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Gathering the fruit, July 16: Pokémon GO in a tumultuous week

I was tempted to give this post a morose title like Zach Williams’s July 15 poem over at Mockingbird: “Another terrible week ends.” I was also tempted not to write. To borrow that Zach’s words: “I can’t breathe./I am mute.”

In case you’ve forgotten, this week we witnessed a great variety of events, some objectively awful, others merely unsettling or potentially positive (depending on your perspective):


  1. an attempted coup in Turkey,
  2. a horrific terrorist attack in Nice, killing more than 80 people attending Bastille Day festivities,
  3. further clashes in the United States between protesters and the police,
  4. the rise of Theresa May as prime minister of the United Kingdom,
  5. an incredibly bruising debate and vote on same-sex marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod, followed by a stunning reversal in a recount, presaging further division and conflict (see here, here, and here, for coverage and an important statement from bishops dissenting from the Synod’s decision),
  6. and the end of “Shared Conversations” on sexuality in the Church of England (see here and here, for coverage and commentary).

And then Pokémon GO emerged as a cultural phenomenon: I can’t even. (But see this review from The Guardian, which is insightful and fair about its qualities as a game.)

Throughout most of the week, I saw a whole new group of people, some of whom might normally avoid the sun’s healthful rays, venturing out onto the streets, populating parks, and nearly stumbling into innocent passersby. A few of them have even ventured into churches that have been designated as “Pokégyms.”

Naturally, church spheres are all aflutter about the potential this game has for drawing people into religious buildings or allowing the church to be relevant, with relatively little effort. What can I say for my co-religionists? We’re desperate for attention, and won’t hesitate to capitalize on the appearance of imaginary creatures on your personal screens, if it means you might think we’re cool. Here are links — some earnest, some satirical — that exhibit the array of responses in Christian (and Anglican) circles.

Honestly, I don’t really know what to make of it, though I think the Exciting Weariness take is genius.

This is a feast that recalls a miracle whereby unwitting adult players of a children’s mobile-phone game were tricked into boosting attendance stats for the Church of England. The idea quickly spread across the country — from bored office workers trying to catch a Bulbasaur being inveigled into serving a year as Churchwardens to morose tech obsessed students being appointed to all the Archdeaconries of the diocese of Carlisle — Pokemon Go represented a mission miracle unseen since the days of compulsory attendance under the Test Act. It was a miracle not without controversy, as pensioners expecting Evensong were suddenly forced to staff Pokegyms and understand that a Jigglypuff wasn’t, in fact, the name for ex-seminarians of Westcott House.

I have yet to play the game, having disabled data on my mobile phone while sojourning in the United States this summer. At the same time, I’m convinced of Pokémon GO’s entertainment value for spectators: I have already experienced a lot of hilarious or silly moments related to the game, whether people-watching in public or seeing my Facebook feed filled with clergy and ordinands (and even Stanley Hauerwas) surrounded by or catching Pokémon in various scholarly or ecclesiastical settings.

In this summer of our discontent, however, I’m feeling a little less generous in my interpretation of our latest cultural distraction (you can go to Mockingbird for a characteristically positive take). Perhaps it’s the influence of Ross Douthat, who has recently suggested that one difference between our time and the tumultuous late 1960s and 1970s is the distracted character of my generation.

Our campus protests are more “days of wounded self-righteous hypersensitivity” than days of rage. The millennial generation seems atomized but relatively well-behaved, their passions channeled into virtual realms (Twitter fights, video games, porn) rather than the streets. (“Are We Unraveling?,” The New York Times [July 9])

Given Millennial absences in some key recent votes, I’m inclined to believe him (although I’d probably be more pleased than Douthat to see more people on the streets). The world seems to be crumbling around us this summer, and a lot of us remain distracted and completely unable to summon the political will to do anything. We’re too busy catching all the Pokémon.

What is it going to take?

Some substantive links

Of course, if you’re in the mood for a little substantial reading, I have a collection of links that might interest you.

Two from Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion:

I’d commend our posts from this week, but I want to note especially that we hosted two contributions from Matthew Burdette.

In a similar vein, here is set of “38 Resources to Help Your Church Start Discussing Race Today,” identified by Missio Alliance (biretta tip: Esau McCaulley).

Meanwhile, our most popular post at Covenant this week was part of Garwood Anderson’s “Things Episcopalians Say” series. This week, he took on the popular “Jesus never …” meme (July 13).

If you need to catch up, Syndicate Theology has an excellent symposium on Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age (Princeton University Press, 2015). What drew my eye was Angie Heo’s “Secularity and Thinking about the Hermeneutics of Theological Controversies” (July 5), not least because it focused on Egypt, where people seem to take Christological controversies with some seriousness (how novel!). A quotation here:

Somewhat expectedly, few Copts are well-versed in the ins and outs of Christology, and fewer still in the histories behind each of the popes and the historical periods of imperial rule under which they reigned. … What is rather key to clerical authority is the iconological memory through which pious devotees align authors and figureheads with the foundational past. Namesakes secure patrons and virtuous associations for the public. Here, I would like to pursue Mahmood’s brief foray into the ancient literary imagination via Wessel, to consider the moral conditions for clerical critique in the present of Coptic Church authoritarianism.

The example that immediately comes to mind is that of another christological controversy, this time between two rivals in the Coptic Church: Pope Shenouda III and Matthew the Poor (Matta al-Miskin). By the mid-2000s, Pope Shenouda had already earned his spiritual moniker as “the learned one” (al-muta’allim); the shelves of all Coptic bookstores are stocked with his tracts, pamphlets, sermons. The only other theologian who introduced a glimmer of contest to Shenouda was Matthew the Poor, the late abbot of Monastery of St. Maqar in Wadi Natrun, a monastery which enjoys its own printing press that had once published his works and that of his disciples. To the extent that his writings also filled stores and libraries, his work may very well have been regarded as a spiritual and intellectual voice critical of Shenouda’s hegemony in contemporary Coptic thought. Framing his work on deification in line with Cyril of Alexandria’s legacy, Matthew the Poor introduced new strands of theological thought in continuity with the patristic literature. I mention this example because of the reaction that Matthew the Poor’s work elicited from Shenouda, who took on the very public role of censure and discipline in response, and in keeping also with the iconic function of the fifth-century church fathers.

It would be interesting to see Heo (or someone similarly inspired) apply the same kind of analysis to Western theological controversies of our day.

A task for another day, I suppose.

Dr. Zachary Guiliano is an associate editor at The Living Church and the editor of Covenant. His other posts are here.

The featured image comes via Uncyclopedia.


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