Take a minute and read this story from the Los Angeles Times:
The setting: post-apocalypse Manhattan.
The heroes: the Tribulation Force.
Their mission: defeat Satan by bringing the world to Christ.
Inspired by a hugely popular book series, the new video game "Left Behind: Eternal Forces'' deposits players in a futuristic world where born-again Christians must use prayer and song to convert the infidels -- or tanks and snipers to blow them away. The game is being promoted to Christian teens as "the ultimate fight of good vs. evil.''
But with just eight days left in the Christmas shopping season, it's coming under heavy fire.
A coalition of liberal Christian groups has complained that the video game is too violent, intolerant and divisive to be properly called Christian.
"It's essentially a training video for faith-based killing, marketed to children,'' said the Rev. Tim Simpson, a volunteer pastor with a Presbyterian church in Jacksonville, Fla.
There is no blood or gore in the game; when bodies fall, they simply disappear. And you rack up more points by converting your enemies to Christianity than by killing them. But it's hard to advance with a strictly pacifist approach, since you're constantly under attack by the antichrist's army -- which resembles the United Nations. (You atone for mowing down the bad guys by pushing a ‘prayer' key, which builds your strength for more fighting.)
"I can't think of anything more antithetical to the gospel of Christ,'' said Simpson, who runs an organization called the Christian Alliance for Progress. "The message is that God intends for everyone who doesn't share your faith to be whacked.''
Game creator Troy Lyndon dismisses such objections as alarmist. He says the point of the game is to spur teens to start thinking about "matters of eternal importance'' -- such as the fate of their souls.
Players advance by picking up clues that are supposed to get them thinking about the Biblical prophesy of the Rapture, when believers expect to ascend to heaven, leaving behind a ravaged Earth. The game is set after the Rapture, when those left behind are divided into two warring camps: born-again believers against the forces of Satan.
Lyndon acknowledges that most gamers won't tarry on the scriptural analysis in the clues when there are battles to be fought and heathens to evangelize. But those who care to learn more can click over to a Web site that invites them to accept Christ -- and incidentally, renounce Darwin.
"We're out to make a difference,'' said Lyndon, the chief executive of Left Behind Games Inc., based in Murrieta, Calif.
The game has been endorsed by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. In an online review, the ministry noted that warfare is integral to the game, just as it is to the "Left Behind'' novels, which have sold 63 million copies. But the reviewer called concerns about the violence exaggerated, writing: "Eternal Forces is the kind of game that mom and dad can actually play with Junior -- and use to raise some interesting questions along the way.''
The liberal Christian groups that oppose the game have gathered 28,000 signatures of protest through the Web site DefConAmerica.org. By comparison, the conservative American Family Association last year collected 500,000 pledges to boycott Target for using "holiday'' instead of "Christmas'' in its marketing.
It's unclear whether the protest against the video game has had much effect. Andy Butcher, editor of Christian Retailing magazine, said Christian bookstores "have been a little slow'' to stock it. But he attributes that not to unease about the content, but to fear of competition from Wal-Mart, which sells "Eternal Forces'' for less than $40. (Christian retailers can't match Wal-Mart's volume discounts, so they're selling it for $45 to $60, sometimes bundled with a Bible.)
For his part, Lyndon says the controversy "has been great for the product,'' though he won't release sales figures. Certainly, the fracas has given the game worldwide media exposure; just last week, Lyndon was interviewed by German TV and British radio.
Between interviews, he's been supervising fixes to the game, such as muting one character's annoying tic of repeatedly shouting "Praise the Lord!'' He's also working on a sequel.
"I want to show that thinking about what may happen when you die can be as fun as being in an Indiana Jones film,'' Lyndon said. "It's an adventure.''
Frankly, as a Christian, this kind of stuff makes me cringe. Reading the "Left Behind" novels is one thing (which I did, and enjoyed). Acting it out in some corny video game that will do little more than elicit guffaws from the media is something else entirely.
Not that this news story isn't without its faults. To be sure, the reporter takes her cheap shots at all of us right-wing, gay-hating bigots who so foolishly believe that there's more to life than what we see out of our windows.
Specifically, she uses thinly-veiled, snide remarks about Christians with passages like: "born-again Christians must use prayer and song to convert the infidels" and "most gamers won't tarry on the scriptural analysis in the clues when there are battles to be fought and heathens to evangelize."
(Yes, yes ... all non-believers are infidels and heathens, and they're lucky we don't just all blow them away with shotguns and get it over with. Not only are we all ignorant, we're evil to boot.)
Yes, yes, we're all so terribly stupid for believing that God actually came to earth as a man, lived a sinless life and died to save the sins of the world and that, one day, we'll live with him in heaven for eternity. Please be patient with us. We are a little slow.
(Silly little Christian, myths are for kids.)
What's sad about all this is what gets lost in the shuffle: the very real fact that God exists, that Christ died for our sins and that, someday, He will judge us according to whether we have accepted His gift of salvation or rejected it.
I think games like "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" are misguided, as are the umpteen billion sequels to the original series of novels. If the goal is to interest more people in eschatology and bring the message of salvation to more people, then I pray God blesses those efforts.
But what I fear will happen is an inevitable backlash against this time of evangelism to the point that you'll continue to read these slanted stories that portray our faith as worthy of nothing more than a punch line. The only demographic (ethnic, cultural or religious) that it's perfectly OK to make fun of is born-again Christians. So come on, let's not make it any easier on them.
You know what? I have no problem with pointing out to people that there is a price to be paid for A) sin and B) not accepting the forgiveness to that sin.
It's just that the best way to do it isn't to set them in front of a video game where they can "mow down the bad guys by pushing a 'prayer key.'"
Instead, why not mow someone's grass? Why not send them a random card? Why not invite them for dinner and not spend all hour telling them how they're going to hell? Why not volunteer at a local food bank, give your coat to a coat drive, make a bologna sandwich and give it to that guy who always asks you for spare change on your way to work?
There's nothing wrong with having a sense of urgency for the lost when Christ could come back for His church at any time.
But there's a better way.