What you are about to read are a series of observations and thoughts from a particular point of view. I don’t expect you to agree with me, but I hope that they spark conversations. And while some many consider this an exercise in overthinking, I prefer to look at it as an observation of art. Since art has a funny way of imitating reality, consider this one part art critique of sorts, one part education.
Warning: this is a deep dive and there are MANY spoilers ahead!
As for that point of view, I keep no secrets about who I am: I am a pastor who loves talking to people about Jesus, about life, and about video games. It’s all over my social media pages and even here on my profile at GameSpace.
So, when I was given the opportunity to preview and review Far Cry 5, honestly, I had mixed emotions on the matter. After all, this was a highly anticipated title from a team that has constantly pushed the boundaries of what you can do with a video game. As titles go, AAA titles like this tend to get a fare amount of attention. What writer doesn’t like their articles read en masse and retweeted by their publications?
On the other side of this conflict, this experience was going to make me stare into the ugliness of cultic activity one more time to sift through the brokenness, deception, manipulation, and coercion in order to plumb the depths of just how far one’s convictions can lead, often taking many to their own destruction.
I’ve seen this first hand: families torn apart, people using and abusing biblical texts out of context to justify their desires, charismatic leaders shirking accountability from denominational leadership and building dependency on themselves, the list goes on.
And yet I am compelled by my station to not simply watch, but to soberly guide who I may with this warning ever present in my mind:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” – James 3:1
This isn’t a call of exclusion, but a reminder: anyone who claims to lead in spiritual matters, they are responsible for the messages they deliver… and they better make sure it’s accurate to who they represent.
So, what does all of this have to do with Far Cry 5?
Accuracy matters and so does the attention to it. In every sense of the word, Ubisoft (under the direction of cult expert Rick Alan Ross) developed a cult, the Project at Eden’s Gate (PEGGIES for short), to be every bit as seductive as their real world counterparts.
One of the things that made Far Cry 5 arguably one of the most uncomfortable gaming experiences that I have ever had was how close some of the cult’s messaging hit to home. The Project at Eden’s Gate is terrifyingly true to modern day cultic behavior while taking a jab or two at some of the ways that some churches advertise.
Ok, strap in. Here we go:
Separation of Church and Cult:
What is a cult after all? Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton defines a cult with three characteristics:
- A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power.
- A process [is in use] call[ed] coercive persuasion or thought reform.
- Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
It will be important to this dissection to define this terminology on the front end. The line between parody and reality thins as talk of the forgiveness of sin, salvation, and baptism are concerned, but the PEGGIES take a far different direction than orthodox Christianity.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, orthodoxy means the spectrum of accepted beliefs and practices within Christianity – hence, why the denominational spectrum exists. As for sin, we often think of sin in terms of the “Seven Deadly Sins,” but there is a better definition. John Wesley, former Anglican priest turned founder of the Methodist/Wesleyan movements defined sin as: “a willful [on purpose] transgression [violation] of a known law of God.” Sin (by this definition) always destroys and divides relationships, the most important being between us and God. Salvation is the act of Jesus paying the debt for that violation on our behalf. This is what Christians call the gospel – or good news: That God paid a debt we were powerless to pay even when we were too indifferent to care to restore our broken relationship with Himself. (Check out Romans chapter 5 to get a great picture of this!)
While the PEGGIES view baptism as a punishing means to reveal sin, most of Christendom sees it as a moment of celebration or an outward expression of inward change. In other words, the act itself doesn’t purge sin (how can you pay for something twice?), but signifies the burying of old ways and with the triumphant emergence into a life with a restored relationship with God.
Now that we have some defined terms, let’s go further in.
