Nerds of Pray: GaryCon Chaplain & Geekpreacher Derek White (1.1)
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NATHAN: Hello and welcome to the Nerds of Pray podcast. We are bridging the gap between faith and fandom by introducing you to the leading folks on the front lines of nerd ministry. These are some of the people that I have met as a church planner planting a church for nerds, geeks, and gamers. I found them... so you don't have to. I am Nerd Pastor Nate and this is a Checkpoint Church podcast that drops twice each month. Each episode of the podcast, we will feature someone at this intersection of faith and fandom and we'll then sit down with them and learn some of their story; how did they first discover that God is in pop culture and where do they see things going from here. This is Nerds of Pray. [Intro Music]
NATHAN: Folks, our guest for today is a real treat. For our very first episode, we're going to be hearing from the one and only Derek White, also known as, The Geekpreacher. I first learned about Derek White from Thy Geekdom Come devotional series from Mythos & Ink after reading his forward to the series. I was especially delighted to learn that, number one, not only was he a nerd, he was also a United Methodist Elder. I messaged him right away and we met up for a quick Zoom call and have been connected ever since. We've even played a few sessions of a new TTRPG campaign together. So I can assure you that Derek is the real deal. He is certainly my most immediate connection to the one and only Gary Gygax, *that* Gary Gygax, and considers Gary a friend and you'll learn more about that relationship from the interview itself. Derek has been in the geeky world for a good while and has had a lot of wisdom to share with those of us, like myself, who are really only just entering into this field of geek and nerd ministry. If you are a minister out there, you will be encouraged by Derek's words on openness to innovation and inclusion and so many other things. If you're more of a nerd than you are a believer or a minister, you're going to love hearing stories that Derek has about Gary Gygax about the classic days of Dungeons and Dragons and his dream for a world where we all feel welcomed at the party. Derek is always working on new projects. He'll mention a few of them during his actual interview here, but just to tell you about one more that he started doing recently, he's been working on a streaming channel with a friend called The Good Grognards over on Twitch and I'll be sure to include all those links, including that one, down in the show notes below of this podcast, so be sure to check those out. With that and without further ado, let's get into the show! This is our very first episode of Nerds of Pray with Derek White, The Geekpreacher, enjoy the show.
NATHAN: Derek, welcome to the podcast! We're so glad to have you on. So glad to have you here as one of our our nerdy ministers, as our geek preacher, as our people that are in this world. So, I wanted to start out just by giving you a chance to kind of introduce yourself to those who might not know you. Your name has become pretty ubiquitous for me in my world of nerdy ministry. I've seen your name come up in more than a few places; listening to different podcasts, like The Min/Max Podcast and places like that. I think a lot of people are gonna know who you are, but, just for the benefit of the doubt, who are you and where are you from, both physically and what are your kind of social media habits, where are you?
DEREK: Well, my name is Derek White. I'm an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. Originally, I am from Louisiana, I reside now in Nashville, Tennessee. I have been a pastor in the United Methodist Church since 2007. I guess that's a general overview. That's the general overview of it. I've been in the geek spaces, especially kind of Christian geek spaces, since the mid-1990s actually helping develop early online Christian geeky communities. I've done ministry at gaming conventions around the country, many of the gaming conventions have had Christians come there, and, because most gaming conventions are on the weekend, there was a need that a friend of mine saw many, many years ago of putting together worship services on Sunday mornings for Christians who were at gaming conventions and I was fortunate over a decade ago, well, almost a decade ago, something like that, to be invited to be a part of that. And so, I've spoken at gaming conventions for the past six or seven years. Now, I have been the chaplain for the GaryCon gaming convention; in the midst of COVID, I was the online chaplain for the GaryCon gaming convention for the past two years. And we're looking forward to next March when we will be back on site and I'll get to see all of my friends there, who I consider a family. So that's kind of like my family reunion that I'm looking forward to going to.
