Just As I Was

It was kind of a game. A game to teach us about important people, living or dead. The fact that we were playing it in high school history class, taught by one of my favorite teachers, made it even better. Everyone wrote a name on an index card—a person in the news or somebody from American history in the past. A student sat facing the class while the teacher selected a card and held it over the student’s head, so we could all read who it was, all except the chosen one. Then s/he would ask questions to guess whose name was written. I remember very well when the teacher picked up my card and read it. He said “that’s really a good choice!” The name led to a bit of joshing. “Is he alive or dead?” the student asked. “How can you tell?” joked our teacher. It was the one name the selected student couldn’t pin down, no matter how many questions she asked.

It’s fair to say that Billy Graham had a profound influence in my life. As a curious—and very frightened—child, whenever his crusades were on television I would watch, transfixed. I responded to his altar calls at home. Multiple times. My emotions were overwrought and I’d awake the next day feeling redeemed, for a while. I had no real mentors in my Fundamentalism. Ministers preached, but they didn’t explain things. Not to children (what was Sunday School for, after all?). All I knew was that when the rhetoric reached Hell, and the possibility I would die that very night, repentance seemed like the only logical option. The reality of the choice—a black and white one, no less—could not be denied. Either you were or you weren’t.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

As my point of view eventually shifted around to that of my high school teacher—I was in college at the time—I began to realize that Graham’s version of Christianity wasn’t as monolithic as it claimed to be. Once you experience other people’s experience of religion, if you’re willing to listen to them, it’s pretty hard to hold up the blackness and whiteness of any one perspective. Over the years Graham tainted his pristine image in my eyes by his political choices. His son now stands as one of Trump’s biggest supporters. Now that Billy Graham has gone to his reward, I do hope that the Almighty doesn’t hold his mistakes against him. He had no way of knowing that his sermons were terrorizing a little boy in western Pennsylvania into a career track that would never pan out. Largely because other followers of Graham’s so decided. It’s kind of like a game.

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.