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Ten Challenges For Christian Pokémon Critics

Harmless, addictive, or worse? Let’s discern Pokemon GO with Scripture, not traditions.
| Jul 21, 2016 | 5 comments |

We’re one week into the Pokémon GO augmented-reality smartphone game fad.

I’ve seen three types of Christian-written “hot takes” on the game:

  1. The Culture Academic: Isn’t it amazing how this game brings Community together?
  2. The Positive Parent: I wasn’t sure about this at first. But my kids are going outside!
  3. The Concerned Christian: This game is “probably harmless, but …”

I’d like to respond to that last group of Concerned Christians. Most of them are reasonable, only slightly flawed. (Some could also be called “Probably Harmless But” Christians.)

I’ll also address wackier notions, like “Pokémon are demons,” and such. They’re an even smaller minority. But unless we rebuke them, even reasonable Christians (and critics) suspect this is the default Christian view.

For concerned Christians, I have ten challenges I’d like us to consider.

1. Why assume we know what games or imagination are meant to do?

Pokemon Christian criticsMost Christian articles about Pokémon or any other fantasy ignore this question:

Why did God provide us with popular culture? How does it fit in his plan?

Not every article can say all this. But if we don’t address it sometime, we skip truth.

Here’s an example from a ministry I absolutely love, Desiring God Ministries.

This is a mostly negative article, not just about Pokémon. Words used include: obsessed, make-believe, fanatics, on-demand, binge, encroached, escape, drug, distracts, weakens, escape (again), “never-ending pursuit to escape,” addiction, “contempt towards God,” “temporal escape,” and other uses of “escape.” Here comes the Probably Harmless But:

We’re obsessed with fantasy. The explosion of interest surrounding Pokémon Go is yet another example of our desire to escape the real world — of real people and real problems — and enter into a make-believe world, or at least an augmented one. … Our ability to access entertainment and escape from reality has swiftly and effortlessly encroached on every aspect of our lives. … Although these devices and platforms aren’t inherently evil or sinful, they become dangerous when we develop habits of defaulting to them primarily or alone.1

Is this all lies? Not at all. Is it a half-truth? Unfortunately, yes. The writer assumes there is no humanity in games or other “entertainment” (stories, songs, and more) for Christians.

He assumes such games are at best “harmless,” but have no place for humans in God’s plan.

But let’s go back to the book of Genesis, and imagine Adam and Eve had never sinned. They and their children would have made stories and songs to glorify God. They would have made smartphones and games, or something very like them, for good reasons.

Indeed, Christians must avoid sinful abuse of anything. This is a risk because we are sinful.

But with stories, songs, fantasy, and games, we can also reflect our fantastical God today.

cover_thethingsofearth“Probably Harmless But”-type Christians keep skipping this truth. And we can’t go on like that. Because as Joe Rigney—a fine writer of The Things of Earth, who is with Desiring God Ministries—points out, we are not created to glorify God purely in some “spiritual” ways. God’s idea was to create us as creatures. And creatures glorify God in “creaturely” ways. We cannot “evolve” into spirit-beings to glorify Him infinitely. We are “stuck” glorifying Him as human beings, with bodies and time and cycles of work and rest. God wants us to do this!

2. Why confuse God-given work with God-given gratitude and rest?

Instead of meditating and praying, we go searching for Pokémon.2

This is a false dichotomy. It presumes an old evangelical notion: that if we have any “spare time,” we ought only to spend it meditating and praying, and not doing other things.

But this is not how the Bible portrays prayer and meditation (that is, on Scripture). In fact, 1 Timothy 4:1-5 specifically refers to prayer and Scripture as God’s means of making things, which He gives us, holy for our enjoyment. Sure, God does not design Pokémon creatures or program smartphones. Neither does he bake bread. But we thank him for bread and popular games. He “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).

Scripture also teaches that humans ought to live in cycles of work and Sabbath rest, just as God established during creation week (Gen. 1).

  • The Bible promotes hard work in our job as culture-makers (Gen. 1:28)
  • The Bible also frequently promotes intentional rest from our labors.

The Old Testament is full of God’s commands for his people to follow not only weekly Sabbaths, but regular and occasional feasts and celebrations that can last for days. The New Testament picks up with its verses about rest, gratitude, feasting, and living quietly.

