Sunday, 30 March 2008


Someone’s preoccupation with the ‘World of Warcraft’ has led us to think about fantasy and the religious consciousness. We talked about ‘Second Life’ in this post, and ‘World of Warcraft’ seems to be ‘Second Life’ with a pre-defined narrative in which the ‘user’ or game-player participates. That is, in ‘Second Life’ you make up your own ‘story’ as you go along, but in ‘World of Warcraft’ you enter into an already-made-up story. It’s as if, instead of watching ‘Star Trek’ on television, you could enter into the ‘Star Trek’ series, becoming a new character and interacting with Dr Spock in real time. Or ‘Firefly’, perhaps you could actually become the mechanic. Or, instead of watching an endless soap like ‘Dallas’ or ‘The Sopranos’, you could enter into the soap, becoming one of the main characters. From the point of view of money and entertainment, this would seem to be the wave of the future. (You read it here first.) Perhaps this is what reality television is all about, we don’t know; we’ve managed not to see any reality television.

We will ignore the fact that the ‘interior decor’ of these video games is somewhere between ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ and a bad dream.

But what about the players of such games? From the point of view of their spirituality? Let us suppose that someone watches ‘classic’ television 10 hours a day. Or is on the Internet 10 hours a day. Now such a person is not living in his or her own particular reality. He or she is living in a fantasy world. We suppose the same would be true of someone who read 10 hours a day, although in all these things much depends on what it is you are watching, surfing or reading.

Now let us suppose that a person with such a fantasy habit gets interested in religion, whatever that is. The most likely thing is that such a person will treat religion as a psychological extension of whatever it is he or she is spending his time on, all day long.

Star Trek’? Religion will be something like Dr Spock’s ears.

Firefly’? Religion will be something like the spirituality espoused in the ‘School for Courtesans’, i.e. hokey yoga.

Dallas’? Good question. ‘The Sopranos’? Even better question. Perhaps in the case of ‘Dallas’ religion will be an external morality combined with wealth-consumerism, and in the case of ‘The Sopranos’, an external ritualism, we don’t know.

World of Warcraft’? Well here’s where the fun begins because here we have a story-line that includes sorcerers. In other words, religion will probably present itself to a player of ‘World of Warcraft’ as a mythic pagan fairy tale where accomplished practitioners of religion have certain mystical powers, like the Jedi.

Now no one is on the Internet 24 hours a day, so there must be some period of time when the players of ‘World of Warcraft’ are walking around reality. But they are going to cart this idea of religion around with them.

Now let us suppose that they encounter institutional religion. They are, perhaps without realizing it, going to measure that institutional religion against the criterion of their ‘World of Warcraft’ generated ‘icon’ of religion as training whereby you develop all kinds of ‘mystical’ powers. Perhaps that is why far Eastern religions have such an appeal to these people.

Let us now look at this matter from the point of view of the Hesychastic doctrine of purification from the passions. As we are sure all our readers know, the Orthodox Christian tradition treats fantasy not as an expression of religion but as a temptation, as an impediment to genuine religious experience. All that fantasy can bring you to is delusion. Hence, from the Orthodox Christian point of view, the worlds of all these long-running television series and group-participatory Internet games are fantasy worlds that takes you further from God, even if, as in ‘World of Warcraft’, you have an avatar that is a sorcerer or even a sorcerer’s apprentice or even a monk or even a pagan priest.

This Orthodox understanding of fantasy is grounded in a deep understanding of human psychology. Fantasy is the world of images and dreams that draw their force from our passions. As we have remarked, our passions are our emotional tendencies to sin. Fantasy is the world of images and dreams provoked by our passions. Indulgence in these images and dreams stimulates the passion further. And recall that there are eight passions, not just the obvious one.

Moreover, at the risk of alienating some of our more Westernized readers, the demons are the disembodied intelligences with a hatred for God (whatever those demons say and teach) that both provoke the images and dreams by stimulating our passions and teach us false doctrine.

The danger when you are spending 10 hours a day playing a video game like ‘World of Warcraft’ is that you are going to start acting out your fantasies ‘big-time’—big-time from the point of view of your own psychological condition and evolution. This long-term acting-out of your fantasies is going to strengthen the hold the demons have on you through your passions. Put in a more humanistic way, the long-term acting out of your fantasies is going to increase the hold over you of your id impulses, to the detriment of your contact with reality.