NATHAN: Yeah, absolutely. I'm sure we're going to dive into a bunch of that stuff. You definitely seem to lean in towards that convention culture. What flavor of nerd are you? And so, obviously there's a lot of overlap here. Sometimes, you know, nerds are multiple flavors, but what is your nerd mixture? What concoction of nerd are you?
DEREK: I am a - Have you ever had jambalaya? Have you ever had jambalaya?
NATHAN: Yeah, absolutely.
DEREK: Good jambalaya: you throw everything in the pot, you mix it together, add a little bit of spice, and you eat it. And it's delicious. Good jambalaya can have everything in it from sausage, some andouille sausage, to shrimp to mussels to crawfish; throw it all in the pot and cook it together: that's kind of the geek I am. A jambalaya geek or, you know, you just throw it all in the pot and see what comes up. I mean, I've been reading comic books since I was a little kid. I've got a Green Lantern tattoo on one arm; I've got a Dungeons and Dragons ampersand tattooed on the other arm; I've read fantasy, science fiction, I love anime, I play video games, I play tabletop role playing games, so it's really hard to classify what type of geek I am in that I haven't found anything in the geeky/nerdy subculture that I don't like.
NATHAN: Yeah, so kind of everything in the kitchen sink kind of thing. I think that's great. I have a feeling we're going to run into that more often than not. I feel like the geeky/nerdy cultures tend to overlap in a lot of really wonderful ways, but maybe we'll find some people that are, you know, this is my specialty.
DEREK: I've got a lot of friends who their whole thing is board games, man. Yeah, they're board game passionate and, if you had to pull out my single greatest passion out of all of it, it would probably be table top role playing games. I mean that is, my biggest love and joy, is sitting around the table and sharing stories with other people, talking about great fantasy worlds or great science fiction universes. So, tabletop role-playing games tends to be my greatest joy.
NATHAN: You mentioned that all this began at a very early age with comic books and that kind of thing. So, where did your geeky journey first kind of take its first steps?
DEREK: You know, I've been a geek as long as I can remember. When I was growing up in the 70s and the 80s, I don't remember having a lot of friends that read comic books, so there were comic books I would get a hold of. Back in the 70s we had this thing called the RIF reading program at schools and RIF stood for Reading Is Fundamental and they would bring book fairs to schools and you could get one free book or two free books. And my family didn't have a lot of money, so for a poor southern boy in Louisiana the idea of a free book was amazing. You know, in today's world, that's not so odd, but back then it was just, "Wow, I get a free book!" And I just remember at seven, eight, nine years old just being attracted to the fantasy books, to the science fiction books, so I would just always gravitate toward those. I remember I was probably eight or nine years old when I read A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine Ingle. I remember reading that at a very young age. That's the best origin story I think I can remember. I was just always interested in that. You know, I remember watching the original Incredible Hulk TV show. And sometimes my family would let me watch that or, when they didn't take over the TV, I would watch TV shows like that. I've always loved those things. It's as early as I can remember.
NATHAN: I wonder if there is a correlation between that kind of scarcity or re-readability of why we discover these things whenever we're children. Because we don't necessarily have just an endless pocketbook whenever we're, like, eight years old, you know? I grew up on manga and the reason I love them so much is that I could read them again and again and again and find different notes and touches and pieces of art and I was able to just kind of continue diving in. So, I wonder if there's something to that; free books or books that are really easy to pick up again and read again for another time. And you probably had a bit of time between your nerd journey and your discovery of this intersection between, like you mentioned Christian nerds, Christian geeks, and, so, do you remember where was your first discovery of that intersection between faith and fandom? How did you first find that?
