Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was a best-seller a handful of years ago and then became a blockbuster movie. Fun, full of clever pop-culture references, the futuristic story of a poor high school kid who goes on an epic quest within the virtual reality world humanity lives in is deserving of its acclaim. Moreover, the book lightly touches on questions of how real virtual reality is and whether real reality is better. Though not a profound exploration in any way, the book and movie both end with the message that virtual reality is not an adequate substitute for reality. For humanity, reality is still where we thrive.
I enjoyed the book when I first read it and was excited to see a sequel on the way this fall. Slotted into my queue for fun reading, I spent a weekend in my hammock enjoying Ready Player Two. Again, it was a fast-paced, enjoyable read, though a bit bloated in places. Given that I was reading it in the midst of a tech-filled year of pandemic, when nearly all human interactions have taken place through a screen, I was intrigued by the author’s idea of a new level of virtual reality that put users’ bodies into a deep sleep so their brains could experience all kinds of activities. Some days it felt like that was exactly my experience in pandemic academia. Though there was a good case made for the good this kind of technology could do for accessibility and allowing disabled people to experience all manner of life, the trajectory of the story seemed to be, again, that reality is ultimately best. So I was surprised when the last twenty pages took a sharp left turn and praised the idea of uploading one’s consciousness to this virtual reality system so that it would live on after the user’s death, essentially giving the user immortality.
Ready Player Two is not a theological treatise, nor does it consider itself to be a Christian book. It is written to be fun. However, in this year of extra virtual living and my own ruminations on the Gnostic tendencies, this over-reliance on zoom has created and exacerbated (see “Tired of Gnosticism,” from earlier this academic year), I could not help but read the book with this background. Indeed, the ending angered me. Now more than ever, we need stories that remind us why reality is important. We need stories that celebrate face-to-face interactions and the joys of things we can touch, taste, smell, hear, and see—not with our minds only but with our fingers and toes and lungs. This is the goodness of the body and the material that Jesus’s bodily resurrection affirms.
As vaccines make it safer for the world to open again, Christians need to consider whether the convenience of continuing with technologically mediated human interaction is the way God would have his people live. There are plenty of cases where technology allows the flourishing of relationships that are for one reason or another separated by geography, and I do not write about those. I write about the question of whether all of our work meetings and classes and worship services and yoga and whatever else should become unmediated again (when it is safe to do so).
Christ’s bodily resurrection declared the body good. Christ’s incarnation declared that our bodies, the material world, is how God comes to his people. Our bodies will come with us in our own final resurrection. The way we live forever is not only through our consciousness but through glorified bodies. Christians need to remember this and say that our interactions now matter. Physical interactions. God comes to us in material, physical interactions with one another, the body of Christ.
The other piece of Ready Player Two’s ending that provoked thought is that one of the characters appreciated the uploading-consciousness piece because it meant she was able to continue to interact with and be near her deceased grandmother. This, too, Christians have a way of thinking about that is more robust. Christians affirm the communion of saints. Leaving aside questions of timing or intermediate states, Christians declare that those who have gone ahead of us to be with Christ are in communion with us still. We may think about this in various ways, but we hold that those who have passed on are in the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11) that surrounds us as we run the race on earth.
It is not merely a person’s consciousness that is with Christ or that we interact with but the person herself. The real person. Not physical in the same way right now, but the real person, more than just her consciousness. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that we can talk with them still, that they can be with us the same way the risen Christ can be with us. Who needs an uploaded consciousness when we have our saints in their whole being? This communion is real even now. And even if the present dimension of this is too much to believe, Christians affirm that when Christ returns, we will all be resurrected and together again around the throne. Not only our minds but our bodies as well.
Christians have answers to the anxieties of the present moment: anxieties about living without our loved ones, about our own deaths and whether there is more, about the physicality of life. Let’s lean into those answers. Let’s live now in the light of those realities. Let’s tell stories that enable people to live in hope rather than fear. In short, let’s live in non-virtual reality.