June 15, 2006

The Theology-Ritual Dichotomy and Sacred Play

I've been engaged in a terrific discussion of the touchpoints that connect massively-multiplayer alternate reality gaming and the project of Christian theology at the LiveJournal of Phaedra, who commented here yesterday. She restricts access to her journal, so I won't publish her thoughts here without her permission, but I would like you to take a look at something I wrote and critique it. Phaedra mentioned that she found it interesting to reflect on the connections between ARG's and theology, since what had originally struck her were the connections with ritual. Here's my response:

I wonder if the dichotomy you're setting up between theology and ritual is a false one.

In premodern Christianity, the primary point of entry to reflection on the nature of God was the Mass, a liturgical ritual (in the original sense of liturgical, viz. "the work of the people"). The Mass was (and still is, in the Roman Catholic and a few other traditions) an immersive experience, and clues to deeper levels of theological meaning were embedded in both the ritual itself (the ancient words of institution serving as "hyperlinks" to the biblical text), other connected rituals (the other sacraments), and in the very environment in which it took place (the church or cathedral). Almost universally, the pursuit of theology began with this experience.

In keeping with the Enlightenment project that influenced it so profoundly, modern Christianity has tended to see theology more as an academic exercise, something akin to a science. For Protestants, this has translated into seeing as the primary point of entry not a ritual but a text, the Bible. Concurrently, Protestantism has developed a paradigm of its own history that severs its connection to its own past and devalues narrative as a tool for group self-identification. Taken together, these mental shifts downplay the pervasive, immersive, and collaborative aspects of the theological task and instead encourage detachment and compartmentalization. They have also helped to enforce the "professionalization" of theology--the restricting of serious contemplation of the nature of God to a professional class.

The postmodern shift has begun to alter these perceptions among many Christians (the Emergent Church movement/conversation and the awakening of Gen X/Y to Eastern Orthodoxy are two early results).

I know this needs a lot of fleshing out, but what do you think about the trajectory I'm on here? I'm tagging the concept "sacred play" until I come up with something better. More on that to come.

bk_keywords:sacred play, theology, ritual, alternate reality gaming

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At 3:25 PM, Anonymous cwspain said...

I'm still thinking about the idea of life lived at the intersection/in the interaction of the Story and the Real. The Enlightenment saw the Story as something to be broken down and distilled down to its logical components. Protestants have generally substituted talking about the story for telling the story. I am most keenly aware of this during Holy Week, when I have to go to a historical church (I generally choose Episcopal) to live throught the Holy Week events, finally experiencing the Resurrection during the Great Easter Vigil, then on Sunday morning I go to my regular evangelical church and hear a lecture on the Resurrection. It's not the same thing at all.

At 7:42 AM, Anonymous Phaedra said...

Aieee! I've got a lot of catching up to do on your blog, and it all looks fascinating...

Sorry, real life keeps interfering.

At 2:12 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Sorry, real life keeps interfering.

Tell me about it!

I'm spending the summer working through a 12 credit hour graded mentoring project for my master's degree that is absorbing considerably more time than I had planned for it, while concurrently my work seems to have taken a jump in intensity. I have frustratingly little time to devote to anything else, including my family.

I'm trying to figure out a way to turn my interest in ARG's and sacred play into either a work project or a school project so that I can actually pursue it a little. I'm afraid I'm going to have to dabble in it until August, though!

Thanks for dropping in again!


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