Last week my family and I were on vacation. This year we decided to take our kids to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We had an absolute blast. Our kids, my wife, and I spent the week hiking trails to see the various waterfalls and scenic vistas spread over the park. Not until the end of the week did we get tired of walking. Even our four year old daughter was able to keep up. She hiked trails of 5 miles, 3.8 miles, and a few shorter ones—none of them considered “easy”. Their favorite part of the vacation was exploring the beauty of nature—God’s creation—which was a joy for my wife and I to see. But we almost didn’t make it to the mountains because of “Vanity Fair.”
Some of the children’s books we read to our kids from time to time are illustrated versions of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. We haven’t done the real deal yet, just the kid’s versions (Dangerous Journey, Pilgrim’s Progress: Adapted for Children). But they have certainly picked up on the major themes, characters, and places in Christian’s journey to the celestial city. As we exited off the interstate and inched closer to the tallest mountains in the eastern U.S., the “delectable mountains” of the Tennessee Smokies came into full view. It was as if they called to us, “Come explore the beauty of our grandeur and give praise to our Creator!” To get to the rental cabin in Wears Valley, we had to drive through Sevierville, Tennessee, where the kids were distracted by the incessant signage, storefronts, and entertainment options that thrust themselves in our faces. This was our first impression of Sevierville. Wow! Look at all the entertaining money traps.
“There’s King Kong on the Empire State building! Cool.”
“Dad, look at the upside-down house! Can we go there?”
“Mom, I want to go to the Titanic!”
“Look, helicopter tours! Can we do that? Please, please, please!”
“I’m hungry. Can we go eat at the Hatfield and McCoy dinner theater?”
I don’t remember who first described what we passed through as “Vanity Fair,” but our kids immediately caught the reference and imported everything we had taught them about the enticements of the world. Of course, Sevierville is not a bad place. Good people work there and provide a service in the tourist and vacation industry. There is nothing wrong with entertainment, and I don’t mean to suggest that visiting the Ripley’s museum on vacation is a sin. What we saw at this “Vanity Fair” was a distraction from our goal. God’s natural playground, full of beauty and history, was obscured by the lure of bells, whistles, lights, sounds, smells, and tastes. This is how we experienced “Vanity Fair” on vacation. It offered a substitute enjoyment that promised more than it could provide.
How often do people, you and I, get distracted from the goal of reaching the celestial city? We are so quick to stuff our lives and time to the gills with entertainment. Not as recreation that refreshes and re-creates us for our Christian journey toward heaven. But as ways to numb the pain of thought, contemplation, and loneliness. Or to get an emotional high that will only last a moment, never satiating our unquenchable thirst for more. We live in an entertainment culture. Our biggest idols are those that live on Mount Exciting and Mount Diversion. We are content to worship on these high places when God wants us to journey on toward Mount Zion.
After stopping for lunch, we drove right through Vanity Fair while the kids complained all along. At this point I was “mean daddy.” But we pressed on into the mountains to visit the first of many sights: little Cataract Falls. Our kids were hooked. They had seen and experienced something grander, something of grandeur. The next day when it was time to revisit Sevierville to find a local church where we could worship, the kids complained again. But this time was different. To my surprise, they didn’t want to return to “Vanity Fair” at all. They begged that we go back into the mountains and avoid the town for the rest of the week. I could hardly believe it! But it made me proud of my family. I believe God is indeed working in their hearts and drawing them away from frivolity to the weight of glory.
Alas, if only we could be permanently cured in this life of our attraction to Vanity Fair. The answer, I believe, is in identifying idolatry wherever it lurks in our hearts and wherever it’s siren song calls to us in the world. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. For help on seeking the cure, read David Powlison’s now-classic article Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair.