Game or Ritual? This was the key question addressed in Level One.
Lévi-Strauss made the distinction between Games (“they end in the establishment of a difference between players or teams where originally there was no indication of inequality”) and Rituals (“it brings about a union, or in any case, an organic relation between two initially separate groups”) and I proposed that it might be fruitful to meditate on whether our expression of Church was one or the other. Certainly, from the initial responses, it seems people have identified an unhelpful spirit of competition in Emerging Churches, which may be a hangover from their very masculine roots.
Dungeons and Dragons, about which an article in The Believer inspired this series, inhabits a grey (actually, misty, foggy or windswept might be better adjectives) area between game and ritual. It was perhaps a (knee)jerk reaction to jock sports – which are heavy on winners – but still definitely has aspects of a true game.
One of those key aspects is the emphasis on accumulation. Though there may not be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as such, ‘good’ play is exhibited by the accumulation of power and wealth: special weapons, keys to open secret doors, coins which give leverage in various ways. The more explicit connection came later in arcade games such as Super Mario: more stuff meant longer life and greater power. (My personal favourite: Xybots. An absolute classic. After each level you basically descended to a shop, where you could cash your coins in for bigger weapons, better shields etc.) The parallels for us are obvious enough.
One thing that both rituals and games have in common is the need for rules – boundaries around which the action takes place. Elsewhere in the issue The Believer looks at Oulipian literature. Oulipo stands for “Ouvoir de littérature potentielle”, a loose gather of French writers who write within close constraints precisely because they believe that the constraints can be very creative. Similarly, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Van Trier explored the Dogme 95 system of film making as a creative, not restrictive act.
The really good rituals or games are those where the rules are fixed enough for there to be tensions created, and not so fixed that the action either becomes totally predictable, or so free that things degenerate into chaos.
In our meditation on rituals and games as they might impact the Emerging Church, we might thus far conclude that a) power is more obviously accumulated in games, but power-games exist very clearly under the surface in rituals too (which will bring us back to connect with Gift), and b) games and rituals both need rules – the issue is the extent to which those rules create disjunction, rather than union. Rules ought to be creative. Too intimately linked with power accumulation, they become divisive, promote unhealthy competition, which leads to denominations of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.
As the Emerging Church continues to… emerge/solidify/denominate, I wonder: is it becoming more game-like? The rules, though never written, are becoming clearer, and some might argue that power-resource-accumulation is already happening around certain people/movements. Perception or reality, the disjunctive effects of that could be dangerous.
Level 3 soon…