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Second Life: Christians and Virtual Reality

By John McNeil
Challenge Weekly

CBN.com (ANS News) - Second Life is a three-dimensional imaginary world built and populated by seven million real people. Since it opened on the Internet in 2003, it has grown explosively to become a vast digital continent on which people buy and sell property, carry out business, and pursue similar leisure activities to those in real life.

Residents exist in Second Life as “avatars” – 3D representations they construct which might or might not correspond to their real-life selves. Through these avatars they can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities and create and trade items.

Second Life CathedralIn the midst of this virtual world, a group of Anglicans from around the world have banded together to buy an island and build a fully-fledged medieval-style cathedral.

The group is headed by the CEO of the Bible Society of New Zealand, Mark Brown, who in Second Life goes by the name Arkin Ariantho.

Mr Brown says there are only three or four other churches in Second Life and most of them are poor imitations of what exist in real life. “They don’t grab you. I wanted to do something different.”

He says a cathedral might seem anomalous in today’s world, but it is based on studies he has carried out into post-modernity. 

“I have identified two factors which are behind the cathedral. There’s an attraction to tradition. Evidence of that is renewed interest in Christian practices of the Middle Ages -- the prayer practices, meditation. There is an interest in what I call depth, and a moving away from light, fluffy Christianity. 

“The second part is technology. Post-moderns embrace technology and are early adopters. I am attempting to combine the two. Here is something very traditional.

“I could have built a box with a few stained glass windows in Second Life, but I wanted to do something hyper-traditional that draws on Second Life technology.” The cathedral is being built on what has been named Epiphany Island, and is near to completion. When finished, those involved will conduct church services, to which there will be an open invitation to anyone visiting the Second Life world.

Mr. Brown says the ultimate aim is to share Jesus Christ in Second Life, through the services. 

“Underneath that are two aims. One is to provide a church community for the SL residents. That’s all the pastoral care, all the usual things of church. The second aim – and this is quite ambitious and cutting edge – is to provide a venue for people in the real life around the globe to go to church who can’t or are not interested in going to a church in the physical world.

“My vision is to create an awe-inspiring church that stands out for its brilliance and beauty, and to establish a Christian ministry within Second Life which will include support and care programs as well as evangelism initiatives.” 

He says that even though services have not yet started, the project has attracted a large amount of interest. It is also raising a host of questions about intersection between the real world and an imaginary world. 

For example, how does one do pastoral care in a virtual environment? What is sin in Second Life? How does the cathedral service offer the Eucharist?

One of the Anglican group members has a Ph.D. in Theology and is convening a theological panel in Second Life to consider some of these issues. 

Mr. Brown says many are predicting that the future of the Internet is three-dimensional.

“I’m not interested in playing games – I don’t have time. It’s about positioning a part of the Church at the forefront of the future of technology and saying: how can we get involved? Let’s get our virtual hands dirty.” 

He says the virtual world should not be an escape from reality.

“The major question I ask myself: is my first life successful? Am I engaged with my first life?

“Sadly, there are number of people involved with Second Life whose first life is terrible, and they are using it for escape. That’s my concern. For me, Second Life is a complement – it’s to leverage the mission I’m doing in my first life.”

(Progress on the Anglican Church in Second Life can be followed at http://slangcath.wordpress.com/)

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John McNeil, a veteran of 40 years of newspaper and radio journalism, is South Island editor for Challenge Weekly, New Zealand’s non-denominational, independent national Christian newspaper.

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