So if someone writes about a game or other thing we can do during rest, and jumps instead to speaking about how we ought only to work, that is an apples-and-oranges comparison. There are times to encourage workaholics to rest, and vice-versa. But not every time.

3. Why call fantasies you don’t understand ‘demonic’ or ‘occult’?

Let’s explore a popular Christian article on Pokémon going back to the pre-GO days.

I do not see how allowing children to play with games that encourage fighting, reading of minds, use of poison, mimicry, taunting, teleportation, hypnosis, and evolution can be a good thing.  This is not training a child to righteousness, it is accepting the occult and secular evolution.  Is this what we, as Christians, want our children to meditate on?  Of course not.3

The author runs a Christian apologetics website. But he assumes, and does not source, his claims that any of these imaginary things are necessarily part of the occult.

“Use of poison” is perplexing. “Teleportation” does not occur in the real world.

If a Christian enjoys games or stories about fantasy creatures with special abilities, this does not automatically qualify as the occult actions Scripture warns against in passages like Deut. 18.  If someone isn’t wiling to discuss the connection, we need to stop assuming it. And we need to stop assuming “unfamiliar” therefore means “demonic.”

4. Why do you listen to professing pagan religion and accept it as true?

A Christian “mommy blogger” also shares her concerns about Pokémon GO and safety:

Does the game or toy have symbols, characters, or other characteristics that link it to New Age or occult powers?4

Like Slick, this writer assumes New Age or occult teachings promise people can learn to do these things in reality, and therefore we must avoid hints of this.

If a person wants to do anything apart from faith in the “final prophet” God promised to send in Deut. 18, then yes, a Christian needs such cautions.

But where are these New Age or occult materials? How would we define “link”?

If we did produce a book by a Wiccan follower promising to give us powers like a Pokémon creature, what would that prove? In Scripture, false prophets could often imitate miracles by a true prophet. Did that disqualify the legitimate prophet by association?

Let us not use “appearance” or “association” to define what sin is. That’s not what God does.

Anyway, why should we listen to religions that compete with biblical Christianity? I think there is a little too much risk in getting infatuated with the “dark side.” This is risky if we assume we know what occultists teach. Perhaps this is even more risky if we show an unhealthful interest in their beliefs about demons. Let’s listen to Scripture instead.

5. Should we take any ‘spiritual warfare’ lessons from new Christians?

The same blogger continues with a story about how a missionary asked a new Christian, a former “witch doctor” with occult experience, about Pokémon:

Opening the book at random, showing him a picture I asked. “What do you think of this?” He looked at it, and said, “Oh, I know this one.” He suddenly had my attention!

He went on, “Oh, this is a nasty little demon. It is always underfoot, bites, scratches, screeches and what not.” I looked at the page, and on the list of attributes, the book said, “bites, scratches, screeches, claws…” and I forget what else, but it was as if Bautista was reading the page, and he does not read or speak one word of English. He made a believer out of me.

I figured that the first one could have been just a lucky guess, so I flipped the page to another picture and asked him about that one. Again, he told me exactly what it’s attributes were. He did that over and over.

There were some he did not recognize, and he said. “There are so many demons, it is impossible for any one person to know them all.”5

“And then the witch doctor, he told me what to do”? I’m not sure if this example counts as a trend among evangelicals, but when I was a kid I heard a similar anecdote about a newly converted witch doctor from deepest, darkest someplace. In this tale the new convert reacted with concern over a “Christian rock” cassette a missionary kid was enjoying. The former “witch doctor” said the drum rhythms reminded him of his old tribal situations.

My short response is direct: why are mature Christians taking lessons on spiritual warfare, and what is or isn’t acceptable, from “baby Christians”?

Here’s a longer response: the apostle Paul doesn’t think this way.

In Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8-10, he explores freedom in things like holiday celebrations and foods. He says we must be sensitive to people who think what we do is sinful. (Notice he talks about real present, personal situations, not imaginary or hypothetical ones.)

But Paul also calls people like the former “witch doctor” a weaker brother, not a stronger brother. Weaker brothers do not have special knowledge of spiritual matters. In fact, they don’t know that “an idol has no real existence” (1 Cor. 8:4)! The stronger brother does know this. Of course, that doesn’t mean the stronger brother gets to laugh at, mock, or dismiss the weaker brother. We must show love! But we must call things what they are.

