Headshots 4 Jesus

When the news first broke about Christian youth group leaders using Halo 3 as an evangelism tool, church leaders and gamers alike were confused by the merging of these two rather disparate subcultures. Both parties responded with righteous indignation, some claiming that these churches have stooped too low to attract a certain audience, others laughing at their desperate attempt to appear culturally relevant.

To truly understand what the church is trying to accomplish, one need only review the Church’s awkward dance with popular culture over the course of the last century. The Church has approached pop culture with three general attitudes:

1. Damnation

The stench of burning vinyl filled the air in small towns throughout the Bible Belt during the late ’60s, coming to a head when John Lennon proclaimed that his band was “bigger than Jesus”. Despite the unfortunate factuality and misrepresentation of his statement, a righteous ire arose from pulpits that had not been seen since Ray Charles twisted Gospel traditionals into sweaty barnstormers laced with innuendo. It wasn’t just the message that the Church condemned, the medium itself seemed to provoke devil-worship and assorted orgiastic abandon.

Similarly, gaming has also felt the sting of the Church’s indignation. With roots in tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons (which were hilariously condemned by tractmonger Jack Chick), video games have been similarly lambasted for their violent content as well as their frequent fantasy imagery. Boiled down, he argues that Christians should never pretend to do something that they wouldn’t or shouldn’t do in real life. Presumably, this would include games like chess, which is essentially a battlefield simulation. We see this attitude in The Grapes of Wrath‘s Lisbeth Sandry, who warns a young girl that “play actin'” would cause her to miscarriage.

2. Co-option

Over the course of the next two decades, the Christian Church got wise to pop culture, and began to recognize its implication on their goal of ministry. Stryper achieved near-platinum sales, capitalizing from the popularity of hair metal in the ’80s. DC Talk scored a mega-hit with a chord-for-chord “Smells Like Teen Spirit” clone. Veggie Tales made millions using Pixar’s computer generated cartoon formula.

A decade ago, an enormous mega-church near my hometown advertised a “Christian Rave”. I remember finding it ironic that the church would choose to capitalize on a long-out-of-style subculture known for its drug-fueled hedonism, not to mention its roots in the gay underground of late ’70s Chicago. Proclaiming a “natural high” that could only be found in the arms of God, this church attracted thousands of kids to “dance before the Lord”.

Noah carries some animals to the Ark in the NES
“classic” Bible Adventures

The co-option phase left the interactive marketplace littered with absolutely abysmal games with imaginative names like Bible Adventures, Captain Bible, and The Bible Game. The spiritual value of these games amounted to replacing a Sunday school lesson with an hour in front of the television, and generally, the games weren’t fun enough to attract anyone but the already devoted. More recently, Left Behind: Eternal Forces brought the Biblically questionable but unbelievably successful book series into the videogame marketplace. In this case, the medium was OK, but the message needed to be scrubbed clean.

3. Sanctification

The most recent attitude, and perhaps the most effective and noble of the three, consists of the Church taking an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” stance. Rather than produce a cheap substitute of a popular trend, the Church has recently taken to imbuing elements of pop culture with spiritual messages, whether the creators of the art intended them or not.

Today, the Church struggles not so much for power as much as relevance. In its quest to be seen as a legitimate way of life among a legion of detractors, it has turned to alternative methods of getting its point across. We see pastors with iconic white earbuds dangling from their shoulders, offering podcasts of their sermons. Consider Mark Pinsky’s book The Gospel According to The Simpsons, the Emerging Church movement, which holds Bible studies in bars and coffeehouses, Relevant Magazine, which attempts to find value in pop culture by filtering it through a distinctly spiritual lens, or most recently, youth pastors utilizing the mega-popular Halo 3 as a tool to attract young people to the fold.

Churches are embracing the interactive space like church leaders are taught to embrace women among the congregation: with a safe one-armed side-hug. They know the stigma that surrounds videogames, that they are often thought of as being gore-filled terrorist training manuals. That’s why their decision to utilize Halo 3 is so puzzling. It’s a violent game that encourages the annihilation of the enemy at all costs. Magnifying the apparent irony in all of this is the existence of the Covenent, a radical, theocratic enemy faction that believes in a “Divine Wind” that will one day rapture the faithful into the next world.

Despite this eerie parallel, some progressive church leaders insist that Halo is an innocuous combat simulator, no more diabolical than paintball or hide and seek. It’s just a way for churches to attract the often elusive teenage male demographic with good clean fun, usually followed up by a message tied to the game’s themes. Halo generally offers a clear “good triumphing over evil” plot, something that other popular violent games like the Grand Theft Auto series can’t claim. This is why Christian parents like mine allowed their kids to watch Saving Private Ryan despite its graphic content, but not Apocalypse Now, which features a significantly milder level of gore, but a hazier conception of right and wrong. One of the most brutally graphic films of all time, The Passion of the Christ, is lauded among church leaders, so it’s clearly not violence that’s the issue, it’s the context.

Obviously, PhotoShoppers are getting mileage out
of this trend. [Image from somethingawful.com]

The Christian Post published an article called “How to Share Your Faith Using Halo 3” last month, which clearly illustrates the “sanctification” attitude at work. Author Jane Dratz explains that “Master Chief John 117 (the main good-guy hero of the Halo series) has been described as the man who ‘gave the world faith, gave humanity a future, and made mankind believe again.’ Does that have echoes of someone else you know?”

Going so far as to label the game’s protagonist as a Christ figure, Dratz does not preach against videogames, nor the thrill-kill message, but injects the game with allegory, thereby adding spiritual value to an otherwise spiritually substanceless combat simulation. She continues by encouraging teenagers to incite “God-talk”, or conversation about supernatural matters that will hopefully lead to an opportunity to relay the Christian worldview or even a salvation opportunity.

Despite the outward silliness of the Master Chief as Jesus analogy, one has to consider how far the Church has come in its attitude towards games. The Church has taken a clumsy step, but it’s a step in the right direction. This attitude is far more constructive than damning videogames in bulk. It may seem like this sort of attitude takes some of the fun out of blowing up your neighbor, but it’s still a positive step for the Christian faith. Whether or not you find the Church’s recruiting methods distasteful, it’s encouraging that the Church is shifting its dogmatic views about pop culture. Who knows, if these sorts of trends continue, maybe tomorrow’s kids will never have to sit through an hour of Bible Man’s adventures.

On the other hand, if it takes an incentive like this to get kids into church, how deep of an impact can church leaders expect to have on the hearts of these new congregants? It would seem to me that Christ’s followers were originally drawn to him because of his profound teaching and blameless lifestyle, not his trendy sandals or his rank on Xbox Live. Perhaps damning, mimicking, or even embracing pop culture are all the wrong approach. Maybe the Church should strive to attract potential new parishioners on a more meaningful level: reality.