Monday, April 4, 2016

That Dragon, Cancer: Video Games, Death, and My Problem with Heaven

Recently I played a video game called That Dragon, Cancer. Well, I didn't so much as play it as move the mouse around periodically and infrequently click the mouse when appropriate. The rest of the time was spent futilely trying to hold back tears.

That, in essence, is the game. It is short (only under two hours, but probably hazardous to your emotional health to attempt to complete in one sitting) and contains little in the way of gameplay or game mechanics. Instead, it's more of an interactive narrative, I guess.

So what story does this narrative tell? Well, That Dragon, Cancer follows the heartbreaking experience of Ryan and Amy Green as their young son, Joel, battles and, eventually, succumbs to cancer. That's not really a spoiler since every review and word of mouth I encountered beforehand included that information. And really, I consider it a welcome warning about the toll this game will take on you before you begin playing.  Its sweet, tender moments will have you smiling and giggling. Those moments are offset by uncontrollable tears as the dragon inflicts its damage.

The game takes you on a journey through mundane, yet surreal locales of a duck pond, to a hospital laden with overwhelming get well and sympathy cards, to a tumultuous sea of loss, chaos, confusion, and faith. Throughout it all, sometimes more pronounced than elsewhere, Ethan and Jane voice their belief and prayers that God will heal Joel.

So is That Dragon, Cancer worth playing? Well, I suppose that depends on what you're looking for. If you are a gamer looking for great, exciting gameplay, you won't find it here. But if you're a gamer, or non-gamer, looking for an emotional experience like you've never encountered in a game before, then I would definitely recommend it. But keep some tissues handy.

Warning: theological rant with detailed spoilers follows.

But when God doesn't heal Joel, well, that's when the story gets tough for me for multiple reasons. Instead of rage and anger at an inactive Deity, the opinion is voiced that Joel's death is okay, for now he is in Heaven, which is a much better place. But if that were the case, why bother to try to save and heal Joel at all? Why aren't we all eager, anxious, and willing to die so that we might go off to that much better place where everything is perfect? Instead, we are afraid of death and we will go to any means to prolong our imperfect lives on this imperfect world.

That is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity. We believe that death has been defeated, yet we still die. We believe that Jesus conquered the grave, and yet we all go to so many funerals, and we are each terrified when it will one day be our turn to inhabit the casket.

Explaining away God's failure to answer the Green's prayers and heal Joel with the conceit that Joel is in Heaven now feels like a cop out. If God heals Joel, praise God, He worked a miracle! If God doesn't heal Joel, praise God, He took Joel to Heaven! Whether God acts or does not act, He is still seen as benevolent. If God can do no wrong, does it matter what God does? Does it matter if He never does anything?

This actually reminds me of a comic book, of course. In A Contract with God, the main character dutifully follows and obeys God. But one day his young daughter dies, causing the man to ask that if man is required to fulfill the requirements of a covenant with God, is God not also, so obligated? This takes on a deeper meaning when you realize the author, Will Eisner, wrote this after losing his own young daughter to leukemia. Concerning the character's outbursts at God, Eisner wrote, “his anguish was mine. His argument with God was also mine. I exorcised my rage at a deity that I believed violated my faith and deprived my lovely 16-year-old child of her life at the very flowering of it.”1

It reminds me of the usual hypothetical floated about concerning a drunk driver running into a church van full of kids.  The drunk driver survives, but fourteen of the church children are killed.  Why would God allow this?  Well, the reasoning go, it's okay because the kids go to Heaven and the drunk lives so he might have a chance to still find Jesus and be saved.  Really?  The tragic death of multiple children is a glowing example of God's grace?  Could not God, in all his divine wisdom, conceive of a less violent way to reach the driver than murdering children?

This, of course, does not answer the question of why God doesn't heal or why God allows evil to happen. As for me, I have no answer for it, and I think that's the point. There is no satisfying answer. At least, not for me. And I find it more cathartic, more helpful, to acknowledge that lack of answer than to pretend that we can easily explain everything away with words like “God,” “Jesus,” or “Heaven.” It's not easy, but struggling and wrestling with faith can lead to a more fulfilling and enriching faith.

But maybe, for the Greens, Heaven isn't a cop out of an answer, but the only one that offers them any comfort and resolution. In that case, who am I to say any different? Especially when I have not gone through such a traumatic experience as they have, except vicariously through this video game.

One line, though, towards the end of the game offers me some sense of introspective enlightenment. Amy says that she is grateful that she got to love Joel well, and now miss him well. Joel's time on this earth was short, and that is a tragedy. But during that short time his parents loved him well, and they still love him well, even though it takes the form of missing him. But they miss him well.

And I think, in the end, that overrules all my rantings about theodicy and excusing God for the problem of evil.

1 Will Eisner, The Contract with God Trilogy (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), xvi.

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