Christians CAN Play D&D! (Part 1)

Jack Chick famously threw down the gauntlet in the fight between “Christianity” and Dungeons & Dragons with his cartoon tract Dark Dungeons.♣ Ever since, there has been a sometimes perceived and sometimes real cultural battle between people of faith and people of fantasy. Although in today’s world arguments like Chick’s are more lambasted than listened to, they still exist and still raise their ugly heads in far too many places. Even just yesterday, as I was sitting in the hospital lobby waiting to visit a parishioner, I found a stack of “Christian” pamphlets, including one that warned of the dangers of “Entertainment, Amusements, & Fun”.

The driving purpose of this entire blog is to provide a sound Christian witness for why such positions are spiritually weak and theologically bankrupt. It almost seems silly for me to write about something that seems so obvious. Why waste my time on debating such small and little listened to positions? But then I remember that stack of “Christian” pamphlets and I hear the voices of those who experience this conflict between faith and fantasy first-hand, perhaps through a religious leader or a parent, and I know that there needs to also be a voice of faith and reason to respond.

So, can a devout Christian play Dungeons & Dragons? What if that person is a pastor? The answer is OF COURSE! Dungeons & Dragons is a game after all, not a portal to the abyss nor a secret cult of devil-worship! But let’s break that obvious (at least to me) answer down, shall we?

Playing D&D as a pastor presents three different questions. First there is the question of whether, according to my Christian faith, it would be ontologically harmful for me to play D&D, or engage in fantasy role playing of any kind. Then there is the question of my responsibility as a pastor to my church members in this situation. Finally I must ask myself how playing or not playing D&D affects the efforts of my and my church’s mission to the world. In my view, the ideal response to the supposed “D&D problem” is one which must deliteralize role playing games, maintain pastoral integrity, and show how Dungeons & Dragons not only does not diminish my participation in God’s mission to the world but even has the potential to enhance it.

This post will be the first of three posts, addressing each of these three points in turn.

So what is Dungeons & Dragons from a Christian perspective? Would playing this game be ontologically harmful to me as a Christian, as Chick and others would like to suggest? Would I be worshipping an idol or engaging in some vile form of sorcery in the process?

The Apostle Paul deals with a very similar issue in 1 Corinthians 8. Paul writes about how a faithful Christian ought to treat food that has been offered to idols. This is food that was actually offered in sacrifice to pagan gods. And what does Paul say? Paul declares that eating food offered to idols is no offense against God or the Christian tradition. He writes, “Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’”♥ Paul maintains the uniqueness and the universality of God, and encounters no ontological conflict in eating food offered to idols.

Paul knows that ‘no idol in the world really exists’. Food offered to pagan gods is offered to nothing but a harmless fantasy. It’s just food. In the same way, engaging in fantasy role playing games like D&D is equally harmless to our spirits. Although we might speak of Bahamut, Tiamat, sorcery, and portals to the abyss, we also know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’. It’s all make believe. There isn’t an actual portal to the abyss. There are no actual devils and demons. As much as the literalists might like to claim otherwise, anybody with unclouded eyes and unclogged ears can see that it’s nothing but harmless fantasy.

The ontological harmlessness of playing D&D and other games like it is supported by Martin Luther in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian”. He writes, “First, with respect to kingship, every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, by virtue of a spiritual power, [he/she] is lord of all things without exception, so that nothing can do [him/her] any harm. As a matter of fact, all things are made subject to [him/her] and are compelled to serve [him/her] in obtaining salvation.”♠ In this proclamation Luther is saying that even the simple act of playing Dungeons & Dragons is compelled to serve the Christian in obtaining salvation. If D&D is played as an act of the faith of the Christian, knowing the act to be benign, then the faith of that Christian is increased as he/she discovers that indeed no personal spiritual harm has come to him/her.

I’ll leave you with this one final caveat. Let’s say a person with a literalistic faith, say Jack Chick, plays Dungeons & Dragons without this certainty of it being spiritually benign. If such a Christian plays D&D, then that Christian has sinned. Paul writes, “But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”♦ Playing D&D is a work, it’s something we do. If Mr. Chick trusts in the defining characteristic of his works over and against the defining power of faith, then he has sinned. Faith must be what defines the true Christian. For it is only through faith that we come to the experience of God’s abundant grace.

