Instant Messages

Christian fiction in a virtual world.

This article originally appeared in Address to the Christy Awards banquet for Christian fiction, 9 July 2005.

Address to the Christy Awards banquet for Christian fiction, 9 July 2005.

I’m glad to be here tonight because it’s not every day you get a chance to do something for which you are completely unqualified. I do not write fiction. I do not even write non-fiction—at least not nearly as much non-fiction as I’m supposed to write. The further past my deadline I go, the more I have a sense of awe whenever I hold a book. You actually managed to finish one of these!

So I really can’t claim to be much of a writer. I am just a reader. And not necessarily your ideal reader—I have never read Christy. It’s kind of a girly book, isn’t it?

I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

All I can really offer is that I notice things. I sometimes feel like my vocation is to pay attention.

This spring I have been on airplanes a lot, so I have been paying attention to life on airplanes. I have noticed a disturbing trend for those of us who make our living in print. I have noticed the screens. For a while airplanes were one of the last refuges of reading. You’d walk down the aisle and see people reading bestsellers, magazines, novels, self-help books—lots of books.

But airplanes are no longer full of books—they are full of screens. Not just the screens thoughtfully provided by the airlines, but personal screens. DVD players, GameBoys, laptop computers.

Because it’s my job to pay attention, I pay attention to other people’s laptops. Some would consider this an invasion of privacy, but I just consider it my job as a cultural commentator.

And in the course of my research I have discovered the most common use of a laptop on an airplane. Laptops are an extraordinary technological achievement, with integrated circuits that incorporate millions of transistors into a $2000, 6-pound package with more computing power than used to fit in several climate-controlled rooms. And the main way people use their laptops on airplanes is . . . to play solitaire.

Isn’t technology amazing? What used to be possible only with a small six-ounce deck of cards is now possible with six pounds of the collected technological efforts of Western civilization. Of course, technology marches on, and now you are able to play solitaire on cell phones too.

So this is what a surprising number of your fellow citizens are doing in that blessed quiet at 35,000 feet—in these waning days before cell phone conversations are allowed on airplanes and it is never quiet again—they are not reading a novel, they are not writing a letter, they are not even watching a movie. They are playing solitaire.

Now I’m in a group of writers, and you all understand symbolism and metaphor, and frankly if you can’t see the metaphorical potential in a planeful of weary travelers using their laptops to play solitaire, you should be in a different line of work.

So I won’t belabor the point, but the proliferation of airplane solitaire confirms to me that we are in the virtual reality generation.

Let’s define virtual reality—essentially, it means using technological devices to create the illusion of a better world. Note that word “illusion”—there are ways to use technology to improve this world, but virtual reality specializes in creating an illusory world. A more comfortable world, a more interesting world, a more vivid world. Using technology to improve on reality, indeed to deliver a reality in which we are supremely in control.

The most interesting depiction of virtual reality I’m aware of in popular culture was about ten years ago on the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. The original Star Trek was a serious affair. I’m not sure what the original Star Trek crew did to amuse themselves. But in TNG there not only was a bar where the crew could procure libations and companionship, there was a new feature called the Holodeck. The Holodeck was the ultimate virtual reality—a place where you could go on holiday with the assistance of holograms, creating whatever world you wanted. You could visit a lush tropical paradise. You could reunite with a long-lost friend or parent. Whatever you wanted—the ultimate virtual dream.

And yet there was something funny about the Holodeck—it never ended up being such a great holiday. Every Holodeck holiday seemed to end up being about the unresolved issues in the lives of the cast of the Enterprise. You would enter the Holodeck and find yourself in the midst of a tightly wound psychodrama. It’s no accident that the Holodeck’s most regular denizen was the ship’s onboard therapist, the buxom Deanna Troi (inexplicably the only TNG character with a low-cut uniform).

The Holodeck is always and only about you. Virtual reality, which promises to take us outside ourselves, always takes us inside ourselves. It’s all solitaire, all the time. Virtual reality is ultimately whatever you bring to it and nothing more. It has nothing of the surprise of the real.

