“Some senses of connection with past ages seem so unerring, so strong and so instinctive that I sometimes wonder if there is a bit of truth in the theory of reincarnation. Perhaps you were an armored Roman centurion and I was a skin-clad Goth in the long ago, and perhaps we split each others’ skulls on some dim battle-field!
“Roman Britain! There is a magic charm to the phrase–the very repeating of which brings up in my mind vague images, tantalizing, alluring and beautiful. White roads, marble palaces amid leafy groves, armor gleaming among the great trees… strange-eyed women whose rippling golden hair falls to their waists–though it is always as an alien that I visualize these things …and gaze, half in awe and half in desire, at the white-armed women whose feet have never known the rasp of the heather, whose soft hands have never known the labor of fire-making and the cooking of meat over the open flame.”
[Robert E. Howard letter to H.P. Lovecraft, December 9, 1931]
In the present world situation the necessity for a profound change, for a radical transformation of our present civilization, is realized by everyone; people call this change “revolution.” On the other hand, people live in such an atmosphere of constant movement, in such a whirlpool of ideas, of social forms, of events, and in so much uncertainty, that they are very fond of saying that the world of the present day is “revolutionary.” Finally, so much seems to be going on: so many new solutions are proposed, and there are so many revolutionary parties, that people are persuaded that there never was a time when there were so many “revolutionaries”! Thus, realizing that “revolution” is necessary, they are convinced that it is already here. Since these impressions are widespread, it behooves us to examine our present situation more closely than ever before.It is scarcely necessary to insist on the fact that revolution is needed. Our western civilization has gained control of the whole world from the mechanical and rational point of view, but this has led to a fatal impasse. Disaster, in every possible form, has flooded the world to an extent never known before.Totalitarian wars, dictatorships, famines administratively organized, the complete moral disintegration of social institutions (such as the nation and the family) and of personal life (individual immorality), the fabulous growth of wealth, which does not help people at all, the enslavement of the greater part of humanity under the control of the State, or of individuals (capitalism), the de-personalization of man, both as a whole, and at particular points–all this is only too familiar.
Now man does not feel himself very happy in this situation. He has scarcely any security or hope left; he demands a change–and, indeed, a change is badly needed. Only the further we go, the more we perceive the inadequacy of human solutions, which all fail, one after another, and only increase the difficulties in which we are living. The further we go, and the more progress we make, the more do we confess that we are incapable of dominating and directing the world which we have made. All of us, in spite of our desire to keep hope alive, are aware that this is true. All this only increases our desire to see a true change which would put things right.
Jacques Ellul, 1967
The Presence of the Kingdom [p 21, 22]
From Game Church:
As the guards lead the screaming woman away, I shift uncomfortably in my seat. I was just doing my job, I assure myself. Her documents didn’t match. These are the rules. I need to get paid – my family is hungry.
“Papers, please,” I say to the next person in line outside the inspection booth. The line that never ends. “Glory to Arstotzka!” I shout over the intercom. “Entry is not guaranteed.”A woman from Kolechia has been waiting to see her son for four months. “Curse you,” she spits as I turn her away for having an expired passport.
On the surface, Papers, Please is a concept so simple that when I describe it, people balk at how dull it sounds. You have been selected for work as a border crossing inspector by the government of the communist country of Arstotzka. Each morning you walk to work and spend the day approving entry into the country based the accuracy, completeness, and authenticity of each applicant’s customs paperwork. Political turmoil rages in the area, and each day the requirements for entry become more stringent, making your job increasingly difficult. Every moment spent investigating potential discrepancies is a moment you could be spending on the next person in line.
The game feels frustratingly like work, but is strangely compelling. Try to process as many applicants as you can each day so you earn enough money to pay your rent, heat your apartment, feed your family, and provide medicine when they are sick. (And they will become sick – the winters in Arstotzka are brutally cold.) On my first day of work, the job is straightforward. But before I know it, I’m caught in a web of intrigue, bribery, compromise, and conspiracy. As my family grows colder and sicker, and the rules for entry get more complex, my pile of citations grows, and the fines I incur grow with it.