DEREK: That's a story there. See, I didn't grow up going to church. A phrase I use very often is I grew up culturally Christian. I grew up in a southern Christian culture, because everybody was considered by default to be a Christian, but my family didn't go to church regularly. My parents ran a nightclub. In the 70s, people that ran nightclubs didn't go to church; that just wasn't the way things were. In fact, many of the churches back then probably wouldn't have allowed you in for very long, if you ran a nightclub. Probably run you out after a little while. My exposure to geek culture and geeky/nerdy writings came really before my exposure to the Bible or scripture or anything like that. My early exposure to Christianity was through pop culture. I probably first heard the Christmas story through the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Where Linus gets up and reads the gospel of Luke story. That's probably my earliest exposure that I can remember. So, where I found the intersection was when I came to faith in my 20s. I started trying to get rid of all my geeky/fantasy stuff, because I was told that would distract me from God. And I was told some of that was evil. And, even though I'd avoided some of that stuff in the 80s, I felt like maybe they were right. Maybe this stuff was distracting me from God. So, I got rid of all of that. Then in the mid 90s, I was offered an opportunity to go to Alaska. I was in ministry at this time. I was in ministry with another denomination and yet a different denomination was talking to me about possibly pastoring a village in Alaska. And so, I flew up to Alaska, spent some time in the villages and everything like that, and then, when I was gonna fly back down south, I had a day or two, maybe three day, layover. I'm in Anchorage, Alaska, I'm thinking, you know, if I'm getting a pastor in a village that hardly has any television reception, I'm going to have a lot of downtime. You couldn't get on the internet in villages. The internet was still mainly dial up in most places. I thought to myself, well, you know, I need to do something. I need to find something to do. But I still felt like maybe fantasy games were, you know, a little off. Simply because that was what some people had ingrained in me, but, at the same time, you know, I was rediscovering CS Lewis and a lot of other things. So I said, you know what? I'm gonna go to a comic store and see what I can find. And, in Anchorage I believe, the name of the store was Bosco's ,and I went in there, and I was walking around, and I was just, "Wow, look, at all I've missed out on for the past five years!" And so I see all these comic books and I saw this role playing game that was on the shelf. And I said, "This might work." I'd remember seeing ads for it when I was a kid. I'd remember seeing ads for it in magazines and everything and I'd always wanted to try it, but I could never find the copy. And I said, "Let me pick this up, this should be all right." And it's a science fiction role-playing game called Traveler. I picked it up and then, on the flight back home, I read the book and I was like, "Wow, this is really cool." When I got back home, the first thing I did on this internet thing in the mid 90s was: I began searching online for Christian role players. Back then there had been an organization actually called the Christian Role Playing Gamers Association the CRPGA and, through that, I found an email list with a group of people called the Christian Gamers Guild. And it wasn't like the web forums of today or Reddit or anything like that. It was just an email list. So, the way that would work is, you sent an email and you would get a bunch of other emails on topics. And the topics were threaded via the email list. And I saw people talking about Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I saw people talking about faith and fandom and I said, "Wow, there are other people out there like me. There are other people out there like me that love this stuff. And this is probably 1995, 1996 and I said, "This is awesome that there are other people that see this and they see that these things intersect, these things weave and flow into each other." And so, it was just a beautiful thing to meet people who were like me, who were people of faith, who loved fantasy, who loved science fiction, who loved playing games, and they did not see a problem with it. There were some that were in there, like me, that were trying to find out, "Hey, is this stuff okay?" And there were lots of questions about it, that's pretty much where it really began to hit and connect for me that these two things are not separate worlds, but there's two worlds that bleed into each other because they're both worlds of story.
NATHAN: You know, that's an interesting thing. I'm fairly new. I've been in the nerd world like you said since the beginning of my life. I've just always been a nerd. And I've been a Christian since the beginning of my life. But I'd never taken the time to really study that intersection. And I believed it didn't exist. And then, last year we started working on Checkpoint Church and the things that we're doing here, discovered that there is this robust community. And, not only is there one robust community, there is a rich history of communities with an 's.' There's so many vibrant communities out there and people that are growing and have been around since the 90s. I've been around since before then and had these web forums and things like this and so I find that really intriguing you know just getting to to talk to somebody that was exploring this intersection in the same way I'm exploring it today, but just to a completely different degree, on a completely different scope of the internet. And how that intersection was done, you know, out of that intersection back in the OG day, what have you seen? What are some evolutions, some steps that you've seen, along the way as it has evolved from those Christian Gamers Guild days? Those forum days into where we are now?
