by John Ellis
To help explain the concept of hyperreality, Jean Baudrillard liked to draw his readers and listeners attention to Epcot Center. Commenting on the theme park’s World Showcase pavilions, the famed sociologist would ironically muse on how much “better” Disney’s version of Europe is than the real thing. Better food and less travel hassle, Baudrillard claimed. That’s a crass yet helpful distillation of the complex concept of hyperreality. Everything that can be “xeroxed” is real; the “xeroxed” version is hyperreality. And the real is ending.
After moving to Orlando from the Washington, D.C. area, I was astounded to discover the gulf between the number of tourists that visit each city every year. Knowing that both places play host to scores of tourists, I never would’ve guessed that the difference is over 50 million tourists a year (these numbers are based on pre-pandemic levels); Orlando sees around 75 million tourists a year, the DMV around 22 million.
Tagged the happiest place on earth, Walt Disney World is the most visible face of the Orlando area’s coveted commodity of hyperreality. Overflowing with theme parks, themed restaurants, gilded attractions, water parks, decadent malls, and chain restaurants that Sinclair Lewis pointed out over a century ago allow us to never leave our constructed yet ultimately fake comfort, Orlando is seen by many as heaven on earth. Moving from phenomena to phenomena, tourists place their experiences on a constructed grid that has the goal of accomplishing nothing more than providing us with the wafer-thin concepts of freedom and happiness. As the philosopher Rick Roderick frequently pointed out, for our modern definitions of freedom and happiness to flourish, it’s vital that our collectively constructed and mostly indeterminate (ever changing) grid goes about the business of erasing what it means to be a real human. From a Christian perspective, that translates into erasing what it means to be made in God’s image.
Being an Uber driver, I have a front seat (literally) to the gushing expectations of the tourists who flock here to put their worries behind them and enjoy their time in a place where tears are no more, only good things happen, and happiness is the payout. Make no mistake, though, their worship of Orlando’s hyperreality plays far and wide in their everyday life back home, too. Orlando is simply (possibly) the greatest iteration of our collective desire for the xeroxed version over and above the real. Orlando represents our collectively constructed grid of hyperreality. The real is not allowed entrance into the happiest place on earth.
It’s not only theme parks that create the hyperreality that is shaping our lives and expectations. Movies, streaming services, social media, gaming, pornography, the advertising industry, etc. all serve in shaping our experiences and expectations. Hyperreality urges us, so we’re led to believe, that self-actualization is an option (among options). Our identity is pulled out of a closet. Our ideologies can be purchased cheaply and changed often. The reality of flesh and blood neighborhoods (and neighbors) is swamped in our minds by the compressed, idealized versions that play out over and over on our screens. Sex between a flesh and blood man and a flesh and blood woman is in competition with the self-serving ability to create or find sexual gratification via a virtual super-id(entity) that allows us to deny the complexities and messiness of real sex, of real relationships. Teaching methods are catered to our specific learning style so that we don’t have to suffer any tension. Our therapeutic age seeks to ensure that we can exercise our power – a power that doesn’t bind us to anything transcendent (meaning that we’re no longer bound to each other). And round and round the shiny carousel goes, dazzling us with spectacle.
The ethics of hyperreality tempt all of us to create a reality centered on ourselves (and this is largely what Nietzsche meant when he said that God is dead). We can make a “xerox” copy of whomever and whatever we want to be. Listen to the commercials, really listen. Pay attention to the billboards, really pay attention. Read with care the flyers from realtors that are stuffed in your mailbox. The postmodern(ity) option (and desire) for hyperreality is a partially constructed Tower of Babel. Its steps are short and smooth. No stubbed toes on the way up. No decorations on the Tower’s walls that will cause us to contemplate our real condition; contemplation is for affirmation, coping, and hiding from reality, after all.
The big business of religion is no different. In his profound book Desiring the Kingdom, philosopher James K. Smith paints the picture of a place. He doesn’t tell us what this place is until the end of the description. He doesn’t need to because we already know. It’s a gleaming edifice to the American Dream. The place where all our desires and wishes can be fulfilled, on our terms and at our leisure. It’s a mall.
Except, those who’ve read the book know the truth. It’s not a mall; it’s a church. A contemporary, evangelical church in the United States of America. Smith’s intuition pump is jarring. The parallels are not hyperbolic and are undeniable. The white evangelical church in America has “xeroxed” the American Dream and brazenly gilded it with the sacred. “You can have God and a double mocha latte, it’s your right! You can have God and find temporal feelings of self-fulfillment and affirmation, it’s your right! You can have God and your god, it’s your right!”
Existing downstream of contemporary culture, white evangelicalism in America has succeeded (unwittingly?) in creating a xerox of an already xeroxed “reality.” The American Dream is, in and of itself, hyperreality. What does it mean when churches create their own hyperrealities of a hyperreality? What are the consequences? Whatever they are, they’re eternal.
Reality – real reality – is hard, often; it pricks and pains. It groans, to use Paul’s word in Romans 12. And it groans for something specific. In turn, reality anguishes – despairs; the despair that prompts its groaning. All created by sin and Sin’s Curse. That’s real.
Hyperreality caters to us by promising to relieve all tension, to remove despair. In turn, that for which creation groans is no longer needed except as a portion of our hyperreality that serves us in the here and now. Sadly, our religious experiences are often mediated via that same Tower of Babel. And it doesn’t really have to change anything in the gospel, just ignore parts of God’s Story by overemphasizing the bits and pieces that fit comfortably on our grid to the point of excluding the bits and pieces that make us feel less affirmed and worthy. The lyrics of a song that has received heavy rotation on Christian radio stations demonstrates the embrace of hyperreality by white evangelicals:
“When he told you you’re not good enough/When he told you you’re not right/When he told you you’re not strong enough to put up a good fight/When he told you you’re not worthy/When he told you you’re not loved/When he told you you’re not beautiful/You’ll never be enough/Fear, he is a liar.”
