Mark, Matthew, Luke, John & Pokémon

Our lives are an intricate dance between faith and culture. For as long as humans have been on the planet, our existence has been a sometimes not-so-subtle mixture of belief and bureaucracy; a complex ballet between our gods and our civilizations.

As our cultures have become ever more secular, the ballet has become more difficult. How do we stay focused on the song of Christ, following the lead of God, when the accompanying culture gets more noisy and raucous all the time? How do we remember even to seek God when our culture is so distracting—often in exceptionally entertaining ways?

Paul has to consider these same questions as he begins to preach about Jesus in a world that was every bit as noisy and raucous as ours. He has an entirely new way of looking at God. No Jew, nor Greek, nor Roman before him had ever considered that God is enfleshed in all human beings, or that there is a single God who loves humanity so much, it is willing to take human form.

Of course, the Romans and Greeks believed the Gods would take human form now and then, usually to mess with us or to make love and create demigods like Hercules and Achilles. But the idea that God in the flesh would not only come to earth to show us and lead us to the light but would also die and suffer like a human to show us the extent of that love? That idea had never been preached before, and it was as tough a sell then as it is now. The more things change, you know.

So, Paul was surrounded by a culture that placed great emphasis on individual gods, hundreds, if not thousands, of them. There were gods hiding all over the place.

The Greeks and Romans (and the Egyptians, and even the Jews to a lesser extent) had gods for your cooking fire, gods for the health of your household, gods for school, work, the marketplace, the emperor, for slaves, fields, weather, friends and enemies, for the economy—you get the picture. And these gods could either do you favors or be your nemeses depending upon how you treated and respected them.

Into this culture, Paul said, “Listen! I have seen the one, true God, the God of all creation, and I have met God in the flesh… more or less.” Fortunately, Paul lived at a time when curiosity and education were of supreme importance and highly valued. Remember that the last couple weeks we’ve been talking about Aristotle, and he felt that educating people from a very young age was the most important job to which a society could attend.

So Paul used the contemporary culture and its love of learning as a tool. Rather than railing against their society, like so many evangelists today, Paul recognized the worth of the surrounding culture and used it to his advantage.

He doesn’t tell people how misguided or evil they are. He doesn’t condemn them to an eternity in Hell. Instead, he compliments them on their faithfulness! He speaks to the Greeks about their amazing faith--a faith so deep they even cover all their bases by erecting an altar to a God whose name they don’t even know!

Paul doesn’t make fun of this, he appreciates it, and he tells his audience so. Now, who do you think is more likely to listen to you? An audience who knows you appreciate them, or an audience whose intelligence you’ve insulted?

Believe it or not, I think we can do the same thing Paul did by using the phenomenon that is Pokémon Go. Rather than calling it ‘evil’ or making fun of people for spending so much time obsessing over it, I think there is a lot we can learn from the both the game itself and the phenomenon it has caused.

For those of you who may not be familiar, this is a game that sends you on a hunt for cute little monsters. The translation of Pokémon is “pocket monsters.” The game uses augmented reality (or AR) to place the monsters in the real world.

Augmented reality is different from virtual reality. In virtual reality (VR) you wear goggles and are completely immersed in an artificial world.

With AR, virtual stuff is imprinted on the real world. So you might be looking at the altar here, for example, and when you look through your phone, the augmented reality software puts something on the altar, like a pocket monster!

In the case of Pokémon Go, your phone’s camera is used to examine the surroundings, and the game puts a little image of a creature over your real world position. Hence, the term augmented reality. It looks like this:
So, what does this have to do with church? Well, like Paul, we can use Pokémon Go to strike up a conversation about seeking. We can use the entire game as a metaphor. The entire world is going crazy seeking these little imaginary monsters. I actually love it as well and check for Pokémon everywhere I go. We were running all over Hawaii checking out the sites, because our idea of a family vacation is exploring as much is possible. This trip, though, every time we visited some beautiful place, we took a few minutes to check for Pokémon as well. And rather than distracting us from our experience, it actually caused us to check nearly every nook and cranny of the places we visited. In a very real way, the game opened us up to even deeper experiences with the real world—and importantly, with other people playing the game.

As I’ve been playing this game, I’ve started to think about what we, as people of God, could do to get people as excited about searching for God as they are about searching for Pokémon.

Now think about the absurdity of this for a moment: People (including myself) are running around like maniacs looking for these imaginary little creatures. In an age when the majority of people think God is an imaginary creature, why can’t we get people that excited about looking for God--that excited about taking a spiritual journey, which, in my opinion, should be the most important work—and play—of our lives?

Especially when we know that seeking and finding God actually changes our entire way of life and being in the world, Pokémon Go gives us the opportunity to start a conversation. It opens doors that have been closed for decades. Like Paul in ancient Greece, I think we can take advantage of this little game and, without being boorish about it, ask people about spiritual seeking, about journeys of the spirit.

After all, if we’re interested in looking for pocket monsters, maybe we can be introduced to an even greater quest: the quest for spiritual unity with all creation by seeking and finding God. It’s a quest that is the very definition of augmented reality. I mean, we can either look for fake creatures, or we can look for the Creator of all creatures, and in my opinion, there’s no reason looking for the Creator can’t be just as much fun as looking for little Pokémon.

And the exceptionally good news is that our quest is even easier than finding a rare Pokémon, because God is already here, and God wants to be found. While some might think God is as imaginary as Pikachu, we know that God is real.

All we have to do to know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is augment our reality and see that God is right here, right there—everywhere, already and always. In this way, the popular culture has given us an incredible path to spiritual discovery.

In this way, the popular culture has given us an indispensable tool, because, while you never know where a Pokémon might show up, God shows up everywhere you look, every time, without exception. “Seek and ye shall find.”

So, by concentrating on the rhythm of our lives and recognizing this never-ending ballet between faith and culture, we begin to understand that while we don’t ever completely conform to culture, our faith is never practiced in a vacuum.

Everything we believe is affected by the culture within which we are believers, and everything we believe affects our culture in return. It is an eternal and incredibly complex dance of belief systems, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, entertainment, science and history.

By practicing the spiritual disciplines of self-awareness and self-reflection, we not only find, but we create our own augmented reality—a greater perception of our surroundings, an ability to see things other people cannot or will not, and by so doing, we become cultural change agents by first becoming changed ourselves. Just like Paul so many millennia ago.

Pokémon Go provides us with an incredible opportunity to invite people into conversation about and discovery of God. The game reminds those of us who already seek God that our quest is not an uphill battle, but merely requires waking up and looking—looking within ourselves and into the eyes of every human we meet, because we are all altars not to an unknown God, but to the one and only God of all eternity whose being and loving compassion flow through all of us, without exception.

We all need to take advantage of this Pokémon Go moment by embracing it to create new spiritual momentum and make church, faith, and spiritual questing not only relevant again, but something people want to embrace and get involved with as passionately as they do with a silly little video game.

I love Pokémon Go, and playing it has reminded me that I love God even more, and that my spiritual quest is still not over. In fact, it may very well just be starting anew.

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