So have faith. Delve your dungeons and defeat your dragons. The only thing you risk in doing so is having an amazing adventure.

Next up: Can a responsible pastor enjoy the RPG pastime? Spoiler: YES!


♣ If you really want to see the ridiculousness, go to http://www.chick.com/READING/TRACTS/0046/0046_01.ASP.

♥ 1 Corinthians 8:4

♠ Martin Luther, Three Treatises, trans. Charles M. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 289.

♦ Romans 14:23

The Epic Life of a Disciple

In my last post I talked about Lasting Direction, Higher Purpose, Real Risk, Unexpected Reward. These four marks help to identify an epic life. (“The 4 Marks of an Epic Life”) As the “Dungeon Master Pastor” it should come as no surprise that I channel this into my life of faith.

For me, epic living is what following Jesus is all about. The life of a disciple has all four marks. Each one can be seen in the Bible in places where Jesus talks about what following him will be like.

Direction: The disciple’s lasting direction is the direction of the eternal Jesus. 

Matthew 4:18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Purpose: The disciple’s higher purpose is fulfill the great commission of Jesus.

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Risk: The disciple, like Jesus, risks the real threat of the cross in following Jesus.

Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 

Reward: The disciple, like Jesus, is rewarded a gift so unexpected it’s terrifying – resurrection from death. 

Mark 16:6 But the young man said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

I feel like these are the most basic of things in the Christian faith, and yet more often than not we Christians lead lives that could hardly be called “epic”. The promise of comfort and safety often seem to trump any the higher purpose of the Gospel. People live in predictable patterns taking predictable risks for predictable rewards.

Epic living comes from doing more than the predictable. It comes from truly following Jesus, striving to live the purposeful life of a disciple, risking safety and comfort, only to be surprised when the Kingdom of God suddenly shows up, as if out of nowhere.

Following Jesus makes for one epic life.

 

The 4 Marks of an Epic Life

One of the things I love about D&D is that it gives players an opportunity to be epic. Sometimes life can be mundane and meaningless, but epic life… that’s a horse of a different color. What’s different about life when it’s lived epically, you ask? Here are my 4 marks of an epic life:

1. Epic living has lasting direction. There is movement and progression. An epic life doesn’t stand still. I mean, imagine playing a role playing game where you just sat there. It’s not much fun is it? Furthermore, this direction is one that lasts. It’s possible to live a frantic life pulled in many directions, different every day, but that’s hardly epic. It’s more just plain exhausting.

2. Epic living has higher purpose. An epic life participates in something greater than itself. In Dungeons & Dragons player characters are often caught up quests and circumstances that go beyond themselves: slaying a nasty marauding dragon to save the town, restoring the worship of a lost God, fighting in a massive war to protect the homeland from an invading army.

3. Epic living has real risks. An epic life forgoes safety and comfort for the sake of direction and purpose. In D&D your character Gina the Fighter is much more likely to survive to a ripe old age if she doesn’t venture into the lair of the big nasty giant. The game isn’t very fun for the players or the DM if the characters just bulldoze their way through every monster. Their decisions should have consequences. If they make bad decisions, the risk that their character would die has to be real.

4. Epic living has unexpected rewards.  An epic life is rewarded in unforeseen ways. A life’s purpose might include the seeking of a certain reward: say Gina the Fighter has the purpose of acquiring wealth, which leads her to take the risk of entering the giant’s lair in search of his hoard of gold. But having striven for that purpose, Gina also wins an unexpected reward: she returns to the village where she’s surprised by the villagers who now praise her as GINA THE GIANT SLAYER and elect her mayor of the village. She might also find that through this experience she has new unexpected courage to face even larger foes.

Direction, Purpose, Risk, Reward. These four marks help to identify an epic life.

Now there are many different ways that an epic life might be pursued. The direction, purpose, risk, and reward for one person is likely going to look very different from that of another. But there are equally many ways to retreat from epic living. In my experience, comfort and safety often seem to trump any sense of a higher purpose. We live in predictable patterns taking predictable risks for predictable rewards. Maybe that sort of life works for some people, but for me that sounds like the downright doldrums.

D&D is being used today to teach people all sorts of things. Some teachers incorporate it into their classroom to help kids learn math. Some psychologists use it to help teach social skills and empathy to autistic children. Others have found that playing D&D helps people to unlock their creativity and improvisational skills. I think this game can be used to teach us to recognize and to live a more epic life.

