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The Malpais Legate: On Christian Representation

Two Mormon missionaries were sent out into remote deserts to spread their gospel to the far-flung tribes of the region. Sometime during their missionary journey the goals changed, the missionaries lost their way, and they lost their faith. Abandoning their holy mission, they became militant, joining the tribes of the region into one great army, eventually becoming a great and powerful force that conquered any tribes that would not join them.

The great army of conquerors marched west until they came upon another nation, another force that could equal their own. The failed missionaries and their armies battled against this other nation, and failed, and in response to that failure, the missionary who had styled himself the king covered the other missionary, the second in command, in pitch, lit him on fire, and cast him into a great chasm. During this great fall, through the flames that surrounded him, the fallen missionary found the Lord once more and survived.

This is the story of the Malpais Legate from the video game Fallout: New Vegas. Joshua Graham, as the legate is also known, was introduced to players in the New Vegas DLC (downloadable content) “Honest Hearts.” We hear whispers of the legate throughout the game, as the fearsome and cruel lieutenant of the great Caesar and leader of Caesar’s Legion, an army of slaves and slavers from post-apocalyptic Arizona and Colorado. By the time we meet him, the once backslidden missionary has found Christ again, and preaches a message, as problematic as that message is, to the player character.

Graham is unique as a religious character in video-game storytelling in that he is not portrayed as an oddball or an enemy. Modern portrayals of religion in this medium have mostly shown Christians, or Christian analogues, as being insane zealots or, worse, manipulative antagonists. I’m referring here to the bad guys of Far Cry 5, a cult rife with evangelical Christian imagery. Though Graham is shown as militaristic and dangerous, his message — using citations from Psalm 137 and the Book of Joshua — is portrayed very sympathetically. He is a friend to the player character, and a rescuer of an oppressed tribe in the former Zion National Park of Utah. In short, for a Christian character in a video game, he’s actually cool.

It may seem silly and even a little unbelievable, but this character from a 13-year-old video game has helped to convert many to Christ. A quick reading of the comment sections of YouTube videos of his speeches shows the character’s effect on the mostly young men who engage with this content. The subsequent content that has been created in homage to Joshua Graham include AI voice readings of the Bible, in which the menacing character reads from 1 and 2 Peter, Revelation, and Genesis.

I encourage readers to watch this brief video and then to read the comments that follow. The comments show us the character Graham being a catalyst for young men to find or rediscover their faith. Graham’s well-written lines that “In a world filled with misery and uncertainty, it is a great comfort to know that, in the end, there is light in the darkness” or “The fire that had kept me alive was love, God’s love” have, unknown to most in the church, been a powerful evangelistic message to a group of lost young men on the web.

The point of highlighting this fictional missionary in this science fiction video game is this: compelling Christian characters make a difference.

Those of us born in the 1990s fondly remember VeggieTales, and maybe less fondly remember the Bibleman series, the fact is that Christian fiction hasn’t aged with us. We go from the solid content of VeggieTales to content of … lower quality like Fireproof. The point is, there is such a thing as good Christian fiction, it is just very hard to find. When it can be found, the results are powerful.

The culture of the church, as compelling as it is, has entirely missed much of my generation. It looks stodgy and misogynistic on one end and weak and milquetoast on the other. The Christian symbolism of the Lord of the Rings is easily missed, and the “Christian Romance” section of Barnes & Noble has packed shelves that attract few Millennial browsers. So for those lost sheep who spend their time on Reddit or Xbox, there is little chance of inadvertent interaction with powerful Christian symbolism.

Where characters like Joshua Graham are particularly helpful is that they point to something even more interesting, if one follows the rabbit of his fictional zeal and devotion, one can be led to real depth and truth. His failed execution and life of pain and spiritual discipline in a cave evokes images of Ignatius of Antioch marching stalwartly to Rome so that he may “offer himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts.” This is always the ideal end of the interaction with the content: one watches VeggieTales not for catechism taught by a tomato to be the end, but that fruitful teaching points to more fruitful teaching.

It’s clear that well-written characters like Joshua Graham can have an effect, if even half of the comments on videos about him are to be believed. Interesting, thoughtful, complicated characters who are open with their Christian religion are compelling, and meet young people where they live and play: on Xbox and PlayStation. Graham and characters like him will not be written by theologians or priests, and even if they were they would still be rife with half-truths of the faith, and less-than-perfect representation of Christians: thus is the world we live in. But they get the player thinking, and that is half the work of missions.

More vividly than the pulpit, characters like Graham imperfectly illustrate the human spirit enlivened with the Holy Spirit, and portray the wages of conviction and piety: strength of spirit, mortification of the flesh, and service to God. On the other hand, he is militant, dangerous, violent, but his failure in his faith is more understandable in the horrifying apocalyptic context he occupies.

Most of us don’t have influence over major game developers to encourage writing such characters into their games, but we should learn about these new symbols being placed in the path of our young people. This isn’t to develop programming that panders, but to understand that the media they engage can sometimes point them down the path toward Christ, if we can but encourage that movement. To quote the Malpais Legate, Joshua Graham: “Good news is our most valuable commodity.”

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