“Meeting God in Virtual Reality: Using Spiritual Practices With Media,” written by Teresa Blythe and Daniel Wolpert, offers readers some methods for praying with popular culture products.
Blythe, a spiritual director, media literacy advocate and broadcast journalist, recently spoke with EthicsDaily.com by phone from Arizona about the new book.
Merging Spirituality and Media
Blythe was taking courses in Christian spirituality, religion and media at San Francisco Theological Seminary when she first started thinking about the ideas in what is now Meeting God in Virtual Reality.
“I was exploring media literacy,” she said. “I had heard about fledging efforts to bring media literacy into the church.”
“As I read what media literacy was all about and I took these Christian spirituality courses about awareness and reading between the lines and seeing the subtext of both the Scriptures and Ignatian spirituality, I saw so many connections that stuck with me,” she said. “I wanted to write about this.”
Blythe was a contributing writer for the 2001 book Watching What We Watch: Prime-Time Television Through the Lens of Faith. That book was more academic than Meeting God in Virtual Reality, and it did not emphasize prayer and spirituality, which was something that continued to interest Blythe.
“I started thinking about ways to merge spirituality and media,” she said, and she joined forces with one of her classmates from SFTS, Daniel Wolpert.
Blythe and Wolpert worked together through e-mail and over the phone, eventually exchanging chapters and getting the manuscript into the hands of Tom Bandy and Bill Easum, editors of a book series for Abingdon Press.
“I’m really glad to be with them [Bandy and Easum] because they are considered by a lot of pastors in the trenches to be great consultants and down to earth and passionate about how to build churches and nurture pastors,” Blythe said.
“The culture is not yet on the media literacy bandwagon,” Blythe said, “and for a lot of reasons.” Blythe knows them; she works with the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, the Alliance for a Media Literate America, and serves as media literacy consultant to Film Clips, a project promoting classroom use of appropriate film clips.
“Educational systems are starting to pay attention to how media is constructed and to what end,” she said. “I wish churches would pay more attention to the media literacy movement.”
Blythe said churches would do well to engage media literacy and not simply opt for a “hypodermic needle” approach to media, which assumes that media “inject” viewers with meaning. This model works on the belief that consumers are relatively passive; that doesn’t have to be the case, Blythe said. Consumers have choices.
But media literacy isn’t popular at large for another reason.
“Media makers aren’t all that interested in having us deconstruct their product,” Blythe said. “There’s a lot more going on than just entertainment.”
“If we think that media is benign, then we’re ignoring the obvious,” she said. But if we think it’s evil, we’re also missing “truth and beauty.”
God and Media
Blythe said the media literacy movement has two camps.
One camp puts down anything it thinks isn’t capable of revealing the Spirit. The other camp essentially says weeds and wheat grow together, and what’s a weed to one person might be wheat to another.
Blythe puts herself in the second camp, saying she doesn’t want to limit God.
“With God, anything is possible,” Blythe said. “A person can take any visual experience and allow God to work in and through it.”
Part of the key, she said, is understanding which media experiences allow God to work in one’s life. That’s part of what Meeting God in Virtual Reality is designed to do. It offers activities and journal starters to help a person understand how media products affect his or her life.
The book also emphasizes the importance of silence to spiritual growth, though Blythe doesn’t think it’s easy to create the silent self.
“It’s absolutely difficult,” she said. “It’s becoming more difficult for me as my computers get faster. It’s harder. There’s much more information coming at me now. It’s difficult to embrace silence anyway unless you’re a naturally contemplative person.”
She added that American culture is “not friendly toward silence,” sometimes equating it with laziness.
“It’s hard,” she said of creating moments of silence, “and yet there’s a deep longing for clearing out this information.”
Christians and Media Diets
“I’ve read some studies, some George Barna studies, that show a lot of Christians, mostly evangelical Christians, are watching the same TV shows as everyone else,” Blythe said.
“I don’t get judgmental about that,” she added. “It’s just interesting. I want people to think about their media diet and be intentional.” She also wants people to consume media “that feed their soul.”
Blythe said she doesn’t watch the popular TV show “The Sopranos.”
“I just can’t watch a show where people just blow each other away,” she said. “It upsets my spirit too badly.”
However, she allows for the possibility that others may find something of value in the show. And if Christians, in particular, do like the show, they should be open about the fact.
“I want people to be honest,” she said. “If you like ‘The Sopranos,’ say so.” Only in so doing will Christians rise above a sort of elitism, however real, and join in the meaningful dialogue that ensues when media literacy takes hold.
“I have a heart for this book because it just came out of my experience,” she said. “And I think there are a lot of Christians who want to reflect on media, a lot of people in general. But they’re kind of stuck about how to do it.”
“I want people to feel empowered to do more than just bring someone else’s study guides into a group,” she said. In other words, Blythe wants readers to come away from the book with the ability and desire and take any piece of media that interests them and analyze it for themselves.
“I want them to feel empowered,” Blythe said of readers. “I want them to know that they can pray with that”—be that a movie, song, music video or Web site.
Blythe was quick to say that praying with media isn’t the only way to pray.
“This experience is just one part of life,” she said. “I don’t want this to be the only way people pray, by any means.”
Yet, “It’s a part of their lives,” she concluded. “Let’s honor it. It’s a spirituality of the ordinary. We don’t need to deify it and we don’t need to put it down. We just need to let God move through it.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Click here to buy Meeting God in Virtual Reality now from Amazon.com.
Click here to read our review of the book.
Click here for our review of “K-PAX.”
Click here for our interview with co-author Daniel Wolpert.