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Not long ago the popular (and controversial) pastor John Piper addressed questions from his podcast listeners about whether Christian couples should engage in role-play in the bedroom.

To one woman, who expressed distress because her husband likes to fantasise that he is raping her, Piper’s answer was no. Fantasising about sin is also a sin, he argued, as is coercing others into sexual acts they don’t want to engage in. He also took exception to any kind of sexual role-playing at all.

The usual detractors objected not only to Piper’s response but to his even addressing such a topic.

Nevertheless, Piper was right.

But he was right in ways that extend beyond the confines of the bedroom.

Holding up a mask

PICTURE: John Noonan/Unsplash

Role-playing, in various forms - whether inside the bedroom or out, in a sexual context or otherwise - cultivates a rejection of life for what it is as well as a rejection of ourselves for who we are.

This consequence is suggested in Piper’s final argument against bedroom role-play when he says that “if sexual desire has become so prominent in the way you pursue satisfaction in life that you must push the limits of sexual conventions in order to be a joyful and contented person, your God and your purpose for living have become too small.”

"[T]his impulse toward what I call 'Cosplay Christianity' develops when faithfulness alone is not enough - when drama is required to excite the soul, enemies are necessary to rouse energy, and obstacles are manufactured in order to present challenges to would-be Arthurian knights on galloping steeds or wannabe damsels in constant distress."

This is a point with universal application, not only about our personal lives, but our public lives, too. Anytime we find ourselves pretending, we ought to ask what about our real life - and our true self - is not enough.

This is particularly important for Christians in a variety of contexts. Christians who are eager in the face of any opposition or hostility toward Christianity (or even just personal preference) to jump into the role of being “persecuted” come to mind.

Examples abound. One pastor with a large public platform recently made a public defense of breaking the law in response to a common government regulation, which he considers “persecution". I suspect thousands of religious martyrs of the past and believers of the present who cannot legally worship in their countries would beg to differ with his characterisation.

Like bedroom fantasies, this impulse toward what I call 'Cosplay Christianity' develops when faithfulness alone is not enough - when drama is required to excite the soul, enemies are necessary to rouse energy, and obstacles are manufactured in order to present challenges to would-be Arthurian knights on galloping steeds or wannabe damsels in constant distress.

Sometimes this cosplay is as common as a steady stream of hot takes or provocative tweets by those for whom these create a role they must continually refill, lest the vortex of their own making fall in on itself. Sometimes it’s as banal as a social media post about masks or medicine that adopts the language of the Founding Fathers in the midst of a revolution.

Sometimes it’s as deadly serious (and ironic) as a riot in which grown men in costumes channel William Wallace in Braveheart crying “Freedom!” while attacking the seat of democracy.

Sometimes cosplay looks like an essay a friend recently sent me by an English professor that details opposition he faced teaching because of “woke ideology” and “political correctness.” I had only to skim the first few lines before I had a hunch, scrolled to the bottom, and found my suspicion confirmed: The author’s byline was a pseudonym. I didn’t waste more time reading.

Such anonymous articles are common, as are the kinds of outlets that publish them. The excuse usually offered in such a context is that people who are “honest” about these things (see the irony?) will lose their jobs (or not get one). I’ve heard more than a few Christians complain that they “can’t be openly Christian” and be employed. In America. This is another kind of Cosplay Christianity.

Now, don’t hear what I am not saying. There is a time for anonymity and pseudonymity. Being a spy comes to mind. Or a missionary in China. But what most people who say these things really mean is that they can’t post their views about some things on blogs and social media.



Having worked for years in Christian institutions, I understand that it’s a privilege that part of my job is to make my Christian views known. But I, like many other Christians, have spent a good portion of my work and educational years in spaces hostile to Christian beliefs. Most of us must find a way to hold to those beliefs with integrity - and stay employed.

Christians being Christians in non-Christian contexts has been the life and calling of most believers for 2,000 years. We still have that ability in this country, even if, arguably, it is getting harder.

If America ever becomes a place where it actually is true that one can’t be a Christian and hold a job, it will come in some part because of those who don’t know how - or refuse - to be Christians with integrity - in truth and love - in the free country that we currently have. For as the Gospel of Luke tells us, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.”

Perhaps we’ve come to expect life to be as conflict-ridden and exciting as Minecraft or a Lifetime television movie. If so, then Cosplay Christianity is, perhaps, a reflection of our inability to find contentment and satisfaction in ordinary life - and in our ordinary lives. Meanwhile, those who have not lived ordinary lives - because of extraordinary abuse, suffering and pain - would beg for a mundane existence.

Whether we have a conscious desire to pretend to be someone else or media consumption has cultivated unconscious ways of thinking that recast reality into the terms of drama from another time or place, Cosplay Christianity fails to live fully and faithfully in the life to which God has actually called us.

It’s not just sad. It’s dangerous. It’s an indication of a life and purpose that have become too small, a rejection of the truly abundant life.

Karen Swallow Prior is research professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of several books, including On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things and Vox, among others. 

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