LIVING IN THE SECULAR WORLD
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
I woke up yesterday morning to five messages on my phone.
"Lady O, where are you?"
"Oh, I'm so sorry dear..."
"WAKE UP YOU ARE BEING ATTACKED!"
My heart sank. Before I even opened my Game of Thrones Conquest mobile phone game, I knew I had been "zero-ed". I had gone to bed the night before, forgetting to reset my shield to protect my "keep" (read: castle) and a host of (US and European-based) enemies had attacked and decimated my army overnight.
"What is it, my love?"
"I forgot to bubble up last night!"
"You got attacked?"
My husband laughed at my plaintive wail: "Maybe you should just stop playing, darling. It's just a game.”
"IT. IS. NOT. JUST. A. GAME."
My vehemence took him aback.
"I have responsibilities to my allegiance. I have friends to support. I lost two-thirds of my army. How am I supposed to support those who need my help? It is not just a game!"
My perplexed husband gave me what he probably intended to be a sympathetic look, but it was clear he thought I was being melodramatic and way too involved in what he thought was a silly pastime I’d been indulging in for months.
I dragged myself out of bed defeatedly and got ready to accompany him to a Bible study group he was leading. We did not speak during our drive there as I was frantically trying to heal my troops and assess the damage that had been done.
At this stage, you are probably rolling your eyes at a 45-year-old woman who is so invested in what appears to be an inconsequential bit of childish entertainment. Let me explain.
When I was Online Editor at The Straits Times, I had made it my mission to understand the gaming community and how communication within youth culture had changed with the advent of what they call MMORPG or "massively multiplayer online role-playing games". These are live, online games in which a very large number of players interact with one another in a virtual world. I had spent a couple of years playing World of Warcraft just to understand how gamers communicated in what I observed to be a highly-stylised form of social interaction with its own rules and quirks. I had made friends from all over the world and, even though we no longer play, a couple of us still keep in touch.
But let me return to this gaming topic anon and jump to a seemingly unrelated story.
The day before, as part of my current pursuit to be a certified life coach, I was having an introductory get-to-know-you chat with the 14-year-old daughter of one of my childhood friends. She is extremely interested in creative writing and wanted me to help her develop her burgeoning talent. As we were comparing notes about the books we consider classics appropriate for her age, she said something that made my jaw drop.
She had never read the Harry Potter series.
"My parents don't want me to read it because it has dark magic in it."
When the J.K. Rowling series first came out in 1997, I had devoured the books. Not only am I an avid reader, I grew up on a heavy diet of fantasy literature. It started with Enid Blyton‘s The Magic Faraway Tree then moved on to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. I then graduated to Piers Anthony and David Edddings. I was and still am a huge J.R.R. Tolkein fan. I played Dungeons & Dragons (regarded by many as “satanic”) and read the related Dragonlance trilogies more than 10 times each. More recently, I was obsessed with Game of Thrones.
Reading about different worlds as imagined by some of the most creative minds in the literary universe transported me to incredible places in my mind and afforded me hours and hours of pleasure.
So I was perplexed when the Harry Potter series received so much negative attention in Christian circles. I remember receiving email after email denouncing the series as an evil influence on children because the main characters were studying magic or “witchcraft”. The verse that was bandied about was what Paul wrote in Galations 5:
"The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."
This tended to be quoted in conjunction with his other exhortation in 2 Corinthians 6:
"For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." "Therefore come out from them (unbelievers) and be separate", says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."
While I could obviously see where the warning that Harry Potter might be dangerous to young minds was coming from, I had to ask: if magic was the issue, how different was Harry Potter to the religiously-allegorical world of Narnia that renowned Christian writer C.S. Lewis created?
Surely magic, or witchcraft if that's what you'd prefer to call it, is just the vehicle that J.K. Rowling uses to illustrate exactly the same battle between good and evil that C.S. Lewis so wonderfully depicts. At the end of the day, in Harry Potter, it is the person who wields the wand, the intentions of his or her heart and the consequent actions taken that reveals true character and moral alignment.
Just like in Narnia, so too in Harry Potter is there a wealth of ethical lessons for young children to learn. Indeed, my nine-year-old niece completed the entire series not long ago and we have had deep, meaningful conversations about how everything in life - not just magic but also science and technology - is neither good nor evil, and it is the person who uses it who determines whether it lifts people up or tears humanity down. Surely, allowing children to read such books and helping them understand these lessons are worthwhile?
The point I'm trying to get across is: although the conventional Christian view is that believers are supposed to set themselves apart from the secular world, I believe there is much to be learned in the world outside of the church that can be morally fortifying.
[Aside: As a kid, I unwittingly played with a Ouija Board. After asking it two test questions and getting unnerving answers no one could have known, all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I never went near the thing again. So I am aware that there is real witchcraft out there and we need to guard against allowing unholy spirits access to our lives.]
This Harry Potter issue was at the back of my mind as we arrived at the Bible study, when my husband did something that both took me aback and gave me a giggle. His choice of song to open the lesson for the day? You'd never guess in a million years.
Probably the only pastor
who would lead a Bible study
session with this song. (Source: Joanne Lee Wong)
It was Heal The World by Michael Jackson.
After we sang the beautiful piece, someone in the group asked if Norman had changed the lyrics. She, and a few others, were astonished to hear that, apart from changing the word "brothers" to "family", he had not touched anything else. Not even the last line of the song's bridge: "Be God's glow".
(Full lyrics here.)