DEREK: The biggest thing I've seen is the explosion of other ministries like this. Actual ministries. When we were doing it, there was no cohesion. There was nothing like that. There was nobody. This was just a bunch of Christians from various backgrounds. We had Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Baptists, some Methodists, Presbyterians... We're just all in this space with no real connection to each other except for our love for Jesus and our love for geek culture. So the explosion I've seen this probably the last five to seven years is you could just google it and there are Christian geeky ministries all over the place. I mean, people like Gamechurch, InnRoads Ministries, podcasts like the Min/Max podcast, all kinds of stuff. There's, in the evangelical world, there's Christ In Pop Culture, which is a great online magazine. That's the biggest evolution I've seen is actual ministries and churches that have started up around this. Because early on, when i first began doing this, I mean, you can turn on just an average church service now, for example, just watch an online service and you will see a pastor of a fairly traditional church get up and mention a Marvel movie or the newest science fiction or fantasy show on Netflix as an illustration in their sermon. Or do a whole sermon series based around it. That sort of thing just was rare or unheard of or considered unorthodox or radical back in the day.
NATHAN: Yeah, I find it really intriguing. You know, the more that I discover, like whenever you know you mentioned Min/Max, and I've been listening to their backlog... Once you discover them, they interview everyone, and their people interview everyone, and their people interview, and so I'm just like digging deeper into this rabbit hole of more and more groups like this. More and more people that have discovered this thing that is Christian geek culture, but I'm not gonna lie I got a little bit of like a warming of my heart, if you will, whenever you mentioned the days where it didn't really matter who you were or where you were or what your background was. This interview isn't going to be coming out anytime soon, but this upcoming Sunday is Pentecost. You were almost at that Pentecost moment of geek and Christian intersection.
DEREK: You're talking about my Pentecost sermon now, because that's pretty much what I'm going to be preaching on. The title of the message for Pentecost Sunday that I'm doing is called The Language of the Spirit. And the whole idea on Pentecost, for your listeners that may not be familiar with the story, Pentecost is the reversal of the tower of Babel. The tower of Babel is when all the languages of the world came into being and all the peoples of the earth were scattered. And on Pentecost somehow the Apostle Peter is able to get up and to speak in a language that everyone understands - everyone understands it in their own language. And that's what pop culture and geek culture is: you can talk about and - I use marvel movies now because they're so ubiquitous they're everywhere and they're worldwide - so you can get up and you can talk about environmentalism, for example, in a message, and you could reference Thanos and, someone who does not speak English, but if you translate it into their language, they understand that cultural reference. We need to use a language that speaks to all people and the language that speaks to everyone, I think, is the language of geek culture. It is just something that it is a Pentecost moment. A moment where we can communicate with everyone in the world. I mean, you're a big video gamer. I mean, you get on video games and play games with people all over the world. I was playing a game a number of years ago online and it was so great. I was kind of in this clan, if you're familiar with clans and video games, and I had the majority of people in the clan were French. I could not speak French. I do not speak French. But there's this nice thing called Google Translate and so I would copy what they said into Google Translate, translate it into English, get the gist of what they were saying, I would then type my reply in English, translate it into French, and reply to them. Now, that's amazing and, now, we weren't bonding over language, we were bonding over the game - and it was a Star Wars game - and that's how we bonded in the midst of that game and we would talk and chat with each other in various languages. I think one of the greatest things I had was when an article I wrote for a gaming magazine and someone sent me a message and said, "Hey, can I translate this into my language?" And I'm just, like, "Wow, yeah." You know, you're in another culture, in another country, but you want to translate something I've written into another language. So, we've gone beyond the barriers of language and we're using our culture, our global culture, in ways to communicate with one another.
