Ken Evers-Hood: How Pokemon can teach us about God

Pokemon Go screenshot courtesy of Whitney Reeser

The immensely popular smartphone game “Pokemon Go” offers an opportunity to help people understand that there is a world beyond the one we can see, writes a pastor.

The church I serve is a PokeStop, and chances are good that the church you lead or attend is one, too.

A PokeStop offers helpful and sometimes healing items for players in the wildly popular augmented reality game “Pokemon Go.” The game has already become the biggest mobile game in history in terms of daily active users.

So … it’s kind of a big deal. And for congregations interested in reaching out to the world around them, the game represents an opportunity.

Currently, I’m a Level Nine player with a decent number of Pokemon in my Pokedex but no Gyms to my credit.

For those of you who aren’t among the millions of people already playing the game, let me explain.

“Pokemon Go” offers you a way to see a hidden world around you using your smartphone. The basic idea is that there are Pokemon (the animated game characters) all around you in the real world, and you try to capture them.

You’ll be walking along and the game will alert you to a creature nearby. Then your phone’s camera will show the creature appearing to be in front of you wherever you are, be it a sidewalk, a grocery store or -- ahem -- worship.

(I will admit to capturing a wild Pidgie during our call to worship last Sunday. But in my defense, I was doing a children’s moment on the game and promptly put my phone away afterward.)

Gyms are places where different players can send their Pokemon to compete with one another. Every Pokemon has attributes, skills and abilities based on its type and training.

The other night, I discovered that my son had taken over a Gym near our home and soon found that my Pokemon were no match for his rather nasty Vaporeon.

Yes, I lost, but I felt a kind of thrill engaging my son in a virtual contest that took place in an actual park.

That’s one of the things you’ll notice about “Pokemon Go”: people are playing this game out in the real world. Herds of people young and old are crowding public parks (popular spots for Gyms and PokeStops) and walking, scootering and biking around town.

“Pokemon Go” encourages physical activity; it combines the gameplay of Pokemon with the gamelike way that Fitbits and Nike+ bands encourage exercise. As you play, you capture Eggs, which require you to walk, scooter or bike certain distances before they will hatch. (Driving doesn’t count!)

Yes, there are legitimate safety concerns, but I think that, overall, the benefits of getting people to socialize and exercise together outweigh the negatives.

Theologically, what I love most is that the game reminds us there’s more going on in the world than we can see with our eyes.

I sometimes play “Pokemon Go” when I run, and it changes my run from something I feel that I should do into an adventure that I want to do. At any given time, a cool Bulbasaur or a lame Zubat might appear.

I never know, and I love this sense that there is more going on around me, another level of reality, than I can at first see.

The fourth-century monk and mystic Evagrius Ponticus spent much of his life in the Egyptian desert noticing and cataloging the demons that afflicted him and others.

In works like the “Praktikos,” Evagrius’ readers could investigate the types and qualities of the demons they perceived -- not unlike the way an experienced “Pokemon Go” player can scroll her Pokedex to investigate the creatures she has captured.

In the “Antirrhetikos” (the “Talking Back”), Evagrius pairs the demons with various scriptures to show fellow spiritual athletes ways to battle them.

This reminds me of one of the key features of “Pokemon Go” battling. It isn’t about pure strength or combat points. Some Pokemon types are more effective against other types -- water types, for example, against fire types -- which makes a kind of sense.

One must use some discernment in pairing the right Pokemon types, just as one must use wisdom in pairing the right demons with the right scriptures.

Of course, none of this makes sense if we believe that what we see is really all we get.

In her beautiful work of historical fiction “The Madonnas of Leningrad,” Debra Dean tells the story of Marina, an elderly Russian woman remembering what it was like to be a docent at the Hermitage Museum during the 1941 siege of Leningrad.

As the siege begins, the Russians remove the works of art to keep them from being plundered by the Nazis, leaving the bare frames on the walls. But Marina is determined to keep the beauty of the art alive, carefully constructing in her mind a “memory palace,” where she preserves each painting in exquisite detail.

Near the end of the book, when the war has ended, Marina leads a group of young cadets and their captain on a “tour” of the crumbling museum, pausing before the empty frames to re-create for them, with her words, the glorious art:

“‘All this is yours …,’ Marina tells them. ‘Can you see?’ She is ecstatic. Her voice trembles when she speaks, but her eyes are bright and calm. ‘It’s all yours.’ … The room is filling with women, with children, with saints and goddesses, and the boys are whispering among themselves. They point at the frames on the wall, at the paintings crowding the edges of the lamplight. The captain is weeping. He is staring at the wall, wiping at his eyes, ‘Look,’ he says to no one in particular. ‘Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?’”

Yes, “Pokemon Go” is just a game. It is fun. And the world we are living in right now is neither.

But if the game is bringing strangers to your door, often in groups, and it is reminding us that there is more going on in the world than we can see, it can be a fantastic way to start a conversation about what else is real and true and powerful that can’t be seen.

Couldn’t we use this game help people understand a divine love that is, as Marina might put it, “all yours”?