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Last Month, CPT Today Editor, Amy McLaughlin-Sheasby, reached out to Nikki Young to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on her work as a minister in Boston. Nikki just completed her second year in the Practical Theology PhD program at Boston University School of Theology, and also serves in ministry at Union Church.
Amy: You are a PhD student in Practical Theology, but you are also a minister at a local congregation, so we are grateful for the opportunity to hear your unique perspective on ministry during this time of crisis. Could you begin by telling us about your church?
Nikki: Sure. Union is a vibrant faith community in the South End of Boston, that for over two-hundred years has remained committed to justice and liberation. Union is the first historically black United Methodist Church to become reconciling, which happened in the year 2000. The congregation itself emerged out of the struggles of slavery, and has developed and grown over time to be a really strong advocate, particularly in the South End, but also in the Greater Boston area as well. Union is a strong community of dedicated people, who worship in a building that now sits in a gentrified area of Boston, so we find ourselves in a place where our very DNA is multicultural, and incredibly diverse. So, while we stand in this African-American tradition of worship, we are now in a position where this history and tradition informs the way we think about intersectional justice. It’s really important to us, especially as United Methodists at this time. We are deeply committed to sharing stories, hearing stories, and developing new liberative narratives that actually serve as a witness, not only to our denomination, but the world.
Amy: When did you first get involved, and what is your current role?
Nikki: I first became involved at Union as a seminary student in my master’s program. Someone who is currently on the ministerial staff was in my orientation group at the School of Theology, and invited me to attend. So, I started worshiping for a year, did contextual education for the following year, and then was hired on staff shortly after. Now I serve as the Assistant Pastor at Union where I work with our lead pastor, Rev. Dr. Jay Williams, who is an elder in the United Methodist Church.
Amy: One of the reasons I reached out to you for this interview is because I follow your work closely as a friend and colleague, and I have seen you share on social media about how Union is adapting to COVID-19. How would you describe Union’s response to the pandemic, and how has the pandemic impacted your ministry?
Nikki: There’s a phrase that the saints used to say: “We’re gonna love everybody and we’re gonna treat everybody right.” I would say that has been our starting point for all of the ways in which we read scripture, do worship, engage in mission, etc. And I’m saying this particularly aware that the earliest phases of reopening Boston have involved reopening churches. I’m also aware that there have been faith leaders and colleagues here in Boston who have advocated for that to happen. At Union, we understand that people are vulnerable and that we have a responsibility to one another first and foremost, not just as Christians, but as human persons. So for us, it has been incredibly important to think about how we want to adapt in ways that keep people safe while also cultivating a spirit of worship in a new way.
Our plan, first and foremost, is to keep our people safe. We are not interested in returning to “business-as-usual” if it means putting those most vulnerable at risk. Instead, we have begun exploring even more ways to get folx the resources they need to stay healthy, safe, and connected. For us it’s an act of faithfulness to stay closed. We have, and will continue to meet for worship on Zoom for as long as we feel we need to.
Amy: What have you observed about your congregation over the last couple of months as you all have adapted your worship practices, and embraced virtual platforms?
Nikki: One thing that I have observed is the way this situation deeply illuminates that the church is far more than a building. I have also observed how congregants and leaders at Union, whose gifts have not regularly been put to use in church services in the past, are now stepping up and showing out in amazing ways. We have a great team, which includes some people who have been in leadership at Union for years and years, and some who have stepped up to leadership in the last month or two, who see the ways in which technology facilitates meaning-making, purpose, and belonging. This team is working day in and day out to develop elements of the service that are very much in line with Union’s mission and identity. I have also observed that we are learning to adapt wherever we need to adapt. Our songs are not as long. Our sermons sound and look different when we are sitting in front of cameras. But interestingly enough, all the adaptations have revealed new opportunities to lean into our mission. We have far more people attending our online services now than had been gathering in person. It has been teaching us that when we go back to normal life, we are not going to be able to be church the same way as before, because we have seen how doing church online is opening up access to our mission in ways that meeting in person has not.
Amy: It sounds like your core mission at Union has remained consistent, and has largely guided your reactions to the pandemic. But even as you maintain your core mission, has your ecclesiology or understanding of ministry changed or transformed in some way?
Nikki: I think this crisis has served as a catalyst for things that we had already been envisioning. We have had an opportunity over the last several weeks to move in the direction we felt like God was inviting us into. We are under an immense amount of pressure where creativity has to happen, and where we are released for a brief time from all of the mundane, every-day, business-as-usual things that usually take up our time. As a result, we have begun to develop an interconnected web of relationships that are helping to sustain people throughout the week. We are asking questions like, what does it mean to gather in worship? How do we make sure people don’t feel isolated? How do we make sure that not only spiritual needs, but also basic needs are being met? And how do we hold one another accountable? More than ever, this has helped to reaffirm the notion that we are beholden to one another, not only as an act of faithfulness, but as an act of justice, to create actual systems of connection between people.
Amy: Has there been a moment or a distinct interaction that made you think, even in the midst of everything going on, “Yes—this is who the church is called to be in this moment, for this community”?
