Breaking: Evangelicals love violent pop culture

halo 3 prayingEvangelicals were on the front page of the Sunday New York Times again. The story -- about how "hundreds of ministers and pastors desperate to reach young congregants" are using the massively popular, hugely entertaining and quite violent video game Halo 3 as a recruiting technique -- is well-rounded, gives a paragraph to theological issues and quotes a nice variety of people. But something about this story seemed so unfresh, especially when it compared this trend to bingo games in churches during the 1960s:

The latest iteration of the immensely popular space epic, Halo 3, was released nearly two weeks ago by Microsoft and has already passed $300 million in sales.

Those buying it must be 17 years old, given it is rated M for mature audiences. But that has not prevented leaders at churches and youth centers across Protestant denominations, including evangelical churches that have cautioned against violent entertainment, from holding heavily attended Halo nights and stocking their centers with multiple game consoles so dozens of teenagers can flock around big-screen televisions and shoot it out.

The alliance of popular culture and evangelism is challenging churches much as bingo games did in the 1960s. And the question fits into a rich debate about how far churches should go to reach young people.

I think if the NYT did a little research it would find that violence and the big screen have gone hand in hand with many evangelical Protestant church groups. And the justifications are the same for churches showing films like Braveheart and Gladiator (feel free to help fill in this list for me, readers). Church leaders want to attract young men, the films portray good versus evil in a way that we like and, hey, what's wrong with a little violence anyway?

"If you want to connect with young teenage boys and drag them into church, free alcohol and pornographic movies would do it," said James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a nonprofit group that assesses denominational policies. "My own take is you can do better than that."

Daniel R. Heimbach, a professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes that churches should reject Halo, in part because it associates thrill and arousal with killing.

"To justify whatever killing is involved by saying that it's just pixels involved is an illusion," he said.

Focus on the Family, a large evangelical organization, said it was trying to balance the game's violent nature with its popularity and the fact that churches are using it anyway. "Internally, we're still trying to figure out what is our official view on it," said Lisa Anderson, a spokeswoman for the group.

As for that one paragraph on theology, I hope I didn't get your hopes up too high:

Mr. [Kedrick] Kenerly [founder of Christian Gamers Online] said the idea that Halo is inappropriately violent too strictly interpreted the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." "I'm not walking up to someone with a pistol and shooting them," he said. "I'm shooting pixels on a screen."

As for the NYT's surprise that evangelicals are trying to engage popular culture, it shouldn't be all that shocked. Evangelicals are the ones who are still up in arms over the National Football League's efforts to shut down church Super Bowl parties that violated the league's rules. The issue of church support of professional football on the Lord's Holy Day hardly came up.

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