Researchers say the average American spends about seven hours a day in front of some sort of screen: television, movie, computer. Acknowledging this reality, Abingdon Press is releasing a new book aimed at helping people use media to enhance their spiritual life.
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.
Wolpert, spiritual director and pastor of Crookston Presbyterian Church in Crookston, Minn., recently spoke with EthicsDaily.com by phone about the new book.
“We were talking about this book for quite a while,” Wolpert said of himself and co-author Blythe. “We always kept saying this is the book that we want to do.” The pair, who met at San Francisco Theological Seminary, shared a love for prayer practices and media.
They put a proposal together, shopped it around and eventually got interest from Abingdon Press.
“Children obviously spend a huge amount of time in front of screens,” said Wolpert, father of two. “As your kids get older, you find yourself spending a lot of time with other parents talking about screens.”
“What about these thousand and thousands of hours that people are looking at screens?” he wondered. “How do you bring this discipline into that world?”
Wolpert was referring to spiritual discipline—a topic he knows a great deal about. Wolpert holds a master of divinity from SFTS and another master’s degree in clinical psychology and contemplative psychotherapy from Naropa University. He has taught Christian spirituality at SFTS, led prayer retreats, and also written the 2003 Upper Room book Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices.
He said he has always been interested in media—something he attributes to growing up in Los Angeles, the heart of the entertainment industry.
“A lot of time there’s this kind of divide between spiritual people and everyone else,” he said, though neither he nor Blythe believes that spiritual people need to stay away from media, as some folks suggest.
“There had to be a way of bringing these two things together and talking about this,” Wolpert recalled. The book, which introduces traditional spiritual practices of lectio divina and examen for application to media, is an answer.
God and Media
“It’s not media that’s revealing the Spirit,” Wolpert cautioned. “It’s God that’s revealing God’s self through the media. Media doesn’t have some mystical quality to it.”
“God can work through anything,” he continued. “Sometimes what God says is, ‘This stuff stinks.'” Nevertheless, Wolpert said he believes God can work with all sorts of media and content, even if it’s violent—though he said plenty of people understandably don’t feel drawn closer to God that way.
“I do think that some of what God will say to us, if we’re open to listening, is that a lot of this stuff is junk and is unhealthy and is not my way, so to speak,” he said. “I don’t watch a lot of TV because I do feel, for example, that most of what is on there is not redemption-oriented.”
“If you bring this attitude of prayer to any situation, media or not media, God can speak to you through that,” he said. “But again, I think that that’s something that one can come to clear discernment about through bringing prayer to any situation.”
Wolpert said the decision to use “K-PAX,” a 2001 movie starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, to illustrate some of the book’s principles was relatively easy. He added that other movies popularly tossed around as “redemption films”—like “The Matrix”—really don’t mesh with his understanding of Christianity.
“I think that these other films are not actually Christian salvation films because the hero is violent,” he said. “And I think that that, to me, is the brilliance and one of the reasons why ‘K-PAX’ was not a commercial success, is because the savior is nonviolent. It really is a movie about Jesus.”
“These other films are about the kind of Jesus that the disciples wanted,” he said—a violent, human messiah.
Jesus, however, was a nonviolent savior, he said, “So I think that the message in this particular film [“K-PAX”] is extraordinarily powerful in that regard.”
Trying the Method
Wolpert said he wasn’t concerned about persuading everyone to pray with media, and he said he wouldn’t argue with folks who don’t like to use media.
Yet, “One of the things that I do know is true is that there are a lot of folks that will not necessarily admit to or acknowledge how much time they do spend in front of a screen,” he said.
The power of the approach is that “when you begin to pray with and into this medium, suddenly it begins to look very different to you. It takes on a whole new dimension that is fun to explore.”
Wolpert also suggested that media, instead of being a barrier to family communication, can actually enhance it.
“Even TV shows that are mindless on a certain level become fascinating on another level,” he said. “There actually then develops a whole new arena about which you can converse with your family members.”
“It’s not a block to conversation,” Wolpert added. “It’s a whole new opening to conversation.”
“On the one hand, reflecting on media in an organized way is very rare. It just is—it’s very rare,” Wolpert said. “On the other hand, what’s also interesting to me is I think there’s a huge amount of almost unintentional reflection that goes on.”
Wolpert said he has spent hundreds of hours talking with parents about kids and media, and he knows there’s a conversation going on about the relationship.
“Our hope with the book is to say, ‘This conversation is already happening. Here are some ways you can bring some conscious practice into the conversation,'” he said.
Wolpert said he believes people want to be more aware of what’s going on, and he wanted to give them another tool to do that.
Nevertheless, he believes cultivating media literacy will be a challenge.
“First of all, any intentional analysis is hard. It takes time,” he said. “You have to have some kind of forum for it, some kind of group, some kind of class.”
He added that another difficulty with analysis is that media are often created for entertainment purposes; therefore, people just want to consume the media and not really think about the deeper levels.
They should be reflective, however, and children should study media, according to Wolpert.
“The mass onslaught of mass media has happened so quickly,” he said, “to a certain extent we haven’t had time to catch up.”
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.”