With rumors and opinions about Manti Te’o dominating sports headlines for the past several weeks, people are finding it difficult to discern the truth about the hoax and the extent Te’o was victimized. Some have found it easier to believe that the likeable and popular Notre Dame all-star linebacker and runner up to this year’s Heisman Trophy was part of the hoax as a means to gain publicity to increase his chances of winning the Heisman rather than accept that he was a victim of deception. After reporting on September 12ththat his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died of cancer, Te’o began to learn in December that something was awry about the story. While Te’o continues to deny any part in creating the hoax, in an interview with Katie Couric on January 23rd, he admitted that he initially went along with the hoax for a short period in December rather than admit that he was severely duped nor had never met Kekua in real life and yet publicly committed himself to her.

Many are calling him naïve and questioning his integrity. In a television interview earlier this month, one of his teammates in defending Te’o’s character argued that having a girlfriend whom Manti never met in real life makes perfect sense given the demands of football and his class schedule. The question many are now grappling with as a means to forgiving Te’o’s missteps as a victim is, how far a stable person can allow a virtual relationship to go.

Sherry Turkle author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other writes (page 1), “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run. Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are vulnerable indeed. We are lonely, but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”

I know that you can develop online relationships, even in a text-only environment. As part of the first online cohort program at the University of Pittsburg (in the days before video and Skype), I developed personal connections online with students in my cohort. People with whom I would later remain connected in real life when we met on-campus a couple months later and one weekend per semester for the next couple years.  But the broader question is that with the absence of real-life contact, “How far can virtual relationships go with respect to authenticity?” Is attending an internet church weekly as fulfilling as attending a church in real life? Does God see people coming together in worship online equal to coming together in real life? Can the members of an online church actually hold one another accountable in a virtual-only environment or do the limitations of virtual relationships preclude this? Can training future pastors and counselors, where interpersonal and spiritual maturity is essential for success, be done as effectively in an online only program as an in-person or hybrid program?


Dan LaValla is Director of Library Services and Development Associate at Biblical. He is Chair of the Endowment Committee for the American Theological Library Association and is very active in his church and community, coaching youth baseball and football and has served on several community boards. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/daniel-lavalla


0 # Larry Sandeen 2013-02-09 14:02
Good points, it is really hard to understand why people are so fearful of intimacy that they will seek the false intimacy of media. We see the younger generations ignoring the "ones" they are with to text or call the "ones" that are not with. We need to help folks be brave and bold and embrace real relationships with Christ and with each other.
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0 # Janet Sandeen 2013-02-11 21:56
Having read Alone Together and contemplating the fact that technology is here to stay, we need to educate our future pastors and teachers how to make us all aware of the need to form real not just virtual connections!
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0 # Daniel LaValla 2013-02-25 14:16
Janet and Larry thank you for your comments and I agree with each of you! Given the fact that technology is here to stay and humans are social beings, I think it is important for parents, teachers, and pastors to train children, especially teens and young adults, to see technology as a means of enhancing our real-life relationships rather than having the virtual substitute the real. People need to develop and exercise interpersonal skills that enhance their spiritual, emotional, and social well-being. They need the ability to discern when technology becomes a barrier to developing the appropriate levels of intimacy or real-life connections needed with respect to the type or purpose of their relationships (personal, professional, transactional, etc.). People will get into trouble (as did Manti Teo) when they starve their real-life social interactions for the virtual because they are too busy to invest their time in other people in real-life scenarios.
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0 # Janet Sandeen 2013-02-25 20:23
Could the Narcissim Epidemic play into this situation? I don't know what Manti Te’o's childhood was like but I work with teenagers and they definitely suffer with an entitlement attitude.
The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement [Paperback]
Jean M. Twenge (Author), W. Keith Campbell (Author)

Narcissism—an inflated view of the self—is everywhere. Public figures say it’s what makes them stray from their wives. Parents teach it by dressing children in T-shirts that say "Princess." Teenagers and young adults hone it on Facebook, and celebrity newsmakers have elevated it to an art form. And it’s what’s making people depressed, lonely, and buried under piles of debt.
Jean Twenge’s influential first book, Generation Me, spurred a national debate with its depiction of the challenges twenty- and thirty-somethings face in today’s world—and the fallout these issues create for educators and employers. Now, Dr. Twenge turns her focus to the pernicious spread of narcissism in today’s culture, which has repercussions for every age group and class. Dr. Twenge joins forces with W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., a nationally recognized expert on narcissism, to explore this new plague in The Narcissism Epidemic, their eye-opening exposition of the alarming rise of narcissism and its catastrophic effects at every level of society. Even the world economy has been damaged by risky, unrealistic overconfidence. Drawing on their own extensive research as well as decades of other experts’ studies, Drs. Twenge and Campbell show us how to identify
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0 # Daniel LaValla 2013-03-13 12:12
Janet, While I think the celebrity culture had an impact on this case with respect to the public pressure Manti Te’o experienced, I didn't get the sense from the interviews that I read and watched in the news involved narcisism. Overall, Manti Te’o has a good reputation among his peers; it seems to me that his down-to-earth personality contributed to him becoming a target of this cruel hoax.
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