Since the dawn of Dungeons & Dragons, there has been a sense of unrest between gamers and the Church. This has taken the shape of book burning, excommunicating church members, and felonious finger-pointing on a national level. Since the late 1980’s, this phenomenon has been known as the “Satanic Panic.”
As the pastor of a church for nerds, geeks, and gamers, I repeatedly find myself in the midst of this conflict. Most recently, it was when I penned a sermon on the new cult hit video game (pun intended) “Cult of the Lamb.” My approach was humble, but the comment section saw me as a conduit of Satan.
What’s the deal with the moral panic surrounding dark themes in media? Is it a sin to play a game like “Cult of the Lamb”?
“The Cult of the Lamb”
We’ll start with a quick description of the game in question: what is “Cult of the Lamb” about?
Aesthetically, it’s an adorably dark take on a cult simulator. The player performs as a resurrected cartoon Lamb that feels like it is straight out of the Looney Tunes universe.
Gameplay-wise, the game combines two major elements. In one area of play, you (a resurrected Lamb) are tasked with formulating a cult of followers in order to increase your reverence, which thus increases your power level in the second part of the game.
Said second part is a top-down, rogue-like game in a similar vein to the original “The Legend of Zelda”, or more similar to another questionable game “The Binding of Isaac”. In this portion of the game, you use the power you’ve gained to defeat hordes of monsters in order to reach the Bishop of one of four zones.
You’re tasked with destroying these four Bishops in an attempt to free the shackles of the imprisoned “One Who Waits”, the demon who resurrected you to do their bidding.
Redeeming the Irredeemable
As I note in my sermon on the topic, it’s clear that you will eventually be expected to bend the knee to this imprisoned demon. I then explain that this game gives us the chance, as the leader of this cult, to make questionable decisions and choose how to guide and lead our followers. In essence, the game itself allows us a simulated opportunity to choose not to do harm.
Sure, you can also choose to do harm, but the existence of a holier option implies some goodness in the game itself.
This resonated with some of the viewers of the video, but by and large, I received flack for this take on the game. In fact, I played through some of the title on the Checkpoint Church Twitch channel and had several people stop in just to express awe at the mere fact that I was playing the game at all as a pastor.
Aside from the argument I formed in the sermon, I’m still dumbfounded by the Christian tendency to cast aside media believing it to be a form of sin. Truthfully, I’ve written over fifty of these nerdy sermons on pop media and have yet to find a single entry regarding pop media not capable of pointing back to the Kingdom of God.
So, what’s the deal?
According to Article VII of the Articles of Religion in the United Methodist Book of Discipline (the governing documents of the United Methodist denomination), “We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.”
In essence, sin is the separation that exists between humanity and God. Just as our good works cannot gain us the grace provided by Jesus Christ, so, too, the works are not what makes that which we call sin, sin. Sin isn’t a list of things - it’s a place of being. Or, if one prefers, the pursuit of that place.
With this in mind, can media possibly be sinful?
Media isn’t a thing that exists in a relationship with God. Rather, it is a thing that exists in relation to humanity that exists in a relationship with God.
If we truly wanted to slap a word onto a piece of media, we might argue that some media can be sin-inducing, but inherently sinful? Not really. Media cannot commit anything, let alone sin.
Of Pixels and the Passion
Consider again the game “Cult of the Lamb”. At the end of the day, it’s a list of coded script. What makes it capable of anything is the human being that picks up the controller. But, even then, there is still so much that must happen for it to enter into a place of sin. Entertaining the idea that sin is even occurring would require a person to pick and play this game in a way that causes a separation of themselves from God. What does that even mean?
I was able to play the game without damaging my relationship with God in the slightest. In fact, I was able to work through the content of the game in such a way that I was able to present the themes in a way that proved beneficial to the relationship between God and the members of the congregation I serve. In this way, it’s not only not sinful, but it’s also downright sanctified.
Holiness Thy Name Is Nuance
My true purpose with this argument isn’t to make the bold proclamation that there isn’t any form of media that can cause harm or lead to sin. My goal is instead to open Christians up to the possibilities within media. Something doesn’t have to be produced by PureFlix or written by Lewis or Tolkien to be capable of building a relationship with Christ.
Have a bit of faith in the discerning power of the Holy Spirit. Don’t assume that everything that raises your hackles is bad. Instead interrogate all things with the optimism that this, too, is art capable of pointing back towards the glory of God.