Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Art and Faith (and D&D?)

During the summer, I received a query from a woman who writes for religionlink.org, a site that offers tip sheets for reporters writing about religious topics. A few days ago, the little blurb we crafted about me went up on the site, and yesterday I got my first query from a reporter—a student writer at Brigham Young University. In response to her couple of timid questions, I ended up spilling out an essay I've been meaning to write for a long time. There are themes in here I first elucidated when I held "Coffee, Theology, and D&D" meetings with folks like David Noonan, Jeff Quick, and Johnny Wilson—meetings that resulted in some of the ideas about a Christian roleplaying game that I articulated on this site years ago. There are other themes that I've discussed with my wife over the years as she pursues her Ph.D. in spirituality and the arts. So this has been a long time coming... and after that big lead-up, it's probably going to seem a bit anti-climactic. Here it is, before I make it sound any more important than it is:

One of the things that appeals to me about Christian music is that I like songs that are about stuff that matters. Even though I grew up listening to the Beatles, a song like "I want to hold your hand" is a fine head-bopping sort of a song, but I don't find it particularly significant in its subject matter. Good Christian music points to the mysteries of life emerging from death, of hope arising out of suffering, of a small and flickering light unquenched by the vast darkness around it—in other words, it points to the cross and the heart of our faith. In fact, theologian Paul Tillich has argued that all good art is religious, in that it is an expression of an ultimate concern—an attempt to wrestle with real questions about the nature, purpose, and meaning of human existence.
There is plenty of bad Christian art out there—music, visual art, and games of all sorts that deals with Christian subjects but fails to really express any serious conviction about our existence. Lots of Christian music is filled with eempty platitudes that have little to do with the real struggles of real people trying to live faithful lives in our world. Lots of Christian art depicts hollow saints or an insipid savior without managing to communicate the power or significance of their lives. And lots of Christian games try to teach Bible verses or recreate Biblical stories without really saying anything about what it all means.
The flip side is that there's plenty of good art out there that does not treat explicitly with Christian themes. Here and there in the world of secular music are songs that say more about the ultimate meaning of the universe than any ten randomly-chosen CDs of Christian music. I think Tolkien did a better job conveying the Truth in the non-Christian world of The Lord of the Rings than Lewis did in his allegorical world of Narnia. 
It's my hope that some of my work falls into this category. Nobody would try to argue that Dungeons & Dragons is a Christian game, but I always try to reflect my values and my beliefs about the nature of existence in the material I write for it. I've got a fantasy novel coming out next summer that's all about forgiveness and redemption, though it never comes close to Christian allegory.
All that said, to talk about games as art is sometimes a stretch, and sometimes we all take games too seriously. Educational games are fine, whether they're teaching multiplication or Bible verses. But sometimes a game should be just a game. Is Tetris a Christian game or a secular game? No, it's a game. It's not art, and it's not making any kind of statement about human existence or anything else. You can debate all you like whether Christians have any business wasting their time on frivolous games (I had to give up Tetris for Lent during my senior year of college, or else I never would have finished my thesis), and you can certainly try to ensure that your frivolous games of choice at least don't encourage or replicate behavior you find reprehensible. But if you purge a video game of sex and violence and make it fit a storyline out of the Bible, that doesn't make it Christian. That makes it a game you hope to sell to Christians.

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