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Haute Couture isn’t really my thing. I get too much of my clothes at Target.

Just probably, however, I may understand a bit more about fashion than I know about gaming and the metaverse.

Last month on NPR there was an interview with a Croatian designer of virtual fashion. Yes, it’s a real thing. To ears like mine, it sounded like pure hokum, truly a modern version of the emperor’s new clothes. But Gala Marija Vrbanic designs virtual or cyber clothes. You wear it in photos, but you don’t really own an actual piece of clothing.

Gala Marija Vrbanic

Vrbanic explained that she noticed how certain fashionistas buy high-end clothing, post pictures of themselves wearing it on social media, and then resell the clothes at only the slightest loss. Moreover, gamers apparently spend considerable sums to dress their avatar in all the latest and coolest. Who knew? It suggests there is a market for virtual fashion. All of the cachet. None of the laundry. Less of the cost.

It seems somewhere between silly and stupid. Vain. Decadent. Wasteful. Indulgent. But not any more so than about 1000 other things we blithely accept. 

It was what Vrbanic said next that troubled me more. The interviewer pressed her about the future. “What’s next? Where might this lead?” Vrbanic suggested that it’s anyone’s guess. Our imaginations are too confined to begin even to explore where cyber fashion and virtual realities might lead.

She hypothesized that the day may soon come when people can present not just virtual fashion, but virtual selves. In the metaverse, a person might choose to be perceived as a flamingo or perhaps a flame. 

This sort of creeped me out. A world where walking toward me would be Bob the squid or Liz the blossom. I guess I would know that Bob and Liz were human, but I wouldn’t know what they actually looked like. I suppose we could also present ourselves as virtual people, with virtual hair plugs or a nose job. Could I make it so people I don’t like would look like pigs or snakes or little red devils to me? 

It all felt wrong, unnatural, the breaking down of important categories. I could sense my mind spinning through theological arguments and biblical themes to express my deep concerns.  Maybe I-Thou. Maybe the Incarnation or imago Dei. Maybe just “do not bear false witness.”  It simply isn’t “right” for people — human beings, mind you — to present themselves as flamingos or flames. 

Then I took a deep breath.

As we age, we encounter more and more things that strike us as odd and untenable. They’re things that make us feel off balance and old, irrelevant and unprepared for the future. 

Additionally, I know that by temperament I am a “nein-er.” My first inclination is almost always skepticism, distrust, criticism, No! 

I wonder if what I recognize in myself isn’t a tendency in many of us. I try to devalue those things that make me feel uncomfortable, out of my depth, and frankly — devalued, myself. In my case, rather than face my anxiety, I am prone to go straight to my stash of theological weapons. In a world of actual and virtual, my insecurities are actual and my theological opposition is virtual. 

Looking back, we laugh at the trivial things that Christians have felt a need to stand against. Men with long hair. Women with short hair. Men with earrings. Women in pants. Kids and rock-n-roll. Should we add cyber fashion to the list? Far more serious, oppressive, and actually evil was opposition to interracial marriage or integrated education, women receiving an education or working outside the home. Certainly, you can come up with more examples.

I’m not saying that we Christians, especially we olderish Christians, should give a free-pass to every cultural change and future development. I see no danger of that ever happening. Instead I’m suggesting we first might want to check our own reactivity and discomfort. What is really beneath it? Moreover, be assured that society looks through our theological smokescreens to see our real insecurities and fears. Not only do we look like weak and frightened ninnies, the Gospel is discredited by our inability to cope. 

Virtual fashion isn’t in my future. I still don’t like the consumerism and materialism (the materialism of something virtual? Hmmm.) But maybe it is an actual reminder of our resistance to those developments that make us feel passé or ill at ease, and then — of our tendency to weaponize the Gospel in defense of ourselves.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

4 Comments

  • Tony Vis says:

    Just remember, my friend, that for virtually (pun intended) – for virtually your whole life you have known Tony to be “THE TIGER!” Okay, I’m going to say it. I have to say it You know what I’m going to say. It must be said. Wait for it! Wait for it! Here it comes, I promise. It’s just too good not to say. Ready! Set! GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRREAT! Y’all know you needed that this morning. Always read the comments, even those that are just flat out “flakey.”

    Oh, and dress well today.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    Steve, Thanks for this. It has got all of us thinking. I am wondering whether the desire to connect to a “flame or flamingo” is an ancient one. People in the ancient world believed that the gods (God) breathed life into the material world and that the spiritual power adhering in things could be passed on to humans–a spiritual chain of being. People had “totems,” sometimes animals, sometimes natural phenomena, and they believed that they were sustained and characterized by the spirit of these totems. They saw themselves as part of the natural world.
    I am wondering whether young people today see the extinction of species and the decline of the vitality of the natural world and long to reconnect to it, long to participate in it. If so, that could be a good thing.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    My surname has provided the fishy nickname for now 5 generations, my 15 yr old grandson recently affirms. My grandfather was known as “Carp, that Old Fish” by his math students; my dad had at least two 1941 h.s. yearbook notes addressed to “Carp,” I was “Coach Carp” (“Mr C.” in the classroom) and my kids carried on the name as well. Haven’t yet found the good emoji though.

  • William Harris says:

    We’ve been using avatars for some time, longer than we imagine. They exist every time we enter an imaginary space, say, the Monopoly board. You pick the top hat, me? I always go for the car. The image and the personality go together. This gets more complex in games with the characters and attributes we choose in say D & D. In the metaverse, the avatars are inevitably marked by socio-economic status as Neal Stephenson alludes to in his rather prescient novel, Snow Crash (1992).

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