A few months ago, my friend invited me to his house to try out his new virtual reality game. Before I knew it, I was in a basement, wearing a pair of strange-looking goggles that suctioned to my face and blocked out all the light. Earbuds prevented any other noise from entering my consciousness. I stood with controllers in my hands, ready for anything. The storyline of the game was simple. I was Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, and my airplane was under attack by an enemy. My airplane would burst into a ball of flame in sixty seconds, and I had one minute to unlock a briefcase, slip on my jet-powered suit, and hurl myself into the air eight thousand feet up.
I wish I could say that I remained perfectly calm, remembering that I was simply playing a game generated by a gaming console, and that I was safely in a room with my family and friends. I wish I could say that. But much like the frightening feeling you get during a horror movie, I did not stay calm. My adrenaline rushed. I embraced the thrill and thoroughly enjoyed blowing up enemy airplanes one at a time. After a while, it was easy to forget that in reality, my body was still in an actual room.
Of course, the real room had furniture, people, and even a couple of pets. My husband stood behind me, calling out, “Honey, don’t back up!” His cries never made it past the earbuds, delivering the deafening tones of jet engines and guided missiles. I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. I started tripping over objects I could not see and bumping into people without warning. I was in another world, a virtual world. It was glorious. It was exciting. I was saving the day. There was only one problem: it wasn’t real. I was trapped in a fictional world, disconnected from others and at risk of injuring myself and the people around me. The lesson is simple: we can’t escape reality.
But what happens in a world where everyone is living in their own personal version of reality, and we no longer have a shared storyline? In his New York Times piece, Dr. Gary Greenberg put it this way:
“I am nostalgic for the time, probably imagined, when the Enlightenment dream prevailed. That tolerance would bring forward our differences so that reason could sort them out, with facts as our common ground. That fairness and liberty might pull in different directions but would not pull us apart. At the very least, that we could unite to fight a virus. I am also bereft, heartsick over the incipient loss of a shared world so total that we can’t even agree on what has been lost, let alone mourn it in unison. Or, for that matter, pick up the pieces and see if we can fashion something better out of them.” [i]
Greenberg is lamenting the loss of a shared story for our lives together. We live in a time when each person has their own story, written and directed by themselves. As attractive as this might sound to our longings for liberty and freedom, it actually works much like the virtual reality game. Everyone is wearing their own pair of VR googles, bumping into one another, wondering why everyone else is not living in the same story, playing by the same rules, and working for the same future. The cost is more than a broken flat screen TV. The cost is conflict, grief, relational damage, loneliness, and an experienced desolation of the human soul.
In the past, we may have hoped that “tolerance would bring forward our differences so that reason could sort them out, with facts as our common ground. That fairness and liberty might pull in different directions but would not pull us apart.” The goal of the American project was to welcome our differences and find a shared life together through reason and facts. However, in a world where facts can be fake and our personal motives corrupt our reason, there is increasingly less to bring us together.
We are experiencing the loss of a shared story. We sense the tension. This doesn’t mean that our stories have nothing in common. Quite the contrary. Because our stories have some things in common, we are still under the illusion that we can find a shared story among ourselves, without appealing to a larger story that transcends us.
We can no longer agree on the fundamental questions about our shared spaces: Who is the main character of our story? What is right with the world? What is wrong with the world? How do we fix what is wrong? What does it mean to live well? What is a good life?
So, what is a Jesus follower to do? We bump into the stories of others, searching for common ground and aching to invite our friends and loved ones to the Real Story. The Story of Reality written by our good Creator, King, and Father.
As a starting point, let me suggest two pathways:
- We must know The Real Story inside and out, every nook and cranny. You see, we all construct our own virtual realities. We are all tempted to write our own individual stories with ourselves as the main characters. But we have it wrong. God is the main character. We must learn His story. His purpose. His way. This is the path of worldview training and biblical literacy.
- We must learn the relational practices of encountering others who are locked in their virtual realities. We must learn what it looks like to love others with both truth and grace. We must learn compassion and courage, patience and perseverance, when to speak and when to stay silent, when to stand up and when to sit down. This is the art of relational discipleship.
Cultural discipleship integrates the rational and the relational. We must learn it.
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[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/07/opinion/grief.html- In Grief is How We Live Dr. Gary Greenberg.