The Promenade and the Pokémons – A Reflection for the Parish Newsletter

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston in the August 2016 issue of “The Epistle,” the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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pokemongoSometime during the summer of 1969 (for the life of me, I can’t recall exactly when) and again in August of 1973, I was privileged to walk along the Promenade des Anglais on the Mediterranean waterfront of Nice. I was very young (or so I now consider myself to have been) and, on that second occasion, very much in love (or so I then considered myself) with a young French woman named Josienne. We quickly lost touch when that summer and my time as a student at the Sorbonne came to an end, but I have always fondly remembered her. Nice was her home town and, I suspect, is probably her home now. And I wonder, now, where she was on the evening of Bastille Day 2016. I pray she was not on the Promenade.

Political and religious violence is difficult to understand. One may understand having strong, even vehement, political opinions and beliefs, but the need some have to act out of their political or religious beliefs in ways that are harmful, often fatal, to others may seem unfathomable. We have seen a number of these incidents since the turning of the century. The new millennium began with the horrendous tragedy of September 11, 2001, and has continued with bombings, mass shootings, and multiple casualty events such as happened in Nice. And one need not even mention kidnappings and murders of hostages . . . and wars which seem never to end. What makes violence, especially lethal violence, so attractive?

Many theorists of religion have posited something called “the myth of redemptive violence.” Scholars who have written about this myth include Joseph Campbell, Rene Girard, and Carl Jung. Seminary professor Walter Wink wrote a short essay about “redemptive violence” in 1999 in which he wrote:

The belief that violence ”saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death.

This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. When my children were small, we let them log an unconscionable amount of television, and I became fascinated with the mythic structure of cartoons. This was in the 1960s, when the ”death of God” theologians were being feted on talk shows, and secular humanity’s tolerance for religious myth and mystery were touted as having been exhausted. I began to examine the structure of cartoons, and found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode. Nothing finally destroys the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, whether the villain is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned, or shot into outer space.

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The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialised in the process of maturation. Children select this mythic structure because they have already been led, by culturally reinforced cues and role models, to resonate with its simplistic view of reality. Its presence everywhere is not the result of a conspiracy of Babylonian priests secretly buying up the mass media with Iraqi oil money, but a function of values endlessly reinforced by the Domination System. By making violence pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining, the Powers are able to delude people into compliance with a system that is cheating them of their very lives. (Walter Wink, The Myth of Redemptive Violence, in The Bible in TransMission, Bible Society of the UK, Spring 1999)

As I contemplate the tragedy of Nice (and Baghdad and Istanbul and Dakha and Orlando and . . . the list goes on) and the pervasiveness of violence seen as a “solution,” the Medina Town Square is filled with teens and millennials (20-somethings and 30-somethings) staring at their smartphones chasing down cartoon monsters. Pokémon Go is an “augmented reality” game in which players capture, battle, and train virtual creatures, called Pokémons, which appear (through the game’s use of the GPS and camera on the player’s smartphone) superimposed upon the real world image on the player’s phone’s screen.

I’m not about to suggest that the violence done to Pokémons in Uptown Park is in any way like the slaughter of Bastille Day revelers or of Pulse nightclub patrons, nor that the players of Pokémon Go are equivalent to the Orlando shooter, the Baghdad bomber, or the Nice truck driver. Nonetheless, the coincident vision of people fighting and capturing “augmented reality” cartoon characters with other people fighting and killing human beings in “real reality” bothers me; the game augments my reality! Wink’s analysis of cartoons as reinforcing a “simplistic view of reality” thus promoting the myth of redemptive violence seems particularly applicable to the Pokémon Go phenomenon.

Maybe I’m over-reacting to the recent mass casualty attacks, particularly to what happened in Nice because of my fond memories of Josienne and the city itself, but maybe not. Jesus told us to “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39) and “put down [our] sword[s]” (Mt 26:52). I’m troubled by games that teach our children a different and contradictory lesson. My hope is that users and parents of users will play the game responsibly and always remember that it is a game, not real life; my hope is that the real life lessons of the Gospel will prevail in their lives.

I believe that video games and their progeny (like this new craze) are fine as far as they go, this one actually better than its predecessors since it gets people up and outside, actually getting some exercise as they walk to and through the parks and public spaces (including churches) that the game populates with its characters. Still, I think users and parents of users should be aware of the potential power and consequences of such games (and not just the danger of walking off a cliff, as two players did in Southern California)!

I am sure that you are as troubled by political and religious violence as I am. I hope that my struggles to articulate misgivings and concerns, to work through the attendant theologies, and to express the hope that is always present are helpful to you; it helps me to write them out.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

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