The line between real and imagined is sometimes a little blurry. At least this is the conclusion of one report on the business of cyberspace, where thousands of people have imaginary lives and some are actually making a living at it. The creators of several popular online role-playing games completed a year-long study of the very real transactions that are taking place in their imaginary worlds. The results portray a flourishing economy that is rapidly grabbing advertisers’ attention. The sellers are role players who have taken the time to find marketable goods in their virtual worlds—and they are clearly putting in the time. In one popular game, a gnome is sold with a basic skill set for $214; in another, a virtual cherry dining set for a virtual home runs about 250 actual dollars. Between June 2005 and June 2006, 9,042 role players spent $1.87 million dollars on virtual goods from swords to special powers. According to analyst estimates this year, U.S. virtual goods revenue alone will top $1 billion and could even rake in over $2 billion.
It is entertainment I don’t claim to fully understand. But it is fascinating (and maybe frightening) to see how integrated the real and the virtual can become. Of course, this idea applies to far more than online games. What we imagine can become so enmeshed with what is real that we scarcely notice a difference. That is, until something real reminds us otherwise—like an outsider’s perspective or a credit card receipt.
Jonah was a prophet by profession. He knew the liturgy and worship of the people of Israel by heart. So it is not unreasonable that as his life was ebbing away in the depths of the sea, Jonah would cry out with the words of a psalm he had heard countless times before. And yet, the words no doubt had a depth of meaning for him unlike anything he had known before. As he was losing consciousness—literally in Hebrew, “in the feebleness of his person,”—Jonah not only remembered God by name, but in some ways was seeing God for the first time. Like one awoken to enmeshed worlds both real and imaginary, Jonah quickly clung to what was real.
Jonah’s behavior up until this point suggests a mentality that God was not entirely omnipresent, but present only in Israel, in the temple, and in the places of his own interest. As Jonah ran to Tarshish to avoid the call of God to go to Nineveh, he ran believing there was a place he could go where God could not find him. But as he sunk further into the depths of the sea, the prophet realized he was mercifully mistaken. His language evokes a play on words—As I was losing consciousness, I remembered the LORD. Or else, it was a sudden recognition of the Really Real in the imaginary world he had occupied. Losing consciousness, Jonah was actually gaining it.
Perhaps not wanting to consider the discomfort it would take to uproot our own embedded fallacies, tellers of Jonah’s story often minimize the distress that broke his silence with God. But the popular notion that Jonah went straight from the side of the ship and into the mouth of the fish is not supported by either the narrative as a whole or Jonah’s cry for help. H. L. Ellison suggests that “[Jonah] was half drowned before he was swallowed. If he was still conscious, sheer dread would have caused him to faint—notice that there is no mention of the fish in his prayer. He can hardly have known what caused the change from wet darkness to an even greater dry darkness. When he did regain consciousness, it would have taken some time to realize that the all-enveloping darkness was not that of Sheol but of a mysterious safety.
In that mysterious safety, Jonah shows us the strange world that unwound his imaginary one, and in it, the God who hears in both. Though the deep surrounded him and reeds were bound to his head, Jonah was heard—and his awareness of this was an essential turning point in his story. In prayer and darkness, Jonah admitted that the role of salvation cannot be in his hands. If only momentarily, the drowning prophet clung to a truth more hopeful than escapism and more able than idols: “Salvation belongs to the LORD.”
It is hard to believe that Jonah could have considered being swallowed alive a rescue, and yet it is precisely Jonah’s considerations from which he needed to be rescued. In truth, at times, the deliverance we need is that of deliverance from ourselves. Though our thoughts toward God be wound in self and seaweed, and the depths of our imagined autonomy threaten to drown us, rescue is a valid hope. What if God is far more real than we often imagine?