But Then We Shall See Face to Face: Faith in Ready Player One

Faith in Ready Player One?




Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a fun romp through 80s nostalgia and a quest story for lovers of video games, pop music and movies. I’ve read it twice and seen the movie version too— I liked the book better than the movie. It’s not what I’d call a great work of literature, but I enjoyed it immensely the first time I read it and it held up well to a second reading and I would definitely recommend it to a friend, if the friend was the sort of person to like that sort of book.



I was a little surprised, therefore, when a friend complained about how godless it was and how hostile to faith. What? Did you even read the same book I did? I had no idea what he was talking about. When I questioned him, he said that the book started out with a God is dead, religion is bad monologue. I didn’t remember such a speech— and I re-read the book pretty recently, just last May. 



So I did a search on Amazon and found the speech— I hadn’t remembered that it had anything about God, but it’s in the first chapter, not at the beginning but in the middle of the chapter. It’s a largely expository passage that sets the scene and tells you about the first person narrator, Wade and his dystopian world, and his bleak existential situation. He’s an orphan living in abject poverty whose mother died of a drug overdose and whose father was shot while looting a grocery store during power blackout. Before her death his mother neglected him, he was pretty much raised by the internet; in the world of the book it’s called the OASIS, a massive immersive virtual reality platform. The speech sets the scene: this world is dystopian, everything is bleak and hopeless. I didn’t pay much attention to why, fossil fuel crisis something something. The rant about how there is no God seems placed in the narrative mostly as character building, to show you how bleak Wade’s world is.





I don’t know, maybe your experience differed from mine. For me, growing up as a human being on the planet Earth in the fwenty-first century was a real kick in the teeth. Existentially speaking.



The worst thing about being a kid was that no one told me the truth about my situation. In fact they did the exact opposite. And, of course, I believed them because I was a kid and I didn’t know any better… how could I be expected to know when the adults were bullshitting me?



. . . I gradually began to figure out that everyone had been lying to me about pretty much everything since the moment I emerged from my mother’s womb.



This was an alarming revelation.



It gave me trust issues later in life.



I started to figure out the ugly truth as soon as I began to explore the free OASIS libraries. The facts were right there waiting for me, hidden in old books written by people who weren’t afraid to be honest. Artists and scientists and philosophers and poets, many of them long dead. As I read the words htey’d left behind, I finally began to get a grip on the situation. My situation. Our situation. When most people refer to as “the human condition.”



It was not good news.



This is the context for the rant about God: A clever boy growing up in a bleak and loveless world of violence and poverty who discovered books in libraries and taught himself about the human condition. The wonder isn’t that he concluded that life is meaningless. The wonder is that he did find a purpose, that he didn’t give up.



So on to the rant:





The story that you heard? About how we were all created by a super-powerful dude named God who lives up in the sky? Total bullshit. The whole God thing is actually an ancient fairy tale that people have been telling one another for thousands of years. We made it all up. Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.



I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, it’s always a mistake in literature to assume that the views of the narrator, especially when it’s a first person narrator, are the same as those of the author. And I suspected almost immediately that my friend was making that mistake. Wade is a lonely, disillusioned kid and his disillusionment is very much a product of a bleak, largely Godless and loveless world. Apart from the text we really have any way of knowing what the author, Ernest Cline, thinks about the subject; but we can surmise that Wade is a character and this speech is a deliberate piece of character development.

The fact that Wade rejects God doesn’t really tell you that Cline is an atheist or that the book is promoting an atheist agenda. It just tells you that Wade, the character, is. And in general when atheists want to show that the world is bleak, I think they are less likely to insert a ‘God is dead’ speech because they don’t tend see the presence of God as a sign of hope or his absence as a symbol for despair– usually quite the opposite. So, as a Christian, if I wanted my novel to portray how bleak and meaningless a world without God is . . . this sort of speech would be one way to do that. Show don’t tell: When people don’t believe in God, they are hopeless, life is bleak. 




I’d also like to point out one other thing before we move on. Sherry Weddell says that when evangelizing atheists one question to ask is “tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” We Christians tend to assume that people are rejecting the God that we know and love; yet, very often, the God they are rejecting is a God that I would reject too. Wade’s account of a “super powerful dude that lives in the sky” isn’t actually much like the God I believe in. Jesus isn’t a super powerful dude in the sky. Wade’s account misses the most important thing about the Christian God: God is love. And this isn’t surprising because at this point in the story Wade doesn’t really know what love is. And being so ignorant of love, how could he even begin to know God?

