The travel pod was slipping silently through half-empty streets. I looked around me. “Not many people about...” I ventured. “No,” replied Helen. “But then, there’s not so much need to physically go places any more.”
“Virtuality,” she replied. “Anywhere you want to be you can be without having to leave your own office. Here.” She handed me a pair of black sunglasses. “Puter-specs” she explained. “Put them on.” I gingerly put them on. Suddenly, lights and numbers began to flash in front of my eyes. Great whirling balls of colour flipped across the screen and somewhere inside my head a voice said, “Loading... please wait.”
“Wow,” I said. “The last time I saw anything like this was at a Pink Floyd concert. Circa 1977.” “You saw Pink Floyd?” asked Helen in a hushed voice.
“For real?” “Well, yes,” I said. “But you never so much saw Pink Floyd as blinked at their light show. They were that kind of band.”
“Wow,” she said, in an awe-filled voice. “I keep forgetting how you’re from the past.” I ignored her, for, in front of my eyes, a world was forming. Houses, streets, trees, plants ... an entire city-scape on the lenses of a pair of sun glasses. “That’s the City in front of you now,” said Helen. “All you need do is tell it where you want to go.”
“Just speak?” “Speak.” “OK,” I said, “Take me to a beach in Bermuda.” There was a click and a pause. Everything went dark. Then - and this is what hit me first - I could smell the sea. I could hear gulls in the distance. Then the light faded up and I was standing - literally standing - on a beach. I wasn’t just looking at it, I was there. “This is incredible,” I said. “I’m really in Bermuda.” “No,” said a voice from far away. “No, you’re not. Your brain is just being fooled.” “But how? I can smell it ...” “The arms of the glasses have tiny electrodes which break the skin behind your ears. They’re feeding neuro-electrical impulses into your brain. That part of your brain which deals with touch and smell and all those other senses is being over-ridden by the data from the puter-specs. You think you’re there.” It was a beautiful sight. The sea was azure blue, with the sunlight sparkling on it like diamonds. The coconut-laden palm trees waved gently in the wind. The white sand stretched away before me and in the distance, stretching into the sea, was a rocky outcrop that seemed naggingly familiar. Then I realised.
“Helen,” I said. “You’ll never believe this, but there’s a pile of rocks here that look just like the McDonalds logo.” “Subliminal advertising,” she replied.
“Try looking at the coconuts.” I did. Each coconut had ‘Sponsored by Bounty’ printed on the side. From far away I swore I could hear a voice say ‘I really fancy a Bacardi ...’ Suddenly the whole thing juddered, and half of the beach seemed to go a funny colour and slide out of the side of the screen.
“What ’s happening?” I asked.. “We are sorry,” said a gentle calming voice, “we are having problems connecting to bermudaworld-dot-beach. In the meantime, here is some music.” Twanging guitar music started to filter into the back of my brain. It was, I noticed, Pink Floyd. I took the specs off.
Strangely my return to the real world left me feeling rather sad and empty. I had been on the beach, feeling the sun, smelling the sea. And now I was in the grey London twilight. I felt empty. Helen looked at me.
“Now you know why so many people spend all their time in virtuality. It’s much more pleasant than the real thing.” She gestured at the empty streets.
“Welcome to a world on drugs. They ’re drugged up with unreality, seduced by the artificial, the temporary, the instant pleasure.” “I see,” I said, trying to resist the temptation to slip the glasses back on and visit another ‘beach’. “So they don’t mind that it ’s not real? Or that it’s full of people trying to sell them things?”
“Well, the problem is a bit more complicated than that,” replied Helen. “The thing is that after a while it does become ‘real’. This is, for many of our citizens, reality now. And when you live in a consumer culture and accept that it is the only culture worth having - well, of course people will sell you things. It goes with the territory.” “The F.A.Cup,” I murmured.. “I’m sorry?” “It ’s just that in, I think,the early 90s, the Football Association declared that the F.A.Cup would never be tainted by sponsorship. But by the end of the decade it was - and nobody questioned it. We just accepted it as part of the norm.”
“Exactly. If people stay unhappy for long enough, they get used to it. They get used to consumerism, to loneliness, to selfishness, to that terrible, hopeless, ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality..” “Well, that’s a bit of a big leap...”
“No,”she replied. “It isn’t. It’s the history of the 20th and 21st century. The cynical, disbelieving centuries killed off the hope of a better life. There was no idealism any more and people who talked that way were derided. They weren’t ‘practical’. They weren’t pragmatic. They weren’t realists.” “So what’s all this got to do with the church?”
“I’ll tell you a story.” She lifted a flap on the front of her silver cybernated suit and said ‘Jungle story.” The suit beeped. And then, from somewhere on the front of her suit - I didn’t like to think where - a slightly tinny voice spoke. “Document ready,” it said. I looked at her, slightly unnerved. “What ’s the matter?” “Er... I’m just not used to this. Your left... um... chest just spoke to you.” She laughed. “It’s only a built in speaker,” she said..
