The arrival of the first Christian computer action game opens a whole new chapter in the never-ending struggle between technology and the self-proclaimed forces of morality.
In the post-Columbine era, when computer games, the Net and other elements of geek culture are being blamed for murder, nothing that used to make sense makes sense anymore.
The new idea seems to be that while opponents can condemn TV, movies and the Net for causing violence, violence can also be used to promote wholesomeness and spirituality. It's a confusing time to be a moral guardian.
Shipped to computer stores this week, "The War In Heaven" is Doom Meets the Bible. "It may sicken traditional gamers, but my gut feel is that this game will be a hit," said Ann Stephens, president of PC Data, Inc., a research firm that tracks the $1.5 billion-a-year PC market, predicted to the New York Times.
Until "The War In Heaven," software with overtly religious themes has tended to be staid and educational, like children's games that quiz players on their scriptural acumen. There is, for example, the big-budget, Christian audience-marketed "Charlton Heston's Voyage Through the Bible," a CD-Rom released in l995 with readings by Heston (now president of the National Rifle Association) and video clips of the Holy Land.
"The War In Heaven" is a different story. Players are confronted with hissing horned monsters wielding swords and other weapons. Not surprisingly, the Christian player has two choices. He can follow "The Divine Path of Obedience," become an angel and progress up the 12-level ascent to Heaven. Or he can opt for "The Fallen Path of Power," follow Lucifer, become a demon and war against blonde angels with silvery wings.
One might assume that a Christian game would forego violence, but gamers who have e-mailed me (I haven't seen the game myself) say that would be a mistake. There's mayhem and killing, but no splattering of blood or scattering of body parts. It's rated "T" by the Entertainment Software Rating Board -- suitable for those 13 and older. Maybe they should add an "H" rating for holy.
The game's designers -- Theodore Beale and Andrew Lunstad, co- founders of the software firm Eternal Warriors -- say they're trying to reach a broad audience of gamers reared on Doom, Unreal, Quake and Diablo. The idea seems to be that if there's any group in need of soul-saving, this is probably it.
God called him to design "The Wars In Heaven," Lundstad has told reporters, adding "Let's face it, when you have angels fighting demons, it is going to be controversial." The violence, its creators claim, is merely a role-playing depiction of "spiritual warfare," the notion that non-physical agents of good and evil (which might well include TV, movies, the Net, animation and recorded music) are constantly at war and that their behavior affects people on earth.
If a person chooses to play "The War In Heaven" as a demon, explains Lundstad, he progresses by disobeying the Bible. "You have to do things that are more and more distasteful, from blasphemy to striking a praying angel," he explained in an interview. Not surprisingly, the evil path leads to destruction.
I've personally never been fortunate enough to get a direct communication from God, though perhaps that's because he doesn't yet use e-mail. But without question, many geeks are already on the wrong path, loving stuff like "South Park" and "The Simpsons" as they do, Satan's productions all. (He was even in the last "South Park" movie.) They might actually revel in blasphemy and angel-bashing.
Technology, from film to TV to the Web, is often blamed for triggering spiritual failings and degradations. But the theological notion of spiritual warfare put technology and contemporary culture smack in the middle of an epic conflict, choosing between the pathway to God or the interstate to the other place.
Religion and freedom have never really gotten along, from the persecution of Galileo to the demands by Orthodox Jews that Jerusalem shut down its cinemas on Friday night to Islamic attacks on writers and reporters in some Middle Eastern countries. Technology, a disseminator of so much information, a force for freedom, has always come under fire as Satan's ally.
"The War in Heaven" turns this on its head. The new spirituality seems to work this way: if you obsessively kill characters on Diablo or Quake, you're an evil, perhaps even murderous geek who might one day turn on your neighbors and classmates. But if you slaughter demons en route to heaven, you are merely acting out the will of God.
Finally, the online devout can rationalize some of the many contradictions that arise when they blame pop culture and the digital age for violence among the young, which otherwise makes no sense at all.
American notions about violence, culture, technology and the young have been surreal for decades, in that they are hardly ever connected to truth or reality. Violence among the young has been plunging at the very same time parents, politicians, journalists and educators are up in arms about it.
Last week, the Justice Department announced that, for the first time in half a century, more people are using guns to kill themselves than to kill others.
This week, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that American teenagers' fears of and immediate experience with violence have diminished sharply in recent years, along with the crime rate. Teen-agers reported fewer problems with violence at school and in the streets and correspondingly fewer worries; the percentage who said they feared being victimized dropped from 40 per cent in l994.
There's never been any substantive evidence to support the idea that TV shows, movies or computers have been a factor in the recent series of shootings -- statistically rare but horrific nonetheless -- in American schools.
Nevertheless, journalists and politicians continue to link the killings with technology and pop culture, managing in the process to persuade a majority of the American public that movies and computer gaming are responsible for a worsening tide of violence among the corrupted young.
Such ideas seem more related to the Inquisition than to one of the world's most technologically advanced societies, but there they are.
Perhaps games like "The War In Heaven" suggest some looming confrontation, an Armageddon-like battle out there in the digital ether for the collective souls of geeks. It's one battle geeks are well prepared to fight. They'll grab their joysticks, deploy their amassed arsenals and rush out to meet the Millenial Crusaders. Geeks have been trained for this thier whole lives; the forces of righteousness will surely be blasted to bits.
The bad news is that if "The War In Heaven" sells, expect a slew of Christian (and soon, no doubt, Jewish and Muslim) save-the-soul games marketed by greedy Web entrepeneurs who want to appear wholesome while raking in big money. Sunday school might be in for some radical change.
The good news is that ultimately such developments will drive software censors and moral guardians nuts. CyberNanny, unable to distinguish between spiritual and secular slaughter of demons and digital blondes with wings, will soon be blocking God along with the Playboy website. The new boundaries of spiritual warfare are so fuzzy that it will no longer be possible to even pretend to be able to distinguish the allegedly good guys from the reputedly bad.