I think it was in 1978 that an older friend lent me a paperback rulebook to a game that changed my world, Dungeons & Dragons. I think it was sub-titled, Basic Rulebook. Old-time gamers will remember the blue cover with the dragon. It was before the publication of the Player's Handbook, or the Dungeon Master's Guide, both of which I bought as soon as they appeared. The game brought me into a world of imagination and fraternity with other like-minded geeks. The creator, who died yesterday at 69, was Gary Gygax, to whom I will always feel a great debt.
For for the next six years I played Dungeons & Dragons one or two times a week for four to ten hours a sitting. I wrote volumes of descriptions of alternate worlds and drew scores of maps. I read a small mountain of books on the Middle Ages, weapons and armor. I went to conventions and competed on teams (dismally, I might add). I read magazines on gaming. I even play-tested (once or twice) new fantasy games. And I still have a tremendous unused collection of rule books, figurines and dice.
I say all of this knowing, that as an evangelical pastor, I am supposed to eschew anything having to do with gratuitous violence, the occult, or paganism. Dungeons & Dragons is full of killing, magic spells and pagan gods. Dungeons & Dragons is to occultism what marijuana is to heroin - the gateway drug. Dungeons & Dragons is a prime recruitment tool for Satanic covens. And hundreds of kids who play Dungeons & Dragons commit suicide every year. And the last three sentences are utter rubbish and believed fervently by many evangelicals.
As someone who was just about as deeply involved in Dungeons & Dragons as it was possible to be, I can say that the majority of people I knew in the gaming community were not occultists, but agnostics. They didn't practice paganism, they made fun of it. And as far as depression and suicide? Well, Dungeons & Dragons attracted kids who were sometimes a bit...odd. Depressives and imagination tend to go hand in hand. But to tell the truth, I saw more kids come OUT of depression because they were continually interacting with others and being (arguably) productive. The fantasy worlds weren't real, but the friends were. And that is a big thing to kids who don't fit in.
I remember being made fun of in school for reading. What kind of sap would walk around with books? One close gaming friend was a football player and he kept both his intelligence and his gaming fairly under wraps from his team mates. There were two groups of people who would accept just about anyone at my school, freaks (druggies) and gamers. (Notice I didn't mention Christians.) I had a foot in each group and my involvement with the second severely curtailed my involvement with the first. I'm not recommending the gaming community as something healthy or Christian, it's just better than watching TV and definately not Christian. But the criticisms leveled at it by Christians tend to be ignorant, uncharitable, and unimaginative. The gaming community cannot meet the need for belonging that ultimately should be met in the body of Christ. The secular-skeptical atmosphere is not occultism, it's simply unbelief. And the campy treatment of paganism tends to lead to a denigration of all things spiritual (instead of glorifying it and promoting occultism, quite the opposite).
What Gary Gygax and the old gaming world have revealed is two great deficiencies in modern Christianity: a) a lack of imagination, and b) a lack of a place (and a lack of openness) for many kinds of youth.
"Christian Literature" is often synonymous with warmed-over syrupy drivel, romance novels for the prudish. "Christian Music" is filled with bands and performers who make their living copying better secular performers (worst one I remember, a substandard Christian "bluesman" named "Sleepy Ray" who dressed like Stevie Ray Vaughn, except in white). [In all fairness it has gotten a LOT better.] Churches produce "Christian Drama" which wouldn't pass muster in most high schools. There are notable exceptions to all of these, but too few. And the mediocre get plenty of attention because they're safe. There's just nothing that threatening about the Newsboys or a Francine Rivers novel (yes, I read ONE).
Christians read C. S. Lewis without attending to what he said. There is something absolutely indespensible about imagination. Because we can't imagine, our Christianity looks just like the rest of our culture. We're as worldly as everybody else, we just anti-homosexual.
Our unconfronted worldliness also makes us very interested in success - in our youth programs for instance. Our youth programs tend to be filled with kids either in the mainstream of youth-culture cool, or with kids in the Christian-culture safe. The first type of youth program doesn't have a place for the geek or oddball. The second doesn't have a place for the kid who struggles with sin or habitually asks the hard questions. Growth is the goal. Memory: I called a great youth pastor I knew who had a big youth program and asked if a vulnerable little girl I had in my drug program would be welcomed at his group. She was proto-goth, introspective, smoker, non-Christian family, sober, and completely open to the Gospel. His answer: "Honestly, I don't think she'd fit in."
When I was a gamer, I knew Christianity was a bunch of shallow bunk because they listened to crummy music, couldn't make a rational argument and were convinced we were summoning demons while eating Doritos and rolling dice. Thankfully, I read the Word and met Jesus. He didn't seem like someone who read shallow novels and listened to bad music. And I thought he'd like me.
I heard a sermon one time where the pastor said our churches should be like Cheers. Everybody knows your name, your troubles are all the same, and they're always glad you came. I like that. But I also hope we can be a little like Gary Gygax, and make a place for those who are different and imagine a different world. Not a secular world with a thin coat of Gospel paint (modern Christianity), but a Kingdom that is completely and radically different than the world we live in now.