Gnostic Football and Virtual Church

By Bob Hiller

Have you seen Super Bowl MVP Von Miller’s commercial for Madden NFL 17? It’s hilarious! Miller dances around with a few moves he no doubt gained from his stint on Dancing with the Stars to sell one of the world’s most popular video games. Perhaps what is most amazing in the commercial is not Miller’s dancing nor the heart-warming reminder that our Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 but the graphics for the new Madden. Since the days of Mario and the original Street Fighter II, I haven’t played many video games. But I am amazed at how realistic they have become. It is getting harder and harder to tell the differences between a game and the real thing.

Now, perhaps this next paragraph goes without saying, but stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this. It is worth noting that the game is realistic, but of course, not reality. It is a virtual reconstruction of a real football game, but we would all say, it is not real football. Imagine the following conversation:

Dude 1: “I just won my dorm’s Madden tournament because I’m really good at football.”

Dude 2: “Congrats, man! I guess being good in real life must help you play. What was your position?”

Dude 1: “No, I mean I’m really good at football when I play Madden. I didn’t play a position.”

Dude 2: “Soooo, you’re not good a ‘real’ football. You are good at Madden.”

Dude 1: “What? Madden is real football.”

And scene.

Okay, now this is obviously a ridiculous scenario. Just because Madden is realistic doesn’t make it real. Simply because someone can be good at Madden doesn’t mean they can play football in real life. Real football is, well, real. It is physical. It requires hard, physical work. Your body needs training to endure real pain. One needs to learn plays, how to run routes, how to jump, tackle, throw, catch, etc. One must learn to listen to coaches, engage with teammates, and play hard for fans. Real football is, in this way, communal. That is, it engages with a community. There is real blood, real dirt, and real hitting. It is reality.

Madden requires none of this, save one thing: knowledge. In order to play Madden, you simply need “know-how.” Having a knowledge of football is of some benefit when playing a video game. But really, it is a matter of mastering techniques with a controller and knowing how to outsmart your opponent. There is little that is physical. In fact, if you get too physical playing Madden, you are going to lose (never tackle the screen). Madden may look more and more like real football, but playing has more to do with knowledge of the game than any sort of real ability to play football. Madden is like gnostic football.

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This past week, I read an article about sixteen-year-old Daniel Herron, who has developed his own online church.  Read the article here. The virtual church is quite realistic with sermons, bread and wine on an altar, counseling, leadership meetings, even excommunication (they have figured out a way to fence the table from internet trolls!). This young sixteen-year-old serves as the pastor. He is praised throughout the article for his evangelistic initiative and for his ability to connect with those who otherwise wouldn’t darken the door of a church. As the article says, “Entirely on his own, asking no one for permission, Herron established a virtual church where young people connect in very real ways.”

Except they’re not. Connecting in real ways, I mean. They are making virtual connections in a virtual reconstruction of a church. But they are not really (that is, in a real, physical way) connecting. It is simply realistic. See, they may be able to offer one another emotional support. They may be able to confide in each other. Herron has even constructed a virtual church for them to gather virtually. Everything is very realistic. But it isn’t real. It isn’t physical.

What troubles me is how very gnostic this all feels. People are more than what they think and how they feel. Granted, thoughts and emotions are real. There is more to what makes up a person, such as their body. Emotional or intellectual connection over the internet is not the same thing as sitting next to someone in a pew and having to put up with their body odor and other unavoidable idiosyncrasies. There is no real bread and wine on the altar online; it is virtual. And Jesus doesn’t give himself out virtually. He is interested a physical communion, both at the altar and in the hallway after service. One may hear the true gospel in a virtual church, but church is about hearing the gospel of the Lord and then being used by that Lord to serve and love the person next to you in the physical seat. Virtual church may meet people where they are, but I’m afraid it then keeps them from being where they are supposed to be: in the difficult, painful, aggravating, beautiful, physical church. Jesus isn’t interested in gnostic football on Sunday mornings. He wants to bring you into the real game.

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4 thoughts on “Gnostic Football and Virtual Church

  1. Some churches are ‘live-streaming’ their services. They say that ‘thousands’ are watching ‘church’ on a Sunday or for a special event. I think they are adding these numbers to their ‘attendance’ statistics too. No, really …

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  2. I live in a part of the world where Christianity is less than half of one percent of the population. There are times when even joining together for a normal Sunday service is simply not possible or highly dangerous. (An example of the first was the Sunday after the coup, an example of the second was this Easter when there was a credible threat that terrorist activity would be targeting churches) Having an online presence in something like Second Life is a way for believers to connect in a very real way. It is also an amazing forum where a curious Muslim can explore Christianity without having to fear ostracism, losing their job, getting kicked out of their house, or worse. While our small little church here in Istanbul does not have the time and resources to create and operate anything like that. I am grateful that others like Life Church, Bethel, and yes even Daniel Herron are using this medium to reach those for whom it is a very real part of their world. Paul wrote, I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might reach some. Just because you might not be a fan of some of those means does not make them illigetimate.

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    1. Hi BJ,
      Thanks for your response. Sorry for my delay in getting back to you.

      I can’t begin to imagine what it is like for you in that situation. I completely agree that online ministries are crucial for such situations. It is a gift when the word gets out in any way God chooses.

      My point was not that online ministries are without benefit, but that they can’t take the place of church. It is one thing when a group of Christians live in a place of persecution. It is quite another when we are training our youth to avoid real flesh and blood relationships, not to mention Jesus’ command to take and eat, take and drink his body and blood.

      My fear is that in an increasingly individualized society, Internet church only creates another opportunity to avoid interaction with people and, thus, love.

      Love to get more of your thoughts. Thanks again. My prayers are with you.

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