Ready Player One may be the worst story I've ever loved. I loved it so much it pains me to admit that both the book and the movie are actively bad. The novel, by Ernest Cline, released in 2011 to glowing reviews. (I gave it as a Christmas gift!) The film, directed by none less than Steven Spielberg, has been his biggest hit since 2011. But something is amiss.
In Ready Player One, 18-year-old gamer Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a dystopia where everyone spends their time in the Oasis, a virtual reality that combines Google, Facebook, Amazon, and World of Warcraft. Since Oasis creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) came of age in the 1980s, it is populated by references to films of that era (which also happened to be Spielberg’s prime years). Upon his death, Halliday reveals he has hidden an Easter egg in the Oasis. The first person to find it inherits control of the Oasis, so Wade and his team of “gunters” (for “egg hunters”) mine late 20th-century pop culture for clues, in hopes of protecting the Oasis from the evil corporation IOI, which wants to monetize it.
As a child of the ’80s myself, I was thrilled that Wade drove a DeLorean, the trademark vehicle of Back to the Future. Watching the characters play through The Shining, one of my favorite horror films of all time, gave me chills (the good kind and the spooky kind). Both reading the book and watching the movie I felt a sense of pride as I spotted one reference after another to the stories on which I’d grown up.
But there’s nothing beneath the references. Wade doesn’t travel in time with the DeLorean; it’s just there to look cool. None of the themes from The Shining are explored; the earlier movie simply serves as set dressing for this new one. And while I was having fun spotting reference after reference, I failed to notice how one-dimensional all the characters are, how poor the world-building is, or how the thrill I got from recognizing horror villains Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees was problematic. All of this suggested that the real heroes are the people who sit around and consume pop culture well enough to spot it more than anyone else.
Ready Player One highlights the problem with nostalgia. When it plays on our affections, nostalgia can transform the past into an idol. Nostalgia doesn't see the pain of yesterday, only the good. Religion is particularly susceptible to this danger. We don't want to remember that John Calvin was involved in the execution of Servetus or that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite. My Wesleyan-Holiness theological tradition pats itself on the back for celebrating female preachers and egalitarian gender roles, while ignoring the disastrous end of John Wesley's own marriage due to the fact that he prioritized ministry over his spouse.
Nostalgia, then, can blind us. We came to know Jesus at an altar call, so the emotionalism of revivalist theology is beyond critique. A professor was a life-changing mentor, so his abuses of power aren't allowed in a discussion of his legacy. The preacher of our youth was an excellent interpreter of Scripture, so his passive white supremacy can be ignored.
Nostalgia replaces real experiences with memories of emotions. We forget that the people and institutions were meaningful in the first place because they helped us come to know Jesus. The lens we received from the theologian, professor, or pastor helped us see God's way better. Nostalgia tempts us to stop at the memory, the artifact. It reconnects us to the emotion of the original experience—the euphoria of “Eureka!” or the warmth of belonging. But these persons and institutions are not God. They are human and fallible. So when someone else sees differently, when they experienced these persons and institutions as less good, our first instinct is to protect.
When it plays on our affections, nostalgia can transform the past into an idol.
In The End of Memory, Miroslav Volf writes about the necessity of remembering truthfully. "When perpetrators 'remember' untruthfully, their stories are a continuation of wrongful deeds in an altered form,” he says. “And when victims 'remember' untruthfully, their stories are often attacks on perpetrators in response to injuries suffered; they retaliate illicitly. To 'remember' untruthfully is not only to continue but also to deepen in memory the conflict created by the initial injury."
By focusing only on the good in our past, nostalgia is a way of remembering falsely. Nostalgia blinds us to the new work of healing and hope God is working among us now. Writing to a community devastated by Babylon, Isaiah spends several verses remembering how God saved Israel from Egypt and other enemies. God is clearly not against remembering. How can we celebrate God’s faithfulness if we do not recall and celebrate his past acts of salvation? But the prophet doesn’t bask in the afterglow of the past. He knows how easily emotion replaces experiences, so to this people longing for a new Exodus, praying for God to make Israel great again, Isaiah warns, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
God was about to do something new, something better than the Exodus, something greater than David. But as long as Israel is looking backward, through the lens of nostalgia, they were going to miss it. As long as we're looking back to the “good old days,” longing to recapture the feelings of yesteryear, we'll miss the God who didn't stay in the past, but is now and always ahead of us, preparing a new thing. When we consider our past, we must strive to “remember truthfully,” as Volf says.
It’s no accident that in Ready Player One, all the pop culture is at least 20 years old. No one living in the nostalgia trap of the Oasis has time to create something new. And even that which they’re regarding fondly is warped and twisted. Consider the Iron Giant, whose central confession in his original movie—“I am not a gun”—is wholly disregarded here when a character builds her own Iron Giant to use as a weapon.
Ready Player One trades nuance for nostalgia, giving us a shallow, mediocre story that feels a lot more fun (as long as you're in the target demographic) than it actually is. Christians should take note: let us not remember the former things if it means trading depth, substance, or sacrament for the cheap comfort of the past.