My faith hits a brick wall every time I think about theodicy (why a good God allows evil). Even before I went to seminary, I was never satisfied with the bumper-sticker theology people offered up whenever tragedy unfolded in the lives of those I loved. Since my ordination, I have had the privilege and curse of being in brutally intimate moments with people as they struggled with loss of parents, children and life.
- How do I console the mother whose infant daughter I am commending to God as her body lies inert in a horribly small coffin?
- How can I look out over the sea of distraught faces in the pews on Sept. 12, 2001, and assure them that God is good and there is redemption in creation?
- How can I sit with the drug addict who has relapsed into self-destructive behavior for the third time and offer any hope at all?
I suppose I will take these questions to my grave. Perhaps there I will find answers.
In the meantime, life has a way of sneaking up on me and placing moments into such crystalline juxtaposition that they leave me breathless. This past Sunday at church I was ready to tear my hair out during our intergenerational faith formation hour because my 12-year-old daughter was goofing off and not engaged in our small group’s conversation. I (selfishly) worried: “What do my parishioners think of me as a pastor and parent if I can’t even help/coerce my daughter to live fully present in the moment? What kind of hypocrite am I if my adolescent daughter can harsh my mellow?”
Less than an hour later I found myself reduced to tears on the drive home because my narcissism was revealed for what it is in light of a podcast episode from “Reply All.” This show from Gimlet Media is usually fun and quirky, with its hipster-nerd hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, bringing to light some of the more amazing aspects of the Internet and our digital age. Instead, they blindsided me with an achingly raw and beautiful story about Amy and Ryan Green, a young couple from Loveland, Colo., whose narrative about their son Joel’s struggle with cancer bluntly threw theodicy back in my face.
The show is less than revealing about the nature of their personal theology, but early on we learn that these young parents are devout Christians seeking answers that have gone unanswered since Job stood before the whirlwind of God’s presence. Ryan designs video games for a living. He decided to translate his experience and grief over his 5-year-old son’s death into an interactive videogame narrative. I haven’t purchased a video game for myself since I put my Atari console in the attic back in the 1980s, but that might change this week.
People have always used art to articulate grief. In 1977, Arvo Pärt composed a short canon in memory of Benjamin Britten that never fails to evoke the pathos of loss. Sylvia Plath defined the broken-ness of human relationships in her elegiac-rage poem, “Daddy.” Every time I visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, I pause at the 18th century “Stabat Mater” sculpture of the Virgin Mary adjacent to the site of the crucifixion to help me understand love’s true sacrifice. I never thought, however, that someone could use the medium of an Xbox game controller to capture the compelling power of parental grief as Ryan Green has in “That Dragon, Cancer.”
The audio clips of the “game” on the podcast are heart-wrenching. You hear Ryan and his wife praying in utter anguish for God to preserve the life of their son. You hear baby Joel giggling in some scenes, crying in others. If the mere podcast can strip me clean of my presumptions and pride (and it did), I am afraid of what the video game might be able to accomplish. It’s not something I particularly relish experiencing, but for some reason I think it might make me a better person, pastor, and hopefully, parent.
I am not necessarily endorsing this experience for anyone, but for some reason I find it compelling for my faith formation at this moment of my life. You will have to decide for yourself if you wish to experience grief in this surprising medium. I may go to my grave without being able to explain the mystery of theodicy, but perhaps this experience will help me formulate some good questions for the Christ I pray to meet beyond my death experience.