“I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore. After all, what is reality anyway? Nothin’ but a collective hunch.… It’s absurdity dressed up in a three-piece business suit.… Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it. I can take it in small doses, but as a lifestyle I found it too confining.”
—Lily Tomlin as Trudy the Bag Lady
In her one-woman Broadway show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Lily Tomlin airs out her existential laundry, confessing that reality—as she knows it—isn’t exactly a great place to hang out. For those seeking a stress-free existence, it’s anything but. Those looking for meaning in life, well, keep looking. Bag lady or not, Tomlin perhaps speaks for many of us. We are given this reality in which to exist, but we are not often impressed. Reality comes to us unsolicited, and rarely meets our expectations.
The book’s characters have no purpose, no telos beyond the world. Their only hope is to find meaning where possible with the time remaining.Ernest Cline offers one such picture of reality in his bestselling novel Ready Player One, describing how humanity in the future escapes from what Tomlin calls the “confining” nature of reality. In many ways, reality serves as a villain in Cline’s narrative, generating in the plot a level of conflict from which human beings need rescuing—a salvation that comes by way of total escape from reality.
Cline builds the story on two questions: Can we escape our present reality by entering an alternate version, one perceived to be more real and meaningful? If so, is the alternate reality ultimately worth the escape? Far from providing just another pessimistic vision of the future, Ready Player One asks us to consider these questions for our present reality. In telling this futurist story, Cline is making a contemporary claim: We may not live in a dystopia, but we still feel the urge to escape. At times, we feel it deeply. We may even act on it daily.
If the indie drama Reality Bites (1994) had been released in the 1980s, undoubtedly it would have made its way into the pop culture almanac of Ready Player One (RPO)—what some have called the “holy grail” of ’80s pop culture. Not just because of its status as a pop culture artifact, but simply because of its title. Indeed, the idea that “reality bites” could very well sum up the entire narrative of RPO.
In Cline’s dystopic vision, earth is depleted of its natural resources, and the human race is left dealing with the consequences of a pillaged planet. Culture and infrastructure are collapsing. Crime and corruption are mounting. The disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is greatly widened. Even those with any kind of financial means are forced to live in “the stacks”—suburbs of single-wide trailers and campers literally stacked vertically like skyscrapers—images reminiscent of the stacks of garbage in WALL-E.
This bleak picture of reality is established at the outset with a metanarrative decisively void of any notion of the supernatural, where a social Darwinist mentality reigns. The world is in survival mode. There is no hope for restoration, and, seemingly, no escape from this depressing existence. As such, RPO depicts a reality that actually bites, not only as a dismal situation, but as a condition bearing teeth; it chews away at your very being.
While this worldview might smack of environmentalist concern, Cline suggests rather that our existentialism is at stake. Set in a future similar to Blade Runner 2049, RPO offers a unique picture of dystopia. If Blade Runner depicted a gritty, oppressive world, RPO gives us a weak, flattened version, stripped of value and meaning. Not only is the world in decay, but humanity is in decline. The book’s characters have no purpose, no telos beyond the world. Their only hope is to find meaning where possible with the time remaining. As with Charles Taylor’s “immanent frame,” in which the cultural loss of transcendence has led to disenchantment of reality, Cline offers an imminent frame: earth’s mortality is approaching—not to mention your own—so you should probably get on with doing whatever you can to enjoy your measly existence.
Cline labors for us to feel the weight of this future version of reality, such that, while you may disagree with the metanarrative, you cannot argue with the logic of his premise. Human beings forced to live in a broken, adverse reality will crave some other reality with which to interface. If, as Tomlin and Taylor observe, human beings feel immanently caged-in, and, as Cline narrates, they are imprisoned by the imminence of life’s brevity, then why not satisfy the need to escape? Why not get out? Fleeing a miserable situation has always been a core human impulse.
With this fatalistic vision constructed, the stage is set for an all-encompassing new kind of reality inviting humanity to embrace: the OASIS.