Fear is not a liar. Not always. Rarely, even.
We’re not worthy. We’re not strong enough to put up a good fight. We’re not right. We’re sinners in desperate need of God. Hence, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It’s currently popular (and right) to urge followers of Jesus to continue to preach the gospel to ourselves, to avoid seeing it as a one-off transactional event. Unfortunately, unable and/or unwilling to extricate ourselves from our culture, our self-preaching of the gospel often mirrors the self-affirmations of Stuart Smalley.
You see, the gospel also includes bad news. It’s a reminder of our rebellion. It’s a reminder that creation is groaning for the return of the King. This world is not all right. Our lives are not okay. We’re not good enough. We’re not smart enough. And, doggonit, we’re not likeable. We’re a mess because the world’s a mess. This – right now, where you’re at – is not God’s intention for His creation and His people, even if you live in a McMansion, drive an Audi, vacation in Europe, volunteer at the soup kitchen, march for social justice (or not), vote for the “right” candidate, and don’t covet your neighbor’s wife.
Jesus came to save God’s people from our sins. But our salvation is not complete. One day, on that Day, Jesus will return to make all things right. But that Day is not here. Not yet. And that truth – that tension and its accompanying pains, struggles, and failures – is at odds with contemporary culture.
In America, it’s easy for followers of Jesus to conflate temporal expectations with the Kingdom. There is a tension, a despair, in the here and now that God has called us to groan under and grow through. But tension/despair is disallowed in our age. As an antidote to that tension, we’re offered hyperreality. The American Dream, even in its crunchy, green iterations, doesn’t stomach groanings.
The most insidious aspect of white evangelicalism’s embrace of hyperreality is its embrace (unwittingly, at best) of the Serpent-Satan’s lie that we are already in God’s Place meaning that we are in the place of God. It’s the initial lie. We can be like God, meaning that we can be God.
It’s no coincidence that the city the Bible uses as the literary stand-in for Satan’s domain is Babylon. A city famed for its hanging gardens. The New Jerusalem, God’s place, is a city built around a garden. Satan’s place is a xeroxed copy of the real. And we’d prefer the real to disappear so that we can go about the business of enjoying the hyperreal.
Think about how we in America (most of us) live our lives. Our cupboards are stocked with more than we need. Our tables overflow with sumptuousness. Our transition from place to place is done in comfort. Our abodes are palaces. Our lives are luxurious by any and every historical definition of the word not situated on our 21st century grid of hyperreality. We have nothing to fear because happiness, however we define it, and we always define it, is attainable, even within our faith communities. It’s the hyperreality of Babylon’s project of mirroring God’s place. Heaven on earth is possible because heaven is defined by us.
We don’t put it that way, though. In fact, we reject it, at least out loud. But words are products of culture, not the other way around. Happiness depends on the lie. On denying the truth that we accept and promote the Lie.
We, those of us who call ourselves God’s people, have bought the lie that God wants us to flourish in the here and now. It’s a xeroxed lie, to be sure. God does want us to flourish in the here and now. He desires for us to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus. He desires for us to be conformed to the image of the Son. But that’s not our preferred flourishing. Not even when we gild flourishing with Christian cultic symbols/language. Flourishing in God’s economy is denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following our suffering Savior. To grasp this flourishing requires tension/despair. And despair is the opposite of self-affirmation.
We’re not good enough. We’re not smart enough. And, doggonit, we’re not likeable. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Like God’s people in the Old Covenant, God hasn’t chosen any of us because of our worth or desirability.
Yet, we believe that since God loves us our birthright is happiness and comfort in the here and now. The American Dream is the xeroxed version of holiness and sanctification. We’ve traded the real for the hyperreal. We do not groan alongside creation because we believe that we can redeem it. And by “redeem” it, we mean within the parameters of our collectively constructed grid of hyperreality. Groaning is not allowed.
Joy is not the same as happiness. And one of God’s gifts is the joy in knowing that even in the tensions God’s love is secure, no matter what. We’re called to be a better people in a better place. Even in our childish grabbing at the spectacle of Satan’s hyperreality nothing can separate God’s children from God’s love. We, those of us who are repenting or our sins and placing our faith in Jesus, are being conformed to the image of the Son. We are being made whole. And one day we will be brought into an eternity of flourishing as God intends. The question is, where does our hope lie? Do we grieve at how deceitful our hearts are? Do we despair at how in love with Satan’s hyperreality we are? Are we willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus fully? Doing so will likely require the surrender of our cultural power and its accompanying comforts. Salvation is found via the path of despair.
Soli Deo Gloria
As an explanatory addendum, of sorts: Structuralism (Barthes, Althusser, Levi-Strauss, et al.) believed in their/our ability to find the “Eternal Man.” An ideal hero/human who IS also nature. A fake Christ. An imposter Jesus. Modernity embraces this. Poststructuralism, on the other hand, scoffs at this, and rightfully so, and destroys the myth. Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality helps expose the fraud of the “Eternal Man.” In doing so, we’re also confronted with the fraud of our existence. The question/solution is, and a question/solution that Derrida, Baudrillard, et al. rejected, is are we willing to lay aside our idol of the “Eternal Man” and all its outworkings and submit in humility to the Eternal God-Man? Doing so demands despair, a willful laying aside of power and comfort as we follow Him. The question remains, though, what does that look like in 21st century America? I know this: it doesn’t look like white evangelicalism.
 Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1920). It would be interesting (and instructive) to read poststructuralist essays on Main Street.