Finally, Wade idolizes Halliday… and Halliday is an atheist… and in spending years of his life getting to know Halliday intimately… is it any surprise Wade has imbibed a lot of Halliday’s worldview? Halliday’s Anorak’s Almanac is practically Wade’s Bible and

Most of the entries were his stream-of-consciousness observations on various classic video games, science fiction and fantasy novels, movies, comic books, and ‘80s pop culture, mixed with humorous diatribes denouncing everything from organized religion to diet soda.

How much of Wade’s diatribe against religion is an imitation of Halliday’s diatribes? 


A Pleasant Fantasy?



But, that said, a little later in the same chapter Wade leaves his aunt’s trailer— after an altercation with her in which she steals his laptop and reveals that she only keeps him around so she can get his food voucher. And then he has a short visit with a neighbor who is a Christian, Mrs Gilmore. Wade thinks highly of her, he calls her “a total sweetheart” and it seems clear that she loves him and that he knows it and that he cherishes her for it. Yes, he rejects her attempts to save his soul, but it’s clear he feels no malice towards her and it’s also clear that those attempts on her part are a sign of affection. 


She was always praying for me too. Trying her hardest to save my soul. I never had the heart to tell her that I thought organized religion was a total crock. It was a pleasant fantasy that gave her hope and kept her going— which was exactly what the Hunt was for me.

So our first encounter with a Christian, as opposed to the abstract idea of a God, is actually a positive one. And in it Wade glimpses the idea of religion as a thing which gives life meaning. Even if he dismisses it as a fantasy, he acknowledges that it is good for Mrs Gilmore and acknowledges that he has his own fantasy that he clings to and that gives meaning to his life. In his comparison of his fantasy to hers, he actually gives some degree of validation to her faith.






For Wade the Hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg is the first step on the path to meaning. When he has finished telling us about how bleak his world is, after he tells us that he has rejected heaven as fantastical wish fulfillment, he then goes on to tell us about the fantasy land that he lives in. 


Luckily I had access to the OASIS, which was like having an escape hatch into a better reality. The OASIS kept me sane. It was my playground and my preschool, a magical place where anything was possible.



The OASIS is the setting of all my happiest childhood memories. When my mom didn’t have to work, we would log in at the same time and play games or go on interactive storybook adventures together. She used to have to force me to log out every night, because I never wanted to return to the real world. Because the real world sucked.



The closest thing Wade knew to being loved was playing games with his mother… no wonder the OASIS is the doorway to meaning and to love. It’s his magical wardrobe, his gateway to adventure. And it’s the first place where he finds meaning for his meaningless existence.



“Then the Hunt… was what saved me, I think. Suddenly I’d found something worth doing. A dream worth chasing. For the last five years, the hunt has given me a goal and purpose. A quest to fulfill. A reason to get up in the morning.

Something to look forward to.



The moment I began searching for the egg, the future no longer looked so bleak.



The egg– which Art3mis later calls a McGuffin, referencing the movie trope of any item that has no intrinsic value in itself but sets a quest in motion– the egg represents hope. Halliday’s egg isn’t really the point of the book, the point is the quest itself.


I’m reminded of what Viktor Frankl says in Man’s Search for Meaning: that people in a bleak situation (and, really, in any situation in life) need meaning, a reason to keep going, or else they give up and die. It doesn’t have to be a good one, in the ultimate sense, just a reason to keep going. And yet… philosophers and poets from Plato to Dante have argued that often love for lesser goods leads us to love of higher goods. So just because the Oasis is Wade’s early love and his first reason to hope doesn’t mean that his character never grows beyond that love. It would be a pretty pitiful story if the protagonist is still the same guy at the end as he is in the first chapter— and quite a few of the book’s critics who focus on this early scene tend to forget that characters grow and change. They fall into the trap of thinking that the McGuffin is the point of the story.





Faith and Hope and Charity



Christians are few in the world of Ready Player One, and faith or its lack is not a major theme in the novel. I hadn’t even thought about the topic on either of my reads. But my friend pointed to another passage that he found troubling later in the novel. He said the clue that involved faith, hope, and charity felt like a “gotcha moment” by which I think he meant that it seemed like it was going to be deeply meaningful and then turned out not to be. It seemed to him like another rejection of faith. Again, I didn’t remember this scene and had to go look it up. 