Without intending to, he had just demonstrated my point that even in the life of someone as secular and (allegedly) sinful as Michael Jackson, we can derive moral lessons from his lyrics and be encouraged by them to strive for God's will.
As we were driving off after the Bible study, Norman asked me why I considered my Game of Thrones Conquest endeavours so important. I explained that while it was secular and appeared to be mere entertainment like the Michael Jackson song, the game had given me opportunities to help others in a very real way.
In one instance, a complete stranger from America had started up a conversation one day about how I had a cool set of armour. Then, unprompted, he poured out his heart to me about how he had had his spine broken in multiple places when he was younger and his doctors had started him on opioids before the now-infamous class of painkillers was discovered to be dangerously addictive and fatal in higher doses. To make his struggle with physical pain far worse, he now also suffers from stage three cancer and there is absolutely no way he can come off the opioids at this stage despite having exhausted all other avenues of pain management.
He had not confided this to anybody in his allegiance because he was afraid they would judge him to be a drug addict and kick him out. As it is, he had lost all his real world friends and his family had cut contact with him because they considered him a junkie. His wife and toddler daughter were the only ones in his life who knew of his daily struggles - and I was now the third person privy to his inner pain and fear of dying while leaving his wife and daughter behind.
I listened. I empathised. I understood. After all, I'd gone through my own dependence on painkillers when I was popping them on a daily basis to control my migraines. To be sure, my painkillers were hardly dangerously-addictive, but I knew what being dependent on a substance to kill physical pain feels like.
Somedays, he and I would talk about how bad his pain was at the moment. Other times, we just chatted. I asked how his Christmas and New Year went. We rejoiced when he told me his wife was pregnant again. I sent him gifts of gold - game currency - when I had presents to give away without expecting any in return.
Then, yesterday, when I suggested we get to know each other a bit better outside of the game and asked, shyly, if he would read my column despite it being religious in nature, he replied: "I will definitely read them. You're like my best friend. Only person I can talk to besides my wife. You know I would do anything I could for you, whatever is in my grasp I would do. You helped me out tremendously with this game and that means a lot to me. You didn't have to give me anything but you did to make sure I was okay and I will never forget that. You have helped me more than really anyone I know even in real life. Besides my wife, no one really has given a shit if I live or die.”
Upon reading this profession, I was stunned. When I relayed this to my husband, he was stunned. Was he starting to see why it wasn’t just a game?
Then, I hammered my point home with another example.
Just last week, another stranger, this time from France, had applied to be my "bannerman", asking me to be his "liege". That's medieval language for asking me to be his boss and protector. I explained that I was Tier Four in my allegiance, the lowest rung, and I did not have the capacity to accept bannermen.
He then explained that he had been pretty powerful as an individual player but, because he had fallen on hard times, he did not have any money to buy extra shields and had been attacked several times, losing practically all his power (like me yesterday morning). There was a player-versus-player (PvP) event coming up and he needed protection in an allegiance before he got attacked again. If he did, he would have to give up the game because he did not have the resources to rebuild. He did not want to leave the game because it had kept him going when he was homeless, living on the streets, and all he had was his phone and WiFi.
I spent the next three hours scurrying around trying to find him an allegiance. My own was full and unable to take him in. Our secondary allegiance has strict rules about only accepting alternate characters belonging to members of our main allegiance. By this time, communicating with people all over the globe across different time zones, there was only an hour to go to the PvP event and he was very worried he would be completely wiped out. I contacted all the people I knew in other allegiances and finally found one who accepted him even though there were fears that he might have been a spy from one of the more aggressive allegiances just before the start of the PvP event. He was so grateful and couldn’t thank me enough that I went out of my way to find him protection at the eleventh hour instead of just saying sorry and abandoning him to his fate.
As I finished my recounting these two cases, my husband’s expression was no longer bemused. He looked impressed. And proud. I think he finally understood why I was so vehement when I burst out earlier in the morning: "IT. IS. NOT. JUST. A. GAME."
One verse came to mind - ironically, Romans 12:2 that Christians quote all the time when they insist that we ought to set ourselves apart from the secular world and live what they perceive to be “holy” lives:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
I think too much emphasis is placed on the first half - “do not conform to the pattern of this world”. I like the rest of the verse about the transformation of the mind and being able to suss out God’s true will. Had I considered Harry Potter and other books in the fantasy genre evil and reeking of witchcraft, I would never have gotten interested in World of Warcraft and, subsequently, Game of Thrones - the books, TV series or the game.
Had I scoffed at the game being an unworthy secular pursuit, I would never have had the opportunity to befriend a cancer patient dependent on opioids nor help a recently homeless person who needed protection.
Maybe just doing a kind deed here or showing a bit of concern there is not exactly preaching God’s Word to the nations in a formal, organised religion-type manner. But perhaps, just perhaps, I’m fulfilling a tiny portion of God’s will by caring for one or two of his lost sheep? His good, pleasing and perfect will?
After all, what did Jesus do? He didn’t set himself apart from the non-devout and hang out exclusively with temple types. No, he mingled with the tax collectors, prostitutes and other socially unsavoury characters. He lived in the secular world and made a difference to the lives of the people in it.
Heal the world Make it a better place For you and for me And the entire human race; There are people dying If you care enough for the living Make a better place For you and for me
Just like Jesus, I’ll try to heal the world. Even if, sometimes, it is just the virtual world.
Joanne Lee Wong is a writer, wife and corgi mum. She’s not a bible scholar, teacher nor church leader - just a former journalist and member of a Methodist congregation who struggles reconciling her faith with everyday experiences. All views expressed are her own.