There is a principle in Orthodox Christian psychology: if you feed your passions by indulging them, they grow; if you starve them by refusing to satisfy them, they wither (although in neither case does this happen in a day).

In the long run, acting out your fantasies in an intense, long-term way is going to put you on a downhill road to delusion. This might even manifest itself clinically. This is not something that happens over a week, but over a few years. One step leads to another and down we go.

Now the point of intersection of ‘World of Warcraft’—and we are using it as just a random example of the sort of thing we have in mind—with the Orthodox Church is the ritual in the Orthodox Church. In other words, there is a danger that someone who has a criterion of religion that is based on a mythic pagan fairy-tale fantasy will respond not to the substance of Orthodoxy but to the ritual that we have in our religion. This is not to suggest that we purge Orthodoxy of its ritual but to point out that someone who approaches Orthodoxy from the point of view of an intense fantasy life of role-playing that includes demons and sorcerers is going to have a lot of growing to do before he or she encounters true Orthodoxy.

Let us look at this matter from the point of view of how we might encounter the Cross, since today is the Feast of the Veneration of the Cross, the Third Sunday of Great Lent. From the point of view of a sterile intellectualism, we might have a theory about how the Cross has redeemed us, perhaps juridically, from sin, perhaps original sin. There is room for the intellectual, and for intellectual theology, in the Orthodox Church although the Fathers do not ever remain in a sterile intellectualism, going beyond it to the spiritual. We do not want to deny the relevance to us and to our spiritual growth of a proper intellectual understanding of our faith.

Or we might cultivate an individualistic, pietistic emotional response to the ‘sufferings of Our Lord on the Cross’ in an attempt to generate in ourselves an emotional state of reverence for the Cross. This is something that is foreign to Orthodoxy although we certainly esteem both our Lord and his sufferings on the Cross.

This is one of the reasons why the liturgical arts in Orthodoxy are never considered venues for self-expression: neither liturgical chant, if it is properly done, nor iconography is a place for us to ‘express ourselves’ as we rise to ‘higher and higher’ emotional states. The cantor is not an opera singer; the iconographer not Picasso or even Matisse. The great cantor is not someone who expresses more emotion more refinedly; the great iconographer is not someone who creates the most florid expressions of his inner life. Leave this sort of thing to Post-Renaissance Western liturgical art starting with Michelangelo. Our goal in the spiritual life is not to raise ourselves to some sort of emotional ecstasy of ‘adoration’ of the Cross and of Christ himself.

Or we might have a fantasy response to the Cross. We might conjure up a world of intrigue surrounding the Crucifixion involving various characters playing various roles. This might go way beyond whatever is warranted by the historical narrative of the Gospel. Theologically it might go way beyond whatever is warranted by the Gospel or endorsed by the Church. It is here we might adopt an occult interpretation of Christ on the Cross. In other words, having been primed by our spending all our time for several years role-playing in a fantasy world-game, we might interpret the Gospel in terms of the psychological criteria embedded in the narrative of that game. We might recast, perhaps without realizing it, the narrative of the Crucifixion as a narrative in ‘World of Warcraft’. And in the real world the closest thing to that narrative might turn out to be some sort of occult or New-Age interpretation. We are lost. Our salvation has come to a dead end. We are victims. We have succumbed to delusion.

What is the correct way to encounter the Cross?

We receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism. This ‘connects’ us to Christ. In order to be able to experience this connection consciously we have to purify ourselves from our passions, from our fantasy. This is not to adopt a sterile intellectualism, nor is it, God forbid, to adopt an attitude of exaggerated emotional response.

The Orthodox way takes us away from fantasy, including spiritual fantasy, and leads us to encounter consciously the connection we have to Christ in the Holy Spirit. Our road is through the purification of the passions in us. This is coupled with an increase in us of the virtues. Not in a formalistic, external way but ultimately as given to us by the Holy Spirit itself.

One of the virtues cultivated by the Hesychast is Eros. We have pointed out that we do not cultivate an exaggerated emotional response to Christ and that we do not remain in a sterile intellectualism. We do, however, remain in a spiritual orientation that includes an ardent love for our Lord. This ardent love—Eros—is perhaps most easily understood in the homily of St Ephraim the Syrian read during Orthros of Holy Wednesday (in some Churches, on the evening of Holy Tuesday). It is a meditation by St Ephraim on the Gospel narrative of the woman who anoints Jesus with nard before his Crucifixion, conflated by St Ephraim with the story of the woman of the city who washes his feet with her tears. That is how we should be in our relationship to our Lord.