Nikki: Yes. Two things come to mind. The first is a very practical, on-the-ground, missional aspect, which is that we have people working in our food pantry, still. Some of our members feel it is so important to be in this food pantry, that they continue to show up to do this work. Our volunteers are quite literally just out grinding every week, making sure people get fed. And this was never questioned, or up for debate. The only question they asked was simply, “Now that we are here, how can we adapt this ministry that we already have so that we are reaching the most amount of people?”
I’m also reminded of Mother’s Day Sunday, which landed on the Sunday just after Ahmaud Arbery’s video came out. It was in the news, there were hashtags, and for our community in particular, it hits not just close to home, but in the body. It became deeply important to tap into our traditions, to look to womanist theology, to listen to music that came from the saints before us, to communally lament on a day when we typically celebrate mothers. All of these activities became important sources of meaning-making, lamenting, and hope-building in the midst of absolute destruction. During the Mother’s Day service, you could see people weeping in their video windows on Zoom. I think it really touched people.
It occurs to me that there is a myth circulating out in the world that church online is somehow less church—like it’s the faux church that we have to do until we can get back to doing real church. But at the end of the day, it is still real human persons connecting to one another. We have to build hope, even as we are socially isolated.
Amy: When we originally scheduled this interview, I had expected to primarily address the impact of COVID-19, but now our nation has catapulted into some important acts of consciousness-raising concerning racism, white supremacy, and police brutality. Given Union’s longstanding dedication to justice in Boston and the broader world, would you like to speak to the present moment? How are you thinking about Union’s dedication to justice, even as we continue to endure this pandemic?
Nikki: On Pentecost Sunday, the Feast of Breath, we opened with a litany of lament. The gospel we proclaim is inextricably bound to a brown, Palestinian-born man who was terrorized and killed by the State. That the world watched as he breathed his last, that some shrugged at this while others wept, and that this Divine made flesh was not so easily loved by the world—we understand this because so many live it. I think, especially as a white pastor situated in a church like Union, the work is not just in condemning police brutality and white supremacy, it is in uprooting the long-lasting Christian theological strongholds that have always been inextricably bound to oppression. Because the Church cannot breathe with the weight of white supremacy on its neck.
Amy: Amen. May you all continue to find ways to live out your mission in this present moment. Thank you for taking the time to share with us at CPT Today.
Congratulations Dr. Courtney Goto!
The Metcalf Cup and Prize is the highest teaching honor at Boston University. Dr. Goto was nominated by students and vetted by a University team in an extensive process. We are so happy to celebrate alongside Dr. Goto and the rest of the BU STH community.
Read more about the Metcalf Award and ceremony, here.
Read Dr. Goto's profile in BU Today, here.
Congratulations to the 2020 Practical Theology PhD graduates!
Dr. Kathryn House: The Afterlife of Evangelical Purity Culture: Wounds, Legacies, and Impact
Dr. Timothy Snyder: Modern Work and Meaning: Towards a Lived Theology of Work
Dominic J.S. Mejia, MDiv Candidate at the BU School of Theology, recently reviewed Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler. Find the full review below.
Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 248 pages. $25.00.
Faith and Video Games: A Brief Survey and Response
Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God edited by Craig Detweiler – This volume, written in 2010, is a compilation of standalone essays that seeks to introduce theology as a methodology by which video games might be assessed. The first of three parts offers different approaches to studying video games through the lenses of storytelling (narratology) and/or game design (ludology). The second section is composed of interviews with game designers and reflections by players regarding their experiences of video games. The third section offers meditations on personhood, community, and imagination in light of the digital worlds that gamers inhabit. Detwiler concludes the volume with the corniest chapter I have ever read. All but one of the chapters focus on Christian theologies of video games, with the exception being a fascinating look at “Islamogaming,” which explores the ways Muslims use a medium that often objectifies them to subvert expectations and offer alternative messaging.
Of Games & God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games by Kevin Schut– Kevin Schut opens his book stating that he is seeking to help Christian communities develop “a balanced approach to computer and video games.” He sticks to this commitment throughout his book, weighing the dangers of gaming (the glorification of violence, the potential for addiction) with the gifts gaming offers (alternative realities to be explored, tools for education, foundations for community). Ultimately, he argues for robust Christian criticism that pays attention to the context of a game, draws on different critical perspectives, uses scripture and Christian traditions as a means of evaluation, and does not view games as essentially good or bad. Throughout, Schut remains committed to an evangelical understanding of the Christian faith, seeking to discern how video games, and the community around them, might serve as foundations or media for evangelism. At the same time, he decries Christian cultural insulation, whereby Christians produce material for Christians to avoid engaging with outside cultural materials.
