“The first living creature is like a lion, having six wings, and full of eyes around and within it.”
“You behold a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns on his heads.”
“Locusts rise out of the smoke; their shape is like horses prepared for battle. On their heads are crowns of something like gold, and their faces are like the faces of men. They have hair like women’s hair, and their teeth are like lions’ teeth. They have breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings is like the sound of chariots with many horses running into battle. They have tails like scorpions, and there are stings in those tails.”
Are these horrifying creations straight from the new ‘Pathfinder’ Bestiary supplement, or from a soon-to-be-published ‘D&D Next’ Monster Manual? Maybe they’ve been spewed out by some online Random Monster Generator. Or maybe, just maybe, I stole them from a slightly older source…The fantasy creatures described above are reported almost word-for-sacred-word from the Holy Bible; more precisely, from the book of Revelation. (That’s Revelation 3:7 & 8, 12:3, and 9:7-10, respectively.) For centuries, scholars have studied and debated the vivid imagery contained in this final book of the New Testament. Attempts to dissect and decipher its hidden meanings continue to this day. The symbolism of its prophecies is at once gripping and grotesque; it’s even harder to digest, however, if you were raised to take it literally.
The Dreaded “D(&D)” Word
Let me begin this rant with (appropriately enough) a confession: I’m still a follower of the Christian faith, but my parents’ connection to said faith is a bit more intense and conservative than my own. Consequently my involvement in the dreaded world of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ was strictly prohibited for most of my youth.
I’m not the only one, either. Many of the friends in my current gaming circle got the same dictum in their devout households: Role playing games lead to detachment from reality, and most likely Satanic cults. D&D was a profane word, and we were not allowed to roll dice- at the peril of our mortal soul. Ask around the Intwischa gaming table, and RPGs were the ‘dirty little secret’ for more than one of our members, myself included.
Paging Dr. Sunderlin
Consider the case of my third-year college roommate. While I spent my evenings supporting local drinking establishments and rolling dice whenever possible, Matt stayed cloistered in our cozy dorm room. Any attempts to get him to join in the fun were usually met with the same grunted objection: “Gotta study, man.” Turns out Matt was on to something here, as he is now a licensed doctor of medicine and I am not. But I digress.
Matt is an extremely grounded guy, and the idea that I sat at a table with my friends and rolled dice to fight imaginary enemies confounded him endlessly. Even more perplexing to him was the concept that I was a person of faith and a gamer; as our upbringings were remarkably similar, he thought ‘D&D’ was a dirty word. His was not the only mind baffled by this seeming paradox.
Jesus Said What?!?
My response to him all those years ago is the same that I have to similar objections now: It’s all about context. Looking at the fantastic subject matter in my gaming books as representative of real life would seem like lunacy. Conincidentally, my honest reaction to the literal reading of Revelation at age 12 wasn’t quite lunacy; it was more like unbridled terror. When I recently received a flier in the mail, inviting me to a series of end-times lectures detailing the horrors of the coming apocalypse, I pretty much had the same reaction: “Seriously, THESE are the people who are judging me for role playing?”
The major difference is the context in which our society places these images. If my parents had raised me to believe that Greek myths were literal re-tellings of historic events, it would seem natural to me that the gods mated with mortals and I could sail to the underworld and back for the right price. Likewise, if MaMD and PaMD had raised me according to the AD&D pantheon, I would find the literal interpretation of many Bible stories pretty disturbing.
Genesis 6 describes the physical union of angels and humans, producing a weird hybrid race called nephilim. “But it’s in the Bible, so it must be true!” It goes on to describe the subsequent extermination of all life on the planet by its original creator, save for an ark’s worth (more or less). ”But it’s in the Bible, so it must be true!” There are numerous other examples: Balaam’s talking donkey, Jonah and his whale, evil talking serpents, a whole region filled with giants that blot out the sun, demonic possession, beasts rising up out of the fractured earth, vile women drunk on blood… If you were raised (as I was) to believe in the literal truth of these events, that makes for some pretty restless nights trying to reconcile the ethics or the physics behind many of these passages.
Needless to say, my discussion with Dr. Matt reached a fever pitch when I asserted that a modern day prophet who promised his followers that he would rise from the grave then invited them to eat his flesh and drink his blood would never gain a devoted following in our society. In fact, he’d probably earn the scorn, derision, and persecution attributed to Jesus by the Gospels. What people found most threatening about that message then (and now) is a literal interpretation of the words. Yet such literal interpretations still persist to this day.
Please Don’t Stone Me Yet
So you see why I opened with my initial disclaimer. I can see where this might sound offensive to faithful believers, but my point is not to attack anyone’s true belief. The point I want to stress today is the same as the point I’ve made to my room mate (and parents) for years: I’m not reading my RPG books literally.
When you’re used to accepting the fantastic as a literal truth in certain contexts, I think it’s easier to assume that others are likely to do the same. That is, my parents were concerned that I would start to believe in the literal truth of Tiamat or Strahd because my upbringing predisposed me to accept the supernatural. However, I was only allowed to accept the supernatural in a church context. In order to insulate me from the risk of accepting D&D’s supernatural world as reality, I had to be cut off from gaming altogether.
In a strange irony, I have much the same reaction to the book of Revelation (and the associated imagery above) as my parents did to my foray into fantasy role playing. It terrifies me to think of it as reality, so I choose to ignore it altogether. It’s OK to read the stories, and talk about them with your friends around the table. But God help you if take it all too literally.
Turns out, my parents and I had more in common than I thought.