NATHAN: Yeah, you know, I think sometimes as a pastor that has served a local church, sometimes we almost get so insular that even in our four walls of our church we speak our own language. Even if we're all speaking English, we have our own words and vernacular that we refuse to go outside of. I find that a really intriguing possibility of what language we can speak that might overlap. You know, I think that there's a lot of possibility for these different languages that we speak and, in particular at Checkpoint, we're using Twitch and we have people from all over the world that join in on our on our chats and they don't speak my language or they may speak my language or maybe their second language, they're still able to bond over the games that we're playing in the things that we're doing. I wonder if even calling it pop culture or nerd culture or things like that is maybe giving ourselves too much credit, but that it's more along the lines of what you were saying: it's older than that. The language that we're speaking that's uniting us is the language of story. That's what we're bonding over are these characters, these themes, these things that bring us together and teach us. And one thing in particular that I've noticed that is your - I don't know if you would consider it your hobby, your passion, one of your second careers, your side hustle, whatever phrase you want to put behind it - you're a bit of a documentarian. I don't know if you consider yourself that but you are very interested in promoting and hyping and being involved with these series called Fantasy Makers and Science Fiction Makers and I think you've got something new on the horizon there as well. And so, I'm curious to know what do you think about these roles of of stories? How do those play into this intersection of faith and fandom?
DEREK: To butcher a Doctor Who quote, "In the end, we're all stories." We are all stories. This is the heart of who we are and I think, on the Christian side, this is where we've messed up reading the Bible for so very, very long. It's been going on in Christianity especially with the rise of Modernism where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, we were using the Bible as this straight doctrinal teaching tool and we'd lost the story, because that's what the Bible is: it's a book of stories, book of narrative, it's a book of journeys; it is, at the heart, all about the story. That's why I got involved in these documentaries. I was preaching a message at an ecumenical worship service at a large gaming convention called Gen Con in Indianapolis. We had about 500 people in there. During the service, this guy was shooting a documentary on a nerd ministry, a geek ministry from up in Canada, and they had come to Gen Con. And I got to meet them, got to talk to them; he decided to come in and film the sermon, we hit it off and he contacted me to be a part of the Fantasy Makers. Well, the Fantasy Makers was on the life of three Christian fantasy writers: George McDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They told stories. They told stories of fantasy, they also told stories of faith. That is the common language. We as human beings are a storytelling people, we love stories. Stories are what challenge us. Stories are what encourage us. Stories make us cry. Stories make us laugh. Stories make us celebrate. Stories make us think. And this is what we as people of faith need to rediscover and realize that everybody can find a different meaning in a story; that everybody can find something different to gravitate toward the story. There are all kinds of different characters as we read stories, as we get older - and I'm getting older now - I'll give you an example of a Bible story that many people are familiar with: it's the story of the Prodigal Son. In the story, of course the prodigal son is raised by this loving father, asks him for his inheritance, leaves dad and home and goes and spends his money in a far country, comes back to dad all broke, doesn't have anything left, and just begs his dad if he could just work for his dad, be his dad's slave, and dad welcomes him back in. Well, when I was a new Christian, I identified with the son who just was wasting everything in his life, but then after I was a Christian for a period of time, I began to identify with the older brother, you know, who's this kid to come back and waste everything? Why let him back in the door? And then, as I got older, even more older, I began to think, "Maybe I should be like the father in the story and love both my children." This is the thing about a story: at different points in our lives we identify with different characters. In Star Wars, when I was a kid I identified with Luke Skywalker, then when I got a little bit older, I wanted to be the rogue Han Solo, then there are times now where I want to identify with Princess Leia because Princess Leia kicks some butt, you know? And I identify with her. Sometimes I identify with C-3PO and sometimes I want to identify with R2D2. Does that make me non-binary? I don't know. Sorry. That's a good joke there. Binary zeros and ones. Who do we identify in the story and that is the power of stories. Stories have the power to change lives. Stories have the power to change culture. Stories have the power to move nations and that that's why I love stories so much. So, I would agree with you. Yes, it is the language of stories, I think, that geek culture and pop culture are just the biggest ones that promote that.
