shadows of geek pipedreams and enters the mainstream.

As I pondered my time kicking and screaming at imaginary coastal wildlife from my couch, a Tertullian-esque question arose in my mind: “What has Silicon Valley to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, why should believers care about this new wave of technology, and what are we to think of it? How do Christians, who are both consumers and creators of culture, react to this new medium?

Too Big an Opportunity to Miss

The simplest and most banal answer for why we should care is “ubiquity.” VR is set to go from a niche tech-curiosity to a living room staple. Despite some initial hiccups, some Wall Street analysts project that by 2020 VR will reach between $20 billion and $40 billion in sales. One VR developer I spoke with noted that some projections have the virtual reality industry becoming larger than the current film, music, and videogame industries combined. While that falls on the more optimistic side of predictions, it speaks to the tremendous expectations of just how far VR is poised to go.

In an essay for The Verge, Matthew Schnipper writes, “Imagine 10 years ago trying to envision the way we use cell phones today. It’s impossible. That’s the promise VR has today.”

With that in mind, it’s important for Christians to be prepared with a thoughtful, positive vision of what VR can do as a medium rather than be caught unaware and forced into a reactive and defensive position where we have nothing to offer but criticism. Drew Dixon, editor of Explore the Bible and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com, noted in an interview, “The more commonplace VR becomes the more it behooves Christians to understand it, engage it, and speak prophetically about it.”

The ‘Unknown God’ of VR

In God in the Gallery, art critic and historian Daniel A. Siedell turns to the apostle Paul’s journey to the Areopagus (Acts 17:16–34) as a model for embracing and interpreting cultural artifacts. Paul declared that the altar to the unknown god in fact pointed to the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, and he used this as an opportunity to preach the gospel. This pagan sculpture revealed something of God, although it required someone filled with the Holy Spirit to explain the truths the altar could only hint at. Likewise, Siedell sees the field of contemporary art as strewn with such altars to the unknown god. The whole earth is filled with God’s glory (Isa. 6:3), and the artifacts of our culture—even pagan ones—reveal some of that glory in their own way.

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The Surprising Theological Possibilities of Virtual Reality