Long ago, I began noticing something about the online roleplaying game I helped run–something that I’m noticing more and more often in various denominations of Christianity. Today I want to talk about this similarity and why I think it’s becoming so prevalent.
It was a very large game and, like many of its type, it used digital character sheets (charsheets). These character sheets were created by players; only the owner of the charsheet and the admins of the game could see them. They detailed the statistics and background of each player character (PC) in the game. Once players had created their charsheets, we’d have to approve them so the person could enter game (or we could decline them so the player could correct any big problems). Once approved, the stats and background they’d set out on their charsheet would determine the PC’s occupations, aptitudes, goals, and more–and the sheet, once approved, became part of a database that admins could easily search for useful information.
And I began noticing something interesting about the people who created these characters.
I could tell if a particular player was going to be a passive one or an active one, and I could tell that with one glance at that person’s charsheet.
Passive players were the most common. They were the quintessential “drink and socialize in the tavern until something interesting happens” folks. They were happy to get involved in other people’s plots, but they didn’t tend to spur roleplay on their own or to proactively find things to do ingame. They took setbacks very poorly and were easily frustrated. And they tended to like the having of honors and possessions far more than they liked the getting of them. There is nothing wrong with a passive player. People are allowed to have fun on whatever terms they like, as long as they’re abiding by the rules and aren’t disrupting anyone else. That said, because of how easily they were frustrated and how much they disliked even moderately challenging plots, we couldn’t make mistakes with identifying them if we wanted to keep them around ingame.
Active players were like a herd of Abyssinian kittens: if you didn’t keep them occupied, they’d go make their own entertainment–and they didn’t especially care if the admins approved. They were the ones organizing upstart Thieves’ Guilds and trying to find new trade routes between villages ingame; they were the ones rushing into the taverns to announce that they’d seen tracks at the entrance to some caves and wanted everyone to get up and go with them to track the beast to its lair right now, based on their discovery of preliminary groundwork admins had laid for a plot that was coming in a few weeks. Once I discovered that somehow a group of about a dozen of them had established a very well-hidden private enclave in that forest, complete with player-made dwellings and cooking fire, that admins hadn’t ever seen much less approved. And they were quietly getting richer than lords and building up their skills by hunting and practicing out there, with nobody the wiser until they showed up in town to take over the game’s military organizations.
Players like that not only don’t mind working for their rewards, but they prefer doing so. Throw as many obstacles in their way as you like, and they’ll just relish the win all the more when it happens. The downsides are that they are quickly disgruntled if they start thinking the admins are breaking the rules to impede them and they can be very demanding of admins’ time. Despite the downsides, if a clever pack of admins can manage active players, half the work of running plots is done for them.
Though most folks play with a mix of styles, I began noticing something about the general gist of a given player’s preference:
Some players viewed greatness as an inherited condition, while others viewed it as an earned one.
“Greatness” can be an elusive quality. For some folks it means wealth; for others renown; for others still combat prowess. Whatever one uses as a definition, though, the question remains: is this quality something that a person is born with? Or something that a person can achieve despite lowly beginnings and a deck stacked against that outcome? Are some people simply fated to be great? Or can someone claw greatness out of circumstance?
If a charsheet involved a prophecy, or a demand to enter the game with a noble bloodline, immense wealth, or a high-end military rank, I knew which I was dealing with.
And again, there’s nothing wrong with being either type of player or a mix of the two or even something else entirely. Games need them all and it’s to a game’s benefit to cultivate a healthy mix of player types.
I’m bringing this up because I can see the same passivity on display in Christianity, and the same stubborn adoration of greatness as an inherited condition rather than an earned one.
We’ve been talking about how Christians typically see the human condition as fallen and people as broken and incurably depraved without divine aid. When I was Christian, from Catholicism to Pentecostalism, I viewed myself as so far past loving that it took a god to do the job. This idea had incredibly bad effects on my self-esteem and my self-respect, and I’m sure that’s exactly why my various spiritual leaders pushed that idea.
I genuinely believed that I was essentially unlovable and that nothing I did could make me worthy of this deity’s attention. I accepted without question the idea that this being’s supposed love for me happened totally without my input or influence and that this meant it was real love as opposed to the ickie condition-based love that people had for each other. I believed that this god had chosen to love me regardless of my many flaws and shortcomings because he was just that awesome of a god, but–alas–if I didn’t start toeing the line, he’d have to send me to eternal torture forever (or turn a blind eye to me going there, same difference!) because his perfection simply couldn’t exist in the same space as my flaws. But if I was obedient, then he’d give me all the greatness I could ever desire.
What I was bashing my brains out to understand back then was the idea that nothing I personally achieved or did mattered, while an external force I had no control over at all determined everything I’d ever get.
I was kept so busy trying to appease this unseen external force that I didn’t even have time to question this narrative’s core assumptions.
