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15 Minutes of Fame: When WoW meets real-world religion

From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

Gaming plus religion or politics is a potentially volatile conversational destination -- and this week, we're going there. Meet the Rev. Jonathan Fisk, pastor of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Springfield, Pa. Over the years, 15 Minutes of Fame has been through more than a couple of aborted conversations with pastors about the intersection of real-world religion and the World of Warcraft. Whether the questions get a little too pointed, or the potential for reaction from the pews gets a little too hot ... Whatever the case, the interviews don't make it through to print.

Until now. Hats off to Fisk for what's turned out to be a tour de force of an interview examining one man and one denomination's insights on the convergence of gaming, pop culture and WoW. One note before we get started: While we welcome your comments on this obviously sensitive subject, please remember that personal attacks and name-calling, anti-religion tirades and other trollish asshattery in the comments will not be tolerated. Keep your comments constructive and pertinent to the interview, please, or we'll be obliged to remove them.

Main character Peccator, troll restoration shaman
Guild <Portent Alliance>
Server Sentinels (US)

15 Minutes of Fame: Let's start out with some context for our conversation here. Tell us a little bit about your congregation and denomination.

The Rev. Fisk: My congregation is a member of the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, and the one known for being conservative about theology. We still believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and we require a "quia" or total commitment to the historic teachings of Christianity for all pastors.

Many people think Lutherans just follow Martin Luther. Luther was a brilliant and helpful man, and he was a catalyst for the conservative Reformation of the medieval catholic Church, but if Lutheranism is about a man, it about Jesus of Nazareth. The Reformation succeeded because by Scripture alone we can know that salvation is by grace alone received through faith alone because of the work of Jesus Christ alone. There's a lot to unpack there, but that's a good summary. My parish is a very small one -- the kind of little church America used to be famous for.

Are other players surprised to learn you're a pastor? If so, why do you think that is? What seems to provoke the most cognitive dissonance?

My raid team has three pastors in it. There is a little cognitive dissonance there, I guess, especially when it's one of us who says something earthy and witty in Vent. The media only tends to show that edge of conservative Christianity that is very legalistic. There's a vast number of Protestant traditions that we Lutherans used to call "radicals." Their theology is very about about "yourself" and how good or holy you are. They say they believe the Bible, but they think it's a rulebook for life rather than the Revelation of who God is in Jesus.

It's funny, because for all their talk about not sinning, it's what the Bible says about sin that they don't really believe. Sin is not firstly something you do. It's a corruption of our hearts, our nature. It's that corruption that is the reason we die, the reason there is war and hate and disease and suffering. But that "radical" edge of Christianity that gets all the press thinks it can overcome this sin just by following the right rules and trying really hard. But that kind of spirituality is always falling short of itself. It tries to get you to be good for inherently selfish reasons, and then you end up just looking like a hypocrite. That's the "fundamentalism" that makes the news as "Christianity," so that's what most people think Christianity is.

When that's all you've ever seen, running into a confessional Lutheran is a bit like landing at the start of Portal. You're like, "Huh? This guy seems real, has a sense of humor, doesn't take himself to seriously, seems pretty authentic, but is 32, married 8 years with three kids, is ordained and raids on WoW? It doesn't add up. How is he getting holy and saving the world by playing WoW?" But that's this cognitive dissonance that is really about what Christianity actually is. Sadly, the ones most to blame for this misrepresentation are the radical Christians.

What sort of questions do other players commonly ask you about playing WoW as a Christian pastor?

Our guild is pretty mellow, but we raid, and we're all there for the game. We all know we live in a diverse age. You know the old saying about "religion and politics." That's sort of been the guild's unspoken rule. We don't talk about Obama and we don't talk about God. But sometimes it happens.

There was this amazing conversation we had one night on Vent when someone made an offhand remark about "zombie Jesus" or something like that. And I laughed and said something like, "No, Jesus isn't undead. Jesus is risen." It was fun. Everyone was honest, asking questions and not getting all quiet and offended like happens so often.

But it's kind of sad, really. Our age of tolerance is a two-edged sword. Everyone is so afraid of offending everyone else (because everyone is always so offended) that it's almost like there's this giant lid on meaningful conversations. We can talk about the weather or loot, but we keep a tight seal on the deeper things of life.

But knowing that that's our culture, and really caring about my guildies, I try to respect that. I know the image of Christianity is that of a bunch of hypocritical, self-righteous jerks. So I try not to be that. But I don't think commandeering Vent conversations will get me very far. The Bible teaches that life is full of vocations, places you stand in order to do the right thing. When I play WoW, my vocation is friend and WoW player, not preacher. Christianity teaches me to do what's before me to the best of my abilities, to honestly care about my guildmates, respect them and hold them up. If and when those relationships grow, and if and when they find themselves needing to reckon with the implications of their lives, their wrongdoings and death, they'll know where to find me. I'll be more than happy to "preach." :)

There seems to be a belief in some circles that Christians shouldn't play or read or watch anything in the fantasy genre. Can you give us your own theological perspective?

Yeah. That grows out of the "radicalism" I was telling you about. It has this hyper-drive way of reading the Bible, picking out details but ignoring other details, and how they together make a whole. It's kind of like picking an ingredient off five differing pages in a 1,000-page cookbook, and then cooking it according to the instructions on page 15. It tends to drive very arbitrary wedges into life. During the Reformation, 500 years ago, the radicals were saying you couldn't be a solider or a court judge or own property. Today, they say you can't read a book about elves. Kind of tame by comparison, I suppose.

