icognito2I had a strange insight today: We walk among legends.

Here I am ordering my normal Monday lunch at Togo’s Sandwiches: a hot #9 on white with mayo, provolone, lettuce, onions, peppers. Add jalapeno chips and a Dr. Pepper. I patiently wait for my sandwich to be constructed and with a look to the patron on my right, I am struck with the thought that he might be an absolute legend in a world that I know not.

He looks like a normal dude. Vintage Maui & Sons t-shirt. Flip-flops. He eats normal, I suppose, apart from the fact that he like pickles, the most repulsive food on the planet. But, even though the possibility is small, this young man might just be a world conqueror, a magic conjurer, an unholy combination of Chuck Norris and Darth Vader.

What do I mean? In typical Leviathan fashion, let’s take the long way ‘round.

How do we conceive of ourselves? What makes up human identity?

As a Christian, I might answer (with no small amount of piety) that my identity is found in Jesus Christ and no other. Yes. This is true. But you know and I know that the contours of human identity have much to do with the life we experience, the loved ones we surround ourselves with, and the vocation with which God has entrusted us. Who am I? Well, I am first and foremost…
…a man redeemed by the blood of Christ, made righteous by his death and resurrection.
…a man claimed by God in the waters of baptism, chosen and holy, participating in a project of kingdom restoration until God makes his reign manifest for all time.

These are features that cannot be removed, altered or reasoned away—precisely because God himself has declared these realities into being. They are not up for discussion.

Yet, I am also:
…Harrison, Faye, and Benaiah’s da-da.
…Tiffany’s main squeeze.
…Son of Norb and Jackie; brother to Shem, Seth, and Sara.

These particular components of identity, while subservient to my identity in Christ, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. This list was not borne of God’s command in the most direct sense, but instead, these identities were made from acts of human will, will that was given in freedom by a God who wants all good things for his children. Family is the first manifestation of human-to-human community found in Scripture, not only the proclamation that it is ‘not good for man to be alone,’ but also that man and woman shall form family-communities of their own, a two-person identity that branches off from their parents into something altogether unique. What I am suggesting is that we cannot halt all discussion about identity by saying ‘we are Christ’s,’ immeasurably true as that fact is.

When I think of who I am, it is not wholly restricted to God’s declaration or my sense of family, for I am also:
…a man who loves to teach theology to students who little or no experience with ‘God-talk.’
…a man who spends his spare time reading young-adult fiction and playing an occasional match of TF2 or BF4.
…a man who is seeking to use his circles of influence to advance thoughtful conversation about transhumanism.
…a man who is desperately trying to grow the graduate program in his care.incognito1

I want to spend the duration of this post speaking to this last level of identity; that is, the way we tend to understand ourselves in light of the activities we perform. While placing my identity in my actions may be less true than my absolute identity in Christ, if I was honest with myself, I would have to admit that my daily moods are most affected by the things that I do, not the reality of what I am. I would love to have the mental and spiritual fortitude to consider all I do as rubbish before the Almighty God who makes me his own, but deep down I know that my efforts in life often define my success or failure as a person. Yikes.

Applying a weird sort of algebra, then:

  • Joel’s identity is safe IF he is able to winsomely communicate theology to brain-dead 19 year-olds.
  • Joel’s identity is safe IF he has influence in theological circles and his graduate program actually grows.
  • Joel’s identity comes into question WHEN his class continually fails to grasp the nature of Law-Gospel.
  • Joel’s identity comes into question WHEN he can’t this, can’t that, measure up to this, hit that number, and on and on.

Identity is slippery—especially when I so easily allow my efforts in life to be the central driving force in my identity’s status. That’s why, when someone loses their job, they often fall headfirst into questions like, ‘who am I, now that this has been taken away from me?’ Without grounding in Christ, the world has two traditional avenues for the individual to conceive of human identity—what the person was born with and what he/she does with his/her life. The first is genetic and sets you on your way for better or worse, and the second is the measuring stick by which you set your life up in comparison to those around you.