If we skip this truth, we are putting tradition over God’s written word. In fact, we are the ones acting like “witch doctors,” whenever we imagine hazardous spiritual connections between a person’s old religion and imaginary creatures. (More on this in the next item.)

By the way, I asked the original author this very question. A few commenters repeated familiar lines to me about how they assume (from experience, not Scripture) that new believers who worshiped demons in other countries automatically know more than mature, biblical astute Christians in other countries (even the dreadful West).

This is a kind of spiritual “noble savage” or “magical native” trop that is common among some Christians. We must be sensitive to cultural differences and people’s backgrounds in real-life occult religions. But we must not let them override biblical theology.

6. Do we accept unbiblical mysticism or ‘white magic’  to avoid harm?

This was huge! I ran upstairs and got our youngest son, who did happen to like the pokeman [sic] cartoons (his aunt sent him VHS tapes of them). When he got downstairs, I had Bautista flip through the book again, explaining to my son what he knew about these ugly little pictures.

Well, he made a believer out of Stephen! He went back upstairs and came back down with his prized tape and while we watched, destroyed it. Bautista looked on with curiosity, not really understanding what Stephen had just done. I quickly brought him up to speed and thanked him for helping to open our eyes.6

This is a fun story, but notice the aside here? The writer refers to her son, who is a Pokémon fan. She dismisses his enjoyment of “ugly little pictures.” How is this a “spiritual” judgment? Unfortunately, some Christians also take one more step and call such images “demonic.” (As if demons don’t also sometimes appear as “angels of light”!)

What if we treated people themselves like that? What if the missionaries in the “witch doctor’s” country recoiled from him because he was “ugly” to their eyes? God forbid.

In this story, the parent did not interact with the child about why he enjoyed the shows. The parent did not seem interested in having a conversation with the son to check his heart, or ask if this show was actually causing the son temptation (either to contact demons, or even “smaller” temptations such as obsession with the series, acting aggressively, and so on). The parent did not engage the popular culture with the child.

Instead it appears the parent’s impulse was simply to fear and destroy the object.

Such anecdotes are also common among some Christian circles. Well-meaning Christians often think about Acts 19:19, in which new believers confess their own practice of magic arts, then burn their books. In similar old anecdotes, Christian parents literally burned their children’s music cassettes, fearing they contained a demonic presence like germs.

But the believers mentioned in Acts did not have this reason. They volunteered their “purge” as a sign of their repentance from actual sin. Is the child with a video automatically so guilty? Did the child actually practice magic arts? If not, there is no connection.

Instead of literally purging evil in obedience, parents may risk practicing a kind of “white magic” in the exact way God forbids in Deut. 18. In this chapter, God tells his covenant people he does not want them to follow worldly means of trying to protect themselves or discern his will outside the means he has given us (the Final Prophet, Jesus Christ). That is why he forbids sorcery and divination. But when we try to “divine” evil presence in objects, are we not acting exactly the way pagans act? Do we distrust in His final prophet, Jesus?

7. Do we accept personal feelings as ‘promptings’ over the word of God?

Bautista added, “Tell the people from your churches, that if there are things that make them feel uncomfortable, it is probably not good. God’s Spirit will speak to them about what is right and wrong.” …

Pray. Ask God to give you His mind on the matter and to lead you. The Holy Spirit leads us into truth. Will we follow His leading?7

Technically I would agree with this statement. But when I read “The Holy Spirit leads us to truth,” I hear, “He leads us back to the Bible, the written word of God for all God’s people.”

Other Christians have different views on how God reveals his will to us. Some believe in a kind of “leading” from the Holy Spirit with feelings, prompts, or “nudges.”

I would disagree that the Spirit regularly leads us this way (although He certainly can).

But I would rather start by challenging the notion that all Christians should expect the Holy Spirit personally to lead this way all the time. He does not lead by our instincts, feelings, and impressions to discern God’s will. Instead, he leads by bringing us back to God’s word.