God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit by Liel Leibovitz – The subtitle of this book is a misnomer. Rather than seeking to show how playing video games might be a spiritual practice, Leibovitz instead suggests that video games are more like spiritual practices than they are like other forms of media. He writes, “Religion, then, is exacting but modular, rule-based but tolerant of deviation, moved by metaphysical yearnings but governed by intricate, earthly designs. Religion is a game.” He attempts to make his argument first by looking at how game design sets the parameters for engagement, then by describing what embodied persons do when they play video games, then by exploring the nature of “cheating” in single-player videogames, before ending with the fairly bold claim that video games are the ideal means by which people might experience timelessness, and are thus similar to religious experiences.
Halos and Avatars – The essays found in this volume highlight several different loci to take into account when constructing theological considerations of video games. Throughout the book, authors take different approaches, either privileging the narrative of a game (narratology) or the design of a game (ludology) as their primary grounds for interpretation. For example, “Wii are Inspirited,” looks at what the Nintendo Wii console, by its design, says about humanity’s embodied nature; whereas “From Tekken to Kill Bill: The Future of Narrative Storytelling” focuses on how the narrative style of video games, namely, the structure of video game levels, might influence filmmaking. If one takes a narratological methodology for interpreting a game, especially for the sake of doing theology, one is likely to be disappointed. As Chris Hansen writes, “Perhaps the surface pleasures of gaming can only reduce the complexities of film.” Video games are not primarily a narrative medium, though narrative plays a crucial role. The essays that take a ludological approach tend to raise many more interesting questions. For example, Jason Shim explores the intricacies of a virtual wedding afforded by the design of the game Second Life, and the questions of identity and embodiment raised by these phenomena. Video games are not films, just as films are not novels. To treat them as such is to fail to recognize the unique manner in which Gospel might emerge in the medium.
Of Games & God – Schut’s primary project begins with the Christian person. What does it mean for a Christian to play and make video games? In this regard, Schut’s work is consistently concerned with ethics. This work begins by considering the many facets of video games. He argues that video games communicate through signs (visual, aural, spoken), narrative, and game design, are filled with interactive and systematic information, and mean nothing without a player. Schut places the onus for responsible engagement with video games on the player. In a chapter based on interviews with several Christian video game developers, Schut speaks a warning against reducing the church to a marketing demographic. While all video games are not created equal, and the narrative or design of some games, particularly when it comes to violence, addictive design, or over-sexualization of women, should be cautioned against, Schut suggests that it is the faithful who bring faith into a game through how they interact with the medium. In this regard, for Schut, the way for a Christian to critically engage with a game is to look at that which emerges in the dialogue between the game and the player.
God in the Machine – Leibovitz takes video games deadly seriously. He writes, “What’s truly frightening about the question is that playing video games—like kneeling in prayer or making love or running a race or listening to music or any other heavily sensual and deeply emotional undertaking—is an experience that does not readily lend itself to description.” Similar to Schut, Leibovitz finds the meaning of video games in the experience of the player – although he is interested more in what the player experiences in the state of play, whereas Schut was concerned with what it means for Christians to play video games. Leibovitz states that video games are code, not art, which limits the possibilities found in video games. As such, it is the experience of playing video games which is crucial to understand them, as video games in and of themselves cannot “mean” anything more than they are programmed to. Unlike Schut, however, Leibovitz is not concerned with the external goods of games, such as discerning meaning or finding community through playing. Rather, the value of video games is that they are a means of wasting time in a modern context that emphasizes productivity over all else. In this regard, playing video games might be similar to religious practice, in that spiritual disciplines are not necessarily concerned with a result, but are valuable in and of themselves – as playing video games (when not done professionally) does not produce much.
Halos and Avatars – It is with confidence, having now completed my course work for my Master of Divinity degree, that I can say Craig Detwiler offers the most cringeworthy paragraph regarding theology and pop culture that I have ever read. He writes,
Jesus dropped into the game of our world with both remarkable (even divine) skills and crippling limitations (of humanity). He explored many corners of his Middle Eastern ‘island.’ Among his contemporaries, he made both friends and enemies. A tightly knit, dedicated community arose around him. Jesus and his clan experienced plenty of grief from aggressive and uncooperative rivals. He was eventually fragged during a deathmatch on an unexpected field of battle. He submitted to the rules of engagement, even while resisting them, proposing an alternative way to play. After three days, Jesus respawned, took his place as Administrator, and redefined the way the game is played.
Detwiler’s quote represents the worst of the volume. It is a cheap one-to-one mapping of a Christian message over video games through an arbitrary and inappropriate cooption of gamer lingo. It is simultaneously insulting to people who play video games and crassly trivializing of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Not to mention ableist or generally misanthropic, depending how one takes “crippling limitations (of humanity).” The worst essays in the volume fail to understand that video games are fundamentally different from other forms of expression, as Detwiler fails to engage theology with video games and vice versa.
