I suddenly realized the last four buildings I had driven past had an exterior somewhat inconsistent with the business it housed. Taco Bell is not a Spanish mission, Long John Silvers isn’t a fisherman’s shack and dock, and a lumber yard isn’t a Swiss Chalet. These structures were obviously stylized to create a positive feeling in passers-by, thereby drawing them inside. That was the summer of 1967.
In the 70’s I worked in fashion merchandising when the term “active sportswear” was coined. Manufacturers and Madison Avenue created a huge market for apparel which gave the impression that the wearer was, for example, a tennis competitor, when, in reality, they had no intention of actually playing. This trend signaled another slight social shift; one was no longer expected to be what he appeared to be. As long as one could afford the costume, he may give the impression of a limitless number of lifestyles and interests.
Today, those things seem hardly worthy of notice; mere flirtations with make-believe compared to the hyped, hi-tech, hard-core fantasies of the twenty-first century. The unreal has taken a forward position in much of American life. Movie and TV stars, sports heroes, celebrities of all kinds set major trends in fashion, life style, philosophy, and values for millions of adoring fans. Unreal.
Sports entertain us with unreal conflicts. Movies and TV provide us with unreal dramas, unreal comedic laughter, and the seriously unreal ‘reality’ shows. Much of the news is also unreal; a one-dimensional slice of reality pressed thru the prism of someone’s socio-political agenda. Video games, galleries, and the internet offer virtual everything, a relatively new and potent genre of the unreal. Commenting on exploding internet use among teens, Tom Neven writes, “Although (online) networks are still in their infancy, experts think they’re already creating new forms of social behavior that blur the distinctions between online and real-world interactions. . .” (Dobson’s “Plugged In”, February 2006)
And then there is media religion; a sanctified unreal for the Christian spectator. Much of it is scripted, edited, dramatized, sanitized, and syndicated; a virtual spirituality from folks most of us will never actually observe, touch, or know. (1 Thess. 5:12 KJV) Some of it is surely commendable, but definitely inferior to the real.
C.S. Lewis observed that men learned to can green beans so they could be made available to more people, over greater lengths of time and distance. But, he lamented, what a sad day it would be when men came to prefer canned to fresh! Yet more and more professing Christians are finding their only spiritual inspiration and direction from books, videos, television, or the internet. Like the green beans, “canned” suits them just fine. Real is too much trouble.
A disturbing number of people in our society relate more consistently and meaningfully to the unreal than to the real. Businessmen, housewives, factory workers, and students daily venture into a veritable casino of images, ideas, and encounters which promise entertainment or enrichment but leave them spiritually depleted. The impact of this is already being felt in the churches. The unreal bores deep into people’s perceptions of truth, time, eternity, substance, and spirit.
Satan is the unreal master. Unreal is his currency; distortion, distraction, misinformation, and misdirection are his stock-in-trade. The 21st century is his coming out. He will be present in whatever bends and torques human perception. The average American mind is inundated with novelties, fantasies, horrors, and perversions which stimulate and saturate the imagination. These plunges into the bizarre are often the brainchild of the unreal wizards from around the globe. We are importing the best of the worst from every civilization.
“Why?” asks the preacher, “Why doesn’t the Word of God reach them? Why, year after year, do they nod, and smile, and dance, and sing, and yet never get it?”
The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, while unseen, is real, actual, beyond comprehension. His presence in and behind the cosmos gives substance and consistency to everything we perceive with our senses, and believe in our hearts. Because He is, we experience what is. (Coll. 1:15-17) When we try to communicate about what is unseen to someone preoccupied with the unreal, the result is frequently disappointing.
Imagination is perhaps the human faculty which is most like the Creator. Our imagination is seemingly limitless in its capacity to envision, respond, and create. It may be, in fact, the reservoir intended by God to receive, process, and store revelation from the unseen realm. As a spiritual resource, the imagination may be illuminated and configured by the Holy Spirit to serve both the mind and the human spirit.
With mind and imagination soaked in the unreal, with conscience and creative faculties violated by corrupt communication, sadly, many believing souls find themselves hard-wired to the limitless library of fantasy and foolishness they have catalogued inside. Concepts like God, heaven, the Spirit, sin, faith, and grace become vague and elusive to hearts whose spiritual sensibilities have been numbed by noise and nonsense. The quiet, intuitive voice of the Spirit has nowhere to resonate amid the jangling, frenzied mechanics of an over-stimulated psyche.
Quite earnestly these damaged souls find a niche for these spiritual concepts alongside the hundreds of other bigger-than-life ideas and personages stored inside. But rather than becoming spiritual assets, they frequently translate into just another few bytes of drama-data, pigeon-holed in the ‘spiritual side’ of a tragically impaired person.
The emergence of this strain of Christian has taken place in my lifetime. Of course, there are varying degrees of this pollution, but the point is, relating and ministering to these souls will be a major challenge in the decades ahead. They don’t reject the message; they’ve just gambled away the faculty to do much with it.
How are we to respond to this cultural and spiritual challenge? “When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him.” (Is. 59:19) Thankfully, God always “breaks through” in every generation, making known His presence, and demonstrating His power to heal even the most messed up, muddled minds.
But in the meantime, we must remember why we’re here. God expects men and women of faith to be real in the most profound sense. Pretense, hypocrisy, posturing, double-talk, half-truth, manipulation, nor exploitation should be practiced among us. Forthrightness, transparency, and integrity must characterize our conduct, making it difficult for those watching to trivialize the gospel message. And we must protect those things in us that are real, and deliberately starve our appetite for the unreal. This means being fiercely loyal to the Word of God and the leadership of the Spirit, the most real influences in our lives!
Only by handling the genuine do we become sensitive to the counterfeit. Responsibility rests with us, individual believers and families, to “make a wall” (Ezekiel 22:30) between the real and the unreal that our family and friends can see and understand. For those who have experienced the life changing touch of Jesus Christ, living any other way would be just . . . well, unreal.
“But we know when He is revealed we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” – 1 John 3:2
The Antioch Letters; Spring 2006