We err if we assume “follow His leading” means searching for the Spirit’s “voice,” about Pokémon GO or anything else in our culture, in any place except the Bible.8

8. Do we accept personal feelings or preferences as ‘convictions’?

Let’s return one more time to our previous blogger. (I am not picking on this writer. I simply found that her material most carefully and reasonably articulates this approach to popular culture and discernment among Christians.)

Believer, we need to walk in the Spirit and listen to the prompting and conviction and the leading of the Spirit of God!9

We must be careful when we use words like “conviction.”

Indeed, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to convict us. Yet the Holy Spirit will not convict us about sinful objects. He will also not convict us about “new” sins not revealed in Scripture.

As another example, some people say they have a “conviction” that they cannot have electric guitars in church. But this is not a biblical “conviction” of a sin. They are using the word “conviction” to describe something that is a preference.

We should keep the word conviction to describe the Holy Spirit reminding us about an actual biblical belief. For example:

  • It’s my conviction that Jesus is the only way to reconciliation with God.
  • It’s my conviction that God created marriage for one man and one woman for life.
  • It’s my conviction that it’s sinful for any person to abuse alcohol.
  • It’s my conviction that Jesus will return.

Moreover, we cannot use the word “conviction” about a preference that is actually against Scripture. For example, some Christians say that it’s their “conviction” not to eat pork. No, that is a preference. But it’s worse than a preference if these Christians actually try to apply this “conviction” to other people, or imply they are more spiritual for having it. Acts 10 is clear that God has fulfilled Jewish dietary laws, including the ban on pork, in order to make the point that He wants the gospel to go to people outside Judaism, the Gentiles.

9. Should we base our fears on the influence of secular media reports?

Here’s a challenge for which I don’t have a specific example. Instead I’m addressing more of a “color” in critical articles I’ve read by Christians about Pokémon GO. The writers rely on some secular media reports to gin up fears about the game. People who play it walk off cliffs! People find bodies. People are zoning out on their phones and escaping from reality.

By quoting these, the writers seem to indicate the game warrants special alarm.

I would ask: why do Christians, who suspect the “secular media” in everything (especially given media reporters’ conformity to progressivist agenda), now give up our skepticism? Shouldn’t we try to discern these reports? Shouldn’t we have a reminder for ourselves like: “Ah-ha, there they go, trying to get clicks and controversy and ratings again”?

Sure, there’s a time to laugh at silly stories, and to teach and take safety precautions.

But let’s not fall into the trap of assuming, as one especially wacky professing Christian did, that this illustrates some kind of mass demonic delusion. (He’s not linked.)

10. Are we ‘singing’ about beliefs that do not rhyme with the Gospel?

One commentator to a fairly reasonable Pokémon GO article said this:

Research who designed this game. I believe he was raised in a Christian home and rebelled and mocked and turned away from it…became anti Christ. The spirit realm is real…ask Jesus! We are to come out and be separate and touch not the unclean thing. Christians cannot afford to be ignorant of the spirit realm. Too many are! The devil and his demons love the attention they receive because of ignorance. Come out from the world, we are told! Any pluses in this thing are really a zero. This is a deception of the devil. I pray that the Lord opens eyes and minds to see the reality of this! Amen.10

I’ve already responded to a lot of this:

  • Rumor-spreading about the game founder—as if, even if this were true, sins can be so “transmitted” like germs.
  • “Come out and be separate and touch not the unclean thing”—but actually in some cases we should touch the unclean thing, as Jesus did, and as Peter was told about pigs.
  • Spirit realm, devil deceptions, and such—these are all opinions and hyperbole, not Scripture, and based on reactions to perceived “bad” Christians.

But the greatest response to this and other hyperbole is not doctrinal takedowns, mockery, or moving on and ignoring them (as if these people are not serious).

Instead our best response is: where is the gospel in all that?

“Touch not the unclean thing”—where’s the gospel in that?

Devil and demons are really this powerful—where’s the gospel in that?

Evil people can “taint” us with a thing they used to sin—where’s the gospel in that?

In closing, I will tweak some material from a recent SpecFaith article of mine:

God’s word assures us that His moral standard, His Law, serves several purposes. God’s Law shows us what He is like and what He values (justice, mercy, truth, beauty). God’s Law is an impossible standard that no one can meet. This means we must repent and call out to Jesus, the only perfect Law-keeper who also died to fulfill the demands of God’s Law.

