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Fall 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 2 · pp. 166–76 

Virtual Transcendence and Homelessness of the Heart: Culture and the Witness of Presence

Alison Lentini

On the cusp of the millennium, American popular culture veers between extremes of superabundance and impoverishment. Technological wizardry, material affluence, and the cult of entertainment cannot fully erase the inarticulate ache that proceeds from the destruction of spiritual foundations. The deep conversation that emerges in this context between contemporary culture and biblical theology is a dialogue between absence and presence.

The local church may participate in a profound humanization of culture, becoming, by the exercise of grace, “a magnet in a scrap-iron life” and “a door of day in a weary night.”


If God had a face, what would it look like?

And would you want to see, if seeing meant that you would have to believe

In things like Heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets?

Eric Bazilian, “One of Us”
(Polygram Records, 1995)

The unparalleled reach of popular music, surpassing even television in its ability to shape a shared global and commercial culture out of Babelic {167} diversity, makes it a heady vehicle for today’s “other gospels.” By any standard, 1998 was a banner year for spiritual commerce in the pop marketplace. Major artists exploited the electronic entertainment village—a colossus composed of speed-of-light networks of radio, television, and cyberspace—to promote a casual hybridization of world religions to an audience eager for musical and spiritual mixology. 2

Madonna, who capitalized on America’s twin cults of consumerism and sexuality as a “material girl in a material world” in the 1980s, made an overt bid for spiritual influence in 1998. Her Grammy-winning Ray of Light married dance-electronica to the teachings of Kabbalah, Eastern mysticism, and California pop transcendentalism, selling over ten million records internationally. Recalling her sacrilegious treatment of Roman Catholic iconography a decade earlier, Madonna’s performance of traditional Hindu sacred music at the 1998 MTV Video Awards, followed by a bump-and-grind dance sequence, won her the ire of yet another major world religion.

On MTV, Canadian pop singer Alanis Morissette wandered nude through an anonymous urban landscape, as passersby reverently drew near to lay hands upon her. “Thank you India / thank you terror,” she sang in a nihilistic litany: “Thank you disillusionment / thank you nothingness / thank you clarity / thank you, thank you silence.” 3 Seamlessly fusing depth psychology and Eastern philosophy, she testified to her liberation from bulimia, ambition, and destructive relationships, concluding with the psychospiritual exhortations: “how ’bout no longer being masochistic / how ’bout remembering your divinity / how ’bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out / how ’bout not equating death with stopping.” 4 Like Madonna, Morissette bypassed organized religion on the road to enlightenment. “Baba,” her scathing portrait of a guru catering to the rich and empty pilgrims of the West, warned against reliance upon external spiritual leadership, declaring, “I’ve seen them overlooking god in their own essence.” 5 Morissette will shortly make her film debut, playing God in the upcoming Dogma, described by Miramax Films as a comedic, politically correct update of the Bible.

Another key voice in the 1998 “Spirit Wave” was singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher, who rocketed into the pop limelight with a ready-made rags-to-riches life story and a uniquely American spiritual formation. Raised on an Alaskan homestead by Mormon parents, and challenged in a Native American ceremony to speak prophetically from her heart to the world, Jewel exudes millennial optimism. Her albums and official Website are peppered with inspirational quotations: “Be the difference that makes a difference”; “We are loved beyond our ability to {168} comprehend”; “In the end, only kindness matters”; “If I could tell the world just one thing, it would be that we’re all OK.” 6

Her triple-platinum album, Spirit (1998), referenced Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (“We are not separate from spirit; we are in it”), and proclaimed: “Come on you unbelievers, move out of the way / There is a new army coming and we are armed with faith.” 7 Jewel’s vision of a humanitarian movement fueled by the energy of youth and prayer, coming at the end of a century of historical tragedy and rising unbelief, earned her an invitation to sing at the 1998 Papal Christmas Eve Mass from Vatican City. (In a postmodern twist, she headlined a benefit the following month for Zero Population Growth.) Jewel’s credo, in keeping with the mood of the day, situated the fallen self at the center of spirituality with the solipsistic formula: “We will all be Christed when we hear ourselves say / We are that to which we pray.” 8


