Inspired by the R-rated “party game for horrible people” in which players pair cards like “Hospice care,” “An endless stream of diarrhea,” or “A defective condom” with fill-in-the-blank statements like “I got 99 problems but ________ ain’t one,” A Game for Good Christians, released earlier this year, offers a scriptural twist: most of the material from its 300-card deck has been lifted directly from the Bible, with chapter and verse to prove it.
The results fall somewhere between playful irreverence and flat-out blasphemy. For example, if the card “A woman must quietly receive ________ with full submission” is played, it could be paired with response cards that include “Crotch-less pants (2 Samuel 10:4),” “The forbidden fruit (Genesis 3),” and “Altar sex (Amos 2:8).”
(For the curious, the biblical answer is “instruction,” drawn from 1 Timothy 2:11, a controversial verse stating: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.”)
Critics of the game have called it “completely vile,” in “bad taste,” and an attempt to “denigrate and mock the Bible.” Or as one member of BoardGameGeek.com explained through the site’s “Geek Mail,” “I simply want nothing to do with a game that ridicules and makes fun of personal, deeply held beliefs, no matter how much the game’s designer claims ‘it’s all in fun.’”
But not everyone had scruples. George Juillerat found out about the game six months before its release and was immediately smitten. “Pretty much anything blasphemous or satirical about religion is going to catch my attention,” he explained. Juillerat, who is a board member of Seattle Atheists, contributed to the game’s $8000 Indiegogo campaign and was pleased when the game arrived in the mail several months later. “I was looking for a comical skewering of [religion] and that’s what it was,” he said.
A Game for Good Christians has become a favorite at the monthly Seattle Atheist game night,but Juillerat doubted it would be a hit with the churchgoing crowd. “If people were truly devout and pious Christians, I suspect they couldn’t even be coaxed into picking up the game,” he said.
“If people really dug into the Bible, I think they would see that A Game for Good Christians is merely honest, rather than offensive,” explained Kathryn Watts, a technology intern for a large, non-denominational, multi-site church in northeast Texas.
Watts describes herself as a “Christ-lover” and admits the Bible is “not a pretty book.” For Watts, the “uncomfortable or controversial” parts in scripture are reminders God “understands that our fallen world is a gritty, violent, and sometimes disgusting place.” She even credits the game for giving her an opportunity to talk with an agnostic friend about the Bible.
Jeremy Smith, an elder in the United Methodist Church serving a church in Portland, likened A Game for Good Christians to a Bible study. “When you really read the Bible, you find all sorts of problematic passages and challenging depictions of God,” said Smith, who first played A Game for Good Christians at a clergy conference earlier this year and blogged about the game on HackingChristianity.net. “And yet you keep playing—and keep reading—to make sense of things in your community.”
“Controversial” and “problematic” are hardly exaggerations; sandwiched between Sunday-school standbys like David and Goliath, Mary and Joseph, and Psalm 23 are plenty of stories that aren’t often preached from the pulpit. These stories, featured on the cards of A Game for Good Christians, range from bizarre (“Death by hungry worms, Acts 12:21-23”), to disgusting (“Bread freshly baked with human dung, Ezekiel 4:12”), to truly horrifying (“God-sanctioned gang rape, Ezekiel 23”).
To Chris Davies, a United Church of Christ minister in Connecticut who played the game with other mainline Protestant pastors, believes talking about the “messy bits” of the Bible is a key component of faith. She explained that this includes the instances of abuse, rape, and domestic violence highlighted by A Game for Good Christians: “We can either engage it and figure out ways to acknowledge the ways it’s been used to hurt through the centuries, or we can completely disregard it and pretend it’s not there.” She added drily, “And we all know that works out real well.”
Although A Game for Good Christian will force players to acknowledge the existence of these Bible passages and perhaps strike up a thoughtful conversation, it’s hard to overlook the game’s ironic humor. On the box, a haloed Christ smacks one nail-scarred hand to his forehead, as if groaning at a bad joke. Many of the verses have been paraphrased to maximize comedic potential so that “Jesus had disappeared in the crowd” in the Bible becomes “Houdini Jesus” on its card. Double entendres abound and there are swear words. Lots of them.
This a strange mix of sincerity and sarcasm prompts the question: at what, exactly, are players supposed to laugh?
PLAYERS AGES 8+ looking for interactive fun at the expense of organized religion have several good options, including Fleece the Flock (“the t.v. evangelist game”), Blasphemy (“take part in the fate of a would-be Messiah”), and Playing Gods (“a satirical board game of divine domination”).