My own mounting despair is mirrored in the faces of immigrants, workers, visitors, and diplomats that pass by my inspection window. “Please help me,” reads the note one woman leaves me as she passes through. “There is a man in line who I do not trust. He has promised my sister and I good work, but I am afraid he will make us work in the brothel. Do not let him pass.” When the man in question comes through the line, his papers are perfectly in order. To turn him away will result in a fine. Fortunately this is my first citation of the day – a warning only.
A woman from Kolechia has been waiting to see her son for four months. “Curse you,” she spits as I turn her away for having an expired passport.
Then there is the woman whose husband has entered the country ahead of her. “Be kind to my wife – she is right behind me,” he says as he thanks me. Problem: she is lacking a necessary entry document. “We’ll be killed if we return to Antegria!” she cries. But my son is sick and will die if I can’t afford medicine for him. I take a deep breath, then let her pass. The fine for five credits prints moments later. I remember the verbal warning I received after I had received my 25th citation. “Don’t fail me again,” the official had said.
Last week I wrote about why Jesus told stories, and how we can use stories the same way. And once you know how God uses stories, it becomes easier to look for God in every story you read/watch/listen to.
But what does that look like? How is it possible to read stories that have nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity and find God?
Looking for God in a story means looking for truth. What truth is the author trying to teach you? What truth is God trying to teach you? Are they the same thing, or are they different?
Garret Johnson does exactly this in his essay about some of the truth he has found in reading Dystopian Fiction. Here’s the first part:
That brand of sci-fi that imagines a future world in which the powers that be—usually overzealous, overpowerful governments—have taken radical steps to ensure the well-being of society at large. Often enough, these fictive powers are well-intentioned at first, implementing their drastic measures in the name of “the greater good.” But in the process, they manage to chop the legs out from under some vital ingredient of humanity.
There are two virtues that dystopian fiction, as a rule, argues are vital and necessary for any free, humane society. These virtues also happen to be at the very core of Christian thought.
Reflection. And Humility.
As the name implies, this kind of fiction depicts societies in which priorities and values are in some way exactly upside down. It’s Sir Thomas More’s Utopiagone wrong. The attempt at achieving a utopia has resulted in some horrifying, unforeseen downside, usually stripping individual humans of certain sacred freedoms. But, to those in power, the utopian end justifies the sinister means.
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 underscores the necessity of the first of these virtues—reflection—in a particularly interesting way. It doesn’t just show a picture of the consequence of devaluing reflection; it’s actually about the idea of devaluing it. The setting is a future American nation in which books are illegal, owning them can be punishable by death, and “firemen” exist to burn every last one of them. Other than that, the society seems to be clicking along nicely. Everyone enjoys him/herself. Everyone’s entertained, and the state makes sure to keep it that way.
More than just a novel about “censorship”—as the cover usually claims—Fahrenheit 451 is a picture of how private citizens’ lack of will to reflect, on anything, leads to censorship. And not just censorship of reading material, but a soul-crippling censorship of thought. Monolithic government-control has been achieved through the means of a thoroughly entertained populace. It’s a world where TV and sports and bite-sized snippets of inconsequential news have become the center of all culture and society. And reflection, thought, has become a pesky, bothersome thing that just gets in the way of all that. Reflection causes only sorrow, those in charge say. And so, for the good of society, books—which induce reflection far more than most things—are illegal.
Protagonist Guy Montag’s relationship with his wife exemplifies the state of affairs. She’s persuaded him to convert three entire walls of their living room into giant TV screens (which is pretty normal for this society). Now she wants a fourth TV wall, a totally immersive experience. She wears invisible “thimble radios,” or “seashells,” in her ears all day, even to bed, so if she can’t be in front of a TV she can at least have some kind of noise or chatter bombarding her mind at all times. No room for nettlesome thought, certainly not reflection. What an easy population to control, self-stripped of all volition, all freedom. Willing to go along with whatever the ruling elite think best, willing to be controlled, utterly compliant. No thinking involved.