Mindscape to Another World
A motif common to dystopic narratives is the compulsion for some kind of escape. In Blade Runner, human beings escape to off-world colonies. In RPO, they escape into a virtual world called the OASIS (Ontological Anthropomorphic Simulated Immersion System)—a comprehensive virtual landscape where the only boundaries are the limits of your imagination. With a set of VR goggles, haptic gloves, and an internet signal, anyone can access this free open-source enterprise. The OASIS is so massive and so vast that most users have yet to explore the furthest reaches of its universe. Think Minecraft on code steroids. It’s like a high-definition, hyper-pixelated first-person videogame engaging your senses, with enough software-horsepower to make our current gaming systems seem like roller-skates. Once you enter the OASIS, the line between what is and is not real is profoundly blurred.
We are held captive by the tyranny of the mundane—vacuous space and time begging to be filled with content. As with Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, the OASIS is “a world of pure imagination.” A crucial feature coded into the OASIS is the ability to create an avatar—a personal identity projected as a digital self. It is partly through the avatar where one’s imagination can soar. The diversity and nuances of avatars are legion. Patterned after the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, who was a die-hard fan of ’80s pop culture, many OASIS users create avatars in the forms of characters and personalities from the ’80s: superheroes, movies, TV, video games. As protagonist Wade Watts comments in one of the film trailers, “People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do. But they stay for all the things they can be.” Through its VR universe, personal avatar-creation and free open-source usage, the OASIS provides the wholesale escape for human beings across the globe, a refuge from the dystopian wreck that has become their reality.
An escape of the imagination is nothing new. For hundreds of years we’ve had a penchant for mindscaping, and it can be traced back through our philosophical genealogy in the West. Pioneered by Plato, many Greek philosophers built a whole system on the premise that humanity is held captive by the material world of ever-changing phenomenon, and, in order to find freedom and perfection, they must find an escape-route through the mind to an entirely different world of immaterial reality—the perfect forms of material things. For the Platonic philosophers, the enemy of our journey toward perfection was material reality—life as we know it in physical existence. To escape this nemesis, then, was the ultimate goal of human life, the chief telos for every person.
If the ancient escape was through the intellect, the future escape is through the imagination. The Platonic escape was to experience the idyllic realm. The OASIS escape is to experience the idyllic self. Yet both escape-modes have two things in common: both happen vis-à-vis the mind, and both have the same enemy—physical reality experienced in the body. Beginning with the Plato’s vision, then, reality has been viewed as a two-tiered matrix of the imperfect and the perfect, and it has been a mindscape from matter ever since.
Dopamine and Distraction
Couple this Platonic concept of the mind with the biblical concept of the heart, and you have the essential recipe for human escape. Even though, as Taylor notes, our Western culture has largely rejected the immaterial, transcendent realm, forever boxing itself in immanency, we cannot merely ignore the yearning we have for transcendence. It is built-in to our ontology as the imago Dei. In RPO’s future, and, I would argue, the present, humanity longs for the inner self to be unshackled from captivity to a meaningless and confining real world, and set free to construct and explore a whole new world through an imagined ideal self. In the sublime virtual world of the OASIS, the possibilities are endless. For human beings seeking fulfillment in an otherwise bland and empty reality, it is nothing less than digital dopamine. And the human need for a dopamine rush is as real as a Netflix binge.
In a piece surveying the work of David Foster Wallace, James K. A. Smith observes how DFW, particularly in Infinite Jest, described a postmodern future where entertainment becomes recourse to a reality devoid of transcendence. If God is dead, then he will be replaced by whatever we can find to satisfy our hunger for meaning. In postmodernity, versions of human meaning may be up for grabs, but we cannot ignore our inherent thirst for meaning. Because of the immediacy and accessibility of ever-developing technology, entertainment fills the void and provides us a steady diet of distraction in order to survive a flattened universe. Set to the RPO language of “escape,” we might say that humans are looking for an escape simply because they are looking for meaning.
Literally anything can be an escape if we want it to be. The list of examples is obvious and much too long to describe. The question is not so much what the escape is, but why? Living this side of Plato, and only beginning to see the trajectories of VR technology,1 our reasons for escaping are not too unlike RPO. If escaping is, at root, a strategy for seeking refuge from an enemy, then one of the archrivals of Western culture is that nauseating zeitgeist hovering over every unfilled minute of our lives: boredom. We are held captive by the tyranny of the mundane—vacuous space and time begging to be filled with content. We are desperate to fill the empty space of reality, and an escape seems the only feasible act of protest against the monotony and mundanity of everyday life. In many ways, as the RPO movie trailer mentions, we escape to another reality because in our present reality “there’s nowhere left to go.”
