The Power of the Backstory

My 18-year-old son is an avid gamer and at this point in his life, aspires to make some aspect of game design into a career.  Whether he does or not, who knows, but I’ve no doubt about his excellent chances for success.  One reason is his ability to bring the paradigms of epic gaming into epic reality and vice versa.  One of those paradigms is that of the "backstory".  My own history with gaming revolves almost solely around one racing game and I only got a charge out of the competition and sense of speed and skill that one can draw from it.  First person shooters or RPGs, etc. have never held my interest and I suppose one of the reasons is that I’ve not "had the time" to really engage with the "backstory."

What’s a "backstory?"

Most of you probably already  know, but I remember that the first context I heard that term mentioned in was in gaming (though wikipedia gives it a broader definition).  It refers to the over-arching narrative that has been crafted around the action of the game that can give the player more understanding of what’s going on strategy-wise (the "practical" value of the backstory), but it’s also a tool that facilitates a more immersive experience in the game.  Depending on how alive the imagination is of the gamer, they can really enter into what they are doing and what they are experiencing in the game. It enhances the experience.

The backstory to the Gospel of Luke

Imagine my surprise, having only a gaming context in mind for this word, to hear it come out of the mouth of "learned British theologian" NT Wright. In the this talk that he gave in 2010 as part of the British "The Big Read" project (various churches in Britain all reading through the same portions of scripture during the season of Lent), Wright gives the "backstory" to the Gospel of Luke.  It is vintage NT Wright – especially since he’s all about "narrative."  It brings together many of his best themes and lays a rich foundation for approaching the reading of the Gospels (and indeed the Bible) but with a focus especially on the Gospel of Luke.  When he used the term backstory it really made me think of what a backstory does in gaming and how that applies to how we engage with God and His Kingdom and this incredible vehicle of communication that He’s given us called the Bible.  My impression is that we are all too often stuck in the posture that I had with games.  I didn’t bother with the backstory or anything else that is really necessary to engage with a game and plumb its depths as an immersive experience…and so it wasn’t. 

Knowing and appreciating the backstory is a complete game-changer!

Posted in Audio Teachings, Personal, Reflection and tagged , , , , , .


  1. I agree. The New Testament is so much richer when one knows the backstory in the Old Testament. The epistles are richer with the historical backstory found in Acts. The Psalms are more meaningful with the history of David in Kings and Chronicles. And, of course you need Genesis for everything! Interesting.

  2. My lads are lost in a virtual world; there is nothing out side the walls.
    Just a question – do you think that Christians have built a virtual world with an image of God who becomes what ever narrative they want – given the culture and the latest religious trend. I am with you that scripture is multi dimensional, wheels within wheels, but have we lost touch with reality or do we really have scripture dwelling richly in us for the purpose of glorifying God.
    Is the back-story lost in acts and we live in a vain hope of replicating the adventures of the early saints.
    Incidentally I played an RPG for a long time and found that it was more fulfilling and interactive than religion.

  3. I think there’s always a danger that we create a god in our image – the classic danger of idolatry – and I think we’re all susceptible to encroaching idolatry in our lives (for instance, I fight it with the idolatry of gadgets!).

    I believe, however, that there are huge sections of Christianity that don’t understand the concept of “narrative” at all when it comes to God’s activity through out the ages. Certainly they see “history” and many see different futures based on how they interpret Bible prophecy. What I don’t see much of, however, is those who see that God is telling a story and that we’re caught up in something much bigger and expansive than we could have imagined. The fact that the story is heading somewhere needs to fuel how we live.

    If we’re just a blip in history, we can learn from the past and hope to leave a better future, but that doesn’t engross us deeply in God’s story; we’re not on the edge of our seats for the next exciting chapter. We’re not connecting ourselves in the story either, seeing how we’re just like that one guy/girl we read about – either in the Bible or in redemptive history. That’s why I think that gamers have some concept of narrative that the Body of Christ needs to recapture. Personally, I’m not satisfied with what they saw in Acts…I want the acts for today – and they can look very different, but I want to be caught up in “His-Story.”

  4. I hope you don’t mind me dialoguing with you and thanks for the reply.
    I have been thinking a lot about the power of continual negative information a common trait in the UK from politicians, media and even family. There is an ever growing amount of restrictions made by ritual, money, power etc. The looking out there problem rather than the realising what’s inside.
    When the next Gen consoles came out there was talk about potential and that developers needed to understand the power of the consoles. After so many years we are back to the usual default of money over creativity – how many more times will they replicate call of duty. The promise is for hardware whilst the content or substance is sadly lacking. Much like TV – it does not matter the amount of dimensions or definition there is little in the way of creativity to capture audience.
    Likewise, Church and our understanding of God and His back story defaults to the mediocre and duty bound religion.
    If we are going to realise Acts beyond Acts we need to throw the constraints off, the constraints that promise comfort for those in the middle without risk. Increased control for those at the top even in religious circles and a greasy pole for those at the bottom. If there is a back story than we need to realise the potential of a creative story that will take us beyond the same old.

  5. I don’t mind dialoging…however, I’m pretty “spotty” at it (sometimes I have the time and sometimes I don’t – not a real rhythm).

    That’s interesting about the hardware advances but the game creativity stagnation (i.e. creativity in one arena, but not necessarily in others). I would say that there is perhaps a link to where money is flowing and a LACK of creativity. It pays (obviously) to recreate Call of Duty, and yet some of the most creative stuff is being developed and marketed in new and non-traditional channels – and while successful to a certain degree financially, those indie channels certainly aren’t raking it in like Bungie.

    It’s funny that I can even sound like I might have a clue as to what I’m talking about. I’m not a gamer at all. I had a short fling with Need For Speed 2000 and realistic racing sims do pique my interest, but it’s been a long time since I’ve played and certainly would have a hard time justifying spending time doing it. No, any information I have now comes from observing my son and discussing it with him.

    As I watch over his shoulder (he plays on my computer when he’s home from school as his box is too slow), I can see some incredible creativity in games that cost almost nothing and the ones that cost a bundle all look alike (albeit complex and compelling, but simply permutations on each other).

    It’s “formula creativity”…which is not creative at all – skilled perhaps, but not creative. What is sad is that obviously formula creativity sells in our western cultures – or people woudn’t be doing it so much.

    It’s interesting that you make the connection with the lack of creativity in the Church. I hadn’t made it so directly, but it makes PERFECT sense. The societies we live in are simply a magnified reflection of the state of the Church. If the Church is stuck in non-creative “religion” instead of literally being NEW CREATION, then our societies will be that as well. It’s one reason that I get frustrated with Christians thinking that they are engaging in society and discipling nations simply by voting. Yes, vote, by all means, but that’s just a little cherry on top of the cake. The rest is of so much more importance.

    So, bring on the narrative and let’s write new, exciting and really CREATIVE chapters!

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