At its best, Halos and Avatars offers thoughtful reflections on different aspects of and potential in games. Mark Hayse explores how Ultima IV allows the player to explore and discover a world where the moral rules are unclear yet impact each aspect of gameplay, offering an interesting playground for reflecting upon real-world ethical systems. Kevin Newgren combines narratology and ludology to show how BioShock, through gameplay fixed within a robust narrative, might challenge both Randian objectivism and raise questions about the extent to which the protagonist, and therefore the gamer, can act with free will. Rachel Wagner explores different games that represent Christ to show how games do not lend themselves to fixed narratives and therefore can be offensive when portraying sacred stories. It is theologically complicated to actively interact with and potentially change sacred narratives. These robust essays engage the medium in general, as well as particular games, with thoughtfulness and consideration of what makes games unique; exploring the pitfalls of video game interactivity, showing how narrative and game design are interwoven in the most theologically generative games, and highlighting that interactivity and exploration are the fundamental frames through which theological consideration of games might take place.
Of Games and God – Schut succeeds in his task of offering a balanced approach to video games from an evangelical Christian perspective. His most interesting work is in his careful attending to how Christianity specifically, and religion and general, can be cheapened and mechanized through the creation and marketing of interactive media. While responding to concerns that video games promote the demonic and anti-Christian, Schut sneaks in a critique that video games often reduce religion to a character statistic, a faction, or a power, thus making faith a means to an end, as opposed to a way of life valuable in and of itself. This is not restricted to non-Christian games, as the author highlights how the game Left Behind: Eternal Forces makes use of a “spirit level” which determines if a character is in the “Christian Tribulation Forces” or in the antichrist “Global Community.” There are many theological issues with that particular game that they barely warrant mention. To get the ball rolling, Left Behind reduces evangelism to a function, tacitly encourages Christians to kill their enemies, and reduces God to some kind of magical ally that helps in human war; all of which reflect a narrow and harmful eschatological understanding
Fundamentally, Schut successfully troubles the categories of “Christian” and “non-Christian” in video games. So-called Christian games can be reductive and insulting to the Christian faith; so-called secular games can be deeply theologically generative for Christians. More than striking a balance, Schut offers different criteria of evaluation more meaningful than the marketing and symbology of a particular game. Video games offer opportunities for players to encounter God in new venues, explore their ethics and how they play out in a digital world, and connect with other players. The content of the game must be weighed against the value of these characteristics, and how the act of play engages these characteristics, in any title. Instead of asking if a game is marketed to Christians, one should ask if a game is theologically and faithfully generative when engaged with by Christians.
God in the Machine – Ultimately, Leibovitz’s book is not worth the read. He cites figures such as Maimonides, Descartes, Hegel, Augustine, Aristotle, and others from the pantheon of great (male) Western philosophers to say little more than video games are made of code, wasting time is okay in a modern context, people’s bodies respond to video games, cheating in single-player games is okay because the developers put the cheats in, players feel empathy for the characters they control, video games have stories with characters, and video games are composed of a series of events; all of which could have been stated in an article, or simply didn’t need to be said. He hides the pointlessness of his work behind technical philosophical jargon and overdramatization of the “work” of playing videogames.
This emptiness is revealed through his assumption that all religious practices are the same (they’re not) and by a methodology for assessing video games that was based on his taste in video games, and not in through a broader study of different forms of games. His favorite games tended to be linear, single-player adventure games and arcade games, thus limiting the scope of what he could say about games in general. I agree with Robert Geraci, who writes of this text, “Ultimately, the book ignores scholarly work on games and on religion, investigates only a very few games, offers little empirical evidence, and never defines key issues, such as ‘spiritual pursuit’ or the religious ramifications of gaming.” I hoped God in the Machine would eventually make a point more profound than what can be gleaned by my playing of games on a Friday night. Instead, I found a text that is simultaneously too jargon-y to be approachable and too theoretically milquetoast to be meaningful.
As revealed through all three texts, either by their success or their failure to engage theologically with video games, the foundation for the assessment of video games is found in the playing of them. Sports games such as Madden NFL play entirely different than first-person shooters such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or open-ended adventure games such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. More than simply being different genres of games, swapping one set of aesthetic principles for another, different games have different goals and means of engaging that demand different postures of reflection. Perhaps the locus for theological engagement in Call of Duty will be related to the ethics of Christians killing digital figures, whereas Legend of Zelda might prompt exploration of the in-game religion that emerges as the player encounters the world. The reason for playing – either to score the most points, or to defeat an international terrorist organization, or to be the last surviving player, or to triumph over ancient evil – shifts the meaning of the act of playing.
This said, I propose three theological loci for engaging with video games, gleaned from the texts that I read for this project. The first is theological anthropology. This foundation asks the question, “what does it mean that we play like this?” This form of inquiry is found in Kallaway’s essay on embodied play through the Nintendo Wii, which he uses to speak against disembodied Neoplatonism in the Christian tradition. This is also highlighted in Schut’s and Leibovitz’s work, who highlight the importance of the embodied experiences of the player as they engage with a game. Detwiler, Leibovitz, and Schut all draw on the work of Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga to suggest that people, on some basic level, are created to play. A theological anthropological approach to video games seeks an inductive understanding of what it says about people, and therefore God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of creation, that we are inclined to play. I’m reminded of Psalm 104:24-26, which suggests God desires for creation to play.  Furthermore, if one agrees with Barth that human nature is perfected in Christ, and agrees that it is human nature to play, one could argue that play is an aspect of the Incarnate God’s nature as well. From there, one might begin to explore what it means for this person, to play this game, in this way.