NATHAN: What do you think it is about documentaries that makes them valuable for really analyzing these moments? Is it the people that are weighing in and providing thoughts? Is it the research done into them? Is it just the presentation of the ideas in general?
DEREK: Well, these documentaries, I think, are especially important. These particular ones are to show us that people of faith have been in these fields. I think that's part of the importance of it. I think it lets us take it in. I think it's important to see that there are people in these stories who were great thinkers, great writers that were also people of faith. I think that's an important reminder to Christians is that we have that heritage. We need to re-engage our imagination. One of the things about documentaries I like is being able to hear the voices of others - to hear the voices of scholars who are going into that. But one of the reasons that they asked me to take part in these documentaries is because that's the world that I bridge. I am an academic. I have a Masters of Divinity. I've got a Bachelor's Degree. But I also did some post-Doctoral work in Semiotics and Future Studies. But I'm also a pastor, or at least I've been a pastor. Now, you know, I've served local churches. It allows me to bridge those worlds. Too often academics are over here in this high and mighty spot. They like to speak way above their audience. They like to sound academic. You've been to seminary. You know how it is. You've got some of those professors who just love to prove they're smarter than everybody else in the room and that, you know, until you achieve their level of smartitude you can't really communicate with them. I've been on the other side in some Pentecostal churches where "we don't need no education, teachers leave them kids alone," you know, I just need the Spirit of God. That's all I need, Jesus in my heart, you ain't got to tell me nothing, and that's it. Jesus, the Bible, and that's it! And those two worlds never seem to meet. And I think that's the job of a pastor is we are to bridge that world. We have to be able to speak both those language. There's that Pentecost thing again. We need to speak the language of both worlds. We need to bring the worlds of scholarship and learning and all of the beauty that is there with that heartfelt loving emotion that just your average person has - and I've been both - I've been the average, you know, redneck in the backwoods of Louisiana to going to Cambridge to work on some doctoral work in Semiotics - the study of signs and symbols. Some kid who grew up around night clubs... and so my goal in life - and I think that should be the goal of any pastor - is to connect both those worlds. And that's one of the things that Andrew Wahl who produces and directs these documentaries - he said, "Derek, that's why I want you in here - is because you you can bridge those worlds." And I thought, "Well do I? Is that what I do?" I didn't think about it that way until I started talking with him a number of years ago. And I thought, "You know, that's the job of a pastor. That's the job of a minister - is we're to bridge both those worlds." In Christian terminology, it's an incarnational role. That's what Jesus did classically - historically - Christians believe Jesus came in the flesh. Jesus is fully divine and fully human - He bridges the world between heaven and earth and He brings the voice of Heaven to earth and He brings the voice of earth to Heaven. And that's what we do in incarnational ministry - is we bridge those worlds. We bring the voice of Heaven to earth, but we also bring earth's voice back to Heaven, because the Creator wants to hear the voice of the earth, and when the Creator hears the voice of the earth He pours more Heaven into the earth, and then it becomes this wonderful mishmash of beauty. And then we can truly pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven." And Heaven and earth begin to overlap in a beautiful dimensional intersection. Yeah, so you got me to preach it now, bro.
NATHAN: Hey, that's good. That's where we want it. Often people try to answer the question of, like, "Why is Jesus telling parables - Why does Jesus always use parables?" And the normal answer is: well, because the audience that He was speaking to - the congregations that we're gathering - were made up of farmers and of people that had servants. Maybe we're overthinking it. Maybe the truth is: no, Jesus told parables because parables relate because they're stories. Because we want to hear those things. You know, maybe we're we're making Jesus - not saying that Jesus isn't complex - but we're making the reasons behind His ministry too complex. The truth is He told parables because they're good stories.
DEREK: When people say, "Why did Jesus tell parables?" I ask them first... have you ever been around a grandpa who told stories? Do you have that relative who always told stories? And in the south, you know, to get from point a to b they go through c through z to get the beat - just jump around all over the place. But eventually they get to where they're going, they just love to tell stories. And I think Jesus told stories because He loved to tell stories. That's the best way to communicate with another person. If I tell you to memorize a list of ten commandments you're like, "Oh God, don't give me a list..." But when I tell you a story about a man and his children, you listen. When I tell you a story about a woman looking for some money she lost in her home, you both relate. But you're, like, you relate to that. People relate to stories and those stories are timeless. Yes sometimes we need to understand the culture of the story, but that's the way any story works. I remember reading Arabian Nights and I read those stories and I said, "Why don't I really grasp all of this?" And I realized I'm not from the middle east, you know? I tried to read the more original Arabian Nights, not the anglicized ones, and I didn't relate to them at first. And I said, "Well, you know, yeah, I've got to understand that culture." And that's the beauty of stories, too: they introduce us to other cultures and other worlds that we've never seen before. Yeah, we do overthink it. Yeah, go tell that to a seminary professor! Why did Jesus tell parables? Because He liked to tell stories. Wrong!
NATHAN: Yeah, this is why I never scored too high on my seminary papers. I always was a little too cheeky. I have a running theory as well that, you know, we don't have any collections - I wish, with the Dead Sea Scrolls, they'd also found some, like, writings of Paul where he talked about making tents. How nice would it be to humanize Paul? Because he's, you know, some people find him very controversial. Some people agree, some people disagree, but what if we just read him talking to tent-makers for a little bit? I bet that would humanize a lot.
DEREK: Or what if we took Paul's epistles and read them as a story? That's one of the big things where Romans is Romans
- which I always hated Romans - I know that is, for any person within the kind of semi-Protestant - we Methodists are in a weird space for a Protestant, but we're not protestant, okay?
NATHAN: Right, we're reaching to clutch our pearls, but we're not quite there yet.
DEREK: We're kind of Anglican Protestant, right? And so I really did not like the book of Romans until I started finding some scholars that said, you know, what Paul is doing here... he's basically creating a straw man argument. In some ways, he's arguing against another rabbi. That's a story. That's a story. I love first and second Corinthians, because Paul's telling a story. He talks to them about the stories in their own midst. Yes, some of them are real life stories, but it's like, hey dude, you're sleeping with step mom here, you know? That's a problem, man. And so he's telling a story. And then he does that beautiful love chapter in first Corinthians. Galatians -which I love - and, this is why we misunderstand Paul so much, one of the things that Paul's doing is he is so richly engaged with the stories of Hebrew scripture that we often, as western Christians, miss those stories. I mean, what Paul does with Hagar and Sarah in Galatians requires a great understanding of those previous stories. So, Paul's building off of stories and I think we would give Paul a lot more slack if we realize that one of the greatest counter narratives that Paul does is in Philemon where, you know, he's basically shaming this slave owner to free his slave Onesimus. But, you have to know the power of story to be able to do that. So I think Paul was more of a storyteller than people give him credit for. It's just we, especially in Protestant traditions, we weren't taught to read Paul that way. We were taught to read Paul as a guy with a bunch of rules and I think that does disservice to Paul.
NATHAN: Exactly. I think we feel more like we're reading a D&D rule book than actually experiencing a campaign.
DEREK: Oh, don't get me going there. One of the things - okay,
here's my joke for the day... you know, I'm an old school gamer so I've been playing D&D since 1983/84. In the world of tabletop gaming space, you have what are called the 'old school gamers,' who refuse to use any rule system other than first edition D&D. I equate them to the King-James-only crowd of the table top gaming world. They are our King-James-only folks. Yeah, because they want nothing but the original rule set as God spoke it through Gary Gygax. You know, they think that's it. And what's funny is, among that crowd, I know people who played with Gary in 1974 with the rules that came before that and some of those folks are like, no, these are the best rules possible. But what both of them forget, and all of these groups forget, is you're just using those rules to help facilitate storytelling.
