“We Are Also Virtual”
A review of
The Digital Disciple:
Real Christianity in a Virtual World.
by Adam Thomas.
Review by Will Fitzgerald.
I used to have a phone; now that I have a cell phone, it’s a wired phone. I used to read books; now that I have electronic or e-books, they are now physical books. I used to just live my life; now that I can interact with people for hours at a time virtually, I now have a real life. Almost anything I can do in real life, I can now do virtually: gossip, flirt, work, be entertained, check in with people, buy and sell. For Adam Thomas, the young author of Digital Disciple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World, living virtually is not optional; it is part of who we are now. He writes (in what is, I believe, the most important sentence in his book): Not only are we physical, emotional, and spiritual people, we are now virtual people. Thomas has always had a computer, and it has always had some sort of connectivity to the wider world of what we now call (with lowercase ‘i’) the internet. The question is, how do we live virtuously as disciples who are virtual as well as physical, emotional, and spiritual?
Thomas’s book does three things. First, it acts as an introduction to “the Tech,” Thomas’s term for the set of computational and communication technologies that have made our virtual lives possible. Second, it discusses the disadvantages as well as the advantages of the Tech. Third, it suggests ways that we might live virtually.
That Thomas feels the need to introduce us to the Tech suggests that we, as a society, are still undergoing the transformation. In twenty years—perhaps in five years—Thomas’s short explanations of Twitter and MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) will feel very “early 21st century.” These sections can be a bit cloying, even annoying at times, but it’s likely that for older, or less technologically savvy, readers of the book, this might be a helpful crib to what is happening in the lives of their young friends and acquaintances.
Even more useful is Thomas’s descriptions of the pluses and minuses of the Tech. I was particularly taken by his memoir of playing hours of World of Warcraft every day for years, and how this both added and subtracted from his life. He tells of the deep friendships that form between guildmates, but also of the desensitization to violence it inculcates. He tells of a moving memorial service for a player that had died in real life; the service was held in the virtual mountains. He also describes the opportunity costs of being online so much—the things he could have been doing instead of paying World of Warcraft so much: how, though it connected him with many people online, it isolated him from the people around him physically. I especially appreciate Thomas’s descriptions of both advantages as well as disadvantages: most things I have read tend to praise technology unreservedly (with complaints mostly directed to glitches and bugs) or condemn technology unreservedly (using posted online using the same technology being condemned). “We can’t,” says Thomas, “separate the danger from the opportunity; we can only hope to trend toward the opportunity while trying not to ignore the nature of the danger.”
Perhaps most valuable of all is Thomas’s discussion of to live virtuously as physical, emotional, spiritual and virtual beings. Given the book’s title and emphasis, I did not expect to find a large section of the book given over to discussing lectio divina and a daily examen. But Thomas works hard to suggest that we integrate our four-fold selves, and so, for example, the reading of a text aloud (which engages our physical selves) or using a minute-long silent mp3 file that then slowly crescendos as a way to measure out the time of meditation. Thomas has a chapter on taking a Tech Sabbath, and the ways that can help us reengage with others and ourselves in real life. This chapter, it should be noted, feels a bit like a nostalgic longing for a simpler time, but perhaps this is just the thing we need in transition. Thomas also suggests prayers that might be used as we enter and engage the virtual world.
This is a slim book, just 111 pages besides its appendix (a reading group guide). But its slimness belies its wisdom. I’m grateful to Adam Thomas for writing such a guide, and I hope to incorporate some of his wisdom in my own life as I try to live as a real Christian in virtual, as well as non-virtual, worlds.