But when Montag starts waking up to the insanity of this arrangement, and someone asks what woke him, what he says is key: “We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing.”
In Matthew 11: 28-10, Jesus says:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
In what ways can you begin walking and working with Jesus? What does that mean to you?
What are the “unforced rhythms of grace?”
“Our experience today is the strange one of empty political institutions in which no one has any confidence any more, of a system of government which functions only in the interests of a political class, and at the same time of the almost infinite growth of power, authority, and social control which makes any one of our democracies a more authoritarian mechanism than the Napoleonic state.”[...]“It is in these circumstances that I regard anarchy as the only serious challenge, as the only means of achieving awareness, as the first active step.“When I talk of a seroius challenge, the point is that in anarchy there is no possibility of a rerouting into a reinforcement of power. This took place in Marxism. The very idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat presupposed power over the rest of society. Nor is it simply a matter of the power of the majority over the minority instead of the reverse. The real question is that of the power of some people over others. Unfortunately, as I have said, I do not think that we can truly prevent this. But we can struggle against it. We can organize on the fringe. We can denounce not merely the abuses of power, but power itself. But only anarchy says this and wants it.”
Why do humans love telling/reading/writing stories?
Everyone has a different answer. For me, it’s all about humanity’s relationship to God. I’ve always felt that humanity’s desire to create, our sense of humor, our ability to empathize, and our desire to share with others all comes from being made in the image of God. We were born to tell stories. And you can see this when you read about Jesus, who told countless stories.
The disciples asked Jesus why he told stories, and in Matthew 13:10-17 (MSG) Jesus gives them an answer (emphasis mine):
10 The disciples came up and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”
11-15 He replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:
Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.
Chapter 13 ends with Jesus giving the Disciples a few quick examples of the kinds of stories you can tell to “nudge people the people toward receptive insight,” and concludes with an analogy for what it’s like to evangelize in the Kingdom of God (emphasis mine):
44 “God’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field for years and then accidentally found by a trespasser. The finder is ecstatic—what a find!—and proceeds to sell everything he owns to raise money and buy that field.
45-46 “Or, God’s kingdom is like a jewel merchant on the hunt for excellent pearls. Finding one that is flawless, he immediately sells everything and buys it.
47-50 “Or, God’s kingdom is like a fishnet cast into the sea, catching all kinds of fish. When it is full, it is hauled onto the beach. The good fish are picked out and put in a tub; those unfit to eat are thrown away. That’s how it will be when the curtain comes down on history. The angels will come and cull the bad fish and throw them in the garbage. There will be a lot of desperate complaining, but it won’t do any good.”
51 Jesus asked, “Are you starting to get a handle on all this?”
They answered, “Yes.”
52 He said, “Then you see how every student well-trained in God’s kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.”
I love that last part, about being like the owner of a general store. When you are living life in God’s kingdom, everything becomes a tool you can use, a story you can tell, to help nudge people towards receptive insight.
My passion is to tell stories, stories that aren’t necessarily directly related to Christianity or the Bible, but stories that convey truths and themes designed to nudge people.
Do you like stories? Do you like experiencing them or sharing them better? What are some ways you can use your stories to help nudge people?
I’ve been thinking about this verse a lot this week. Colossians 2:2-10 (MSG), emphasis mine:
2-4 I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery. All the richest treasures of wisdom and knowledge are embedded in that mystery and nowhere else. And we’ve been shown the mystery! I’m telling you this because I don’t want anyone leading you off on some wild-goose chase, after other so-called mysteries, or “the Secret.”
6-7 My counsel for you is simple and straightforward: Just go ahead with what you’ve been given. You received Christ Jesus, the Master; now live him. You’re deeply rooted in him. You’re well constructed upon him. You know your way around the faith. Now do what you’ve been taught. School’s out; quit studying the subject and start living it! And let your living spill over into thanksgiving.