The next theological locus is the ethical/imaginative. In preparing for this project, I read Hauerwas’s writing on the ethics of pacifists reading murder mysteries. While arguing why the particulars of murder mysteries make the genre helpful for Christians to read, Hauerwas offers a few theoretical points that might apply to video games: first, that “popular” media can serve as a crucial means of speaking to the “eternal yearnings of the human condition”; and, second, that even violent media might speak to the Christian belief that evil is bounded by good. The imagination is shaped, but the violence isn’t “real.” This resonates with Schut’s careful consideration of finding a balanced approach to video games, as well as several articles in Halos and Avatars that discuss how video games allow people to play with the ethical ramifications of decisions in a context that does no real harm. The player is encouraged, in other words, to explore their ethics in a game world. As Daniel White Hodge writes, “By engaging in narrative, gamers are able to experience God in an entire new dimension and are allowed to find God on their own terms within that story – not within the confines of a prepackaged salvation formula.” Might some games lead to misshapen ethical imaginations? Yes. That is why careful critical assessment is necessary. But no genre of video game should be dismissed without consideration.
A final theological consideration is to name the possibility that God might be encountered within a digital landscape. To paraphrase John 3:8, the Spirit blows where she will. Video games might be a means of grace. In times of social isolation, video games are a reprieve from our one-bedroom apartments and offer worlds to explore. For some who are grieving, video games provide a way to externalize and process the pain, as well as serve as tools for the training of caregivers. For others, some games are simply so beautifully constructed, so joyful, so narratively compelling, that the player might experience a moment of transcendence. Truth, goodness, and beauty are encountered differently when the subject can interact and engage with the components that manifest them. Sure, they’re games. But games matter.
Auxier, John W. “That Dragon, Cancer Goes to Seminary: Using a Serious Video Game in Pastoral Training.” Christian Education Journal 15, no. 1 (2018).
Barth, Karl. “Barth: Christ and Adam.” In Readings in Christian Theology, edited by Peter Crafts Hodgson and Robert Harlen King, 157–61. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Callaway, Kutter. “Wii Are Inspirited: The Transformation of Home Video Consoles (and Us).” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 75–90. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Campbell, Heidi. “Islamogaming: Digital Dignity via Alternative Storytelling.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 63–74. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Detweiler, Craig, ed. Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Geraci, Robert M. “God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit. By Liel Leibovitz. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2013. Pp. Xii +144. Cloth $19.95; Paper, $10.47.” Religious Studies Review 42, no. 2 (2016): 100–101.
Hansen, Chris. “From Tekken to Kill Bill: The Future of Narrativve Storytelling” Focuses on How the Narrative Style of Video Games Migh Influence Filmmaking.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 149–62. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Hauerwas, Stanley. “McInerny Did It: Or, Should a Pacifist Read Murder Mysteries?” In A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism. Democracy. And Postmodernity, 201–10. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2001.
Hayse, Mark. “Ultima IV: Simulating the Religious Quest.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 34–46. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Humanitas, Beacon Reprints in Humanities. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
Leibovitz, Liel. God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit. West Conshohocken, Pa.: Templeton Press, 2014.
McAlpine, Andrew. “Poets, Posers, and Guitar Heroes.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 121–34. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Newgren, Kevin. “BioShock to the System.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 135–45. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Schut, Kevin. Of Games and God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2013.
Shim, Jason. “’Til Disconnection Do We Part: The Initation and Wedding Rite in Second Life.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 19–33. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Suderman, Peter. “Opinion | It’s a Perfect Time to Play Video Games. And You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About It.” The New York Times, March 23, 2020, sec. Opinion. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/opinion/video-games-covid-distancing.html.
Wagner, Rachel. “The Play Is the Thing.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 47–62. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
White Hodge, Daniel. “Role Playing: Toward a Theology of Gamers.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 163–75. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
 Craig Detweiler, ed., Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
 Ibid., 9
 Ibid., 20-22.
 Heidi Campbell, “Islamogaming: Digital Dignity via Alternative Storytelling,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 63–74.
 Kevin Schut, Of Games and God. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2013).
 Schut., 2.
 Ibid., 51-108.
 Ibid., 29-50, 109-170.
 Ibid., 176-177.
 Ibid., 127-169.
 Ibid., 168.
 Liel Leibovitz, God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit. (West Conshohocken, Pa. : Templeton Press, 2014).
 Ibid., Kindle location 62-63
 Leibovitz., location 75.
 Chris Hansen, “From Tekken to Kill Bill: The Future of Narrativve Storytelling” Focuses on How the Narrative Style of Video Games Migh Influence Filmmaking,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 19–33; Kutter Callaway, “Wii Are Inspirited: The Transformation of Home Video Consoles (and Us),” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 75–90.
 Hansen, 28.
 Jason Shim, “’Til Disconnection Do We Part: The Initation and Wedding Rite in Second Life,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 149–62.
 Schut, 27-28.
 Ibid., 140-141.