There was a keyhole in the very center of the door, and directly above it, three words were etched into the door’s glittering, faceted surface: CHARITY, HOPE, FAITH.



Wade and his friends watch as Sorrento and the Sixers, the novel’s arch-villains, try to open the gate:





“They try every asinine thing you can imagine,” I said. “Sorrento recites the words on the gate in Latin. And Elvish. And Klingon. Then they get hung up on reciting First Corinthians 13:13, a Bible verse that contains the words ‘charity, hope, and faith.’ Apparently ‘charity, hope, and faith’ are also the names of three martyred Catholic saints. The Sixers have been trying to attach some significance to that for the past few days.”



“Morons,” Aech said. “Halliday was an atheist.”



“They’re getting desperate now,” I said. “Sorrento has tried everything but genuflecting, doing a little dance, and sticking his pinky finger in the keyhole.”

. . .

“Charity, hope, faith,” Art3mis said, reciting the words slowly. She turned to me. “Where do I know that from?”

“Yeah,” Aech said. “Those words do sound familiar.”



“It took me a while to place them too,” I said.

They all looked at me expectantly.



“Say them in reverse order,” I suggested. “Better yet, sing them in reverse order.”



Art3mis’s eyes narrowed. “Faith, hope, charity,” she said. She repeated them a few times, recognition growing in her face. Then she sang: “Faith and hope and charity . . . “

Aech picked up the next line: “The heart and the brain and the body . . . “



“Give you three . . . as a magic number!” Shoto finished triumphantly.



“Schoolhouse Rock!” they all shouted in unison.

. . .

“I have a theory. I think this might be Halliday’s way of telling us how many keys are required to open the Third Gate.”



Art3mis grinned, then sang, “It takes three.”



“No more, no less,” continued Shoto.



“You don’t have to guess,” added Aech.

“Three,” I finished, “is the magic number.”

. . 

“He’s toyed with us every step of the way, and now he’s doing it again. Why else would he require three copies of the Crystal Key to open the final gate?”



“Maybe because he wanted us to work together?” I suggested.



Interestingly, although my friend thought it felt shallow, as if the Schoolhouse Rock was demeaning and undercutting the theological meaning of the words, as I read the scene more closely, my impression was the exact opposite. Cline could have picked any grouping of three in pop culture to give the characters the clue that they need to work together as a group, using three different keys, to unlock the gate. But he chose faith, hope, and charity.

And he could have ignored the Biblical significance of the trio and only pointed toward the Schoolhouse Rock song. But instead he cites chapter and verse and, even more, refers to three very obscure Christian martyrs. They’re so obscure, in fact, that my Catholic friend thought he had made them up, but since my daughter Sophia has an icon of them on her wall I knew their story. Faith, Hope, and Love were the daughters of Saint Sophia and icons of Sophia often show her with her three daughters. The story is that, like the mother of the Maccabees, Sophia watched her daughters die— and then she died of sorrow making her a martyr as well. Why does Cline bring them up? What is the significance? Well, perhaps their martyrdom points to the nature of love as self-sacrificial. In any case, it feels to me like it’s not accidental– none of the references in the novel are accidental– it’s pointing to something. The Sixers can’t solve the problem of the gate because they don’t understand the love and the importance of working together. Oh they have a simulacrum of working together, but their partnership is exploitive, not familial and that’s their downfall.


Also, at this point in the text we get a scripture citation, chapter and verse from the New Testament. Almost as if the text wants the reader to go look up the passage. Almost as if the passage in First Corinthians were an Easter egg for the reader. Any Scripture citation in any novel cries out for the reader to look it up if he deosn’t already know it, but a certainty in a text whose very narrative fabric is intimately concerned with Easter eggs— hidden clues that only the savvy reader will discern– it behooves the reader of Ready Player One to look up the reference. Get that? The text wants the reader to go read the Bible to figure out what the clue means.
 That hardly seems the strategy of a book whose aim is undercutting the value and meaning of the Bible.

The Greatest of These is Love


The passage in question, First Corinthians 13:13, is restated in the text, but let’s look at it again: “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The whole of First Corinthians chapter 13 is an extended definition of what love is, how love acts, and the importance of love. It seems to me that that is really the point of this scriptural Easter egg: to think about the importance of love in the story. What Wade has been motivated by all along is a series of loves. What he truly wins at the end of the novel is love and the freedom to love.