The flipside, however, was just as bad. I was born a child of the King and was an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. By recognizing my place in the cosmos, I could partake of its many posthumous luxuries. I wasn’t just “born from dirt” (except kinda I was, if one takes Creationism seriously). I was royalty in a denim skirt and Keds.
Little wonder I really had no idea what end was up in those years, and that it took me as long as it did to figure out where I stood in the grand scheme of things. I felt totally unworthy, yet I was told I was beyond priceless and precious. And when I see posts like this one on a popular Christian site trying to dance between those two poles, I wonder how many people will read it and feel even more conflicted and torn than they already did. (Spoiler alert: honest Christians will concede, as that link’s author does, that they have no fucking clue why “God” loves people. Just as this author does, they will usually punt to mystery by tee-heeing that believers will simply “have to ask [God] someday in eternity” about it.)
Did Christian culture fall in love with inborn greatness elsewhere, or did the rest of us get it from Christianity?
Because quite a few folks are in love with the idea, and not all of them are Christians.
When I look at the popular storylines in fiction, I see a lot of the same thinking going on. The hero is a Chosen One and born to greatness somehow, with his or her uniqueness established in advance or even by birth itself, or else there’s this powerful, gorgeous evolved being who stoops to love the worthless, utterly unaccomplished heroine for no reason that the audience can discern because There’s Just Something About Her.
The heroes and heroines of these series are generally passive until something happens to them, and then they come into their greatness. They’re dorky and unpopular, but secretly very important. Even after the big reveal about their inherited greatness, they’re often not particularly noteworthy people generally, but we’re expected to buy into the idea that they’re very special indeed. And once their uniqueness is revealed, then they go on to accomplish whatever great thing it was that the series or game or whatever needs them to do–which is possible because of circumstances that these heroes and heroines have no control over.
I don’t see a lot of differences between today’s popular stories and my Christian days. Maybe that’s why I dislike that storyline as much as I do. I know that inherited greatness is a nearly-essential element of the Hero’s Journey, and sure, I can appreciate it on that level at times. Nonetheless I find myself yearning for protagonists who made themselves great by their own efforts, for people we can instantly recognize as noteworthy or accomplished, who rise above their own mediocre beginnings to do great things anyway.
It’s tragic when someone in a story is born with greatness and then turns out mediocre. It’s about what we expect when such a person turns out decently noteworthy, but it’s a story worth hearing when someone is born in straitened circumstances and turns out great anyway.* There are a lot more of us born into such circumstances than there are born with greatness stamped on our brows; little wonder that our fantasies involve a hero handed greatness on a silver platter–because we subconsciously recognize how brutally difficult it is in reality to achieve upward mobility–and rarely do we enjoy considering just how much luck and outside help is often involved in reality.
So when I saw a charsheet that made a big deal out of the amazing circumstances of the character’s birth, I knew that it was very unlikely that this person would actually be an active player, and even more unlikely that this player would take challenges and adversity ingame well. When I saw a street urchin pass my way, or a basic soldier (what a lot of us called Big Dumb Fighter Types), or a tailor, I knew this character was likely to make a lot of plots happen. This was someone who generally and largely expected to make his or her own fortune. I was rarely wrong.
I’m bringing this up because I’m going to be talking soon about that debate I’ve been watching lately, the one with Richard Carrier vs. David Marshall, and it’s something Mr. Marshall hints at all the time: that this god is eager and aching to be involved in his followers’ lives, so much so that he reaches out to people by means of coy, could-be-coincidence minor little “miracles” that don’t actually accomplish much. This god totally could cure cancer, sure, but apparently he’d rather make a starving missionary run into an unnamed woman he tangentially knew from years ago to give him a little food money. Like lots of Christians do reflexively, he implies constantly that he himself couldn’t accomplish his goals without that divine help–but that because he was smart and discerning enough to accept his role as celestial heir to a god, he now gets all these little perks that non-believers simply didn’t get. And without accepting his destiny as the child of a god, nothing else he does will ever matter eternally–because only those who accept their inherited greatness will be acceptable to this deity (who, again, has never been demonstrated to be a real being at all).
The ideology I’m seeing in this debate is one that doesn’t require humans to understand why this god does anything or even to do anything but what this god wanted his pets to do anyway–and in return they will be showered with hamburger money** and parking spaces by the God of the Universe. If you’re not familiar with this narrative of inherited greatness and passive , watch for it–because you’ll see it almost everywhere in fundagelicalism.
We’ll be talking about the apologetics involved in that debate next time, and I hope to see you then.
* That’s why Republican candidates try to paint themselves as Horatio Alger success stories rather than what they generally are: the scions of wealthy dynastic families who lucked into a huge head start thanks to inherited wealth beyond most people’s imaginations.
** I’m not just being snarky here. David Marshall specifically whines in the debate that he was doing so badly at fundraising for his missionary efforts that at one point he was stranded in an Asian country without even money to buy a hamburger. Feel free to speculate about why he’d choose that specific example to put into his self-crafted testimony; I sure did.