Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Different Dogs and the Life of the Soul

It's the job of the priest to stand in the temple and tell the people to follow the laws of the temple. It's the job of the prophet to stand outside of the temple and tell the people to follow the laws of God and forget about the laws of the temple.
- Joshua M. Neff's father, a former minister

I follow Vincent Baker's blog anyway on a fairly regular basis. He's an independent (or 'indie') game designer, and has a definite take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to affairs in his community. He's also a firm believer that you have to deal with honest and real things, especially in game design, and so the discussions on his blog, even about seemingly innocuous things like - well, like games, often turn deep and potent at the drop of a metaphor.

The above quote comes from a comment thread that started with this post, in which five items of seemingly limited connection all get tied together in a way that suggests a person who routinely grapples with Big Questions - who even seeks out Big Questions with which to grapple.

Obviously I'm hooked.

Vincent would probably resist the title of Deep Thinker, but the two things he's probably best known for in the indie game community support that title. The first is a very simply-designed (but not simple) game called kill puppies for satan. It's about what you'd think it is - the characters are people who kill puppies or other helpless animals to gain 'evil' points, with which they can do various things, like spontaneously start fires. At the same time that they get 'evil', they also get 'grief', which could be viewed as the karmic counterpart to 'evil' - bad stuff happens to them as a result of the things they're doing in order to gain power and drive their souls into Hell. (Or hell, as it would be described in the game text, since satan can't afford capital letters.)

Seriously. Go read the online introduction, then consider the mechanics above again. It's not just a game about a particular 'genre'; it captures a mindset, a fairly bleak and desperate mindset at that, in an odd, twisted fashion that's both attractive and vaguely disgusting, much like crash scenes on ths side of the freeway.

You don't watch crash scenes on the side of the freeway? Right...

The other game is very different from kill puppies. It's called Dogs in the Vineyard. While kill puppies is vaguely set in the 'modern era', Dogs is a period piece - while it's technically a fantasy, it's set in the American West of the frontier era. puppies features characters that have committed their souls to hell in exchange for power, Dogs features characters that serve God - specifically, the characters are the titular Dogs, trained to tend to God's flock by stirring up and exposing sin in the various towns they visit in frontier territory. puppies is low-tech with a cruddy-looking font and no art, while Dogs is as high-concept as an indie game can generally afford to get, with art and other tactile bits of enhancement. Again, go ahead and read the introduction; the two games seem almost diametrically opposed, except that a very familiar undercurrent of tension and foreboding lurks under each.

So what does this have to do with the opening quote?

The more I consider that quote, the more I believe that religion needs both roles to remain honest and relevant. A religion without priests, without what Vincent himself describes elsewhere in the conversation as "a role of authority with regard to the congregation's conscience", with the power to challenge that congregation to follow the 'rules of the temple' over their own convenience, is a religion without conviction, where people only believe what they like and take services like they'd take narcotics at a dispensary. Conversely, a religion without prophets is a religion that grows stale gazing at its own navel, far too immersed in its own minutia and tiny little world to be relevant to the greater question of life, existence, and such. The careful balance between details and the 'big picture' doesn't just apply in religious life, of course, but neither is a spiritual life so unique that it doesn't require that balancing act as well.

The crazy thing is that neither the priest nor the prophet really gets the benefit of that balancing act, becuase their roles don't allow them the luxury of that balance. The priest has to represent the authority of the pulpit, and as a result he has to resist the prophet's call. The prophet has to challenge the status quo, even when the status quo isn't really all that bad, because the prophet isn't driven by questions of balance or suitability; if he's truly a prophet, he's speaking with the voice of God, and what are you going to balance that against? Which of course suggests that of all the people in this spiritual congregation, the two least likely to be fulfilled and edified by the experience are the priest and the prophet - and thus they're the two people you should, by all means, strive not to be, if you can avoid it. But, ironically, in the fictional RPG 'Priests and Prophets', players would want to play either a priest or a prophet, because those are the 'interesting' people.

It might be an exaggeration to say that this sort of thing happens all the time, but it does happen, thematically at least, quite a bit. Soldiers, for instance, go to war so that folks 'back home' can have peace (though this also assumes that the war isn't in your front yard). Policemen throw themselves into conflict with criminals so that others can have security, and firemen battle the forces of nature so that others can be safe. It's interesting to consider any such vocation a sort of sacrament, where the person who enters says, in effect, 'I give this thing up so that others may enjoy it all the more.'

Oh, and it's also an excuse to pass along a Unitarian Universalist joke. Granted, some of the brightest, most spiritual people I've known are UUs, so I'm not passing this along out of spite - if anything, the UUs I've known would get as big a chuckle out of this one as I did:

How do you know the Unitarians are mad at you?

There's a question mark burning on your lawn.
(related by Ron Edwards)

And to think all that pondering was triggered at a site that usually talks about games. I guess the Lord really does work in mysterious ways...

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