But believe it or not, most religious games—Alef-Bet Bingo, Buddha Wheel, Episcopopoly, Who Wants to Be a Celestial Heir?, Race to the Kaba, Settlers of Canaan, Krishnaland, Kosherland, and even Missionary Conquest (“One giant game of laughter and strategy,” boasts the box)—weren’t designed as jokes. Bad puns notwithstanding most are earnest, creative efforts to impart religious truth and wholesome fun to youngsters and, occasionally, adults.
Yet godly games are often mistaken for godless satire, admit Nikki Bado-Fralick and Rebecca Sachs Norris, religion professors who have studied the bizarre realm of pious playthings. “If religion addresses some of the deepest concerns of humanity, it may be hard to see how fun and play can be reconciled with the serious business of saving souls or reaching enlightenment without mocking religion,” they write in Toying With God: The World of Religious Games and Dolls.
Citing examples like ancient dice games, the original Olympics, the costumed Jewish festival-carnival of Purim, and the Hindu ritual of Holi, in which participants throw colored paint at each other, Bado-Fralick and Norris point out that religion and play are often inseparable. Throughout this long history, religious games and toys are “evidence of the ways in which religious institutions and practioners use cultural trends to breathe new life back into their traditions.”
Via phone, Norris explained that one of the ways play revives religion is through humor, an omnipresent way of dealing with the contradictions inherent in any institution. “When you bring two things together and you don’t know exactly how to reconcile them, that’s when you laugh,” said Norris.
“Laughter” doesn’t always mean “mockery,” she continued. More often, laughter is a way of “allowing those contradictions in” which can lead “to a deeper understanding.” She likened it to a relationship: “It’s like loving somebody because you think they’re perfect and wonderful and you don’t want to see any of their faults or loving them and knowing that they have those faults.”
The creators of A Game for Good Christians might agree. “We love the Bible,” they claim on the game’s website, “we just have a funny way of showing it.”
THE NAMES of the game’s creators are not listed on its website, Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook. The only name affiliated with A Game for Good Christians is a pseudonym—“Ben Christian”—which a June 6 Tumblr post explains is a pun on the Latin word bene: “good.
As it turns out, the game’s creators are two guys in their early thirties who met at a Christian summer camp in 1996. They returned to the camp as teenage summer staffers, once wiring their stereos to speakers in the female staffers’ cabin and blasting the girls with music late at night (they were never caught). After high school, they attended rival Christian colleges, eventually found wives, and now live an hour apart.
Caleb and Thomas—not their real names—only agreed to talk to me if I kept them anonymous. Caleb, now a professor at a Christian college, didn’t think the administration would react favorably if they found out he created a game that mentioned “angel rape.” Thomas, a software engineer, hasn’t told his conservative in-laws and doesn’t plan to, a strategy he describes as “self-preservation.” Both men remain involved in churches they love, but whose theological convictions—and humor—no longer match their own.
I talked with Caleb and Thomas as they were finalizing their plans for two expansion packs for A Game for Good Christians, to be released later this year. Several minutes into our conversation two things become clear: they are super goofy and they really do love the Bible.
Their Bible geekery begins as they recount the seven months it took to draft the first round of cards. This length of time was due, in part, to their insistence on reviewing each passage in its original Hebrew or Greek before creating their own snarky summary. Then they cross-referenced their work with commentaries and dictionaries for accuracy, often editing their shared Google Doc while talking together on the phone, editing, adjusting, and “sometimes stopping for 45 minutes to argue about one particular passage,” says Caleb.
“Or a word in the passage,” corrects Thomas.
“Yeah, we nerded out quite a bit,” Caleb admits.
Despite their diligence, when they tested the cards with friends and family last July, it flopped.
“We initially did not censor ourselves,” confessed Thomas after describing how players balked at their liberal use of four-letter words. This prompted the pair to create what they call a “theology of swearing.”
“If something was a direct translation of something in the Hebrew or the Greek where the modern corollary would be a swear, we kept it,” explains Caleb.
He cites the example of 1 Kings 18:27. “That passage in the Hebrew is saying to them: ‘Your God can’t hear you. He’s off taking a crap in the bushes.’ So we kept ‘shit’ there. But there were other places where we had ‘shit’ because a swear would make it funnier and then we decided to cut that out in those places.”
I later consult the Oxford Annotated Bible where a tiny footnote confirms: the Hebrew phrase used in that verse is “a disrespectful euphemism meaning that Baal has to relieve himself.” In other words, they know their Bible shit.