We Americans live more and more of our life in a virtual reality. We aren’t literally encased in a suit that allows us to fly wherever we want—or are we? Yesterday I sat with absolutely no effort in a comfortable seat being whisked from Philadelphia to Denver. On arrival I turned on my cell phone that allows me to speak to anyone, anywhere—if I have their number—without the bother of having to be actually present. And my cell phone is just one of many technologies that make me seem present, and make others seem present to me, when we are actually absent. My wife and I rely quite heavily on instant messaging, the virtual technology that allows us to send one another brief messages all day while I’m working (or procrastinating) at home and she is in her lab. Up pops her picture—my wife, on my screen, 48 by 48 pixels in size!—and a little note. It’s so nice to have Catherine there, without of course having her actually there, which would be more complicated. So present, yet so not there.

And this is our virtual American dream. We spend our time talking to people who are not with us, lusting after or being jealous of people we will never meet, instantly in touch with everyone and all too frequently touching no one, and it feels to us very satisfactory. Not all of our virtual reality devices involve screens and integrated circuits. Our coffee makes us full of virtual life, zest, intelligence, and wit. Our Viagra makes us endlessly ready for virtual sex. Our solitaire game is effortless and we always, always win.

The most perceptive commentator on our virtual world is the philosopher Albert Borgmann, and in his book Holding on to Reality he writes about the way that virtual reality improves on Yellowstone National Park.

There are grizzlies and wolves in Yellowstone Park, but you may not want to encounter the former and are at any rate unlikely to see either species when you travel through the park. What an embarrassment, however, to return to New York having to confess to your friends that you saw not hide nor hair of the two most charismatic members of the megafauna. To prevent such calamity, the Grizzly Discovery Center has established itself at the west entrance to the park and exhibits grizzlies and wolves, contented and playful to all appearances, and yet, much like their human spectators, cut off from the environment that once engaged their skills and warranted their ferocious power. The IMAX theater next door will hourly show you Yellowstone, the movie, on a screen five stories high and half a block wide. Enveloped by symphonic music pouring forth from the fourteen speakers of a six-channel stereo surround system, you glide over the sunny expanses of the park, move through centuries of human history, penetrate the geology of the geysers, come face-to-face with eagles and bears. The real park must appear dreary and boring in comparison. [217–218]

There is something about virtual reality that seems right to me. Human beings have an incorrigible yearning for transcendence. Live long enough and the world, even national parks, does sometimes seem dreary and boring. We know there must be more.

But virtual reality is exactly the wrong solution. The Incarnation, which Christians take to be the ultimate reality, is the opposite of virtual reality. Where virtual reality promises to take you out of this mean little existence and give you divine powers, the Incarnation tells us that divinity came fully to life in this existence, in this reality. The astonishing and improbable Christian claim is that transcendence happened, and still happens, right here.

What does this mean for fiction, and for fiction written in the light of the Incarnation?

First we must admit that there is a kind of virtual fiction. Borgmann writes about this too, comparing escapist fiction to high-tech amusements. “The hallmark of both realms,” he writes, “is escape and seclusion from the actual world. . . .” It’s worth pausing and asking ourselves whether what we are looking for when we read, what our readers are looking for, is not escape and seclusion. This is a constant Christian temptation. We are prone to create our Christian virtual reality—I’m sure that right here at the International Christian Retail Show you’ll be able to meet good-hearted folks creating Christian video games. Isn’t that appealing? A world, suitably tweaked and put at your disposal for your entertainment, where Christianity actually works! Just obey the Christian rules and you win the game. A world where prayers are always answered! A world where sin doesn’t weave itself so tightly around even our best efforts! It is so tempting to strategically simplify, to create a fictional reality in which things just seem to work better than they do in this world.

But to do that is to deny the Incarnation—to deny that God became real in this world, in this very world where God does not seem real to many people much of the time. To create Christian virtual reality is to choose escape and seclusion and thus become entirely irrelevant to the heart of the gospel, which is God entering into this very world in order to liberate it from its captivity to itself.

So I plead with you, as a reader, as a fellow follower of the Incarnate One, as someone who daily wonders how this gospel to which I am giving my life can possibly be true—I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead, tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

This spring I finally got around to reading Moby Dick. (I told you I was a bad reader.) Its opening sentence is one of the most famous in English fiction. “Call me Ishmael”—this is something strange. This is something beyond myself. And yet I’m then plunged into a story that is lavishly involved with the real world of whaling and the anatomy of whales, of ships and the anatomy of ships, of the ocean, and not least of the human heart.