 Leibovitz, Location 533.
 Ibid., Location 133.
 Ibid., Location 453.
 Detwiler, 196.
 Examples: Hansen, “From Tekken to Kill Bill: The Future of Narrative Storytelling." Hansen decries the influence of video games on film, nameley, the Tekken series on Kill Bill, by arguing that video games are not narratively robust; Andrew McAlpine, “Poets, Posers, and Guitar Heroes,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 121–34. McAlpine argues that Guitar Hero is bad because people aren’t making real music. Both misunderstand the nature of video games.
 Mark Hayse, “Ultima IV: Simulating the Religious Quest,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 34–46.
 Kevin Newgren, “BioShock to the System,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 135–45.
 Rachel Wagner, “The Play Is the Thing,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 47–62. This in itself raises interesting theological questions. Would the life, death, and resurrection of Christ remain salvific if things played out differently? I would argue that the Gospel would have still made salvation.
 Schut, 34-40.
 Ibid., 39-40.
 To start, the reduction of evangelism to a function, the problematic nature of having Christians kill their enemies, as well as a particular, narrow eschatological understanding.
 See Schut, 140-141.
 An example: “The game did me violence: it forced me to bend my hands and twist my fingers and strain my wrist in an effort to achieve the correct grip on the controller, and it subjected me to a stream of perpetual virtual battles, each causing me to tense my shoulders, arch my back, and furiously flick my thumbs. But the longer this violence occurred, the more ready I was to reenter the world of the game—this time, however, armed with new ways of being.” Leibovitz, 1121-1125.
 Robert M. Geraci, “God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit. By Liel Leibovitz,” Religious Studies Review 42, no. 2 (2016): 100–101.
 Callaway, “Wii Are Inspirited: The Transformation of Home Video Consoles (and Us).”
 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).
 “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to play in it.”
 Karl Barth, “Barth: Christ and Adam,” in Readings in Christian Theology, ed. Peter Crafts Hodgson and Robert Harlen King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 157–61.
 Stanley Hauerwas, “McInerny Did It: Or, Should a Pacifist Read Murder Mysteries?,” in A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism. Democracy. And Postmodernity (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Brazos Pres, 2001), 201–10.
 Ibid., 202 and 207, respectively.
 Daniel White Hodge, “Role Playing: Toward a Theology of Gamers,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 165.
 Peter Suderman, “Opinion | It’s a Perfect Time to Play Video Games. And You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About It.,” The New York Times, March 23, 2020, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/opinion/video-games-covid-distancing.html.
 John W. Auxier, “That Dragon, Cancer Goes to Seminary: Using a Serious Video Game in Pastoral Training ,” Christian Education Journal 15, no. 1 (2018).
The Center for Practical Theology offers our congratulations to PhD student, Scott Donahue-Martens, who was recently honored as the recipient of The Massachusetts Bible Society's 2020 Donald A. Wells Preaching Prize! Donahue-Martens is the third winner from Boston University School of Theology in the last eight years of the competition.
Those who are interested may find his award-winning sermon, "Of Pandemics and Paracletes," at the link below.
By Jasmin Figueroa, PhD Student in Practical Theology
For the past three years, curious family members, friends, first dates, and prospective students have all asked me variations of the question, “so what do practical theologians actually do?” This shift in conversation has always given me pause, as my analytical brain takes over while I strategize internally over how to respond.While I’ve since learned that it is okay to take a minute to ask clarifying questions, the dozens of conversations that I’ve had about this topic have revealed that lots of people have strong underlying assumptions about what practical theology is and who is allowed to do it. One such belief is that because of my education and training, I have a certain amount of authority to stake theological claims. Another is that practical theology is done only through academic methods, mainly publishing and preaching. While both of these things are true, I cannot help but notice what is implied here: I have the authority to do this important work…and they don’t. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I was not consciously aware of this dynamic until it played out in real life. Over the past few years, without even realizing it, my weekly phone calls with my mom started to follow a pattern. We would start with lighter topics, but would somehow always incorporate theological concepts into the conversation. One week she asked my opinion of Kanye West’s gospel album (she was a fan! She “had googled the lyrics and everything!”) and that led to a conversation about evangelical culture and consumerism. Another time, we commiserated over how the messages about dating that we received as a teenager and recently re-converted divorcée, respectively, didn’t hold up in the face of our lived experiences. Sometimes, she would share what she learned about her coworkers’ cultural backgrounds and how they would encourage, aggravate, confuse, and show up for one another in their own ways. I would offer connections based on what I was learning in school, and before we knew it, we would spend hours teasing apart different scenarios. Although we rarely used theological jargon or name dropped famous thinkers, our conversations would parallel those I’ve had in classrooms and in the community room. Lately, I’ve taken to ending our talks by remarking how she’s my favorite theologian and conversation partner and I wish all precepts could operate with such curiosity and unselfconsciousness. She would laugh softly and go quiet, but I can tell that although she doesn’t quite think of herself as a theologian, she recognizes that what she’s said has been valuable. I don’t push it, but I can relate.
