“Life can be real / on a snowmobile,” croons Canadian music legend Stompin’ Tom Connors in one of his many songs about Canadian life and culture. As someone who occasionally dabbles in songwriting myself, I have often had a chuckle when I hear that line with a bit of forced rhyme. What does “life can be real” mean anyway?
But the more that I have thought about it these days, the truer it seems to be. Personally, the feeling of fresh air against my face on the snowmobile feels like real life. My travel follows the natural contours of the land rather than human-built infrastructure. Life on the snowmobile certainly feels more real than when I am sitting in a chair with a screen in front of me, something I regrettably do my fair share of.
Increasingly in today’s culture, we can understand what we do and say online to be real life. This has been accentuated during the pandemic years, when things like church worship, school and family get-togethers moved online. But online interactions are not real life, at least not in the same way as interacting with the world we live in—like on a snowmobile.
In fact, much of what we see online is not real at all. Pictures are touched up and viewed through filters. The image we see on Instagram is not necessarily a true representation of what was in front of the camera when the picture was taken. And even if images are unfiltered, they are carefully curated to portray an image that we want the public to see—a presentable good life. It looks good, but is it real?
The echo-chambers of social media also have another effect of spreading misinformation or creating alternate realities out of facts and figures plucked when convenient. We can no longer even agree on the basic truth of reality.
As an example, in Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe recently proclaimed that vaccines were not effective in reducing the transmission of COVID-19. Epidemiologists came to a different conclusion. These two versions of reality influenced how each thought we should navigate public-health policy over the near future.
I sometimes wonder what reality someone is living with when they come to the conclusion it is okay to brandish a swastika or other symbol of hate in a public place. That person and I are certainly not starting from the same underlying base of truth about the past and present.
Our churches are not immune from these broader societal trends. We don’t necessarily come to a worship service with the same understanding of what is real as the person sitting next to us. A challenge for our congregations is to become places where people can bring their whole authentic selves without a need to present a carefully curated public image.
The presence of Christ is a place where you can experience real life. We also need to continue efforts to dialogue well when we disagree. This involves recognizing when we have different understandings of what is real in life. Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Can we say that within our church, life can be real?
Curtis Wiens is chair of the Mennonite Church Saskatchewan Pastoral Leadership Commission. He likes to occasionally take the snowmobile out for a rip.