“It ’s here,” she pointed.. “I know where it is, thank you,”I said. “Print or speak?” said her suit.. “Speak,” said Helen. She winked. “If that unnerves you, you don’t want to know where they put the printer on these things.” I barely had time to digest this information before the voice started to talk.
Not only that, it provided its own background music and effects. “There was once a village in the jungle,” said the suit. “The jungle was very dense and dark and the people in the village never saw much sunlight. Most days they would light their torches in the afternoon, and they lived their lives in gloom. Every now and then, they would hear the wind rustling the tree-tops and they would look up, uncertainly, and wonder what was happening above them. They thought that something must be happening, but they could not see it. Occasionally, the sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees and reached down piercing the gloom. When this happened, the villagers were very happy and they danced in the sunlight. But these moments were rare: mostly it was dark and cold and gloomy. One day, a stranger appeared in the village. “Where did you come from?” they asked him. He pointed. “From up there,” he said. “From the tops of the trees, where the air is fresh and the wind blows in your face and the birds sing.” The villagers looked amazed. “There is an ‘up there’?” they asked.. “Oh yes,” replied the stranger.. They looked at him. “You’re a funny colour,” they said. “You’re not pale, like us.” “That’s because I come from the sunlight,” said the stranger.. “They looked at him, baffled. “Sunlight?” “Didn’t I mention the sunlight?” said the stranger. “Oh, you must see the sunlight. Some days it is so bright that the tops of the trees turn white. Somedays it breaks through the clouds in pillars of gold. Some days it shines through the rain in a great arc of colours.” He looked at them. “Don’t tell me, you’ve never seen the sunlight,” he said. They shook their heads. “Then I will take you there, straight away,” he declared.. “Follow me and we’ll climb to the top!” At this, great debate broke out in the village. Some declared that the stranger was mad. Others that he was deliberately luring them into the trees so that he could push them off. But some looked at the colour of his skin and the brightness of his eyes and believed him. And, as he began to climb through the trees again, some followed him. Some of them gave up half way - they found the climb too difficult. But a few followed the stranger right up into the highest branches, until they were lost from sight. “That’s it,” said the village wise men. “We ’ll never see them again.” But they did. Every now and again, the people from the tree tops would come down to the village and tell the others what they had found. They explained how there was enough room for everyone to live up in top. Sometimes people from the village returned with them. The rest of the people however, laughed at these tales. And they stayed pale and cold on the forest floor, where their eyes were accustomed to the gloom.”
I looked at Helen. “Very nice,” I said. “A bit twee in places. Not very subtle.”
“Oh well, I’m sure you did your best,” she replied. “I ’m sorry?” “Well you wrote it,” she replied. She spoke to her suit. “Bibliographic details, please.” The suit buzzed. “The story comes from ‘Collected Stories of Nick Page’. Published by QuickBuck Conglomerates, 2032. Total sales figures 27.”
“27?” I exploded.. “27 copies!” “Well, said Helen. “You were slightly passé by then.” She thought for a moment. “Actually you were passé before you started, but we won’t go into that. Anyway, the point of the story...” “I can’t believe it,” I grumbled. “27 copies...” “Never mind that,” said Helen. “Let ’s get back to the point of the story. People stopped being idealistic, but Christianity had ideals to show them. People were terribly, dreadfully ‘realistic’, but Christianity had a truer and higher and brighter reality to present to them. It should have been our greatest moment.”
“So what went wrong?” She paused. “We never bothered to climb down from the tree tops,” she said at last. “We sat and waited for them to come to us.” She looked out of the pod at the grey world. “Christianity is all about the ideal life. It’s about the way that life should be lived - in all its fullness and wonder and richness. The first responsibility of the church is to live it. The second responsibility is to tell others. But instead of going and seeking them out, instead of going into and living among them, we shut ourselves away in our Christian ghettos.”
I nodded. “I remember a long time ago talking to a friend of mine, who was a salesman,” I said. “I asked him what the secret of successful selling was, and he said ‘comfort ’. He said, you don’t expect them to come into your comfort zone, you go into theirs. You go where they feel comfortable, even though it might make you feel bad.”
“Yes,” said Helen. “It’s called incarnation. And it means climbing down from our lofty perches and going and seeking people out. Because they won’t come to us anymore. They have their own worlds to live in, their own ‘realities’ to numb and confuse them.” I thought back to my own days. I thought of my village with all the people shut up in their homes, living their own, separate, self-contained lives. And I realised how challenging and difficult it would be to reach into their world and show them something different. “It’s nothing new, is it?” asked Helen.. “When God realised that the world would no longer come to him, he went to the world. He came down, as it were, from the tree tops.” She smiled. “And the people walking in darkness, saw a great light.”