CALEB AND THOMAS’ deep, nerdy love for the good book also means they have little patience for Christians who don’t actually read the Bible in its entirety. Thomas describes this as their “biggest frustration.”
He imagines a hypothetical player: “They read the card. They look at the passage. They look it up in the Bible. And they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this existed.’ That level of, um…” Thomas searches for the right word and slowly clenches his fist, as if crushing invisible cans.
“Ignorance?” suggests Caleb.
“I like Numbers, but anyway…” mumbles Caleb.
“The real impetus for the game,” Thomas resumes, “is to get people to engage in Scripture and read stories they’ve never read before. When a concubine is cut up into twelve pieces, that imagery is really offensive. But a lot of people didn’t even know that story existed in the Bible.”
I suspect they’re right; reading Judges 19:29 in church might shock parishoners out of their pews. But I press Caleb and Thomas on their use of humor; after all, when confronted with many of the gruesome or violent Bible passages on the game’s cards, laughter hardly seems like an appropriate response.
“Then why are you laughing at it?” counters Caleb. “Not all the cards are humorous,” he explains. “We didn’t try to make a nasty situation humorous. We just said, ‘This is a nasty situation.’ And put it on a card.”
I’m skeptical. Maybe all of the cards aren’t intended to be humorous, but some of them definitely are. I ask Caleb and Thomas when it’s okay to laugh at the Bible.
Their response is simple: some parts of the Bible are funny, others aren’t. “I think God is happy when we laugh at certain things in the Bible,” says Caleb. “I would also think that there’s probably things that if we are laughing at God would be thinking ‘No, that’s bad. That’s sin, that’s evil, that’s people doing bad things to each other—don’t laugh at that.”
Thomas notes that God often uses humor and sarcasm in the Bible to get people’s attention. “There’s a sense of God’s interaction with us that is funny, humorous, lighthearted, and serious,” he says, “joking around with us while, like”—Thomas puts Caleb in a headlock—“grabbing us by the neck and strangling us to foster that familiarity with him.” Thomas releases Caleb. “I think that’s really important and often missed.”
In creating the game, the duo drew inspiration from the crazy antics of the Hebrew prophets and late-night talk shows hosts like Jimmy Fallon, two examples of cultural critique that mix seriousness with satire.
“The game tries to operate in that space of ‘this is serious and deep and somber,’” says Caleb. “But getting to that somber deepness sometimes requires a smack in the back of the head.”
“I think that resonates a lot with our peers,” said Thomas. “Being able to hold something extremely serious in sort of a light-hearted sort of way.”
Caleb and Thomas don’t claim to have it all figured out. They admit there are parts of the Bible that are still difficult to them: questions about God’s agency, the contradictions between different parts of scripture, and questions of theodicy—how there could be evil in a world loved by an all-powerful God.
Eventually, I ask Caleb and Thomas what keeps them from just tossing out the Bible and all its problems altogether. They respond with characteristic sarcasm:
“Money,” says Thomas.
“Crowns in heaven,” says Caleb.
“Yeah, we’re hoping for the big diadems,” Thomas adds.
Then they get quiet. “In my heart of hearts, I’ll give the personal experience argument,” offers Caleb. “I’ve experienced God. At the end of the day when I wrestle with a particular passage of Scripture, I still have my faith and my trust in this Being who pisses me off to no end sometimes, but also loves and cares for and holds and shelters.”
Thomas agrees. “It’s not necessarily a thing you can explain,” he says. “It’s supernatural.”
PLAYERS NEED NOT be familiar with the Bible to play A Game for Good Christians, yet most fans of Caleb and Thomas’ game are a lot like the game’s inventors: younger-ish Christians with a considerable amount of biblical literacy, whose enthusiasm for exploring the Bible’s contradictions emerges out of their reverence, not disdain, for God’s word. It is unclear whether the game holds much appeal for a wider audience—Christian or otherwise—on whom these subtle strains of sincerity and levity might be lost.
At least one reviewer who describes himself as “a little on the sacrilegious side” seems to get it. Standing in front of a china cabinet covered in a white sheet, Ron Preisach offers his review of the game to YouTube viewers. Though he imagines some Christians might “get a little angry, a little pissed” when they see what’s on the cards, he cites recent polls that chart growing biblical illiteracy among Christians. He eventually recommends the game to Bible-believers because he thinks the game will be a good way “to actually get in there and actually learn these things that a lot of them just don’t know.”
“Definitely a game to get,” concludes Preisach.