Pastor Jerome and Jeremiah: The Weeping Prophets:
Jerome has to be one of my favorite characters in all of Hope County. His country church sits at the edge of town, but he’s something of a staple in his community. It is by no mistake that just about every piece of scripture you hear him read and the reference on the marquee outside his church all point back to the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. This is incredibly significant from a historical standpoint and in his present reality. Check out the passage from the marquee:
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.’” – Jeremiah 23:16
Jeremiah was a prophet in the northern portion (Judah) of a divided kingdom (Israel) under enemy occupation and captivity (Assyria and Babylon). As a prophet, it was his job to deliver an unpopular message: “if you keep doing what you’re doing, here are the consequences, but if you turn from what you’re and follow God, this is what you can expect.” Most of the time, this wasn’t what leaders wanted to hear and Jeremiah spent a fair amount of time writing down his laments over their actions… there is an entire Old Testament book dedicated to it, aptly named Lamentations. Thus, he is known to theologians as “the weeping prophet.”
Pastor Jerome seems to fall into a similar vein. He did what any pastor would do: he welcomed in Joseph Seed when he was an outsider and helped him get on his feet. It wasn’t long after that Joseph’s charisma led people astray with what their itching ears wanted to hear. Yet, at the liberation of Fall’s End, the townspeople lament that Jerome was right all along; their spiritual “shepherd” really did have their best interests in mind. But while they wandered, he wept… and he fought for his flock.
(Just a note here: pastors being referred to as shepherds is an endearing term, not a derogatorily calling people mindless sheep. Historically, a shepherd’s care for their sheep was one that often put their lives in danger for the sake of the flock and often pushed them to the periphery of society.)
John Seed, The Language of YES, and a Different Gospel:
I once heard a preacher say: “The ‘good news’ (gospel) isn’t good news unless it’s good news.” This is a sound statement in its intention, but when taken to its logical conclusion it has given birth to a whole spectrum of ideology that falls way outside of orthodoxy. Yet, it is into this mindset that John Seed’s message resonates.
As John preaches about the language of “YES,” his words fall very close to a largely rejected subsection of contemporary theology known as the Prosperity Gospel. This is the message of hucksters leveraging people’s faith, disregard any talk of sin, and preying on the desires of their people; it is the territory of thieves selling absolution for their 65 million dollar private jets. It promises financial prosperity on faith alone… and a heavy helping of giving to their cause, buying their books, or praying their secret prayers.
To give you an idea of how insidious this is, how close to the real world this gets, and to illustrate this point, let’s play a game here.
Who said it – John Seed or Joel Osteen Edition:
“Let go of yesterday.”
“You can be happy where you are…”
“Every setback means you’re one step closer to seeing the dream come to pass.”
“What if I told you, you could be free from sin? What if I told you that everything you ever dreamt could come true?”
If you have played Far Cry 5, you know the answer. Only the last quote belongs to John Seed. If you’re not familiar with Joel Osteen, he’s a big smiled, Prosperity Gospel preaching pastor of a mega church in Houston, Texas that has received a fair amount of heat for their initial absence in Houston’s most recent time of need.
(Side note: big churches aren’t the devil and there are a lot that do some pretty incredible things and can inspire remarkable works of generosity.)
These fluffy promises of everything being perfect have the spiritually nutritious value of cotton candy and it flies directly in the face of Jesus’ own words of “In this world, you will have trouble.” (John 16:33)
In John’s case, his promises, like those of a Prosperity Gospel, only lead to pain and disillusionment.
The Father, The Son, and the “holy crap, how did you arrive at that?”:
In order to understand a religion in its purest form, you need look no further than its prophet, careful examining their words, their actions, and the character of who or what they claim to represent. There also is a value in examining how closely their followers actually follow the teachings.
What is fascinating to me is that each of the Seed family have a different interpretation of how to carry out Joseph’s prophecy. While John employs tactics of self-mutilation and violence to purge sin, Jacob takes an elitist approach – that only the strong are worthy of salvation. Then, there is Faith who takes an ecstatic approach through drug-induced euphoria with The Bliss. And in all of this Joseph stands by, giving his approval.
Yet, when you listen to Joseph’s words and the pieces of actual scripture that he uses, he takes incredible liberties that remove context from what the text is actually talking about… sadly, it is not an uncommon practice to dabble at the buffet table of spiritual teaching and practices. It even happened to Jesus, too… but he rebuked them when they got off course.
One thing that I (and any preacher worth their salt) will do is to approach a biblical text with exegesis versus eisegesis. It is the difference between drawing from the text what it actually says versus trying to superimpose what the speaker wants to say on top of the text.
