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Avatars and Incarnation

Avatars and Incarnation

The promise of a new identity and a fresh start has attracted a “population” of 7 million to the complex online world. Second Life offers entertainment, chat, entrepreneurial opportunities and vast quantities of smut. Like our world, it has currency, Coca-Cola and churches of various denominations. As of this month, Playboy is there, too.

All these “real world” crossovers build up the growing notion that Second Life is a world in its own right. Not just a virtual reality, but a viable reality alternative.

Could the stage be set for the greatest crossover imaginable? The form of godliness is already in Second Life, but what about its power? Could the incarnation of Christ happen in virtual reality?

When I first framed the question I had already made up my mind. No! Of course not! Incarnation can’t happen online. How ridiculous! The question itself is intended to wryly mock the unwashed masses. It’s an arrow of conviction aimed at those who willingly shrug off the world of flesh and blood to have a stake in digital existence.

If a tree falls in the forest, and it’s not uploaded to YouTube, did it still happen? If a young couple doesn’t proclaim their affection with MySpace comments, are they really in love? Incarnation and virtual reality, indeed! I intended to scourge Second Life with the whip of theological chastisement.

But my cynicism softened a little as I began to explore this parallel universe. I imagined a shy college kid, homely and awkward, who keeps to himself as he travels from class to class. In Second Life, this stammering nerd hits the dance clubs with sex appeal and witty flirtation. There he is strong and confident, even arrogant or proud. His mastery of codes has opened the door to (virtually) anything he wants.

Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” So which version of the college kid is the true one? Does his soul reside in the buff online avatar (a “person” in Second Life lingo) or in his lanky every day frame? And where might salvation come? Where would Jesus meet him? In a club online or the paved walkway in front of the campus library? These questions are important, because they have everything to do with incarnation.

By incarnation, of course, we are referring to God and His way of responding to sin and depravity. After illustrating (through time, law and prophesy) that humanity is incapable of escaping the swampy muck it got itself into, God opted to jump in the swamp beside us. In Christ, He joins us there to live and die His way out—inviting us to follow.

Could this happen in Second Life? Well, the conditions are certainly favorable. If the swampy muck of sin is the stage required for incarnation, Second Life is off to a fine start. Like much of the Internet as a whole, illicit sex is the biggest attraction—if not the very engine that drives—Second Life. There are countless chat rooms, virtual strip clubs, programs giving avatars genitals and programs offering creative ways to copulate. In addition to the creepiness of avatars “getting busy,” Second Life has been strongly criticized for passively allowing sexual bents including child pornography.

But you don’t have to have online sex to be depraved in Second Life. Money laundering, theft, murder, corporate greed, terrorism (e.g. virus writing) are all possible activities. If you are technically challenged, the good old fashioned way of sinning by dishonesty, cruelty and selfishness requires far less effort. The swamp of sin can be found in Second Life. What about the mechanisms needed for rescue? Perhaps the place to start would be to find a Mary.

Second Life launched in 2003. There is no “chosen people” with a unique covenantal relationship with God that I am aware of. Any avatar, descendant of David or otherwise, could fit the role of Mary. An angel would have to appear and deliver the calling. Again, I can’t see this being a problem. My first day on Second Life, I was surprised to see an avatar flying overhead. Some such creature would simply have to burst onto Mary’s island and deliver (convince her of) the Good News. It would be risky. She could always refuse to bear the Savior of the online world. Then again, God took a huge risk with the original Mary, too. She was, after all, a backwoods, unmarried, Jewish teenager. What faith!

So what about pregnancy? Birth? I quickly discovered that both are not only possible online—they are familiar territory. Pregnancy is a “kit” that an avatar can purchase which brings a woman (you’d hope) on the journey from conception to birth in weeks instead of months.

Interestingly, immaculate conception is not the exception but the rule in Second Life. Should the avatar Mary suddenly show up with a bump in her belly, no sense of social impropriety or awkwardness would be felt by her or her online Joseph. This sort of thing happens all the time! Furthermore, just as the Gospels are relatively quiet about Christ’s childhood, the New World’s incarnation could quickly fast forward to adulthood and get on with the business at hand. In fact, Linden Lab (the Second Life authorities) have been cracking down on the presence of child avatars (for obvious if disturbing reasons).

Ministry and miracles are easy to imagine. I can almost see The Second Life bulletin announcement: “Suddenly, in the fullness of time, there has appeared a brilliant programmer who fixes the brokenness of avatars and performs wondrous feats. From island to island the question is whispered: ‘Could this be the one? Or are we to wait for someone else?’” Unfortunately, the Christ that emerges might be more akin to Neo of The Matrix than Jesus of Nazareth. And this is where the idea of incarnation in virtual reality becomes a problem. Walking on water, ascension into heaven … all of these are tricks that anyone with a good grasp of programming could pull off in Second Life. But would it make any difference? Is there any kind of wizardry or brilliance that can address the muck and mess of sin in an online world? The question of incarnation in virtual reality is not whether death and resurrection could happen but whether it would matter.

I discovered in virtual reality that almost everything is possible … except meaning. A virtual Christ might do the most impressive things in Second Life but could never convince us to care. What online victory could rival the real world victory of Jesus over sin, death and everything that keeps us from enjoying God and His presence forever?

Of course, you knew all along that it wouldn’t work. The incarnation of Christ could not happen in virtual reality. You, like me, know that virtual reality will always be just that, virtual. You and I are smart enough to know that the sexy avatar engaged in a stirring conversation is really some ordinary human with a sore tailbone and carpal tunnel hunched over the dull glow of a computer screen. There may be value in playing a role, getting lost in a movie or tripping out on digital thoughts and ideas, but the world of flesh and blood is what counts. Second Life does not offer a second life but a sub-life in a sub-creation. Quite frankly, the sin isn’t as good and neither is the salvation.

Happily, the incarnation doesn’t need to be re-staged because it happened the best way already—in the blood and guts, hands dirty, touchable and tangible creation of God. As much as we may wish to escape our world and its harsh realities, it is this world Christ joined and engaged. We may wish for a new family, new friends, a new place to live and a body that won’t age. But God’s great mercy is that He didn’t come to save the best version of yourself that you can muster—He came for the just plain, fallen, real you.

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