Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Long ago, before gamers felt the Call of Duty or voyaged to the World of Warcraft, before they had Wiimotes to swing or an Xbox that watched them sleep at night with its lidless electronic eye, there ruled in the videogame kingdom the genre of Japanese role-playing games. Steeped in the aesthetics of Japanese comics and wrought with all the eccentricities of that faraway island nation, the JRPGs of yore were weird, globe-trotting journeys through lands of magic, machines, and monsters. The genre is all but dead today, limited largely to re-releases of Japanese classics or fan-made homages by small Western teams, but for a time the JRPG was king.
Why bring the airship down to earth when it’s much simpler to continue zooming through the sky?The quirks of JRPGs are so numerous and outlandish that the uninitiated might think I were making them up were I to list them. The protagonist is almost invariably an amnesiac with a mysterious past and latent magical powers. A cutesy talking creature that looks like a crossbreed of a house pet and a stuffed animal will always aid the main character on his or her quest. There is always ancient magic paired with advanced technology, there is always a character whose hair looks like it was styled by sticking a fork in an electric socket, and there is always—to the point of vociferous fan outrage if it is somehow excluded—an airship.
(Pedants might point out some JRPGs eschew airships in favor of dragons or magic carpets. Same difference.)
As a matter of function, the JRPG airship exists within the game to move the player from point A to point B. The player typically receives it later in the game, often at or after the halfway mark. It gives them access to areas inaccessible by foot or boat and thus allows the player to both bypass previously traveled areas and continue with the plot. However, to think of the airship in purely utilitarian terms is to miss the forest for the trees. The airship isn’t just a blob of pixels or polygons that ferries the player between story beats. It is the fulfillment of the JRPG’s promise of freedom, and its bestowal upon the player is always paired with a calling to perform some sort of restoration in the world.
In its own peculiar way, the airship echoes our lives in Christ. When players at last receives their airships and take flight, they are untethered from the world and all the traps and dangers that hitherto bedeviled them on the ground. Yet the freedom of the airship, like our freedom in Christ, is not simply a negative liberty, a release from worldly constraints; it is the commissioning of a duty and the granting of the means to accomplish it.
Final Fantasy 6 serves an example. The player first gains an airship after conning one from Setzer Gabbiani, a wandering gambler. Alas, poor Setzer! He desired only to kidnap a famed opera singer, secret her away to his airship-slash-flying-casino, and woo her with his considerable charms. Instead, his plan was foiled by the game’s heroes, who replaced the opera singer with one of their own and then snuck aboard Setzer’s airship—all this while battling a cackling octopus with a serious grudge.
I warned you these games were strange.
Up to this point, the player’s traveling party—a colorful cast of misfits that ultimately includes a thief, a disgraced general, a mime, and a feral boy—has had to get about the world on foot. The player has traversed a multitude of dangerous environments, from dark caves to haunted forests to wild savannahs, dogged by villains and monsters throughout. A recurring design of JRPGs was the “random battle.” Outside of a handful of designated safe areas, enemies spring invisibly and at random on the player. Traveling the world of Final Fantasy 6 by land is dangerous and wearisome, and when the player at last finagles an airship, the relief is so great that one is almost tempted to sing a snatch of John Newton: “Through many dangers, toils and snares / I have already come. . . .”
Once in command of Setzer’s airship, the player is free to fly about the world At will but is also tasked with thwarting the plans of an evil empire.
The airship never comes without obligations. The airship Highwind in Final Fantasy 7 comes with the mission to prevent a moon-sized meteor from pulverizing the planet. Obtaining Xenogears’s Yggdrasil means an assault on a secret force that controls the world. Chrono Trigger’s Epoch gives the player the means to take down a terrifying fortress that floats in the sky. The shape of the story is repeated countless times throughout the genre. The burdens of the world are removed with the airship, but the mantle of responsibility to the world is placed on the player’s shoulders.
The paradox that freedom comes with duty is at the very core of the Christian ethic. Christ commands us to come to him with our burdens and find rest and at the same time take his yoke upon us (Matthew 11:28-30). The apostle James writes, “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25). And Paul teaches that our freedom in Christ, which is freedom from sin and the damning snares of the world, is not simply license to do as we please: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). Freedom is the power to serve, and to serve is to love.
The radical command to love our neighbors as ourselves is perhaps one of the greatest burdens we must shoulder. There is no equivocating and there is no getting around it. We must love our neighbors wholeheartedly, even if we find them wretched—perhaps as wretched as God finds us. That is part and parcel of our freedom.
This task is especially painful and arduous in such a fractious season as we find ourselves in. This election will tear apart families, neighbors, and even congregations. Some of us are seeing it happen already. How easy it is, though, to wash our hands of the situation altogether, to retreat to our own communities, where we all agree with one another and the hard work of understanding and reconciliation is unnecessary. We live in a world where it’s easier to curate our neighbors than love them. Why bring the airship down to earth when it’s much simpler to continue zooming through the sky?
In many JRPGs, there are often side activities the player may engage in rather than continue the story, and these are often accessed via the airship. Some titles have card games to play or souvenirs to collect. Final Fantasy 7 stands out with its breeding side activity, where the player may capture, breed, and race large, flightless birds called chocobos. As long as the player is engaged with these side activities, the story remains at a standstill. Likewise, our own mission remains at a standstill as long as we do not use our freedom to its proper end, which is to love and serve.
“Total disengagement is itself a privilege of a cultural Christendom that is fast passing away,” writes Russell Moore in Onward. For Moore, spreading the gospel and engaging in matters of social justice are paramount to the Christian life. Impassiveness and disinterest are luxuries of an artificial faith. Genuine faith cannot withdraw totally from the world, even as an attempt to prevent a fall into error. It cannot take flight and remain aloof from the troubles of society. Moore writes later in the book,
We could shrug off our social witness altogether, as a defense against legalism. But we would be wrong, and we would, ironically, fall into a pharisaism of the other side, building hedges around a temptation to avoid falling into it. More than that, we would be abandoning a post to which we were assigned and from which we have no permission to leave.
Moore contends that to retreat from society is to divorce the gospel from the kingdom, to divorce love of God from love of neighbor. Salvation and the freedom it brings are married inseparably to loving and patient service, even in states with no-fault divorce. We are saved from death, yes, but we were also created for good works, prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. In nerdier terms, the keys to the airship never come without a mission to save the world.
Not that we’re tasked with saving the world, as heroes of JRPGs invariably were. That work has already been done in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven does not advance by great battles, military or cultural, but little by little, like leaven in bread. Our freedom in Christ may pluck us from the snares of the world, but this same freedom calls us into the trenches, where our foes are not monsters and sorcerers but sin and injustice, and our weapons are not airships and cannons but faith, hope, and love.
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