Hyper-reality” is Mark Sayers’ shorthand description of the society in which he lives and works. “It’s a complex, sociological term,” Sayers explains, “but, put simply, it’s the way that our mediadrenched culture creates false realities-or realities that seem even better than the real thing.
“It’s the ‘Photoshopped’ model who doesn’t actually look like that and never could look like that outside that sort of photo shoot. It’s the brochure that shows you the perfect tropical island that probably is infested with mosquitoes and where it rains three quarters of the year. So I’ve used the term to describe how our culture presents this version of life which is always better than the real thing.”
While not arguing against consumerism as such, Sayers identifies a kind of hyper-consumerism that so invades our lives today. “There’s a point where consumerism switches from selling things for their benefit or function to promising all these extra things,” he says. “It’s a combination of media and technology- it’s being overwhelmed by our entertainment culture that’s absolutely everywhere. Everyday we’re exposed to as many as 5000 marketing messages, which is completely enveloping. It’s a rainstorm-and we’re running around trying not to get wet.
“Plus in our secular culture where religion’s been taken out of the public arena, there’s a vacuum and advertising, marketing and media have jumped into that vacuum.”
Sayers also sees similar tendencies in our increasing social interaction online, as a kind of virtual hyper-reality. “I think there are redeemable qualities to Facebook,” he says. “I have a Facebook page and can connect with people, but increasingly the primary way people use MySpace, Facebook or even Twitter is to market or present themselves.
“I always ask people, ‘Who puts up really bad photos of themselves on Facebook?’ or ‘Who puts up bad things?’ and no-one does. Everyone censors what they put up. They always present their best face to the world and this is becoming more and more onerous on people; it’s becoming such a pressure.”
Sayers suggests Facebook is a highwater mark in this kind of personal branding. “What happens in consumerism is that products are marketed and branded,” he adds, “but in hyper-consumerism everyone and everything becomes a product. The flow-on of that is that we become products, so we actually feel this pressure to market ourselves.”
With the focus on media, entertainment, technology and shopping, it’s easy to see how young people are particularly impacted by this hyperreal world view. While Sayers’ thinking originally came from working with young adults, he soon discovered people of all ages are being similarly impacted.
“I have sat down with 65-year-olds talking about how they feel pressured to be young,” he says. “The youth culture is everywhere, it just manifests in different ways for everyone. So I would say it’s a global issue at the moment.”
Author of The Trouble With Paris, Sayers is also a community church pastor in multicultural Box Hill in Melbourne, Australia. As such, he is particularly concerned with how the hyper-reality he observes impacts on our spirituality. In his book, he goes so far as to suggest that for many people this hyperreality has become a form of spirituality- a kind of “folk religion” through which we try to find meaning and purpose for our lives.
He compares such religion with the high religions- such as Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity-which offer theologies and philosophies to answer the big questions of life and death, good and evil, God or gods. While many people subscribe to one or other of these collections of belief, folk religion is the beliefs or practices with which people actually respond to everyday life and everyday problems, like illness or stress.
“So when I read about this implicit religion,” Sayers says, “I looked around and thought about how our hope or our happiness in everyday circumstances so often comes through buying things. People hope to change their lives by changing their exterior; salvation has become a makeover, so it operates like a folk religion.”
So what does all of this do to our souls? “In a consumerist society like this, where God has been taken out of the equation, everyone and everything is objectified,” Sayers reflects. “This means taking the soul or the spiritual side or anything deeper than the surface and turning animate objects into inanimate objects. So it tends to squeeze God and spirituality out of the world.
“You go almost anywhere in the world today and you find that hyperconsumerism allows religion to continue, but underneath this, it really asks for a commitment. It eats at our commitment to everything else, to religion, to each other. So it has this erosive effect on our spirituality and commitment, including what I would say are classically biblical commandments or instructions on how to live a good life.”
As a Christian writer and pastor, Sayers sees the worldview offered by the Bible as a significant alternative to that of hyper-reality. “Looking back across history, it’s interesting to note how Christianity has been able to allow people to grow economically and to develop as cultures but then also to provide them with a spirituality that keeps them in balance,” he explains. “For me, the Christian story is an incredibly important resource. It’s one of the few stories, if not the only story, that offers an alternative to undo this other story. Obviously, there’s the personal element for me, but I really do believe that it has the only real force to counter this story that is enveloping us all.”
And Sayers readily admits that the influences of our hyper-real culture have also impacted on Christianity itself. “The purpose behind my book is getting people to ask the question, ‘How have I been affected by this?’ ” he says. “But it’s like asking a fish for a definition of water. This has become our water, we swim in it and often when people read the book they realise they have been affected by this in ways they hadn’t noticed.
“So for me, I’m not surprised that Christianity ‘sells out’ in some ways, but I sell out to it too. I’ve written this book and every day I’m challenged with this stuff. But there’s a whole bunch of possible responses-all the way to becoming a complete hermit living in the bush in a shed without electricity or TV. So part of my thing is to ask how we live redemptively in the midst of a consumer culture.”
For Sayers, the response to that question- about living in and in response to hyper-reality-is more about asking further series of questions, rather than making a list of rules. “Most people are aware of the first element and that is how do you be a ‘good’ consumer,” he suggests. “I would ask as a believer, or even someone who’s interested in human rights or the wellbeing of others, how do you buy things that are not going to be abusive of other people. So there are all the ‘fair trade’ questions. But then the interesting questions which I found less people asking were what I put my hope in and what I am trying to achieve.”
Sayers gives a couple of examples of people buying identical items but with differing motivations and filling distinct roles in their respective lives. “It is just asking a constant set of questions about my own motives that I think many people, including Christians, are used to doing in other areas of living,” he says.
According to Sayers, his book and the ideas he has been wrestling with in his own life and as a leader of a community of faith, are about authenticity in a society that is so often inauthentic. “I think it is possible,” he says. “And when you are authentic, I think people find that incredibly refreshing. People who have the most interesting characters in music, art, politics, life, whatever, are people who are real about their failings.
“We just want to be an authentic community. We’re on a journey with that stuff, but this is the key for people to work through. We’re constantly asking questions like what would Box Hill look like if God redeemed this place, then using that as a starting point for everything to come out of.”
And this brings Sayers back to that other story that motivates his reflections and interaction with our culture. “Into our hyper-reality, we inject a story which for me is the most important story of all,” he says. “We encounter the person of Christ-who is to me the biggest embodiment of that story, God coming to earth-and out of that tell a different story about our lives.”