And this is the most basic test for quality in fiction, it seems to me: is it absolutely faithful to the real, and absolutely faithful to what is strange and extraordinary within the real? For the Christian this is another way of saying, is it about grace? Because grace is the interruption of the unexpected in the real. Cheap stories barely touch reality—they present a simplified simulacrum of reality, a version that is easier for the storyteller and for the reader alike. And cheap stories are never really surprising. No one was ever surprised by a game of solitaire.

And perhaps the reason we most need real stories, Christian stories, is that we ourselves are living this virtual life, this life of escape and seclusion, and desperately need to be rescued. Sometimes only a story can do that. So I’d like to end this little talk with an unfinished story.

On March 4 of this year, I was in Kampala, Uganda, and I was in something of a hurry. I had a plane to catch at Entebbe airport, which is 45 minutes from the capital without traffic—and the Entebbe road is rarely without traffic. My friends were walking with me towards the van waiting for me and my traveling companion. And on the sidewalk in front of the van I saw an inconvenient sight. It was a man with one leg, on crutches, and he clearly saw our little party of well dressed Ugandans and Americans with luggage coming. We were exchanging our final goodbyes as we walked towards the van, and my Ugandan friends, no doubt accustomed to encountering men like this on the streets, paid him no attention, opened the door of the van, and ushered us in. I was able to avoid the one-legged man’s eyes.

But then, as often happens, there was a delay of some sort. The driver of the van had a few questions for my Ugandan hosts, there were a few final matters to be taken care of—and while I sat in the van waiting for this minor business to be completed, the one-legged man stood inches from my window. He did not say anything. He neither moved closer nor farther away. For many minutes he stood there, and I sat there. I never looked at his face, though somehow I remember that he was about my age, he was handsome, and he was smiling. At last the driver got in, the van pulled away, and we were on our way to Entebbe, the airport, and home.

I am not sure what story that man had to tell me. It may well be that he only had an instant message for me. This is the world we live in. If you have white skin on the streets of Kampala you sometimes feel like an Anglo-American Automatic Teller Machine, with people pressing your buttons in search of small bills. Perhaps that’s all he wanted.

But I remember those eyes and that smile, I remember them all the more vividly because I never looked directly at him. And I wonder what he had for me. I know, of course, that Jesus told a story in which the Son of Man comes to the nations in just such a distressing disguise. But I don’t know that this man was Jesus. In fact I’m aware even as I tell you this story that we share a predisposition to moralize from it, to turn it into a hyper-spiritualized encounter that assists our Christian virtual reality. The Christian-virtual-reality way of telling this story would be to make this man into, if not Jesus, at least an angel, because there are a lot of black angels in white stories. And yet to do that is to make him into a prop in our Christian Holodeck, to make him into a moving closing illustration in my pious banquet address—an address for which I am being handsomely paid, I should add, and for which he, in his role as the Other from Deepest Africa, will receive nothing, meaning that even to countenance such a spiritualization of the story is to deepen the distance between him and me.

So I don’t dare say that he was Jesus, the Son of Man. I don’t know. I do know he was a man, a man like me. If I had stopped, if had turned my head a few degrees, if I had listened, would I have heard an instant message? What if I hadn’t? What if I had heard a real voice? How might my life be different? How might his life be different? Might I be living, even now, a life a bit more real than the virtual life I find myself slipping into, half awake half dreaming, along with the rest of our insulated, secluded, solitary culture? Is there a kind of grace that could have danced between us in a few minutes on a Kampala street, a grace all the more astonishing for being simple and small? I don’t know. It’s all questions. Time is an arrow. Even if I could go back to Kampala, how would I find him when I never looked at his face?

The only way we will ever answer those questions, the questions that emerge from the fragments of our virtual lives, is to tell a story.

I’m a non-fiction writer. On March 4th I missed my chance to hear, and perhaps someday tell, that man’s story. It’s a chance I will never again have in this world.

But you are fiction writers. Perhaps one of you could introduce me to that one-legged man in Kampala. Tell me his story. Or if you can’t introduce me to him, introduce me to someone I never would have met, a sailor called Ishmael, an aging pastor named John Ames, a lover of poetry named Elizabeth Landis. Introduce me, if you must, to a whale. Someone or something unexpected and utterly true. Write to rescue me, rescue all of us, rescue even us Christian writers, from our addiction to our safe, sheltered, virtual stories. Rescue me from my instant messages. Deliver me out of this dream world, out of this endlessly diverting Holodeck of the self, into the real world—the world that is so terrible and so glorious and so full of grace that only imagination can make it whole.