Now Christians live by God-given faith and grace. We do not rely on fear or duty to follow the Law. Instead we are motivated by gratitude and love for Jesus. We want to be like Him, as righteous as He is, and we work out salvation as He works in us.

[Religious rule systems] might include the gospel in the system. But the system itself clashes with the gospel—like ketchup on breakfast cereal, or brown shoes with black pants. The gospel says, “Legal codes are meant to bring you to Christ.” [Religious rule systems] say, “Yes, and now that we are in Christ, let us approach all stories with a legal code.” This does not rhyme with the gospel.

So, Pokémon GO players: I’m actually not one of you. I don’t think I can be. All those things I wrote about work vs. rest and avoiding being led into personal temptation—I’m trying to apply these to myself. In my case, I have a hard enough time not binge-playing “Batman: Arkham” games on my PS3. And given other tasks I have, I can’t sign up for it now.

But if you are playing Pokémon GO for God’s glory, keeping this to your times of rest and not work, and are not being led into actual temptation to sin, I say: I’ve got your back. Jesus would have your back to. Use this gift well! And don’t forget to thank Him for this provision.

  1. Phillip Holmes, The Evangelical Drug of Choice, July 20, 2016, Desiring God Ministries.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Matt Slick, Pokemon: What Is It?, Oct. 18, 2007, CARM.org.
  4. Erika Dawson, Is Pokemon Safe for Christian Kids?, undated post, ErikaDawson.com.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Here people may say: Well of course, anything the Holy Spirit reveals must align with the Bible. But I would start earlier and say that the very idea that the Holy Spirit regularly tells us new things must align with the Bible. I’m indebted to Greg Koukl for this observation. For more on this topic and to answer common proof texts, I recommend Koukl’s series of articles at Stand to Reason, Does God Whisper? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
  9. Erika Dawson, Is Pokemon Safe for Christian Kids?, undated post, ErikaDawson.com.
  10. Comment by Corlyn Venturini, July 14, 2016, at Pokémon Go: What Parents Need to Know, Tony Kummer, July 11, 2016.
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Tyrean Martinson
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Excellent article. I appreciated your research and documentation, and I especially appreciated your adherence to the Bible. Thank you.

HG Ferguson
Guest
HG Ferguson

Stephen, as I am sure you are most aware, none of this is new. I was constrained to address some of these same concerns you raise at the church we were attending when Pokemon first appeared. The blatant LIES told about them by “Christians” left me more than a little cold. I’ll never forget a tract by someone called “preacher4truth” which cast Bulbasaur (my favorite one of them BTW) as some kind of bloodthirsty monster when, TRUTH be told, Bulbasaur was actually a kindly but powerful protector of wounded and hurt Pokemon in the wild when he was first introduced. It was a total LIE. In the name of TRUTH. In my no small experience, the vast majority of Christian people who decry the fantastical at some point lie either out of ignorance of what they are talking about or because they hate the fantastical so much they cease to care. These things disgust me, totally disgust me, when people who claim to speak for the God of all TRUTH misrepresent and LIE. And yes, caps for both emphasis and yelling. Someone has to. I may or may not share all of your conclusions, but many of them I do, and I thank you for standing up and speaking out.

Notleia
Guest
Notleia

Pfft, yeah, the Japanese are super totes Wiccan.
I translate all these as being variations on “I don’t understand this new thing and I’m afraid of it.” Lord help me have patience with these who think the sky is falling.

notleia
Guest
notleia

And I feel like I have to elaborate on the level of ignorance here because it’s bordering on willful ignorance, and it is ridiculous. It’s okay to not be interested in Pokemon, but the stuff in this article is like fearing cat memes because cats used to be considered witches’ familiars.
Also, the dude who invented Pokemon is named Satoshi Tajiri, and he was probably raised some flavor of Buddhist like the vast majority of Japan, so what is even with this urban legend of anti-Christian origins???

Kirsty
Guest

The bit about people walking into things made me think of Jonny-head-in-the-air in the cautionary tale fom from Struwelpetter. Of course, he wasn’t lokking at Pokemon in the 19th century, but clouds, the swallows and the sun. But he still nearly drowned and lost his writing book. In other words, human stupidity is not a result of technology or fantasy:-)