The Games We Play
by Andy Hanson
by Andy Hanson, June 19, 2014
This blog is based on ideas generated by the book, Games People Play, 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.”
The book lists the whole series of games that people play: life games, marital games, party games, sexual games, underworld games, and consulting room games. After reading the book I know for certain what I have suspected for most of my life: I'm not a good game player. 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 follows.
I was 16, parked on the hill overlooking the city of Glendale, making out with my girlfriend. 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 about the 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. I quit playing that game when one of my best students told me to stop playing games and just be myself.
I have always loved participating in and observing what Berne identifies as pastimes. Pastimes, by his definition are “candid; may involve contest, but not conflict, and the ending may be sensational, but not dramatic.” I take that to mean that pastimes have agreed-upon rules that willing participants or observers understand and agree to. Pastimes can be 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 my hands were so small that I had to go into the kitchen to arrange the cards in my hand. I played games of 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 late into the night, and tested my friendship with family and friends as we played Sorry.
I listened to Dodger games on my kit-built radio, and the Los Angeles Rams, featuring Roman Gabriel and the Fearsome Foursome, were my team. Over the years I developed an interest in golf. Arnold Palmer was my hero. I watched Mohammed Ali fight and the UCLA Bruins play basketball.
As a kid I played basketball, baseball, and flag football, but because I was two years younger than my classmates at Glendale Academy, I was often the last player chosen. I went on ski trips with my class, but I didn't have the money to take lessons, and I never learned how to turn on steep slopes. I could, however, win consistently at horseshoes! Today, I fish with my brother and play golf with my friends. I would love to play poker on a regular basis, but my university playing partners have either died or moved away.
Why is it that pastimes have been and are an important part of my life? What do they do for me that other experiences don't? What needs do they satisfy? What do they indicate about me, my personality, the way I see the world, the way I want to live my life?
When I am involved with pastimes, the cares of my busy and often chaotic world disappear. Pastimes have rules, and when these rules are broken an agreed-upon penalty is assessed. The best player or team usually wins. Finally, pastimes can be played over and over again. In golf, if I don't break 100 one week, I can try again the next. If my team doesn't win the World Series or the Super Bowl, there is always next year. In short, when I am involved with sports, I am living in or imagining myself in a kind of utopia where virtue is rewarded, fairness is insisted upon, reasonable penalties are assessed for infractions of the rules, and hope need not be extinguished if I or my team does not live up to expectations.
On the other hand when I am involved with games, I find myself immersed in a chaotic world where rules can be broken and there are no agreed-upon penalties. I have to continually remind myself that virtue is not rewarded, fairness is a liability, penalties are only assessed for losing, and second chances can only be earned through cunning and a blatant disregard for the truth. For me gaming is soul-destroying, depressing, and joyless. If this is the way of the world then, in the words of the hymn, “This world is not my home.” And I want with all my heart to be at home in this world. The people I love are here. That is why I attempt to live my life as if it were a pastime, while recognizing that life is neither a pastime nor a game.
Anyone, guru or preacher, who uses words that imply life is a pastime is a fool at best or a charlatan at worst. Life is simply life. Sadly, many religious people and institutions have found it beneficial to attempt to convince us that this isn't so. They assume the role of sports analysts. They explain why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to bad people. They assume that wise sayings or authoritative quotes are laws of existence. They choose to ignore the fact that a penny saved is not always a penny earned. A stitch in time does not always save nine. Bread cast on waters can fail to return. A friend in need is not always a friend indeed.
These sports analysts assume that biblical quotes always reflect reality, when in reality the prayers of the righteous do not always avail much. Faith does not move real mountains. Compassionate words do not always melt a hard heart. Ten thousand don’t always fall at your right hand, and destruction sometimes does “come nigh thee.” In this world the righteous folks seem to be treated just about the same as the unrighteous.
What concerns me here are the consequences of choosing to regard religion as a pastime. For the religious sports analysts, when bad things happen to good people, there has to be a reason. Tsunamis and hurricanes are sent to punish the wicked. Young people die in automobile accidents because parents or church congregations need to be shaken into a spiritual revival. The death of a teenage son is fortuitous because, should he have lived, he would have engaged in behavior as an adult that would have jeopardized his salvation. Children die as punishment for the sins of their parents.
If religious belief also includes the notion that a loving God will eventually punish the “wicked” by fire, rational thought must be discarded. The premise that someone who loves you will torture you in fire is nonsensical.
If Christians cannot rely upon experience and reason to explain the rules of religion as pastime, they must make a decision. They might simply reject belief in “the lake of fire,” or they might conclude that Christianity is a game, or that they are simply not intelligent enough or spiritual enough to understand how God operates in the world. These people may conclude that Christians must rely on people or institutions that have authoritative explanations for everything that happens in the world, i.e., game players.
Unsurprisingly, then, blind faith is highly valued in many Christian ministries.
However, blind faith alone cannot be relied upon to support individual or even institutional Christianity. Even in North Korea, a state that controls virtually every channel of information from the outside world, the demand for blind faith must still be accompanied by the brutal and pervasive punishment of critical thinking, as Kim Jong-un’s numerous prison camps attest. Religious leaders whose credibility depends on the blind faith of their believers must engender fear, overt or hinted at. The pastor of a mega-church in Texas decided not to play games with his parishioners when he told them 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. These settings support the notion that what is happening is a pastime rather than a game. Huge crowds can dispel critical thought and quiet the fear that always lurks when blind 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. He discovered that the religion of his day was a game, "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'…. basically dishonest." *
As far as I am concerned, Christian fellowship must operate as neither pastime nor game. Communication should be candid and may involve contest but not conflict or fear of being “wrong.”
An authority on church planting once advised me that those sentiments would inhibit church growth. I'm sure he was right. Perhaps that’s why Christ was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. His death is a reminder that religious game playing and blind faith can murder compassion and torture the innocent.
* Quotations are from Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne.