Headshots 4 Jesus

Cole Stryker
A gathering of Halo players at the Colorado Community Church in Denver. [Image from]

In its quest to be seen as a legitimate way of life among a legion of detractors, the Christian Church has turned to alternative methods of getting its point across.

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]

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.





'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.