As C. S. Lewis noted in The Screwtape Letters (1942), the human propensity for fashioning idols achieves one of its closest counterfeits when worshipers reverence the small gods of their own private religious experiences, rather than the self-revealing, iconoclastic God himself. 9 If the most basic work of theology is to “talk about God,” then the postmodern age, with its deification of experience and openness to multiple truths, is an age in which all people may become theologians, expounding free-form systems of redemption without constraint of Scripture or tradition. However, the flood of personal revelations and multivalent religious signs accosting seekers at the end of the century obscures a key problem: The core of the Judeo-Christian sacred has been hollowed out by the dismissal of the authoritative and transformative Word.

In The Humiliation of the Word (1985), sociologist and philosopher Jacques Ellul chronicled the modern degradation of the word by the image, and the progressive superseding of the verbal by the visual. 10 These processes are easily recognizable in American society. The next step in the undermining of meaning has been the rise of the virtual. Technological simulations of reality—from children’s electronic toys and teen fantasy role-playing to adult cyberporn—exploit age-old appetites for novelty, pleasure, and power, and invite observers to immerse themselves in and interact with “worlds” of pure inauthenticity. 11 The phenomenon of the “virtual sacred” situates itself within the dislocating schism between technology and religious experience.

In an essay examining the resurgence of interest in Gregorian chant, Katherine Bergeron (1995) described a form of spiritual consumerism {169} that feeds upon the illusion of timelessness and transcendence while remaining detached from the structures of historical belief and community that are intrinsic to Christian faith. 12 The “virtual sacred” is an indeterminate space in which the sacred is neither fully present nor fully absent. Like the amorphous syncretism of popular music, other manifestations of the virtual sacred—e.g., angelology, prayer labyrinths, hagiographic Websites, and the marketing of Native American and African shamanic objects—attest to the hunger for mystical experience in a culture which has chosen a self-imposed “famine of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11, NIV) rather than obedience.


In past centuries, writers and readers alike delighted in the metaphor of Nature as a book yielding up intricate, revelatory meanings. Postmodern authors such as Douglas Coupland, the leading voice of Generation X fiction, salvage stories from the dazzling, anti-natural universe of artifice birthed by technology and mammon. Here, logos devolves into commercial logos—Calvin Klein, McDonalds, Nike—and meaning atomizes into unreadable bits of information, denuded of context and feeling. The imaginary periodic tables of elements that bracket Coupland’s novel, Shampoo Planet (1992), enumerate the building blocks for the Age of Inauthenticity in the uninflected non-speech of computerized code: “Microwave Zodiac God Mall . . . Deletion Simulation Aspartame Millennium.” 13 All is surface; nothing is salient.

The metaphysics of communication have been radically altered by the universality of electronic mail, pagers, faxes, and eighty million cellular phones. Both identity and inhibition are deconstructed by the new technologies. Virtual courtships between fictive selves spring up online; computer-mediated support groups redefine the therapeutic community. The humanistic model of communication as an encounter between an authentic “I” and an authentic “Thou” has been replaced by the efficiency-driven exchange of information: the human dance reduced to downloading and uploading. Society has become one faceless, discontinuous “dangling conversation.”

Coupland’s Microserfs (1995) are the whiz kids and computer programmers of Seattle and Palo Alto, whose intelligence and ambition drive the creation of ever-more-powerful idols of silicon and light. Inhabiting the digital culture of instant obsolescence, they confess in unguarded moments: “The only thing that is immune to change is our desire for meaning.” 14 As high-tech nomads whose only fixed addresses {170} exist in the virtual neighborhoods of cyberspace, they wistfully read signs along a suburban Oregon highway: “If you lived here, you would be home right now.” 15

Home, however, is elusive, foreclosed by broken marriages, geographic and historical rootlessness, and the absence of a spiritual center. In Life After God (1994), Coupland describes the internal cartography of an entire generation “raised without religion by parents who had broken with their pasts . . . who had raised their children clean of any ideology

