Is your embodied experience endangered by books?
Embodiment is among the most important doctrines emphasized within the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. The mortal experience central to the plan of salvation is a physical experience; matter matters — to our spirits, and to our spiritual lives. I believe and embrace this doctrine. It was driven home recently by Elder David Bednar in a Church Educational System fireside, who connected our physical selves with human relationships and divine principles: “[O]ur relationships with other people, our capacity to recognize and act in accordance with truth, and our ability to obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ are amplified through our physical bodies.” Elder Bednar expressed cautions regarding virtual experience online and the digital diversions that can damage or challenge more authentic relationships.
This is valuable counsel, and something that this digital evangelist has been pondering and trying to take to heart. As much as I am an advocate for the wonderful positive uses of the new media (which Elder Bednar allows for), I have seen up close and too frequently the destructive power of disembodied virtual experience he described. And I worry about casually slipping into a dependence upon technology, the Internet, and whatever the latest greatest gadgetry may be.
And I am wondering about the virtues of disembodied experience from a less suspect technology: books. Oh, we are fully conditioned to accept books — to embrace reading them — as a sign of intelligence, accomplishment, and refinement. But do we not endager our embodied experience through books? Wouldn’t Elder Bednar’s cautions apply as much to this older technology and its threats to our more real relationships and existence?
My youngest son has been rather antisocial lately, quietly burrowing through all seven volumes of Harry Potter. (I don’t think he is alone in this behavior, nor only with Rowling’s popuar series). He sequesters himself in order to live vicariously in an imaginative world full of things as they really are not. Had he logged as much time in Runescape or Second Life, we would have pulled the plug. But with a series of books, we go out of our way to borrow or buy the next volume to accommodate his reading habit. He reminds me of myself when I was 11 — voraciously making my way through Edgar Rice Burroughs’ virtual worlds, among others. And I fear he will fight (as I still do) to get enough physical exercise throughout his life. Now, I’m worrying about his reading habit threatening things that might be more important.
What is the difference between the disembodied and problematic virtual worlds of the Internet and the disembodied but somehow culturally condoned virtual worlds of novels? Forget the arguments about bad novels. For argument’s sake let’s say you and yours only devoted yourselves to the best literary works. Dare to count the cost of your second life in liteary land?
At other times, in defending the literary arts, I have emphasized the fact that vicarious experience is at the heart of Christian theology: the Atonement is a vicarious act, and Christ’s empathy toward our lives or our empathy toward his turn upon this capacity to imagine, to immerse oneself in things as they really are not (at least in terms of not being physically present). How is any religious belief possible without the capacity to conceptualize worlds distanced from our present physical environment? Surely salvation depends upon imagination, though the doctrines are not directly expressed in such terms. If I can’t imagine a better me, or a better existence, or a prior existence, how do I know who I am, what I have been, what I might be? And so it is an easy thing to defend aesthetics in religious terms when you find common ground in the area of vicarious experience.
But vicarious experience is not physical, embodied experience, is it? What about that priority of physical presence and physical experience emphasized by Elder Bednar? Could it be that I have spent too much of my life as Ahab’s companion pursuing a white whale of imaginative experience at the expense of real friendships or family relationships?
Virtual reality check: Have you ever hoped that a family member would go away so that you could finish a book? I have. One of the most damning moments of my life as a father was when my three year old son slapped down one of my books I was reading in grad school and said, “Yook at me, not books!” Far too often, I have yooked on at my book. As someone who did graduate studies in English literature, I live with the guilt of that for months on end I had more substantial relationships with Charles Dickens and William Wordsworth than I did with the woman I married for time and all eternity. Okay, so there were no tawdry avatars involved, no interaction like that which can happen online. But in all my quiet page turning, was I closing the book on my most profound relationships? What is ignored when I pay attention to the worlds books offer me so richly and regularly?
I’m counting the cost. It could be that books are even more threatening than the online world in some ways. At least with video games I often play these with my children and consider it a constructive parent-child experience. But books? They are deeply isolating. And they certainly deny the human body. Believe me, I have tried very hard to read while jogging on a treadmill and I just don’t think it can be done. You hear about people being distracted by text messaging while driving, but books can be just as dangerous to the real world. When a teenager I read a book while riding a bicycle home from the library and knocked a child over. Idiot me! Books have been destroying people literally and physically for centuries, hooking us on the crack cocaine of vividly rendered virtual worlds without the virtue of physical embodiment. Perhaps movies are superior morally to books, since these are more embodied (appealing to more of our senses) and generally are experienced socially in ways books are not.
Why do we aspire to immersion in literary worlds when the cost is so high? Would your life be better in all sorts of ways if you set aside that novel and got some exercise, spent time with a family member, or did something constructive like visit the sick?
How virtuous are your virtual environments — whether mediated by electrons or tree pulp? How embodied is your day to day experience? How physically present are your relationships? How real is the world where you live?