Monday, May 02, 2011

Sermonic Metagaming

Since a friend of mine dropped the core rulebook on my bed in my second year of undergrad, I have, off and on, run campaigns in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. The technical title is "Gamemaster" or "GM." The GM pulls together the story and set objectives for the players, who each play different characters. The players are free to do whatever they wish with their characters, and it's the GM's job to make sure that the story gets told and told well. An RPG ends up being an exercise in group story-telling, and, I have to say, is one of the best preparations for leading small group discussions I've ever had.

RPGs have rules that govern the physics of the imaginative world that the GM and the players create together. Dice are used to account for the randomness of the player's actions. Just because a player's character is a really good medic doesn't mean that they will always save a person's life. There are innumerable small things in life that effect the results of our actions. The dice simulate that.

Because there are so many rules, it's tempting for players to start metagaming, or playing their characters like the characters have all the knowledge that the player does. A player could, for instance, keep their character from visiting a planet the player knows from the movies is doomed to destruction. Or a player who knows the rules well could make the entire gaming session about disputing the finer points to their maximum advantage.

The common sin? They use knowledge they have of the movies or the rules to distance themselves from the story that the group is telling together.

Sermonic metagaming, a similar phenomenon, happens when preachers use specialized knowledge to distance themselves and the congregation from the story they had to that point been telling together in the liturgy.

When I was first falling in love with the Anglican tradition, I used to joke that the great thing about worship in the Episcopal Church was the most you could mess up was the sermon, and that was only 10 minutes anyway. Having been an Episcopalian now for several years, I can say from experience that sometimes those 10 minutes (or 20 or 30) can be so thoroughly metagamed so as to wreck the whole rest of the service.

I once met a bishop (in another denomination) who boasted to me about a sermon he had recently preached. He proudly told me of stripping the passage from the Pentateuch down to its JEPD sources, showing how the earliest source said something quite different than the redacted whole that his congregants had in their Bibles, and lifting up this reading as the authoritative one. This was the truth that they were to live, he told them, because this is the earliest part of the biblical revelation. He used his specialized knowledge of historical criticism to distance himself and his congregation from the liturgical story they had been telling together, a story predicated upon the biblical witness' canonical wholeness.

Pastors also metagame in their sermons when they talk every week about something they are trying to build in their congregations. "Community" and "authenticity" are popular tropes. The problem is not that these are bad things in themselves. The problem is that ministers often run roughshod over their sermon texts in order to get to them. And, ironically, I don't think we build community or authenticity very well by talking about them. Analysis paralysis seems to set in too quickly. Instead we build them by getting together and telling and living the story week-to-week. A metagamed sermon distracts from the desired goal; it doesn't seem to further it.

Now, I have to say that there are certain places in the church's life where metagaming is important and necessary. The announcements are a time set aside for just that. Adult education is another one of those places, and I would worry if a minister didn't have classes from time to time on historical criticism or the benefits of building a community of authentic believers. But, please consider keeping those things out of the pulpit. They distract and disrupt. They disable the community's participation in the weekly liturgical story. In other words, they draw attention to the preacher or to the congregation when the sermon should be drawing attention to the story of God's gracious and merciful self-giving in Jesus Christ.

Let's stop the sermonic metagaming and get into the story. It's an adventure we shouldn't want to miss.


Do you have any stories of sermonic metagaming? Please share below!

1 comment:

Eclipse said...

What an interesting analogy Jason! I like that you make room for both things here, and draw the line of distinction along what I perceive to be "discipleship".

Within role playing, “knowing the rules” is not strictly required in order to participate. In fact, simply trusting the story teller can often result in a better gaming experience, and is indeed how most RPers come to the game. It is often quite some time before they develop an interest in the mechanics, because up until that point they’re still trying to decide if they like this role playing thing, and if it’s “for them”. Christianity is very similar in this regard. The number of academics that come to christianity, purely because their academics led them there is probably relatively small when compared to the number of uneducated (in the biblical sense) who are saved in church pews and street corners when they hear a message that resonates with their reality.

Getting back to the gaming analogy, we don’t dig into the rules without a purpose. Sometimes that purpose is greater understanding, sometimes it’s syncing the character we want to play with the path we intend to take. Likewise, digging into the Word of God, and that underlying meta-layer of contextual information, and original greek/hebrew blah blah blah, is not necessarily a path every character class (mixing the metaphor now) need take.

I guess the bottom line here is that no one likes a Munchkin... I expect that one in the pulpit is even worse.

For those who have know clue what I just said, some quick wikipedia links to terms:

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