Bible Adventures, by Gabe Durham. Los Angeles, California: Boss Fight Books, March 2015. 168 pages. $14.95, paper.
When I was about eight or nine, I swore to God that I would read my entire Precious Moments Bible. Carrying the book to church on Christmas and Easter had always made me feel like a grownup; I’d press its white-leather cover against my chest the way TV teenagers held their schoolbooks and run my fingertips against its soft, gold-edged pages during the sermon. But I’d never actually read it outside Sunday school classrooms. So I set myself to the task. I’d wait until my two triplet sisters left our bedroom and pull out my Bible like reading it was somehow shameful. I kept a little notebook with me so I could write down my thoughts and questions, but I didn’t have any thoughts or questions.
Maybe you’re not supposed to read the Bible chronologically, but I was a novel reader; I read all books back to front. Why should I approach this one any differently? I dutifully read about twenty pages of Genesis and gave up. I didn’t have the endurance to sit through, “And so-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, who begat …” A million tiny origin stories that never got fleshed out enough to hold my interest. I tried again when I was about twelve and again when I was maybe fourteen, but I never got past Genesis, and when I opened the Bible to random pages, I found things I didn’t like. “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior,” Ephesians 5:23 told me. “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection,” read 1 Timothy 2:11. According to Proverbs 21:9, men are better off “dwell[ing] in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman in a wide house.” (I still don’t know what a housetop is, but I like the image the phrase conjures in my head, of a woman whose righteous fury drives her husband to live on his roof). My youth pastor couldn’t give me an adequate workaround for God’s sexism, so I quit believing in God. I didn’t tell anyone. I still went to youth group. I just stopped listening to anything said in a church setting. And I never had to slog through Genesis again.
I hadn’t thought about my childhood Bible reading in decades until I was about three chapters into Gabe Durham’s Bible Adventures. The book, Durham’s contribution to his own 331/3-for-video-games-style Boss Fight Books imprint, teems with origin stories, including an origin story for the book itself. Durham admits that the game he chose “was neither one of my best-loved or most-hated,” but does have “one of the weirdest development stories in all of video gaming’s short history;” Bible Adventures and the other titles discussed in the book of the same name, all released by Wisdom Tree, an early game-making company whose origin story reads like Genesis as a Wired article and provides some of the book’s most entertaining passages, lack flashy graphics and edgy narratives, but the obscure, buggy games and their “plucky” creators make for a good story. However, Durham refuses to rest on the easy ironies of mostly atheist coders creating Christian games or humorous descriptions of video games that play like Super Mario 2—a major reference point in the book—with Bible heroes such as Moses and Joseph standing in for the iconic plumber. Durham finds humanity where others might see cynicism and offers an underdog narrative instead of the sneering opportunism others might see in game company Color Dreams’s decision to rebrand itself as Wisdom Tree and make religious titles for SNES (unlicensed though they may be).
I’d been worried when I agreed to review a book about a video game. I’m not a gamer in any sense; I quit playing video games around the Super Mario 3 era, and giving up on games granted me a sense of relief similar to what I’d felt when I gave up on Christianity (my fear of landing wrong on a goomba, those deathly creatures that I called owls, sapped all enjoyment from the actual gameplay). But Durham is kind to nongamers. He uses as little jargon as possible and weaves together his many origin stories—the rise of Nintendo from the ashes of Atari, a failing video game company’s decision to make “Jesus games” (Bible Adventures sets its sights not only on the titular game, but Wisdom Tree’s other offerings as well), the initially successful partnership between and the later decline of Wisdom Tree and Christian bookstores (one of the book’s most compelling chapters provides a history of Christian retail), and his own complicated relationship to his faith—with heartfelt seriousness and the humor and conversational tone that characterize Durham’s first book, Fun Camp (Publishing Genius, 2013).
I’ve lost my faith but retained a morbid fascination with Christianity. I listened in shock and awe as a friend told me about a pastor her church hosted who said he’d seen a demon cast out of a man’s body in the form of a bat. My best friend in college grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, and I loved hearing her stories about witnessing on people’s doorsteps; she put herself through college not because her parents couldn’t afford to help her but because Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in college. Why prepare for the future when apocalypse is just around the corner? Durham’s relationship to Christianity is definitely not morbid. He describes himself more like a lapsed Catholic or cultural Jew than an avowed atheist, and his approach lends the book a good-natured, big-hearted warmth. When Durham’s discussion of “retrogaming” and nostalgia swerves naturally into a reflection on faith, he notes that “If a churchful of people are singing a hymn I know, I’m going to sing along. Whether I believe the words I’m singing is beside the point.” In some ways, that’s the point of all the origin stories in Bible Adventures: whether you believe in what Wisdom Tree does or not, whether you love or hate video games, you’re a reader; the story matters above all.
Amy Long will earn her MFA from Virginia Tech’s Creative Writing program in May 2016. She holds a BA in English and Women’s Studies and a Master’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Florida. Prior to pursuing her MFA, Amy worked in communications for drug policy reform and free speech advocacy groups in Santa Cruz, CA; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. She currently serves as a contributing editor to the drug history blog Points. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Heavy Feather Review. She lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with her cat Mattie. Find Amy on Twitter @amylorrainelong.