My first year of college a friend walked into my dorm room and threw a book onto the top bunk where I was sitting. “Learn this,” he said, “You’re going to run it for us.”
It was a copy of The Star Wars Roleplaying Game, weighing in at over 300 pages of rules, stats, and story. It contained everything we needed to run an epic, free-wheeling game in a galaxy far, far away. Or, rather, everything I needed. As the “Gamemaster,” or GM, I was responsible for adjudicating all the rules in the book while telling a collaborative story with a group of four other players.
It’s like herding cats. It’s some of the best fun I’ve ever had. And it’s been one of the best preparations for priesthood that I could have asked for.
Why? Because most of the key relationships between ideas that a priest needs can be found there. There’s a book to be written that explores all the interconnections, but I want to highlight just one: the relationship of story and play.
I wrote a Masters thesis on the Christology of John Calvin. I like theological minutiae. But I first learned to love minutiae on the battlefields of the Star Wars universe. There is a set canon alongside other books of doubtful canonicity. There are schools of tradition based on each. Is the Dark Side real? Or is it just the projection of an evil mind? In the middle of a tense scene in which a character was being tempted to fall into evil, this is the kind of debate that would break out around the table of the game I was trying to lead.
As the GM, I had my own views on the Light Side/Dark Side debate, but it was my job when the argument broke out to remind the players that they were playing the game, not adjudicating the story. The story their characters were in was a subset of the larger story. The larger story, the “theology” as it were, goes on in the background. It’s the backdrop of assumptions and habits that gives players the freedom to be involved in the story in which they found themselves, whether that was as a group of fighter pilots on an out-of-the-way planet or as a fledgling group of young Jedi along the way.
And part of my job as the GM was to teach a group of geeks just this: there’s a distinction (not a separation) between playing the game and knowing the game. Being “right” about the nature of the Dark Side was important for how the game worked, but it wasn’t the point of the game. The point of the game was doing the good they could in the Star Wars universe given the constraints that they had. The story was the necessary backdrop to their play, but it wasn’t the same as playing itself.
And I think that this same unity-in-distinction relationship of “story” and “play” holds for priests in the Christian tradition. In a very real way, we are guiding a group of Christians through the play of everyday living within the context of the larger story of Christian thought and practice. We often have to remind people that knowing the right thing is not the same as doing it, and we have to do that without denigrating the importance of the larger story. It is, after all, the air we breathe, the ground we walk on, and the end we reach, each in the context of our stories, each played, day-to-day, in the light of Christ.