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The New Ascetics

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By Nelson Schneider - 04/21/19 at 03:49 PM CT

This weekend, while Jews the world over celebrate the avoidance of a plague by the smearing of sheep’s blood on their door lintels, and Christians celebrate the agonizing physical abuse, torment, and death heaped upon the god-man at the center of their mythology, here I am thinking about games. But really, I’m thinking about games AND religion.

As a Classicist, there are actually very few times when I’m NOT thinking about religion from an outside, unattached perspective. With great dismay, I see all the time how stupid people do stupid or horrific things in the name of Faith. Indeed, the thing that first dislodged my own faith, and placed me on the True Path of heathendom, was a college course I took as a sophomore on the writings of the early Church Fathers. The Christianity I grew up with was supposed to be a faith of forgiveness, freedom from fear, and the end of superstition. What I read about in the Church Fathers was, instead, a Christianity steeped in anxiety, superstition, and dread. How did one know one was a good enough Christian? How did one avoid the demoniac and blasphemous experience of daring to actually live in the corrupt world while waiting out the Final Countdown?

One of the earliest answers to these questions of existential angst came in the form of ascetic monasticism. Prior to the codifications of monastic orders by individuals like Benedict and Francis (no, not the two most recent popes, but the monks after whom they named themselves), for several hundred years, the monks of Christianity bore a far more striking resemblance to the terrorists of ISIS than to the quiet, contemplative, bookish, and service-based lives of the Benedictines and Franciscans.

I recently read a quite delightful book, cataloging much of early Christianity’s dirty laundry, entitled “The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World,” by Catherine Nixey. The 14th chapter, subtitled, “To Obliterate the Tyranny of Joy,” after a quote from Church Father and asceticism fanboy, John Chrysostom, goes into detail about the miserable and disturbing lives of early Christian monks, the so-called ‘Desert Fathers,’ quoting liberally from a primary source, entitled “Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.”

What is a monk? “All toil,” according to the Desert Fathers.

How should a monk behave? “Despise everything,” according to the Desert Fathers.

How should a monk live? “Do violence to himself in everything,” according to the Desert Fathers.

These do not sound like the ideas of people who are purely confident in their love for their god-man, nor in his love for them. These are, instead, dangerously unhinged people with something to prove and a massive chip on their collective shoulder. These were men who would stand on a pillar or hold a large stone in their mouth for decades, eating nothing but weeds and locusts (and occasionally stolen sacrifices from Olympian temples, for, according to our ‘friend’ Chrysostom, “There is no crime for those who have Christ”), all in the name of proving how much better they were at doing Christianity than others who merely attended weekly gatherings or wasted their time in the pursuit of charity.

No, the ascetic monks knew they were better than other Christians, and this mad self-confidence oftentimes led ‘lesser’ Christians to seek them out for their incredible wisdom and guidance.

Do you see how this relates to games? Do you know who the modern-day ascetic monks are?

What if I told you that the prevailing ascetic wisdom of the Desert Fathers and their ilk could be colloquially and idiomatically translated as “git gud”?

Yes, the Souls Trolls and H.A.R.D. Heads, as well as those who embrace the Bad Face of nostalgia, are gaming’s new ascetics. In a community that should be about having fun, creating shared experiences, exchanging ideas, examining art, and any number of other positive activities, the new ascetics are only interested in punishing themselves, and getting others to follow their lead. They exclusively subject themselves to the worst, most tedious, self-abusive experiences gaming has to offer, hubristically reveling in their ability to overcome, and insisting that ALL gaming should be like that. They loudly proclaim that any gamer who isn’t willing to subject themselves to the same level of metaphorical mortification and who isn’t able to overcome it if they do, is trash.

Their elitism, married to their self-loathing, makes modern ascetics insane. The fact that their dubious accomplishments are looked upon by any other gamers with admiration makes them dangerous. Like their forerunners, the new ascetics want nothing more than to obliterate the tyranny of fun, and expect the rest of us to thank them for it.

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