While I am not unaware that my training and placement in the guild does afford me a platform to do a particular kind of practical theological work and lends me more legitimacy (especially in my mom’s eyes), I’m serious when I say that my mom is a practical theologian in her own right. “For Latin@ theologians, there are no insurmountable boundaries between academic scholars and grassroots communities of faith,” writes constructive theologian Loida Martell. She cites Latina evangélica theology, an “abuelita theology,” as an example of this.While she and her co-authors, also trained Puerto Rican women theologians, only recently wrote the book surveying the faith of their foremothers, for Martell, “evangélica theology” simply puts a label on describing what has surrounded them their entire lives. It is a rich faith that centers the lived experiences of people, mainly Latinas, on the margins of society, empowering them to live according to their God-given authority to reject interpretations of scripture that would otherwise support their dehumanization. It emphasizes theological reflection done in community, embraces liberative interpretations of scripture and embodied and experiential forms of wisdom as tools of discernment that are given by the Holy Spirit, and acknowledges its history of ecumenism as an asset in the face of colonization. In short, it is what I grew up with even before I entered formal theological education. It is the praxis of my ancestors, cousins, church ladies, and mom. In short, it ispractical theology.
While my mom laughs and rolls her eyes when I call her a theologian—often while wildly reacting to some profound point that she’s made-- I do not actually believe that we are doing much different work from one another. Although, yes, she tends to play up my education as a source of pride, I cannot help but play up hers (learned in the “school of hard knocks,” as she’d say) as equally valuable. Whether she realizes it or not, in our conversations, she is staking important claims, reconciling biblical and theological interpretations with her own lived experiences, and asking important questions. And I wouldn’t be half the theologian that I am without her example.
Martell, Loida I., Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, and Zaida Maldonado Pérez. Latina Evangélicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Dr. Montague Williams (STH PhD in Practical Theology, 2018), was presented with the Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Wesleyan Theological Society at its annual meeting on March 7, 2020. This award is given to the individual whose doctoral dissertation is deemed an outstanding scholarly contribution to a research area related to the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition. The Wesleyan Theological Society grants this award periodically to recognize scholarship that contributes to concerns and issues that it deems are of great importance. Dr. Williams’ dissertation is entitled "Youth Ministry and Race: A Practical Theological Analysis."
Congratulations Dr. Williams!
Issue 14: Exclusion, Belonging, and Becoming in Religious Communities
Call for Submissions: practicalmattersjournal.org/submissions
Deadline: October 1, 2020
Many religious traditions uphold values of justice, community, and belonging, yet many also occupy ambivalent positions vis-à-vis systems and acts of exclusionary violence. Sometimes religion is the target and other times the perpetrator. The study of religious practices has much to offer to conversations on the complex entanglement of religion and exclusion. Similarly, studying religious practices can help us understand how religious communities nurture belonging and work toward personal and collective becoming in more capacious ways. In this issue, we engage critical analysis of the role of exclusionary violence both within and against various religious communities. We also seek dialogue about how communities respond to and resist exclusion with creative processes of becoming and transformation.
Practical Matters is now accepting submissions on religious practices and practical theology for Issue 14. The journal will feature articles on the theme of “Exclusion, Belonging, and Becoming in Religious Communities.” Potential topics may include but are not limited to
- The role of religion in forms of cultural, structural, direct, and epistemic violence
- The response of religious institutions to global crises (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic, the refugee crisis, the ongoing impact of colonialism, climate change, the prison-industrial complex, etc.)
- Cultivating a community of belonging in the context of COVID-19 and social distancing
- Religious practices created or practiced by marginalized individuals and communities
- Religion as a resource for resistance and social justice struggles
- How religious identity generates political stance and action
- Spirituality as a source of identity formation and development
- Understanding exclusion, belonging, and becoming in religious texts and practices
- The politics and practices of interfaith coalition-building and action
- Multiple-religious belonging and becoming across religious divides and boundaries
- Theological responses to specific forms of exclusions and belongings
- LGBTQ issues, identity politics, and religious institutions
- Religion’s undergirding of, and/or resistance to, white supremacy and coloniality
- The function of power and authority in religious communities
- The experience of symbolic and physical exclusion, as well as belonging
In all submissions, we are particularly interested in works that perform what they analyze—i.e. compelling use of theories, methods, and conversations that help flesh-out meta-commentary. We invite contributions on and from any religious or spiritual tradition as well as from any theoretical position or discipline. The journal includes both peer-reviewed articles (Features and Analyzing Matters) as well as non-peer reviewed content that presents the thoughtful reflections of teachers and practitioners (Practicing Matters and Teaching Matters). Practical Matters accepts submissions that incorporate a variety of media and genres.
Submissions are accepted and published on a rolling basis throughout the year. For more information, see http://practicalmattersjounral.org/submissions or contact the issue editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions must be received by October 1, 2020 for consideration in Issue 14: Exclusion, Belonging, and Becoming in Religious Communities.
