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on 22 October 2009
Do buy this book but please don't start with chapter one. Douglas Estes has got too many really good things to say for you to be possibly put off giving him a hearing because he has gone over-board with his opening rhetoric. Read chapter one after you've gone with Estes to the end it's worth it.

Basically, he argues that computer-mediated environments such as SecondLife offer the potential for Christians to be a serious presence online not just for themselves but for others too. Estes is an enthusiast for virtual Christian community but recognizes that particular problems come along with the opportunities for connecting with people of diverse backgrounds in an environment that often proves much less threatening that traditional church for many people.

Practicing Christian spirituality in online forms of worship and prayer excites Estes and he opens up insightful discussions on what this might mean for the sacraments, particularly of eucharist and baptism. Using an online avatar to participate with others in worship and fellowship takes a bit of getting used to and Estes begins to unpack some of the ethical issues arising in online relating.

The greatest value in this book lies in finding yourself asking profound questions about the way many real-life churches practice Christian faith when it first appears that this book is about churches in virtual worlds. True, Estes's concern is to fly a flag for virtual churches but he resists evaluating them simply in terms of their more established flesh and blood cousins. Whilst `simulation' (and all that the anxiety this engenders) is at the forefront, Estes holds up a mirror and lets real-world churches see something of their own reflection. For example, the challenges to being a community in a computer-mediated environment seem obvious but Estes's approach is to gently point out how impoverished and/or problematic being community often turns out to be in a real-life culture of commuting to church, wearing psychological masks, and relating only to those who share our income-bracket or cultural values. Estes is not out to deconstruct `church' - he clearly believes in its capacity for good, its biblical legitimacy and its missional potential - but his critique is penetrating.

Authority is a dimension to which Estes gives considerable attention, not least because it hovers around many discussions about church (across a range of denominations). His solution of encouraging Christians of orthodox perspectives to be active in virtual worlds is a laudable one. Those who either see orthodoxy differently or have no desire to be `orthodox' are free to do the same - and in this way virtual worlds are no different from real life. The freedom to search, evaluate, put down roots or move on is what any visitor to a part of a virtual world practices. Estes is clearly concerned that people find `authentic' expressions of Christian community in virtual worlds. The content we place into that term `authentic' is what we carry over with us from real life when we log-on. We can disagree with Estes as to his understanding of `authenticity' but still value his helping us think through the issues.

He does, sometimes, tend to over-simplifications and this lack of critical consideration appears in his discussion of prayer: `the virtual world innately encourages the best of individual and intercessory prayer practices' (p.112). The same virtual world could be just as effective at nurturing bad habits.

It's in his first chapter that I think Estes gets off on the wrong foot. He begins with a bold assertion: `Today a new community of the people of God has begun'. He is immediately setting up an erroneous universalizing that implies a homogenous `new community'. The diversity of Christian communities needs to be fully acknowledged, especially so that norms against which they'll be judged are not set by the most wealthy or powerful inside or outside virtual worlds. Similarly, he is framing the discussion in terms of a radical discontinuity (`new'), as if relationships in the virtual world have no connection to those in the material one. His discussion of the sacraments doesn't fall into this trap, however.

I have doubts about how Estes's basic view of the internet. He claims it is a `mighty force' (p.18) which would suggest he slips unwittingly into a high level of technological determinism. Similarly, to suggest that 20% of the world's population having internet access is the same as being `in direct communication with each other' ignores so many cultural, political and symbolic differences. Similarly, we need to be cautious about seeing the internet as a `paradigm shift' (p.19). It's worth considering whether the generation before us who first became able to speak to one another over the telephone were perhaps the ones who experienced something like a paradigm shift. This seems a moot point but I think it's vital that we see the continuities between internet and earlier technologies so that we keep our minds open to solutions that have been worked in non-digital contexts and not think that virtual worlds always need wholly new responses. I'm not saying this is something that Estes always does in this book, far from it as his section on the sacraments shows. But, first impressions are important.

Nevertheless, a rather over-hyped first chapter shouldn't put you off giving Estes a good hearing for the remainder of the book. He's got lots of excellent things to say.
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