Also, what I found very interesting when I looked up the Biblical citation was how many lines in the rest of Corinthians chapter 13 seemed pertinent to the story’s thematic structure in general but also about this climactic moment when the heroes begin the final overthrow of the Sixers and the push to win the game. Given the way that clues work in the game— it’s often not the word or phrase referenced in the clue, but something else in the larger context of the referenced work that is the relevant part— I don’t think it’s a stretch to look at the whole of the preceding passage in Corinthians as relevant to the novel.



First, there is the bit at the beginning of the chapter about how you can have everything in the world but if you have not love you are nothing: 


“If I speak in human and angelic tongues* but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.

And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.


Isn’t that true of the Sixers? They lack love and thus are nothing. Whereas the heroes win because they work not only with each other but with all the gunters in the Oasis who love the game for itself not for what they can get out of it.
 The final victory would have been impossible was everyone not willing to put aside their differences to launch a unified attack, even though it was of no immediate benefit to themselves.

I Put Aside Childish Things


Then there are the two verses that immediately precede the quoted citation, First Corinthians 11 and 12:



“When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things,” and



“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”




I think these two verses can be read as signifying, first, an important insight into Wade’s character development, and second, a statement of a major theme of the novel.


Wade is at first a loner, distrustful of people and of God. Over the course of the novel he comes to trust his handful of friends, but the real turning point in the book is when they step outside of the virtual reality and meet each other face to face and save each other’s lives. Perhaps we are to read this verse as a reminder that Wade has changed. He has put aside his childish lone wolf attitude and come to see that he can make a difference in the real world. Likewise, is it so hard to imagine that his initial rants and rejection of God and heaven might in fact have been childish and might need to be put away as he enters into responsible adulthood? Perhaps he has outgrown his need for the Oasis to mediate relationships and perhaps he has outgrown the need to see Halliday as a god. And perhaps he has begun to see more clearly the value of the real world. Perhaps in time he might even outgrow his hatred for God as he deepens in his ability to love his fellow men?



Throughout the novel most character interactions are mediated by the Oasis. Wade goes on great adventures and explores a fictional universe in his mind, but really he’s isolated, in an abandoned van and then in a hermetically sealed apartment. And yet the quest’s structure insists that he must leave his safe holes– first the van and then the apartment– and finally meet his partners face to face. The meeting with Aech demonstrates that everything Wade thought he knew about his best friend was wrong. Aech isn’t white, isn’t male, isn’t straight. And yet in the moment when he has to reevaluate everything he knew, he realizes that he can still love Aech, that Helen, as he now learns to call Aech, isn’t really a stranger at all. Everything has changed and yet nothing essential has changed. Wade’s love stands up to the challenge of seeing face to face, of knowing and being known.



But the most important meeting doesn’t happen until the very last pages of the novel when Wade finally meets the girl he fell in love with virtually and sees her face to face for the very first time. This notion of face to face meeting is crucial in the novel. Because when he comes to the end of the game, what Wade has learned is that there is life beyond the OASIS. He has come to appreciate his need for real-life, face to face encounters, for true, deep, human knowledge of other people. And he decides that one of his first moves will be to turn the OASIS off to force people to go offline and live in the real world, albeit for only small periods of time. He understands that all people need times of rest away from artificial reality, a sort of Sabbath rest. (He also tells Samantha that his goals are to use his newfound wealth to feed everyone on the planet and make the world a better place.)

One Christian critic felt that this wasn’t enough. Only complete obliteration and rejection of the OASIS, only a full shutdown would suffice to reject the fantasy world and to embrace the real world. But that notion seems short sighted. We need stories, we need adventures, we need movies and games and fantasy as much as we need reality. Balance is the key. The OASIS isn’t bad, in fact it’s been very very good to Wade and his friends. It has brought him love and meaning. It saved his life. And conclusion of the novel pays tribute to that. Were Wade to immediately power off the OASIS for good, it would be a rejection of all the real good that it has done. And I just cannot embrace that.

Parzival and the Quest for the Holy Grail





So then what are we to make about the novel’s stance towards God? Wade never revisits the question within the pages of the novel, never re-examines his preconceptions and never questions his prejudices. And yet the thrust of the novel implies is that it is vital to make such self-examinations, vital to ask such questions. I think it no accident that Wade’s avatar’s name in the OASIS is Parzival, the questing knight from the stories of King Arthur, one of the knights who seek the Holy Grail.