8-10 Watch out for people who try to dazzle you with big words and intellectual double-talk. They want to drag you off into endless arguments that never amount to anything. They spread their ideas through the empty traditions of human beings and the empty superstitions of spirit beings. But that’s not the way of Christ. Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly. You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him. When you come to him, that fullness comes together for you, too. His power extends over everything.
Reminded me of another verse I’ve been thinking about a lot from Matthew 11:27-30 (MSG), also my emphasis:
27 Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly. “The Father has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen.
28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Lots of talk about knowledge and mystery.
Romas 12:1-2 (MSG)
12 1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
As long as you’re looking, it is possible to find God in everything, even when you’re playing a video game. That’s why I love Game Church. They’re a group of great people who understand that you can find God in a video game, and that Jesus loves gamers. They have an awesome mission where they go to gamer conventions and hand out special “Gamer Bibles” to anyone who wants one. (You can download a pdf of the Gamer Bible right here.)
My favorite thing they do, though, is write about video games and what God teaches them through those games. Here is a great example from a few days ago about the game “Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions:”
Religion and video games don’t tend to make the best of bedfellows. Religious and mythical figures pop in and out of games frequently enough, but rarely to invoke a sense of the spiritualor to illustrate an existential point. Most often, video games use religious figures because devils in flaming cloaks, three-headed guard dogs, and winged warriors are just so awesome. Still, every once in a while a game will use religion for the same purpose that real-world people do: as a way of viewing the universe and the people in it. Final Fantasy Tactics is one of the few games that directly and unapologetically places God and religion at its center.
By God, I do not mean a pantheon, a named deity with a tangible presence on earth or a fantasy abstraction of a real-world idol: characters in Final Fantasy Tactics are talking about the capital “G” God. God in FFT’s world of Ivalice is most akin to the God of Christian theology. The people of Ivalice believe that God created the world, that He created people in His image, that He gave them free will and that He sent an ambassador to earth to right His flock’s path when they abused their gift free will. There is not a lot of room for ambiguity: in this world, there are many, many people that believe in God. Perhaps naturally, there is also a church to organize the celebration and worship of God. And though many members of the church are antagonists, religion is not just a figure of villainy for villainy’s sake. The villains of Final Fantasy Tactics are villains because they’re misrepresenting God.
FFT’s conflicting but undetermined narrators wrestle for authorial control of the text. The game completely changes depending on whether it’s read with the assumption that the “true” narrator is the player-character Ramza; his eventual ally Orlan; Alazlam, a scholar in the distant future or a third-person omniscient and objective one. It is a game about controlling narrative and therefore power. the church maintains the status quo with a selective story about God and his will. Delita—the eventual victor of the Lions War—earns the support of the revolting populace by telling them a story of himself as a downtrodden revolutionary looking to modernize a backwards country. Delita’s deception is boundless, but he has so many versions of himself available that people are willing to believe him. The Lion’s War is won by one man’s storytelling.
The game paints the politically manipulative church as evil which—let’s be honest—is not very original and somewhat myopic. Still, even though FFT is so virulent toward a church with political ambitions, it is not anti-religious. Every character is a believer. Even though it’s a game where magic is a quantifiable reality and the player is engaged in a shadow war with literal demons, there’s an abstract spirituality in most denizens of Ivalice. The game opens with a prayer, friends pray for one another upon departing and praise God upon reuniting. Characters put themselves in the invisible hands of a bodiless God. In other words, they have faith and they wrestle with what that faith means. Popular champions fall from grace, scoundrel sell-swords have moral crises, enemies face off and argue over who is better representing God’s will. People’s faith matters to them and faith is an important variable in how characters treat their allies and enemies. As important as earthly politics are, FFT’s central conflict is living by God’s example in a world filled with short-sighted, greedy people.