We all live in Vanity Fair now

I’ve recently been reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress (in Swedish – cue applause) and was struck afresh by the following stage of Christian and Steadfast’s journey.

“They presently saw a town before them, and the name of that town is Vanity; and at the town there is a fair kept, called Vanity Fair: … because all that is there sold, or that cometh thither, is vanity… This fair is no new-erected business, but a thing of ancient standing”

Vanity Fair is such a brilliant name but it’s Bunyan’s description of the fair that really struck me.

“Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the city lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long: therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not. And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times, to be seen juggling, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind. Here are to be seen too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers, and that of a blood-red colour.”

At first I thought of major cities like London, Shanghai, Paris, New York and then as I read about the gambling I thought of cities like Las Vegas, Hong Kong or Dubai. Then I realised that Vanity Fair isn’t any of those places – it’s the internet.

Everything can be bought and sold on the internet – titles, land and all the merchandise in the world. ‘Gambling games?’ ’24-7 sir’, ‘whores and bawds?’ ‘Whenever you log in sir.’ ‘Theft & adulteries?’ ‘Our specialty sir.’

Bunyan’s insight is sharp, the enemy built Vanity Fair where they did because everyone must pilgrim through it, now without going as far as to say that the internet is of the devil, it strikes me that internet remains hazardous and treacherous territory for many people. Pornography is the obvious one, but gambling and shopping is just as dangerous as is the ‘vanity’ in my use of Facebook & Twitter and pals.

No, the startling reality is that we all live in Vanity Fair now.

Bunyan also offers three ways that marked the pilgrims out from the inhabitants of Town Vanity. Firstly, their clothes marked them out. I’m sure there is more thinking needed on how we dress and purchase clothes without looking like 17th century puritans but this is perhaps not quite as significant as Bunyan’s second reason. Secondly, Bunyan said the pilgrims speech separated them. They talked differently – full of grace, kindness, truth, charity & humility. However it was his third reason that really stood out to me:

“Thirdly, But that which did not a little amuse the merchandisers was, that these pilgrims set very light by all their wares; they cared not so much as to look upon them; and if they called upon them to buy, they would put their fingers in their ears, and cry, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity,” and look upwards, signifying that their trade and traffic was in Heaven (Ps 119:37; Phil. 3:19, 20).”

‘Their trade and traffic was in heaven’! Brilliant. This is what should mark us out but seldom does, that we actually put really very little store by their wares. I shouldn’t be all bothered by a new phone, tablet or pc. I might buy one but I’m not ‘interested’ in it, beyond ensuring a wise purchase, what we buy should consume very little of our conversation, our thinking, our dreaming. Instead, too often we look and are mesmerised by the false promises that are being sold to us and getting caught up in the worldly buzz of a new product that will be fading into the distance before we celebrate next Christmas.

We all live in Vanity Fair now but our trade and traffic is in Heaven.

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