I want to pull back the curtain a bit on a portion of what I do in preparation for preaching. It really is preparation on multiple levels (pray, thought, research of context, considering the audience, etc.), but before I preach a message, it must preach to me first. I cannot preach about something that I am not doing, have not been convicted by, or lead into place that I am not going.
If you examine the life of Jesus, you will see incredible consistency in his teaching and how he treats people – especially those who had no agency in early Jewish culture: women, children, foreigners, and even tax collectors. He was called a “friend of sinners” – often found eating, drinking, and enjoying the company of friends and followers alike. Yet, even in his closest circle of friends, so many misunderstood his message or wanted him to be a political revolutionary.
What the first century church saw instead was someone who led not with a sword, but by serving with a towel and basin. He lived and was executed for a claim that many (including myself) believe to be true: that he was more than a good prophet, but the Son of God. And for this, he was executed serving a humanity he loved, though they rejected him. And like many eye witnesses of the day, I too believe in resurrection that he sucker punched our greatest enemies: sin and death. This is an appropriate point with Easter right around the corner. But I am getting away from the point.
The Project at Eden’s Gate is built upon eisegesis, setting up Joseph Seed’s word as authoritative instead of that of the divine. It is a cautionary tale of what happens when a message gets way off target.
Faith is probably the most tragic character in this game and the greatest visual representation of the darkest side of cultic manipulation. She was a 17 year old heroin addict that Joseph found, treated like she was special, and then plopped into the middle of drug production. While there is no clear indication of whether or not this relationship was more than sisterly, there are enough allusion to make me believe that there was more to it.
Her relationship with Joseph is akin to a child with an abusive, alcoholic father. She idolizes not what he is, but what she imagines him to be. He is present, attentive, and wonderful when he is sober, but he is a monster to be feared when inebriated and angry.
No child should ever have to wonder which “father” they will end up with on any given day.
Test Every Spirit…
Okay, we’ve covered a lot of ground, but I have one more point to make which I believe caps off the Far Cry 5 experience. I promise this is it. No more sermonizing after this. This final point is the action step or the “so what?” moment. What do I do with this?
Regardless of what system of belief you hold, it is up to us to test everything we hear, see, and experience, filtering that through our worldview and deciding what we do with the information now that we are no longer ignorant of it. Far Cry 5 does an exceptional job of showing what can happen when entire communities slip into neural neutral and don’t question “their truth.”
As a Christian, this type of critical thinking is imperative to working out faith within our cultural context. All throughout the Bible, people are commended as having “noble character” for diving into scripture to sort out truth from error, prophets are met with a high standard of scrutiny, and Jesus reinforces we should not only love God with all our heart (emotions) and soul (spirit), but also with our mind (intellect), and strength (self-explanatory). Even as we moved further our chronologically from Christ himself, the church has organized scholarly counsels to make sure that the church stayed on the course Christ laid out.
In the denomination I serve in, the Wesleyan Church, we have a tool we use called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It is a system of four filters that we use for theological reflection. They are scripture, experience, reason, and tradition. Here are some basic questions that go along with this thought process: Does it line up with the whole counsel of scripture? What has experience taught me about this? What is reasonable, based on the information available to me and my research? What have we understood about this traditionally?
What are your filters? How do you process information?
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” – 1 John 4:1
To reiterate what I outlined above, what makes the Project at Eden’s Gate so unnerving is the realism in comparison to modern day cults that cherry pick from orthodox Christianity. Far Cry 5’s narrative presents us the opportunity to wrestle with questions of faith, influence, and our own systems of believe in a safe environment while impacting our awareness of these issues in the day to day.
Wherever you come from, Far Cry 5 does what good art should do: it should provoke us to think and feel things. It should cause us to consider the art in light of the world it is born into and what it has to say about that world. Where I have arrived may not be the intentions of Ubisoft, but it is what I drew from the experience.
What about you? What did you draw from Far Cry 5’s crazy cult? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Thank you for sticking around until the end.
Grace and peace,