Vanity Fair: Passing through or settling in?

What we generally take for granted as “the world around us,” the great John Bunyan described figuratively as a colorful, raucous, irresistible riot of carnal commerce called Vanity Fair. The whole thing, he warned, is set up to turn us from the love and rewards of God—yet in Bunyan’s telling, every pilgrim journeying toward God is obligated to go there. One must push through, resist capture, break out and with divine help at last leave Vanity Fair behind.

This appears, of course, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian classic of the 1600s. Culturally literate people will recognize two latter-day echoes from Vanity Fair. Already by the 1800s, when Thackeray titled a novel after it, the fair had lost any explicit spiritual connotation, though it retained a keen moral edge.

Today, another two centuries on, as the fair’s name has been revived in one of the smartest of all smart media voices, the moral edge is gone as well, leaving only a self-satisfied air of the in-crowd that all do what is right in their own eyes and contrary opinion be damned.

So far down the long road—the wrong road, John Bunyan would say, and I agree with him—has the civilization once as Christendom traveled. But look now, with this context having been established, at John Bunyan’s word-picture of Vanity Fair, and ask yourself if it doesn’t well describe the tangle of economics and politics and aspirations and distractions and obsessions and indulgences and spectacles that occupy 99% of the attention of most of us, even we who think ourselves good, serious, pious, upright folk:

At this fair are all such merchandise sold as houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; and delights of all sorts, as harlots, 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 jugglings, 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 color.

Bunyan begins his account of Vanity Fair with a line from Ecclesiastes 11:8, “All that cometh is vanity.” We say to ourselves: Really? All? The Preacher, we have to conclude, meant exactly that; and so did John Bunyan.

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