Another comment on an old post about gaming made me decide to post this here. Let me know what you think!
In the beginning, Tiamat the elder goddess of chaos found the younger gods to be noisy and annoying, and planned to kill them.
Terrified, they looked to the strongest among them, Marduk, to save them. But Marduk was also crafty, and added a condition: if he saved them, he would be king of the gods. They agreed, and he went to face Tiamat in battle.
The battle was suitably epic. Faced with a much larger, older, and more powerful foe, Marduk managed to overcome the odds. He let his guard down for a moment, and when Tiamat (often portrayed as a sea monster, Leviathan) opened her massive jaws to finish him, he used his godly power to force the wind down her throat, blowing up her belly like a balloon; then he shot her in the belly with an arrow, popping that balloon.
You know, like how Richard Dreyfuss killed the shark in Jaws.
From the messy corpse of Tiamat, Marduk crafted the world and its inhabitants. And so you see, order comes from the forceful suppression of chaos, and life is born out of violence.
This is the Babylonian creation myth, and it’s inescapably woven into our culture. From it, we get our concept of what it means to be a hero: be stronger and craftier than your enemies, meet violence with greater violence, and rely on your ideals and virtues to justify your actions. Violent suppression of violence, in the name of peace. Theologian Walter Wink refers to this narrative as “the myth of redemptive violence”.
Of course, it sounds negative when you say it like that. But really, that’s the story we’re told over and over again, in novels and comics and movies, but perhaps more in video games than anywhere else. Video games involve us like no other medium: while a movie or novel lets us act out the part of the hero vicariously, video games put us in that role almost completely. We get all of the hero action, with none of the mortal danger!
But our desire to be part of this hero narrative isn’t just in our cultural media. We do it in church, too. I’m writing this on a Sunday night, and I have a song from this morning’s service stuck in my head: “You are a mighty warrior, dressed in armour of light! Crushing the deeds of darkness, lead us on in the fight! Through the blood of Jesus, victorious we stand!” We hold evangelistic “crusades”, we practice “spiritual warfare”, and we sing “Onward Christian Soldiers!” We seem to incorporate the Babylonian myth of redemptive violence even into our religion.
We’re not the first. The Bible occasionally refers to God in this sort of way – we call it “the divine warrior motif”. But there’s a very important distinction to be made: when the Bible portrays God as a divine warrior, it’s usually being ironic. It’s giving a nod to the myth of redemptive violence, acknowledges that it’s there, and then sweeps its legs out from underneath it. Here’s how.
First, the myth of redemptive violence is based on a sense of struggle that goes all the way back to creation: the world was created from the bloody corpse of an elder goddess, and from a violent matricide all mortal life is born. All creation myths of the Ancient Near East have some form of this, except for Israel’s: our God creates the universe with a word. Our God is not an underdog who must overthrow the oppression of chaos by violent means; God is the perfection of power, and there are no forces who can stand against God except by the grace of God’s mercy. Peace and order do not come from violent struggle, but from the character of the God who creates them and continues to will them. Violent struggle is not something that we inherit from God, but something that we create for ourselves.
Second, it uses violent symbols and images, but subverts the violence of those symbols with non-violent content. Revelation portrays Jesus as riding on a white horse (classic symbol of [violent] good: the white knight) and leading armies to victory with a sword. But the armies he leads are made up of the saints, who are wearing the white robes they were given for being willing to be martyrs – that is, they walked to their own execution for the sake of pledging allegiance to Christ rather than to the oppressive empire. These are not warriors! And Christ, the “rider on the white horse”, has a sword that comes from his mouth. Our God doesn’t use violence to create the world, but words; our Lord doesn’t use violence to destroy his enemies, but words. Revelation says that we have overcome Satan “by the blood of the lamb and the word of their [our] testimony” (12:11). We don’t use violence to overcome evil, we use words. So the form of the literature is violent, and in that way it fits right in with the myth of redemptive violence; but the meaning of the text undercuts that violent mythology.
So what does this mean for us? We’re surrounded by the myth of redemptive violence: American culture in particular is deeply rooted in it, and it finds its way into the church and even the Bible itself. Obviously we can’t avoid it, but should we embrace it? The Bible uses the form of the myth to undermine the myth, and as long as we do too, it’s not particularly bad or harmful. The trouble is, we have a long history of seeing the form and missing the meaning; we use the tongue-in-cheek violence of the Bible as justification for real-life violence against others, forgetting that we serve a God who’d rather die for what’s right than fight for it. We let the myth get under our skin, and buy the lie that says that violence is the only way we can really protect the light, the good, even peace itself – as if those things are anything but the gift of God, freely given. All good things come from God; do we need to protect God?
As for video games: they allow us to act out the role of the violent hero, and that can be good or bad. We seem to have a built-in desire to be this kind of hero, even when Christ (our true hero) is the opposite. But when I say built-in, I don’t mean we’re born with it, but rather that we’re taught it from our first G.I. Joe action figures. Maybe gaming is a positive outlet for this urge, and playing Battlefield is keeping us off of real battlefields. Maybe gaming reinforces the myth of redemptive violence, and keeps us looking for heroes like Marduk rather than like Christ. Or maybe it’s all in good fun, just a rush, and has no real effect on us. In order for that to be the case, we need to remember what kind of a hero we serve; we need to remember that we are not literally “Christian soldiers” armed with a “sword” and buffed for battle by the blood of the lamb; we need to remember that a true hero walks to his or her own death for the sake of truth and justice, not just to battlefields to fight about it.
Maybe when we can get this idea of heroism into our heads, our games will change because the violence won’t feel so justified and satisfying anymore. In the meantime, play critically: what’s the meaning behind the violence in your games? There are plenty out there that are full of meaning, but there are also many that are seemingly meaningless. Are we just taking on the role of Marduk, again and again? Or are our games, like the Bible, using the form of violence to undermine the myth of redemptive violence?