Another way to look at Eros is to consider the icon of the ‘Man of Sorrows’. There is nothing sentimental about it. Jesus is portrayed in great strength and great suffering, very differently from the emotionally exaggerated Western renderings of Jesus in the Garden. Yet who in the Orthodox Church is not moved by this icon?

Another way to look at Eros is to consider the troparia of Holy Week, properly chanted. Who is not moved by a proper rendering of these troparia, especially if he understands what is being chanted? Who is not pierced to the heart?

But we are here far from Eros in the carnal sense, far from fantasy, far from emotional exaggeration. We are here in a state of prayer touched by our ardent love for the Lord who died for us.


  1. Perhaps you could comment on this. I definitely get your point about fantasy. Personally, I still struggle with the temptation to imagine various scenarios and discussions when I'm bored. Practicing more constant prayer is helping in this regard.

    But looking back at my life before discovering Orthodoxy, I grew up in a very anti-traditional form of Evangelicalism. Of course, like anything, we had our traditions. But the liturgy was minimalist, there was no sacramental concept, and theology was mostly in the eye of the beholder. I eventually grew dissatisfied with this void and went searching for something with more depth. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for when I started, but eventually I found Orthodoxy and have been pursuing it ever since. (I also learned plenty about right reasons and wrong reasons I had for looking in the first place.)

    In hindsight, I've seen something interesting about my earlier life. I used to be an avid reader of fantasy books. I had some pretty strong convictions about Christianity (in a certain form, at least), so I never drifted into more secular/new age based literature. I stuck to authors like J. R. R. Tolkien (Roman Catholic) and C. S. Lewis (Anglican), both of whom lived and wrote in an era that was already dying or perhaps dead (they were both students of medieval literature), when the Christian worldview had not yet completely departed from the West.

    I also enjoyed books by Stephen Lawhead, who is somewhat less well-known. He is, or at least was, an Evangelical, who took a distinct interest in ancient Celtic culture. In his books, he reconstructs Celtic Christianity in the image of his own Evangelical faith, but with a mystical edge to it that Evangelicalism normally lacks. His stories are populated with priests and monks and hermits and mystics. There is something at least marginally sacramental going on, and even relics make a positive appearance. But at the same time, there is a negative cast to the institutional Church of the period, whether Latin or Greek (some of his books deal with the Crusades, which is when the Greeks are encountered).

    In reflecting on my affinity for this literature, I can see where it fed my own fantasies, but it also seems to have expressed some longings that were perhaps not altogether bad. Looking at Lawhead's writings now, I see a man who feels something lacking in his own Evangelical religion but maintains too much bias against the "institutional" Church to allow that it was the true Church all along. At the same time, he can't admit that Evangelical Christianity was absent for so many centuries, so he reconstructs a form of it in places where he thinks he has sufficient historical latitude. (He portrays Coptic Christianity very much like he does Celtic Christianity--I suppose the idea is that no one knows enough about either one to say otherwise.) I had the same kind of bias against Roman Catholicism (and by extension, against Orthodoxy, though I knew almost nothing about it), but I seem to have had some similar longings for "something more" in my Evangelical faith. I can't say whether these books awakened this longing, or it was already there and the books merely resonated with it. I also can't point to any tangible way in which this longing led me in the end to Orthodoxy. Perhaps it only looks in hindsight like it was part of the journey.

    Now, coming back to C. S. Lewis, it seems to me even now that among Evangelicals he articulated some of the most Orthodox ideas. For instance, the notion that we create hell for ourselves when we refuse to see God's grace. I have heard that C. S. Lewis was an avid reader of patristic writings, so perhaps that had an influence on his own thinking and writing. At the time, I wouldn't have known an Orthodox idea from any other, but it may be that reading Lewis planted some seeds that sprouted only years later.

    So perhaps you could comment on whether there can be any useful function to fantasy literature. (I don't know anything about fantasy games, so I'll stay away from that issue.) Particularly, can it communicate truth or awaken a desire for something that is truly missing in a watered-down form of Christianity? I realize, of course, that even if these good things are possible, an unhealthy preoccupation with any form of entertainment is best avoided. As I say, that's something I've dealt with and am dealing with in my own life. But as I look back on how things worked together to lead me where I am now, I have to wonder.

    Catechumen Trevor

  2. We have responded to this comment in our post 'Catechumen Trevor' at:

    Orthodox Monk