But this is changing. Dramatically.

The online world of gaming and virtual reality is now throwing this tidy little system of identity formation into chaos. If you are one of the 180 million active gamers/virtual reality users in the US–or even if you use an avatar-based social platform–you understand that you are more than your genetic code, even more than your actions on this side of the screen. A whole different you is involved in the digital world…it’s still you, but not in the same sense.

While placing my identity in my actions may be less true than my absolute identity in Christ, if I was honest with myself, I would have to admit that my daily moods are most affected by the things that I do, not the reality of what I am.

Author Clay Shirky had this to say about the freshly tilled terrain of modern identity-making: “The old view of online as a separate space, cyberspace, apart from the real world, was an accident of history. Back when the online population was tiny, most of the people you knew in your daily life weren’t part of that population. Now that computers and increasingly computerlike phones have been broadly adopted, the whole notion of cyberspace is fading. Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are part of it” [1]. The real and virtual worlds are becoming one.

January 27, 2014, was a normal day. Except it wasn’t. Legends were born. On this day, one of the largest battles in the history of online gaming happened—all because a dude forgot to pay a bill. Read about it here. Eve Online is a spectacular achievement in the gaming industry; it’s a massive multiplayer game set in space with thousands of star systems, a half million subscribers, and a virtual world with its own culture, language, currency, etiquette, and (of course) alliances [2]. And on this normal Monday work-day, all hell broke loose and a grand tale of conquest was born. The battle was so epic, a Wikipedia link was created as if it were real history, akin to the Battle of the Bulge. Over 7,000 players contributed over $300,000 worth of capital ships all to fight over a virtual space station.

“Where were you today? I saw you didn’t come into work…”
“My commander sent out an emergency hail for all available star-fighters. I answered the call and invaded system B-R5RB in an effort to tip the balances of galactic power.”

Can anyone suggest that these participants, these soldiers(?), weren’t engaged in a real experience of teamwork, trust, and coordination? I would, at this point, encourage Christians to respect this world and not dismiss it as the sophomoric acts of a few college kids, passing the time between Chem 1 and the Duke-UNC game. The third identity—one’s digital identity— is not a way-of-being that is distinct or remote from normal life. It is normal life. One’s virtual existence is NOT virtual; the avatar life is constitutive piece of the individual’s world and his/her understanding of how the world works.

The part of our identity that is borne of the will (that is, what we choose to be) is under terrific stress, precisely because more people are shunning the natural habitat of the Self grounded in traditional definitions of real-ness and moving them ever-closer to the identities they live out in a digital world. Consider that if you asked a person who was immersed in an alternate online identity if they’ve been directly impacted by another avatar or had some sort of presence in an online community, the answer would overwhelmingly be ‘yes.’ Virtual worlds do not create virtual impact. Real worlds do. Therefore, virtual or not, these worlds are having actual impact on our identity. Again, the virtual world is not virtual.

We might walk among legends every day. Who knows if the girl at the checkout counter of Forever 21 moonlights as Orange County’s premier Madden player? Who knows if the middle-aged suit who serves you as an insurance adjuster goes home at night to become a warlock known (literally) by a million other people around the world? Maybe the rusted out Honda Civic you just passed on the highway was being driven by a commander of a space fleet 7,000 ships strong, lost in thought about how to launch the invasion of invasions tomorrow—to be talked about decades into the future. Is it un-Christian to think that these people have real identities, regardless of the real-ness of the world in which these identities are known?

Would you rather be known as the data-entry dude from three cubicles down, or the legendary Imperator who once invaded Jupiter’s moons? I know my answer. And I also know my answer would leave me a little downcast.

If the virtual world is, in fact, the shadow world of choice for many of your friends and neighbors, how can the real world compete?


© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[1] Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus (New York: Penguin, 2010), 37.
[2] I once tried to play this game on a free 30-day trial and gave up after day 2 because the learning curve was so steep. It felt like I had been forced to fly a 747 from Dallas to Denver by myself, with only Siri there to help me. Fail.