A Note from the Editor: Upon careful deliberation, we have decided to continue to share CPT Today content in the coming months, as we work remotely from our homes. While we have needed to postpone some of our scheduled content, we hope to continue to highlight the work of theologians and practitioners as we face this time of great uncertainty. The following piece features updates from Creative Callings, and shares a report about an event which took place prior to the mass outbreak of Coronavirus in the United States.
On February 1, 2020, twelve congregational teams with the Creative Calling’s Innovation Hub gathered in the BU School of Theology’s Community Center to continue to explore the images of calling enlivening their congregations and to support one another in implementing creative programing around calling and the arts, restorative justice, resourcing communities, and discernment/discipleship. Each congregation team is in their first year of grant funding through the Creative Callings project, and the Creative Callings leadership team is excited to learn alongside these congregations during this program year and beyond.
Creative Callings Project Director, Dr. Claire Wolfteich, and Associate Project Director, Dr. Wanda Stahl began the morning with a presentation on “Lived Theologies of Vocation.” Through exploring images already present in the twelve congregation with this presentation, teams members shared strategies for centering joy in their work, capacity building, and teambuilding.
In the afternoon, the team members broke into small groups to discuss important challenges in project implementation, such as the role of clergy/lay leadership, congregational conflict, rest and joy, and linguistic challenges. Through culling the wisdom of the group, the teams were able to help each other think more expansively and to develop relationships across congregations.
BU STH MDiv student Cate Nelson provided interactive scribing throughout the day and we hope you enjoy the glimpse into our day through her notes, which are below.
One of the defining features of the field of practical theology is its commitment to interdisciplinary methods of inquiry. While practical theologians do not always agree upon the nature of interdisciplinary research, or the viability of certain interdisciplinary paradigms, most practical theologians do affirm the importance of interdisciplinary dialogue. This semester, first and second year PhD students in Practical Theology at the School of Theology received the opportunity to take a course called Interdisciplinary Methods instead of the usual required course, Advanced Research in Practical Theology. The course on interdisciplinary methods is taught by constructive theologian, Dr. Shelly Rambo, whose own work has featured a commitment to interdisciplinarity. The class consists of Track 3 (Practical Theology) students, as well as Track 2 (Theology, Ethics, and Philosophy) students, who work together to evaluate various methods and paradigms featured across course readings.
Last week, Amy McLaughlin-Sheasby, CPT Today Editor, sat down with current Interdisciplinary Methods student, Scott Donahue-Martens (second year PhD student in Practical Theology), to discuss how the course is shaping his work as a practical theologian.
Amy: As I understand, Interdisciplinary Methods was offered this semester instead of Advanced Research in Practical Theology. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience of the course so far, and what this course is offering to you as a practical theologian?
Scott: A lot of the readings so far are readings from disparate fields and different approaches to theology. But a lot of what we are doing is actually reading the books for their interdisciplinary approaches, rather than just for the content itself. So, in some ways, we have had to learn a new evaluative skillset, where we are not just looking for the point the author is trying to make, but how they are making their point. We ask what sources they are drawing from, whether or not they are doing it responsibly, and how they are engaging scholars in other fields.
Amy: What is it like to have Dr. Rambo, a constructive theologian, guide you, a practical theologian, into analysis of interdisciplinary methods? Is it helpful to have someone outside of your field teaching interdisciplinary methods?
Scott: Yes, I think so. One of the things Dr. Rambo has us do is write analytical papers for most of the sessions, so we all form our own opinions and ideas. Throughout the papers we have to talk about the interdisciplinary methods. The reality is that each of us ends up talking a little bit from our own field and our own perspective. Then Dr. Rambo goes around the table, and has each person one at a time give some sort of insight from the work or method being discussed. Usually she asks a particular question that allows us to explore some facet of the reading. But the interesting thing about that approach is that it allows each of us to experience each other’s voices and their connection to our respective fields. There are definitely some similarities between the things the practical theologians share, and it is interesting to see how practical theologians tend to gravitate toward certain texts, but not other ones. Sometimes the people in the other disciplines may not like some of the texts that are more natural for practical theology, for example, texts that afford a larger role for experience, or demonstrate how practices shape theory, rather than just theory shaping practice.
Scott went on to share about how Dr. Rambo and the students from Track 2 have helped him to assess his own operative paradigms. Scott is a homiletician who works closely with the field of hermeneutics. He is particularly interested in the work of Paul Ricoeur, and is eager to explore how Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics will contribute to his burgeoning research questions. Scott notes that homiletics as a field has not always promoted responsible interdisciplinary methods. Many homileticians have normalized appropriation, or to use Scott’s more indicting word, raiding of other disciplines without careful consideration for what is lost or compromised in the process. Scott is hopeful that this course will help him resist such tendencies in his own work. My last question for Scott was, “What do you think is the promise of interdisciplinary methods for academia as a whole?” Scott responded, “I think part of the promise is honesty—honesty about the fact that we don’t ever interpret purely from one position, and honesty about the limitations that come with specialization. Also, interdisciplinarity helps us to be honest about the limitations of our own fields for discerning truth and constructing meaning.”