The collision of the divine and technology is nothing new. From Gutenberg’s Bible to Copernicus to sacraments delivered over Skype, secular innovation has been (controversially) adapted time and again by science- and tech-minded believers as a compatible counterpart to the word of God. Now religion is meeting the world of virtual reality.
“If ever the Tower of Babel were raised again, it would be here, in cyberspace,” wrote Carpatho-Russian Orthodox priest Jonathan Tobias in a 2007 essay, “No Life in Second Life: Orthodoxy’s Problem with Virtual Reality.” Tobias, focusing on the ancient ecclesiastical concept of fantasia, a mortal sin that rejects the reality crafted by God’s hand, argued against the viability of spiritual activity in a virtual realm.
But this critique of cyber manifestations of faith doesn’t stop some believers from trying to turn virtual reality into a truly religious experience.
Take Brian Leupold, for example. An Oregon native with a background in 3-D technology and gun scope production, Leupold has been attempting to merge the gospel with VR since Google Cardboard brought virtual reality into the mainstream a few years ago.
There is little, at first, about Leupold’s appearance that might indicate that the self-proclaimed non-denominational Christian has a high-tech vocation. Barbed-wire tattoos encircle both his wrists, and on the rainy morning we meet at a Starbucks, Leupold was wearing well-worn sweatpants and a camo baseball cap. He described his former self, one who dabbled with drugs and hard living and paid no mind to things like church or Jesus talk. That was until he got saved and put his experience with ocular lenses to use communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ via virtual reality headsets like Facebook’s Oculus Rift.
The first VR video he made featured a Christmas Eve living room scene. The graphics were rudimentary, but Leupold recalls the glee that came over his children as they tried on the headsets and entered this world familiar to them through books and carols but made utterly new through the experience of VR.
That got him thinking: If something as familiar as Santa Claus could be rendered completely new, why not the Bible? “My head was spinning at that point. I’m like, the possibilities are endless,” Leupold says. “I felt like an evangelist for VR, just wanting to show VR to anyone who would listen.”
There is arguably much about virtual reality that lends itself to the realm of spirituality — disembodiment, anonymity, the near-psychedelic experience it tends to mimic. Recognizing this, Leupold teamed up with two like-minded preachers, Alistair De-Blacquiere Clarkson and David J. Soto (aka “D.J. Soto” — both a DJ and a pastor in life outside of VR), and formed the first-ever VR church experience — called, fittingly, VR Church.
Besides using VR to replicate a chapel-like environment, where services are held every Sunday, VR Church includes visions of dewy sunrises and scripture hovering over bucolic fields, a pastoral rendering that is at once doctrinal, ethereal and utterly American. Gazing into the scape of VR Church, I found myself flashing on such gingham-evoking kitchenette standbys as Thomas Kinkade and Albert Bierstadt.
Soto describes the concept of VR Church with a rock-star aura reminiscent of evangelical preachers of lore, those who bounce onstage before a congregation of thousands as loud music pulses behind. There is, after all, a similar intention here. With VR Church, the gospel becomes hip, relevant, appealing to target generations of increasingly non-religious millennials and Gen Z-ers. There is also the argument of increased accessibility — a virtual church is available to those unable to leave their home or unwilling to enter a physical congregation out of anxiety or negative past experiences.
For now, however, VR Church — like most VR experiences — remains accessible to those who can afford the latest Oculus headset. Still, if the number of positive reviews on Oculus.com provides any indication, VR Church is here to stay. Tobias’ argument holds true, after all, about one thing: There may be no life in Second Life, because it’s an outdated technology that peaked years ago. But spreading the promise of eternal life through VR? That’s the light dawning on a new horizon.