Christians, the Purpose of Art, and Virtual Reality

Christians, the Purpose of Art, and Virtual Reality

women wearing a virtual reality headset
What is the purpose of art? That's a very big question and I'm not at all qualified to give an answer, but a recent interview got me thinking. The interview was with Chris Milk, the founder of a VR app company that makes the VR workout app Supernatural. Now, I pretty much use Supernatural on the Oculus Quest 2 every day to exercise in the comfort of my home and it's pretty great. The best way to describe it is as if you were using dual lightsabers to knock black and white drowns out of the air in exotic locations around the world to various kinds of music. (We discussed this and more about Oculus VR in a recent episode of my podcast Secrets of Technology.)

What I found interesting about the interview was Milk's discussion of the purpose of art and creative endeavors. He is interested in how entertainment is evolving with technology and what comes next. We've come from live performance and physical, static media to recorded performances to broadcast media and radio, TV, cinema, and now streaming. But where is it going?

He also asks the question of how to make something meaningful of these artistic media. Great art changes you or the world around you. How can new forms of media, like VR, continue to do that?

I think what’s cool is what we learned through the process of this, that if you can utilize all that same intangible magic of art and storytelling and crafted human experience, but calibrate it for a higher purpose; that rather than just entertainment, calibrate it to health, calibrate it to making your life last longer, making your life better from a day-to-day basis, let you have more energy, let you have a clearer head, let you be stronger. Then, you can actually use the power of art for a different purpose and one that actually does hold that original potential of changing someone’s life.

That's interesting to me. I hadn't thought about it before, but a lot of the popular artistic and creative work today is being put into entertainment. Movies, TV, streaming, music, games, books, podcasts, and all that are geared primarily toward entertainment. In a previous age (and in the present one, when we're talking about fine art), we could say the purpose of art is to reveal truth and beauty and the human condition and ultimately to reveal something to us about the ground of all being, God.

But somewhere along the way, popular art got very focused on entertainment. Now, there's nothing wrong with entertainment. Great art can entertain while also changing us and revealing truth to us (e.g. Shakespeare). But it seems to me that the preponderance of the purpose has shifted to entertainment.

Now you have this guy who's thinking about a higher purpose for creative endeavors and he wants to use "the magic of art and storytelling" to improve people's lives, to make them healthier and improve their lives. There's certainly nothing wrong with that.

But it does leave me wondering what Catholic creators are doing to use these new media, these new technologies to go back to the older purpose of art, to reveal something about God, to express the nature of God and the human condition.

Obviously, we can't replace in-person worship with a VR Mass. But for decades, we've offered the Mass via television for those who are homebound and can't get to Mass. For most of 2020 and into 2021, we've offered streamed Masses over the internet for those who couldn't go to Mass in-person during the pandemic. But watching on a screen doesn't have the immersive feeling that sitting in your own church in your own pew would have, the ability to enter into the moment. Sure, it's not as good as being there in reality would be, but if you can't be there in person, why not make it as fulfilling as it can be with a VR livestreamed experience from your parish? Or from St. Peter's on the Easter Vigil? Or any amazing church around the world? Or in the midst of a candlelit pilgrimage at Lourdes?

The vast majority of Catholics will never be able to go on pilgrimage to Rome or the Holy Land or the Camino de Santiago, but what if you could go in VR? Or tour the Vatican Museums and see the beautiful art up close, closer than you ever could in person?

What if we could gather with extended family or friends, scattered around the country or around the world to talk, to laugh, to pray together?

What if we could interact with saints or apostles in interactive, immersive VR stories from their lives? What if we could stand beside St. Paul in the Aeropagus as he preached the Gospel? Or with St. Patrick in Ireland? St. Francis Xavier on his epic journey to Asia?

My point is that the possibilities for using these new forms of art using new technology and media should be explored by Christians. In fact, we should be in the forefront of exploring how these can be used to spread the Gospel, share the Good News, build up the kingdom, and bring truth and beauty and goodness to the whole world. I don't mind if Hollywood and Silicon Valley do what they do in producing entertainment and improve our physical and mental health, but the Church needs to do what we do in improving our spiritual health. We need to get out in front.

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