. . . at the end of history.” 16 Divorce and the erasure of parental presence by the economic demands of the acquisitive society have left a generation of spiritual and emotional orphans, who are haunted by what they have lost: “[T]he price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; . . . irony is the price we paid for the loss of God.” 17

Barnaby Gaitlin, hero of Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet (1998), struggles into maturity with a strange secret. As a troubled adolescent, he burglarized the houses of his affluent hometown, motivated not by material greed, but by the compulsion to scan other people’s mail and love-letters, their family albums and sentimental mementos, for clues about the nature of families and home. 18 The intimate template has been shattered; yet, as demonstrated by Truman Burbank of The Truman Show, who obsessively attempts to assemble the fragmented face of the Beloved from scraps torn from beauty magazines, the quest for true human connection is unquenchable. The definition that one of Coupland’s Gen X characters advances for Heaven—”Heaven means feeling intimate forever” 19—is achingly close to the apostle Paul’s own hope: “[T]hen I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12, NIV).


My daddy gave me a name
Then he walked away.

Everclear, “Father of Mine” (Capitol Records, 1997)

Recent films, including The Truman Show (1998), Pleasantville (1998), and EdTV (1999), have explored the ambivalence of the unreal worlds fashioned by television. Less remarked upon in all three films is the theme of the missing father and the way that a postmodern theology of the Father originates not from analogy, as in previous generations, but from absence.

The Truman Show recalls unifying themes from Peter Weir’s films over two decades (The Last Wave, The Year of Living Dangerously, {171} Gallipoli, Witness): origins, personal transcendence, and the interweaving of the numinous within ordinary life. 20 Truman Burbank, a foundling “legally adopted by a corporation,” is placed under the distant, all-controlling tutelage of Christof, the “televisionary” director bent on transforming an entire human life into pure artifice (or possibly, pure artifice into a life) through the power of the image. Thirty years into the “program” that draws an audience of 1.7 billion in 220 countries, the veneer of Truman’s choreographed existence within the mechanistic, relentlessly bland confines of Seahaven begins to crack.

The intrusions that precipitate Truman’s crisis of consciousness are signs of the absent father who was “written out of the script” years ago, now presumed dead after a storm at sea. Traumatic memories of being torn from the father resurface, followed by his sighting, in the guise of a homeless man, amidst a sanitized Seahaven streetscape. When the father emerges at last from the cover of night and fog on a deserted bridge to embrace his son, the extraordinary longing radiating from Truman’s countenance expresses the deepest human desire for reconciliation. In a cynical dismantling of belief, the momentary reunion with the Prodigal Father is revealed to be mere stagecraft and sham, as the director outside of the frame of the story crows: “Great television!”

The deity created by the late twentieth-century imagination has a darker cast than the indifferent Eternal Clockmaker of Cartesian deism. Driven by the violence of history, perhaps the fundamental theological concern of the century has been theodicy, or the effort to reconcile the justice and sovereignty of God with the existence of evil. The all-seeing “God” of The Truman Show is, in the last analysis, the Abusive Father who raises his children in captivity, unleashes catastrophe for voyeuristic effect, and ruthlessly punishes human discernment and freedom. Truman’s odyssey to penetrate the hidden order of the universe leads him to the literal limit of the created world: the door leading out of Christof’s closed system into the realm of human self-determination. The film’s resolution glosses the doctrines of God’s omnipotence and human free will in support of Annie Dillard’s recent claim that “the notion of God the Semipotent has trickled down to the theologian in the street.” 21

The resident deity of Pleasantville 22—the jocular TV repairman who places two disenchanted, contemporary teens within a sterile, 1950s-era Paradise—is truly a deus ex machina, whose theophanies speak forth from a television set. However, when his creatures choose to reenact the Fall as an act of ontological and social liberation, altering the very fabric of reality through the introduction of sexuality, scandalous art, and independent thought, he too is shown to be powerless in the face of human {172} enterprise. Pleasantville smugly asserts Self as theological “first principle,” in the same spirit as a Zen koan (or sacred riddle believed to contain the kernel of enlightenment) which asks the seeker: “Before your mother or father were ever born, and thinking neither of good nor of evil, what was your original face?” The answer is expressed nonverbally, as the disciple boldly stands up from his posture of submission before the master to proclaim his own godhood and self-rule.

Writing from a German prison cell less than a year before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected: “The intermediate category between God and human fortune is, as far as I can see, that of blessing.” 23 The figure of God the Father as Divine Abandoner, whose abnegation thrusts his creatures either into lonely self-sufficiency or hubris, is answered with great depth and beauty by Bonhoeffer’s thought. The desert of blind determinism bursts into flower under the blessing of the Father, while the pilgrimage toward meaning leads finally to the biblical destination of “promise,” fully enfleshed in Christ, who is the Father’s great “Yes” and “Amen” to his children (2 Cor. 1:20).


How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?

Psalm 137:4 (NIV)

An age of absence calls for a witness of presence. Our responses as “pilgrims thro’ this barren land” define our discipleship in an increasingly alien culture, but also build creative and relational bridges, as did Jesus on the Emmaus road, which reveal the Father’s heart to those looking for a way home.

We Can Be Joyously Present
in the “Things that Remain”

Jacques Ellul reminds us that there are still realms of artistry left in a society that enthrones technique. 24 These are the domains where we find the meaning of work, whether in wood or words, and the goodness of fit designed by the Master for his and our pleasure. They are the places where we construct our marriages, continually rediscovering the holiness of the commonplace and the rich domestic sacraments of bed and table. They are the rooms filled with the riotous tenderness of our children’s lives, where the shaping and shepherding of minds and hearts push back the darkness for another generation, and echo the lovingkindness of the Covenant-Keeper. They are the dwellings of teaching and learning, {173} healing of body and soul, artistic creation and reception, and worship: redemptive spaces all, where we are invited to become fully human again. Like Samson at En Hakkore (Judg. 15:19), our faith cries out for the opening up of springs that will refresh and strengthen us in an embattled time.

We Can Be Present to One Another
as Relational Signs of Grace

Two recent novels, Walker Percy’s The Second Coming (1980) and Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe (1991), explore the complex process of conversion and brilliantly capture the disarming of the heart by grace mediated through relationship. When Will Barrett, Percy’s agnostic hero, searches for a sign that will cancel the legacy of death left by his father’s suicide, he finds the Christian South an unreadable wilderness, Balkanized into “the Christian Church, Church of Christ, Church of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of Christ in God . . .” 25 In a desperate Pascalian wager, he descends into the bowels of a Confederate cave to await the revelation of God’s existence, or his own death. His answer comes in an unexpected form: as Allie, an escapee from a mental hospital who welcomes him, half-dead, into the abandoned greenhouse that is her temporary home. Arriving at the threshold of agape by way of eros, Will Barrett muses, “Is she a gift and therefore a sign of a giver?” 26

Similarly, Saint Maybe’s Ian Bedloe, immobilized by guilt over two deaths he believes he caused, stumbles into The Church of the Second Chance: a makeshift community of “people who don’t know the answers,” but welcome human brokenness in all its forms and model the possibility of atonement and complete forgiveness. 27 Both literary spaces—greenhouse and storefront church—celebrate a divine hospitality that is spacious enough to embrace and impart value to the shattered heart. We also are privileged to prepare for one another a table where, in humility and vulnerability, we may partake together of the “gifts of God for the people of God”: especially the unforeseen gifts of paradox and suffering. Our practice of spiritual hospitality is incomplete until it extends beyond the household of faith, expressed in works of mercy and evangelism.

We Can Be Present to the Culture
through the Daily Work of Theology

When Evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch, writing in the 1980s, prophetically called for the rebirth of the church’s confessional witness, he addressed himself to an American church whose fascination with {174} political triumphalism and ideological polarization verged upon “going down to Egypt.” 28 To choose to live confessionally is a path both more creative and strenuous than the pursuit of mere relevance or influence. By committing ourselves daily to embodying a faithful, intelligible presence within a difficult and contradictory age, we are freed to work out a dialogic relationship with the surrounding culture. That dialogue, well-anchored in the safeguards of Scripture and community, can enrich and energize our own experience of the risen and living Word.