But it's true that, Scripturally speaking, mediation, divination and trying to speak with "spirits" in RL is a foolish thing to do. The only ones you'll ever be able to contact will be demonic in their origin. That's all wrapped up in what sin is and how we humans broke the world. But I'm talking about real life when I say that. I'm not talking about the Burning Legion or Azeroth. The Burning Legion doesn't exist. Azeroth is fake. But enthusiasm as a movement was never grounded in a full view of anything.

Radicalism has never been able to draw a line between reality and imagination. So yeah, some circles of Christianity have a hard time telling fact from fiction, and I would maintain that this is largely because they don't know their own Bible's actual words half so well as they suppose.

How much do the game world and lore impact and inform your gaming experience? Do you roleplay and enjoy the lore and story of WoW, or do you play the game on a more superficial level?

I adore the Azeroth lore, in part because it borrows from classic mythological figures, which themselves are shells and shadows of Christian revelation. All great story if forced to beg, borrow and steal from the Greatest Story Ever Told. So, for example, when M'uru is suspended cruciform over the creatures which in their evil passion are seeking to displace him and take his power, and then later find out that M'uru has done this voluntarily as a sacrifice for their redemption, I'm like, "Rock on!" Or when the dead-but-transfigured-and-alive Bolvar takes the evil of the Lich King's armor for the sake of the world, and then buries it forever with himself, I'm like, "Dude ..."

But don't get me wrong. I love the lore for its own sake, too. Blizzard has done a phenomenal job orchestrating a vibrant ethos. My only complaint is that there haven't been enough books to capitalize on the breadth of the mythology. Reading WoWWiki shouldn't be more compelling than reading the novelizations. But for me, it is.

As for roleplay, I haven't done a lot it. A little here and there. I guess Peccator is the shamanistic silent type, an outcast troll who doesn't talk much but is always there when you need a heal. It fits.

Are there storylines and other aspects of WoW that you don't engage in, based on your beliefs?

Christianity isn't firstly about what you can and can't do, although I know a lot of Christians act as if it is. Christianity does teach there are things that are good an things that are evil -- right and wrong. But there is nothing that happens in the standard gameplay of WoW that should keep a Christian away. As long as I don't have to lie, cheat, steal or commit fornication with other players, then WoW is best seen as one big storybook/puzzle. I think there's a few quests where you are less than honest with NPCs, and there's certainly some "killing" in WoW. But if any story that had lies and killing in it couldn't be read, we'd have to throw the Bible away right quick!

It's all about worldview. When Pec returned to Orgrim's Hammer and told Korm Blackscar about Broken Front, I wasn't exactly thrilled with his response. But Christianity is not about avoiding evil by closing your eyes and plugging your ears. It's about a different kind of righteousness than that. If you went away to a desert island cave in order to avoid sinning, you'd find that you brought the greatest evil there with you, right in your own chest. What you need is not the right rules. What you need is forgiveness.

So, no. I play WoW for what it is. I learn from it. I enjoy it. I mourn. I rejoice. I let it be the great story that it is. Then I turn it off. Does it inform my worldview? Yes. But only in an ancillary way. If Scripture is the lamp for my feet, I'm not sure how Pec stealing gimblglot from a gnome's gnapsack is really a threat.

Are your faction and race choices affected by your beliefs?

Sort of. I picked a shaman because "shaman often act as spiritual leaders in their tribal communities," or so the character creation page says. But when I rolled Pec, I didn't know a lick about talent pools, classes or builds. I just picked him. Now, I love the shaman class and can't envision having any other toon as my main. I love the versatility. But that's not a spiritual issue. That's just coolness.

But that's one of the cool twists Lutheranism has at its core. Because we place such a premium on Scripture and theology, we don't have to hyper-spiritualize the normal stuff in life in some vain attempt to pretend it's about God. God is about God. When I play WoW, I play WoW. I guess in that sense, all my gameplay is hugely affected by my beliefs. But unlike more legalistic forms of religion, I'm freed to just play it without having to justify it or make a religious pretext out of it.

How does your faith inspire your choices and behavior while playing WoW?

This is kind of like the last question. I'd like to say I'm a healer because I'm a pastor, a "seelsorger" as we used to say, a "cure for souls." Of course, it would be lie. I rolled elemental and pretty much stuck with it till the only way to break into my guild's raid structure was to heal. But now I don't think I'll ever go back. Healing fits.

But I would say that Christianity influences my behavior in WoW the same way it influences me in real life. There is right and wrong, good and evil, and a lot of that is wrapped up in who your neighbor is and how you treat him or her. In WoW, I try to be a good neighbor. That means showing up on time to guild raids, being cordial to strangers, helping weaker or newer players. Stuff like that. But this is where the core of Christianity so completely irrelevant to WoW gamely. A man dying on a cross in world history, and then rising from the dead just like he said he would, in order to conquer death for the whole human race doesn't have much to do with loot order. But He does show us that God's way of working is through mercy, charity and gift. So yeah, I try to be merciful as I help ROFLstomp Alliance in Wintergrasp. :)

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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