A discussion started over in The Tavern (the Innroads Ministries group on Facebook) today about what’s appropriate and not for Christians to play, and while I weighed in briefly at lunch, the discourse stuck with me enough that I wanted to try to pull together a more thorough treatment of what I’ve come to think and feel about this topic. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that I’m not some unassailable authority on this, or indeed any other topic. Indeed, the one certainty that I have to face in life is that with the number of things I have changed my mind on over the years is that I can be certain that I have been wrong on a great many things. But sometimes the errors of another can be constructive, so with that in mind, let me pull a couple of logs out of my eye and show them to you, because carrying these around has hurt me and my witness, and maybe by examining some of my logs, you can avoid them working their way into your eyes, too.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. -Matthew 7:3-5
Log the First
The first log is the tendency to conflate holiness and propriety, sometimes almost willfully. I am bad at this, and I used to be much worse. It’s so tempting and seductive to look at keeping up proper appearances or just not talking about certain things as the way to be holy. (Credit to Min/Max – Ashley described this as “Sanitizing instead of Sanctifying” early on in their run.) This is the temptation of the Pharisees – the desire to set oneself apart from the proverbial unwashed masses of the world – and it is absolutely the sin of Pride. It’s also perhaps got some shadings of Sloth in it, because it’s so much easier to shove all the messy, ugly stuff in a corner and throw a rug over it. But God doesn’t even give us that luxury in SCRIPTURE. The Bible is full of all sorts of horrific, deplorable actions, some of them attributed to people we’re meant to admire (David and Bathsheba, anyone?) and we’re meant to read about these things, and learn from them. And this doesn’t get the attention it deserves in discussions about discernment. The Bible contains rape, genocide, murder, torture, slavery, betrayal, graphic sexual imagery, demonic possession, and racism just to provide an abbreviated list.
“They killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes. Then they put out his eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon.” -2 Kings 25:7
I had a conversation a while back about music with another member of my gaming group (another professing Christian, by the way) about music that touched on some of this. One of the things excessive piety and propriety can do is make the suffering or struggles of people “inappropriate” and cultivate an attitude or even a culture of forced smiles and false perfection. And that can be salt in your wounds when you’re already suffering. The other players’ parents had kept them away from … basically anything with electric guitars growing up, which is a shame, because one of the things that heavier music is great at is processing pain. Two of the songs that I can point to that have spoken to me the most are Red Roof by the decidedly-Christian Deliverance and The Light by Disturbed which is definitely a secular band (though the singer-songwriter is pretty forthright about his Jewish faith). But the one that absolutely takes the cake is Losing My Humanity by Kobra and the Lotus, which despite not coming from a Christian viewpoint, is downright prophetic. And I mean that in the sense of “this sounds an awful lot like Isaiah or Micah.” (If you absolutely can’t stand heavy metal for aesthetic reasons, at least read the lyrics. If you’re convinced it’s bad on some essential level, I’d suggest watching the video and seeing if it doesn’t change your mind a bit.)
The first log also has a prominent branch sticking off of it involving the notion that acknowledging something and endorsing it are the same thing. They are not. This gets back to scripture. The Bible depicts all kinds of human evil, some of it in uncomfortably graphic detail, and yet most Christians can easily agree that even though the Bible describes Moses committing murder, David committing at least adultery and murder (and probably rape as well – what do you think would have happened to Bathsheba if she’d tried to refuse the king?) and the Pharisees trying to get Jesus sentenced to death for healing on the Sabbath, it doesn’t hold those actions up as examples of what we’re supposed to do. And I think we do a bit of an injustice when we use a double standard for scripture and literally everything else – one has to take context into account. If a game has demons in it, but they are there as a deplorable threat to be fought against tooth and nail or as an object lesson about what not to do, that is radically different than holding them up as an example of how we are to live our lives.
Log the Second
The second log is the tendency to view God as a figure more like Zeus than Christian teaching indicates He is. Which is to say capricious, vengeful, and full of thunderbolts with which to smite us if we step out of line. And look, I have an even harder time with this one than the first log. In my darkest moments, my mind has grappled with a blasphemous theology of universal damnation where NOBODY escapes Eternal Conscious Torment (or perhaps only the actual apostles and a few other truly virtuous figures) and the resurrection is not a message of hope, but a demonstration of God’s power to shrug off anything we could ever try to do to Him. I can get pretty dark and bleak in my thinking.
But God isn’t Sigmar, or Menoth, or Zeus. He’s God, Jehova, I Am That I Am, and that is not His nature. This sort of thinking is, I think, a form of spiritual impostor syndrome. God is not looking for a reason to obliterate us, He wants us to follow Him, and that’s much more about showing kindness and mercy than worrying about the “appropriateness” of individual tropes in our media diet. I think it’s important to draw lines between fantasy and reality, too – Jesus certainly did with his parables. And with the number of things the Bible calls out as wrong, we’d better HOPE God is as merciful as Jesus indicates He is, because Paul wasn’t exaggerating in Romans.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. -Romans 3:21-26
Still, that’s not to say everything is equally good. There’s media that makes you think or examine big, important topics (or small, personal ones) and lets you grapple with them for a while. There’s purely instructive media that can teach useful lessons. There’s purely entertaining media that drifts by like colorful bubbles and doesn’t really serve any specific purpose beyond harmless stress relief. I would put Burnout Paradise in this last category, but even it served as a valuable bit of stress relief during a truly awful stretch at work a couple of years back. And then there is stuff like porn, which is corrosive to the soul and harmful to those involved in its creation and distribution.
But what sets porn apart from other media that deals with dark or evil subject matter is that it is designed to feed and gratify one of our baser impulses – in that particular case, the sin of Lust. At the risk of kicking a hornet’s nest, I think a lot of political “reporting” these days is actually shockingly similar, but invokes and fosters Wrath instead, dehumanizing and demonizing those of contrary opinions and ascribing base motives to everything they do.
But I think in except these most extreme of cases, meta-context is far more important than individual tropes. We got deep into that in our two-part episode with Min/Max. (Part 1, Part 2) And sometimes, even just the “popcorn” games can do something that borders on holy if they help someone. And while D&D includes magic and dragons, and demons, and Lovecraftian horrors and many other things that people sometimes worry about, when you can use it to treat psychological trauma or make a stranger feel welcome, you have to start wondering if the moral situation isn’t just a little more complicated than breaking it down to a checklist would indicate.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, -Matthew 25:35