Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Theological Games Aren't For Amateurs

The title, Games People Play, is stolen from a book by Eric Berne, MD. In it he offers the following definition of “game”. A game is a series of complementary transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively it is a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a snare, or “gimmick”…. Every “game” is basically dishonest, and the outcome has a dramatic, as distinct from merely exciting, quality.” In other words a "game" according to Berne, is a "con job".

The book lists the whole series of con jobs that people play: life games, marital games, party games, sexual games, under world games, and consulting room games. After reading this book I know for certain what I have suspected for most of my life: I'm not a good con man. My friends know that I am naïve, tend to accept at face value what people tell me, and I try to communicate what I think and feel in a straightforward way. One illustration of this personality characteristic follows.

I was 16, parked on the Hill overlooking the city of Glendale making out with my girlfriend, Nancy. When we came up for air after a long kiss, she asked me if I loved her. Needless to say I was torn. I wasn't sure where a "yes" would lead, and the prospect was both terrifying and exciting. Upon reflection, however, I told the truth. I said "no".

When I came to Chico State, I tried to play the “game” of university professor. I assumed that university classes should be hard and reasonably unpleasant if students were to learn what was required of them. I was unsympathetic when students complained about the length of my assignments and a specificity of the questions on my tests. Both my students and I were miserable, but I assumed that I would get used to our mutual discomfort so long as I achieved tenure. My con job ended when one of my best students told me to stop playing games and just be myself.

I have always loved participating and observing what Berne identifies as “pastimes”. Pastimes, by his definition are not “games”. They may involve contests, but not conflict. They have agreed-upon rules that willing participants or observers understand and agree to. Pastimes can and often are exciting with unpredictable outcomes, but winning is accomplished within an agreed-upon set of rules.

I can remember playing Rook on Saturday night with my parents and friends when I was so small that I had to go into the kitchen to arrange the cards in my hand. I played games of the monopoly that could last for days. I played Battleship with my friend Gary in a tent that could only be reached by negotiating a steep cliff. My friend Roland who lived across the street taught me to play poker. Ken taught me how to play Booray. I played computer games with Jim far into the night, and tested my friendship with family and friends playing Sorry.

Pastimes, according to Berne, require the participant to enter a kind of utopia where fairness is insisted upon and reasonable penalties are assessed for infractions of the rules.

Reason and experience inform us that anyone who believes that life is a “pastime” is a fool at best or a charlatan at worst. Why is it, then, that Christians have been taught that reason and commonsense cannot be trusted when it comes to religious belief? When bad things happen to good people, we are told “all things work together for good”. Tsunamis and hurricanes are sent by god to punish the wicked. Young people die in automobile accidents because God needs to shake up parents or church congregations into a spiritual revival. The death of a teenage son is fortuitous because, should he have lived, god knew that he would have engaged in behavior as an adult that would have jeopardized his salvation.

If Christians cannot rely upon experience and common sense to understand religion, they may decide that they are not intelligent enough or spiritual enough to understand how God operates in the world. They may conclude that to continue as Christians, they must trust people of superior intellect or mystical knowledge to guide their religious experience i.e. people or institutions that have authoritative explanations for everything that happens in the world. Many of these Christian believers fall prey to con artists—“game players”—who offer them “a recurring set of [religious] transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a snare, or ‘gimmick’. . . [that is] basically dishonest.”

Consequently, trust in religious authority is highly valued by many Christians. However, trust alone cannot be relied upon to support individual or institutional Christian ministries. Even in North Korea, a state controls virtually every channel of information from the outside world, trust must be accompanied by the brutal and pervasive punishment of critical thinking, as Kim Jon-il’s numerous prison camps attest. Consequently, religious con artists must engender fear, overt or hinted at. The pastor of a mega-church in Texas decided to tell his parishioners that he no longer believed in hell. That admission cost him his congregation.

It is easy for me to understand why mega-churches meet in huge athletic stadiums. The buildings themselves support the notion that what is happening is a “pastime” rather than a con game. Huge crowds can dispel critical thought and quiet the fear that always lurks when unreasoning faith is a motivating force: fifteen thousand Christians can’t be wrong.

It's really the same old story, isn't it? Job discovered much to his surprise and sorrow that life isn't a “pastime”. When he made that discovery, the four men who attempted to comfort him were no comfort at all.

Comic from Rubes, by Leigh Rubin.
(click for enlarged image)


  1. One can't help but agree with a lot of waht you say. It's a cynical piece, yet for many people religion is merely a hobby devoid of deep understanding and relationship with the Holy.
    In those dark times of the soul though is when some look for answers to tragedies when we can't possibly know the anwers. They want to believe God wouldn't let it happen, and I sympathize with them. I think I have done this myself.
    There is one comment though--all things do work together for good for those who love God. It is in the Bible to encourage us, and I have seen it happen again and again to people. God doesn't cause the tragedy, but he makes something good come out of it whether it be maturity, trust, etc. For God our lives here are only temporary and it is hard for us to understand this because it is all we have known. He is more gracious and loving than we could possibly imagine.
    I recomend a book that has recently been on the best sellers list--The Shack. It is a novel, but an allegory of how God works with people where they are.
    That is the truth I stand on and believe deeply. Even when I don't feel safe, I am not abandoned. Feelings afterall are not reality (physiologically induced).
    I smile as you talk about trying not to be real in the job setting. I also like to be transparent and could never play the political games in church or church work, so I missed out on some career opportunities.
    I do enjoy theology though, and I keep searching for logical answers. I find the study to be inspiring and exciting--my devotions.

  2. Hi Ellamae

    I'm with you on The Shack. In case you are interested, I reviewed it here:

    Wonderful book!

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  6. I'm sure that "15,000" Christians can be wrong--and I know for a fact a website that calls itself reinventing the Adventist Wheel is nearly always wrong...with a chip on their shoulder about Adventism..