An immensely fruitful avenue for those of us who share the vocation to Christian scholarship is the revitalization of language and the recovery of voice. Having learned to wield the intellectual tools necessary to “live before Pilate” (Bruce Edwards’s excellent description of C. S. Lewis’s scholarly witness before the skeptical inquisitors of his day 29), we must now find our way to a language of witness and presence that is as dimensional and dynamic as the Shepherd’s voice: a language as personal as it is propositional, as robust as orthodoxy, yet as wild and tender as Love’s own call. This is a fundamentally theological endeavor and one worthy of a life’s work.

The local church, for its part, may participate in a profound humanization of culture, becoming, by the exercise of grace, “a magnet in a scrap-iron life” and “a door of day in a weary night.” 30 In a complex age rife with both unprecedented counterfeits and opportunities, pastoral ministry can stimulate the tradition of lay witness by equipping believers to discern the spirits of the day, and by summoning all to the daily transforming of the mind and the fresh articulation, in word and deed, of the substance of our faith. As we rest in the certain provision of the “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” that flow from the One whose Presence accompanies us through the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:3-4), and as we draw joy from his intimate table-fellowship with us, may our lives sing blessing and promise into a culture in disarray.


  1. For an expanded discussion of this topic, see Alison Lentini, “Lost in the Supermarket: Pop Music and Spiritual Commerce,” Spiritual Counterfeits Project Journal 22:4-23:1 (1999): 18-25. Excerpted by permission of Spiritual Counterfeits Project, Inc.
  2. Even the Vatican took advantage of this trend, releasing a compact disc of sacred music by Pope John Paul II, Abba Pater (New York: Sony Music, 1999).
  3. Alanis Morissette, “Thank U,” Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie {175} (Los Angeles: Maverick Records, 1998).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Alanis Morissette, “Baba,” Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.
  6. Official Jewel Website at; Jewel, “Hands,” Spirit (Los Angeles: WB Music, 1998).
  7. Jewel, “Life Uncommon,” Spirit.
  8. Jewel, “Innocence Maintained,” Spirit.
  9. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New York: Macmillan, 1961 <1942>), 25-27.
  10. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985).
  11. For an excellent exploration of the theology of cyberculture, see Tal Brooke, ed., Virtual Gods: The Seduction of Power and Pleasure in Cyberspace (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1997).
  12. Katherine Bergeron, “The Virtual Sacred,” New Republic 212 (1995): 29-34, quoted in Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 37-39.
  13. Douglas Coupland, Shampoo Planet (New York: Pocket, 1992), front and back end papers, unnumbered.
  14. Douglas Coupland, Microserfs (New York: Regan, 1995), 203.
  15. Ibid., 98.
  16. Douglas Coupland, Life After God (New York: Pocket, 1994), 178.
  17. Ibid., 273.
  18. Anne Tyler, A Patchwork Planet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).
  19. Coupland, Microserfs, 335.
  20. Peter Weir (dir.), The Truman Show (Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1998).
  21. Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 166.
  22. Gary Ross (dir.), Pleasantville (Los Angeles: New Line Cinema, 1998).
  23. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 205.
  24. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word.
  25. Walker Percy, The Second Coming (New York: Ivy, 1980), 12.
  26. Ibid., 328.
  27. Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).
  28. Donald G. Bloesch, Crumbling Foundations: Death and Rebirth in an Age of Upheaval (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 108-9.
  29. Bruce L. Edwards, “A Thoroughly Converted Man: C. S. Lewis in {176} the Public Square,” in David Mills, ed., The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 39.
  30. Michael Kelly Blanchard, “The Hope That Heals the Human Drought,” Mercy in the Maze (Unionville, CT: Quail Music, 1990).
Alison Lentini is a nurse, scholar, and regular contributor to the Berkeley, California-based Spiritual Counterfeits Project Journal. She practices community health nursing in New Jersey, with a specialty in Latino and immigrant health care, and is a member of the Princeton (Christian and Missionary) Alliance Church.

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