Parzival is a German medieval romance written by the knight-poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the poem Parzival first seeks and finds King Arthur, and then continues in a spiritual and physical search for the Grail. According to Wikipedia’s summary, “among the most striking elements of the work are its emphasis on the importance of humility, compassion, sympathy and the quest for spirituality. A major theme in Parzival is love: heroic acts of chivalry are inspired by true love, which is ultimately fulfilled in marriage.”

There are many possible spellings of Parzival, Percival, Parsifal, but I assume that Cline’s choice of spelling matters and therefore focused on the German medieval version of the story rather than von Eschenbach’s source and inspiration Chrétien de Troyes’ incomplete Grail romance Perceval or any of the other variations.



There are several details that I find relevant here: Parzival is a questing knight whose quest is mutlifaceted and has both physical and spiritual components… could it be that the use of the name suggests that Wade’s quest, although he thinks he is merely seeking Halliday’s treasure, also has a spiritual component? That, just as Parzival’s quest expands as he goes, from merely finding King Arthur to finding the Grail, Wade’s quest expands from finding Halliday’s Easter egg and winning the contest to making the world a better place and winning Samantha’s love? Likewise, the virtues that Parzival emphasizes: humility, compassion, and sympathy all play a large role in Wade’s character arc.



Also pertinent: the novel parallels the element of love which is so important in the Parzival poem. Like von Eschenbach’s hero, Wade’s actions are inspired by love. First, love of the Oasis itself, then love for its maker, Halliday and for all the works that Halliday himself loves, then love for his fellow questers, especially Aech and Artemis. As Wade grows through the novel, love for his friends develops and changes and deepens and becomes love for all the users of the Oasis, a love for humanity. And ultimately the fulfillment of Wade’s quest is not winning Halliday’s game, but finding his friends in real life and the face to face love of the real life Samantha. The quest shapes Wade, as all quests shape their heroes, and he learns through his loves, as one love leads to another, greater, love which leads to an even greater love.



Finally, it’s interesting to note that one of the last challenges that Wade encounters in the quest for Halliday’s egg is… a reenactment of the film, Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. Coincidence, or symbol? As Parzival nears the end of his quest the game actually makes him play the roles of King Arthur and various of his knights. Perhaps there’s something to this grail thing after all?

Conclusion


So where does that leave us? Perhaps, then, you could argue that the text deliberately leaves the matter of faith as an open-ended question. Maybe Wade’s quest isn’t truly over. Maybe it’s just beginning just as his face to face relationships with Samantha and Aech and Soto and Og are just beginning.

The story leaves Wade and Samantha, having just declared their love with a kiss, sitting on a bench in the middle of the maze, their lives ahead of them, looking hopeful. Wade’s final declaration is that for the fist time in as long as he can remember he “had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.” That confession—plus the plan he has already laid out to institute a weekly powering down of the OASIS (a super-sabbath rest)– suggests a fundamental shift in his character, his life, his existential situation. He is open to new life, new love, new possibilities. The OASIS has played its role: it has saved Wade. But that doesn’t mean he’s stuck there forever. 



The final scene certainly leads me to hope that he and Samantha will have more and better adventures in the real world and that maybe Wade will finally find the fullest realization of the love that he has been seeking all along.



The Schoolhouse Rock song continues past the part the characters sing in the novel:





A man and a woman had a little baby
Yes, they did
They had three in the family
That’s a magic number


Does that foreshadow a wedding and eventually a family in Wade and Samantha’s future?

And perhaps, just perhaps, is it possible that at some point in the future Wade might find that the real, ultimate Easter Egg is Christ? The Schoolhouse Rock song does also reference three as a mystical trinity. The true magic of the number three is deeply Christian, the true inner nature of the God who is Love, who is Himself a family, so maybe the Schoolhouse Rock song not quite as godless an alternative clue as Christians might fear.

My point isn’t necessarily to discern authorial intent, that Cline definitively meant the Corinthians reference and the quest for the holy grail references to be a hidden Christian message. I don’t really want to get into Cline’s mind and probe whether faith is the ultimate Easter egg— though it would be cool if it were. The point really is to show that there is nothing in the novel that is incompatible with such a reading, that there is certainly nothing in the novel that is necessarily hostile to faith. There’s no reason for Christians to be defensive, or to skip the novel, because there isn’t any attack here… and there might be just the opposite. 


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