There are a lot of people out there who talk about using a role playing game in this sort of a way. One of the best for me was Dan Harmon when he was interviewed on the Dungeons & Dragons podcast.

This is a game where we can really wrestle with the tension between who we are and who we want to be.

Epic Living

What is it about fantasy worlds and stories that makes them so compelling? Why is the Star Wars universe so interesting? Why is the Hyrule of the Zelda games so captivating? Or the Krynn of Dragonlance? Or the Hogwarts of Harry Potter? What is it about this fantastic worlds and the stories in them that sucks me in and so many others like me?

Purpose.

In these worlds there is great purpose. People often have a specific and known purpose. Let’s look at the Legend of Zelda: there’s the happy mask salesman, the bug collector, the bomb salesman, the princess, the hero – things are clear. Everybody has their role, even Ganondorf.

There is clarity.

Evil is evil. Good is good. There is great clarity in these mythic worlds of fancy. The Jedi are good. The Sith are evil. Harry is the one who survived. Takhisis is irredeemably evil. Link is incorruptibly good. The differences are stark. Purpose and clarity make these worlds epic.

Real life so often lacks purpose and clarity.

Life in the real world is a much more complex thing. Prophecies aren’t spoken about our lives (at least I haven’t heard any about mine). People aren’t necessarily pure good or pure evil. In the end it all seems so meaningless.

Cancer. Car accidents. School shootings. Meaningless. Our little achievements and the acquiring of small comforts. Meaningless. I didn’t get that job. I did get that one. Meaningless. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes would say, “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.”

I want my life to have purpose and clarity.

I want to live a life that’s epic. I want to live a life that’s purposeful and clear. But I would rather not associate with people who find that clarity in saying that some people are purely good and others are purely evil. Can you live an epic life without condemning people who are different from you?

In Dungeons & Dragons, you play a character who lives an epic life. Prophecies are spoken. There are big bads that need to be taught a lesson. There is experience to be acquired and levels to be gained. I wonder if playing D&D can teach us anything about living epically? There are people using the game to help others learn math or social skills. Could the game also be used to help us live lives of purpose and clarity? I wonder if answering that question can help us both play better and live better?

Panic & the Truth.

dragon doorLately my news feed has been lighting up with a number of stories about the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons satanic panic. Geek & SundryThe New York Timescopycat articles, they all point out the irony of the fear a great number of religious leaders and concerned parents had about the game.

It turns out Dungeons & Dragons isn’t an entry point into a satanic cult after all, but rather just a  collaborative game you can play with your friends. It turns out Dungeons & Dragons is pretty great after all, inspiring creative minds, teaching math & social skills, and all sorts of other wonderful boons.

And here’s the thing, I’m eating this up. Well… most of it. I mean, who doesn’t love calling out religious moralists? Even Jesus did it. (I’m looking at you Pharisees.) People’s cheap scapegoating of Dungeons & Dragons, and continued scapegoating of new forms of entertainment and technology, is shown for what it is in these articles: avoidance of the real issues at the heart of human life.

But there’s a part of the story that I’m not on board with. The narrative in these stories is about how the religious tried to fight the secular, but in the end was bested and made to look the fool. Faith is made out to be something foolish, Christian faith in particular. In the 80s the moralists’ argument was that Dungeons & Dragons was more serious than a game. Today, this Christian moralism has been shown to be foolish – so how can Christianity be taken seriously? D&D was once (and if you believe the commenters on some of these articles, is still) made out to be a playful front for sinister activity. The counter argument is that Christianity is a serious front for simple minds. “You’re a facade!” “No, you’re a facade!”

As both a Pastor and a Dungeon Master, I find myself in the gap between these arguments – unrepresented. I take both things for what they are. D&D is a fun, creativity inducing game. Following Jesus is a calling of ultimate significance and meaning. Is it possible for me to live in the truth of each thing? Put another way, can an authentic follower of Jesus engage and enjoy secular culture? Can pastors play D&D?

For me and the other pastors in my D&D campaigns, the answer is a resounding “YES!” This blog is about that answer, and all of the other interesting questions a person runs into on the way to that answer. It should be a curious adventure into the deep truth of human experience that lies behind the shallow facades of the everyday.

The most curious thing about this adventure is that its entrance stands at the crossroads where fighting dragons and following Jesus meet.