Not Child’s Play

Games reveal quite a bit about a culture. That’s a little takeaway from my undergraduate anthropology class. Different societies favor different types of games: chance, strategy, zero-sum, role-playing, the list could go on and on. Indeed, games have surpassed movies as the big money makers of the tech entertainment industry. We love to play.

Religions sometimes try to capitalize on popular culture. The difference is that religions are taken with a lethal seriousness that most games leave behind. Sure, you may end up shooting a few hundred people, but when you walk away from the flat screen you probably know that the game is over. Religions, of course, realize that they aren’t fun. Despite the constant criticism that religions get for being simplistic and superstitious, anyone who has tried to be a serious adherent knows that it isn’t as easy as it looks. Being religious is very hard work. So, why not turn to games to convey hard truths? The other day I found an old, still-in-the-box, shrink-wrapped game called Divinity. It is designed to teach the catechism of the Catholic Church. A Monopoly-like track edges a stained-glass center board, and, I suspect, you get considerably more than $200 for passing Go.

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Using games to sugar-coat bad tasting doctrine is nothing new. One might argue that the Sunday School tradition long ago capitalized on the idea of making avoiding perdition fun. In some cases it does seem to have worked; some kids grow up terrified and spend their lives trying hard to win the game. In fact, it can set some lives on a trajectory far too high to achieve, but far too important not to try. We can’t all be priests, after all. Should we all be clergy, then many interested parties would be out of a job.

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Once upon a time, the state religion could demand a sizable chunk of municipal funding. Taxes went to support the expensive luxury of clergy dedicated to pleasing the gods, Then the rules changed. With religious freedom there comes a great outpouring of creativity to ensure that the coffers never run dry. Christian comic books, Christian rock, Christian movies, Christian board games. We have come to an age of faith branding. It’s no surprise, really, for it is, according to the rules, a zero-sum game.

Mummery and Divinity

The human psyche is a fascinating study. As an undergrad I stopped just shy of a psychology minor (partially this was due to the place, but also to a haunting feeling that psychologists are often attempting to resolve their own problems). Even as an armchair psychologist there are plenty of human tendencies to note. One that I occasionally mention in this blog is pareidolia, the attribution of significance to random information. Pareidolia often comes in the form of seeing faces, entire people, or even animals, where they don’t actually exist. This has been proffered as the source of belief in everything from ghosts and aliens to God himself. No doubt pareidolia is a strong tendency in the human mind. When my family recently saw Mummenschanz this was again confirmed.

This Swiss mime troupe – pioneers in experimental theater – makes simple objects come to life. The illusion works because of pareidolia. When we saw the show, even the youngest audience members could be heard exclaiming what obviously non-human tubes, slinky-like characters, and shapeless blobs were trying to do. “It wants the balloon!” “It likes that other one!” “It feels sad.” As the various abstract pieces moved about the stage, a laugh was guaranteed if they flashed a simple round orifice at the audience that clearly perceived it as an eye. We attribute intentionality and purpose to objects unvivified without the soul of Mummenschanz inside them.

Prior to the current tour, the last time my wife and I saw Mummenschanz was about two decades ago in Edinburgh. This was long before I’d been introduced to the concept of pareidolia, and, although I enjoyed the show, the more recent experience was more profound for it. Some of the adults present without children left at intermission, perhaps not finding the abstract personalities engaging. Children, however, seemed to comprehend what was going on. This does lend credence to the power of pareidolia to make sense of a bewildering world. When faced with the unfamiliar, we put a human face on it, ascribe it intention, and call it either a deity or Mummenschanz.

My Animal, It’s a God!

Preparing to enter the Egyptian segment of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, I always have to shift gears to their unique portrayal of the gods. Unlike the Sumerians, who preferred an anthropomorphic divine world, the Egyptians reveled in theriomorphic and Mischwesen deities. Almost earning the title of ancient hippies, the Egyptians felt a deep connection between the world and their gods – as well as living by the mantra “life, health, peace.” Their connection to the earth resulted in gods in animal form or human bodies with animal heads. Having read several attempted explanations, it still comes down to the fact that we don’t know why Egyptians mixed the divine and the animalistic.

Egypt was a culture that bloomed in harsh surroundings. Whether they fully realized it or not, their civilization was survival on the very brink of inhabitable space. Surrounded by desert, much of ancient Egypt was just that thin stretch of land within the fertilizing reach of the Nile’s flood zone. Beyond that, in the “red land,” few survived. Yet the desert is not completely barren. Animals better adapted to heat and aridity survive there. The Egyptians had an appreciation for the divine attributes of animals that are in some way more clever than humans. It is the nature of divinity to be more than human.

The Egyptian ideal of life in harmony with a fragile environment is one that the world could stand to relearn. Instead of proclaiming superiority over mere animals, they recognized that animals know some things that people have not yet learned. How better to display the mysterious power of the gods than to utilize the mystique of the animal world? Sure, a human with a beetle for a head may seem more like a horror-film gone awry than religion, but when the superiority of the scarab is realized, religion will naturally follow.