Boredom aside, the more brutal of our enemies is pain. OASIS creator James Halliday writes in his journal about growing up in a dysfunctional home, with parents who constantly fought. There was plenty of emotional and relational pain for Halliday. In one of his journal entries, he describes how, whenever his parents would start screaming at each other, he would sneak out of the house and head to the local bowling alley, where he would play the videogame Black Tiger, which he could beat with one quarter: “Twenty-five cents lets me escape my rotten existence for three glorious hours. Not a bad deal” (396). The parents of Wade Watts both die when he’s a kid, and he is taken in by his druggie aunt and her boyfriend, who care nothing for him. Growing up in this household was basic survival for Watts. Suffice it to say that escape to the OASIS is the sine qua non of Watts’s unfortunate existence.
The escape from boredom and pain was every ’90s grunge band song. At least they were honest. Pain is a bitter foe. It strikes at our core. My family has learned some things about escape this past year, as we walked alongside my wife during her battle with breast cancer. We discovered that the pain and stress of cancer required that we practice ways of escape every so often. Even in the midst of a demanding schedule of appointments, therapy programs, and kids’ school events, we looked for healthy and celebratory ways to escape. Of course, we spent meaningful time in prayer, lament, and liturgy as a family and with our church, and these too were forms of healthy escape. But for a holistic picture of refuge, we needed a variety of escape routes.
Ultimately, this is not to pose a verdict on the concept of escape so much as to describe it. Of course, there are healthy and unhealthy forms of escape, and there are good and bad motivations for it. On the whole, escaping can be endless, unless there is entry back in to reality—a point at which we realize what is actually real and deal with it.
“The light shines in the darkness,” writes John the Apostle, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” Integral to the Christian metanarrative is a relationship to our broken reality that, rather than withdrawal and removal, leads to a piercing engagement. For in the Christian story, the entire regeneration of reality is wagered on the mystery of the incarnate God. He “escaped,” as it were, the perfect realm of heaven, in order to enter our shattered existence—a surprising divine move that forever altered our sin-wrecked cosmos.
The incarnate God fully realized the stark reality of our world and met it head-on. This realization was heavy, because reality—especially broken reality—is weighty and brings pressure. It is a monstrosity which must be dealt with. Yet he himself had many opportunities to escape. When he was thrust into a wilderness for a month and a half, starving for food—a kind of dystopic narrative in its own right—he was given options to escape his present reality in favor of an alternate version seemingly more satisfying. When he faced death by crucifixion, he had every occasion to escape and seek rescue from angels.
These routes of escape were masks of denial and unbelief to what is real. Contra the Greeks, Christianity hangs on the premise that escaping the reality of this world is actually entering into a deceptive situation. “Sin,” notes David Dark, “is the avoidance of realization.” It is an attempt to avoid acknowledging what is really going on. Put another way, realization is confessing what is actually wrong with reality—especially your own reality—and committing to do something about it. Simply put, realization is repentance. If sin is evading reality, repentance is accepting it for what it is and moving toward renewal. It is a stance of belief to recognize and call out reality for what it really is.
The incarnate God denied the deception of escape, and instead was unwavering in his commitment to what was real for him and to his mission, in the midst of the sheer realism of darkness. His constant acts of acknowledgement of what is actually going on in this world—both seen and unseen—were heavy realizations that forced him to deny offers of escape and, in faith, choose to enter further in to our fragmented, damaged reality.
An incarnational realization gives us meaning and hope. Rather than wallow in pessimism about reality or escape into oblivion, we have every reason to enter further in to the reality set before us, however chaotic, dull, or painful it may be.
1. Spielberg claims the escape of imagination through VR will be more sooner realized than later. Even as I write this, the 2018 Winter Olympics are being touted as the most technologically advanced games ever, with the option to experience significant coverage of the games vis-à-vis VR. Our world may not be dystopic like RPO, but the novelty of VR is gaining traction.