The Casner Church used to have annual chicken dinners back in the 1960s. At some point during the festivities, we grade-schoolers would head to the churchyard to play. Once in a while we would mimic the grownups in a type of improv. And so it was that one year we feigned a fake wedding. I vaguely remember that the Taylor family had just been to a big one, and since the Taylor girl was kind of bossy, we all found ourselves reenacting the nuptials.
The parts were quickly assigned. I got to be the minister. The Taylor girl was the bride. Others became ushers, groomsmen, bridesmaids, organist, and assorted relatives. No grade school boy, however, dared be the groom. It would have been like a death sentence if word got around the classroom the next week.
But if you’re going to put on a wedding somebody has to play the groom! So, the Taylor girl went back inside and fetched her three-year old cousin Henry, and the nuptials proceeded. It didn’t matter that little Henry didn’t make much of a groom: somebody had to do it. Like life itself, games sometimes require us to play unlikely roles.
As my regular readers know, I’ve been developing a board game where the players pretend to be the pastor of a church. Playing the game is a little easier than being an actual pastor, as you don’t have to unclog the men’s toilet, hide who you voted for in the last presidential election, or come up with something nice to say at the funeral of some jackass on your finance committee. In this game, all you have to do is sit in your chair and give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to ideas that come your way.
As a pretend pastor, the game requires you and your partners to change the trajectory of your struggling church. As you move around the gameboard, you draws various “proposal cards” and must make decisions, settle conflicts, maintain political capital, and manage your time and money.
If you make wise decisions, your church’s story will take a turn for the better and your team will win. You don’t so much play against another team as against “the house.” (Of course, if there’s another team playing the same game at the next table, human nature cannot help but compare and compete.) The whole game depends on the choices you make about the “proposal cards” you draw.
But who decides whether your choices are wise and sound?
I do. Somebody has to play God. I have written an ANSWER BOOK that the gamemaster can use to give awards or sanctions for whatever choices a team makes. Furthermore, the game grants a gamemaster godlike powers: to give hints, listen to petitions, and adjust outcomes.
My boardgame is still in its prototype phase. I’ve already played it with multiple groups around the state, each time finding something to improve. In every case, participants noted that the gamemaster is a little like God.
This past week I took the project to my writers’ group for their appraisal. They didn’t actually play the game (we only allot 30 minutes for each presentation) but they did critique my design and the instruction booklet I wrote.
Not having played it, the group struggled through some fog to imagine the experience. But there was one thing that definitely disturbed them: the function of the gamemaster. They came down hard on me, urging me to redesign the game so the gamemaster could be eliminated. Some feared the godlike and arbitrary powers of the role. Others seemed skeptical about a Bible-like answer book that simplistically turned everything into a black or white answer. And why would anyone choose to play a game that promised humiliation at the whim of an omniscient (but imperfect) divinity?
They had a point. As my writers’ group always does, they drove me back to the drawing board. But one does not survive my writers’ group by meekly complying. Glean wisdom from their critique? Absolutely. Give in? Never. One must stalk off, snarl back, defy, defend, regroup, reimagine, and revise to shock and awe.
After mulling over what they said, I defiantly decided that in a boardgame about a church, somebody has to play God… by God!
For starters, we sort of play God every time we create something, including a boardgame. While a game is in its prototype phase, it is critical for a godlike gamemaster to watch over everything and everyone: noting flaws, taking in joys, addressing cries of injustice and grievance. The game creator must be a god with eyes that see and ears that hear, especially during the prototype phase.
A good God designs a world of natural laws, rationality, and hidden wisdom, giving people a fighting chance to change their stories, even when that world is also subject to frequent chaos. It is not unreasonable to provide a relatable and relational ANSWER BOOK that is based on experience, scholarship, and rational forethought. A really good God even lets people argue, participate, and contribute to the development of their world, even to the point of occasionally suspending the game’s immutable rules.
I thought about my incentive for developing the game in the first place: to help people think of fresh ways to change their church’s story. Let everyone have a go at wearing the pastor’s pants; they might do better. I never really wanted to put the game in a Milton Bradley box and stock it on the shelves of Walmart. I just want to travel about toting my handmade game with me, sit down with church people, and use our collective imagination to nudge churches into better narratives. If the game is to affect real life, somebody in the game has to play God.
Then the argument tumbles into real life: nobody should play God when it comes to real life, only God can do that. If a congregation is to get unstuck, navigate a conflict, repair a breach, or find resurrection: only God can play God.
But there’s the rub. Even in the Bible, God very seldom shows up to play the role we need. In almost every case, God procures a substitute: a prophet, a peasant, a preacher, a peacemaker, a poet, a parable-maker... On one occasion, God even let a jackass stand in. Come to think of it, everything we know about God comes from those sent to stand in… understudies playing the role of God.
Of course, life itself, and its broader history, shows us that humans don’t do very well filling in for God. Even the most religious among us (especially the most religious?) have fashioned notions of God that are largely inhumane and ineffective, certainly not Christlike.
In ancient Egypt, where the Hebrews were once enslaved, the Pharaoh played “God,” and relished the role. But when the Hebrews were thrust out of Egypt, they faced a crisis: with the Pharaoh sunk into the depths of the great sea, somebody needed to play God. Yahweh (the Hebrew name for God) was willing to play the role, but only with strict boundaries: you may not say my name, you may not picture what I look like, you may not find your own substitute for me if we get separated… just wait until I send you an authentic messenger. It became easier for people to just fashion an idol.
It is ironic: even though we don’t all believe in God, even atheists believe that somebody has to play God. Someone has to be in charge. Someone has to be trusted or obeyed. Someone has to save us from ourselves. Someone has to clean up the mess of this world. And that’s where the trouble thickens. Someone has to play God. And if we’re not careful, we can end up with the worst sort. Whether it is in a game or in real life, a gamemaster who is too eager to play the role is a danger: likewise a too eager preacher or prophet or politician. Beware.
But despite the dangers, in every era of human history and in every phase of a human life, in every church, there is a profound need for somebody to play God: to generate wisdom, set boundaries, reset rules, applaud goodness, offer perspective, evoke joy, create beauty, prepare justice, urge mercy.
So, to those who want to play my boardgame, all I can do is place this rule in my instructions: if you are the gamemaster, as you stand in for God: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the real God. Have fun, but make sure everyone else is too.