NATHAN: Absolutely, and, you know, you've transitioned well here. I don't know if you're familiar with the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon - six degrees of separation - but you definitely moved me up a couple rungs on my D&D stardom here, because you're very intimately connected with Gary Gygax and GaryCon. And I'd love to know more about that. How did you come to get connected there? And, you know, what does your role look like as a game chaplain there? What even is a game chaplain?
DEREK: All right, let's start with the last first: What is my role? And then I'll tell you how I got connected with GaryCon. Pretty much I had to invent the role on my own a little bit, because I was already doing it without it being an official position. So, one of the things I've done is weddings - I've done weddings for geeks and gamers, because, for many of them, that's where their real family is: the geek community. And so, they want to get married in places that are important to them. Most people don't want to get married in a church today and, for geeks, their destination wedding is a gaming convention. And so, I've done weddings for them. I've also done counseling. I've had people who have come to gaming conventions and are in the midst of a broken relationship and they want somebody to talk to about it. I've had some spiritual counseling where people were wondering about their spiritual journey and they wanted someone to talk to about it. I've had people who have lost family members while the gaming convention is going on; they get a phone call, they've got to leave. And it's giving me an opportunity to pray with them, talk with them, and let them know that there's someone there that cares for them. In general, it's hospitality; you know, just to welcome people. Let them know that this is a place that is inclusive, that is open to people of all faiths, all genders, whether you have a faith or don't have a faith; we are welcoming to all people. That's an important thing in that space: is to let them know that, to let them know that sexual harassment is not allowed in gaming spaces, things like that. So that's part of what I do. Another thing I do, as my community begins to age and get grayer, people have been passing away. And that's what GaryCon is. GaryCon is a memorial gaming convention. It was started by the children of Gary Gygax, the co-creator of dungeons and dragons, after he passed away. After his funeral, his family said, "Hey, let's go down to the local American Legion hall and play some games in honor of our dad." And that's what they call GaryCon Zero: where the family and the friends of the family and people in the industry went and they played games in honor of Gary Gygax. Some people said, "Hey, let's do this every year!" And Luke Gygax, one of Gary's children, said, "Let's do it." And he started GaryCon. That's what it grew out of, so part of my job at GaryCon has been to maintain the memorial wall; where it started out as a memorial to Gary Gygax, in memory of him, it evolved into a place where we would write the names of other people in the industry who had passed away and we would start adding names of industry people because the tabletop rpg community and industry has really grown. Well, one of the things Luke and I talked about was... you know what? The average gamer is losing people. We had some people die because of cancer. Some younger gamers die because of leukemia or things like that. And we said, "You know what? We're going to put up a board where people can write the names of their friends who have passed away over the last year." That's kind of what I do. My job is to maintain the memorial wall and to promote that and to put together the memorial in honor of Gary Gygax, as well as Dave Arneson now, because he's the other co-creator of dungeons & dragons, he's passed away. To put other people in the industry who have passed away. I usually put up, like, some large blank pieces of paper and people can come by and write the names of their friends on it, write a message to that, so it allows them to memorize, remember them, and then other people walk up and they start reading the names. And it's been so amazing when I will see people go, "Oh my goodness, so-and-so passed away... I gamed with him back in 2003. I didn't know he passed away, man" And it allows people to to realize all those connections they have. How did I get involved with GaryCon in particular? Well, part of it is I got to meet Gary Gygax back in 2007, as we were both going to a faith and gaming panel. And Gary and I had been talking online for probably a year or two before then, so we knew each other online before the panel. Gary and I met and we got to sit down and have a snack and a conversation. We came to the panel together. We hit it off really, really well. Gary had invited me to come up to Lake Geneva, where he was living. I believe it was December - January of that year. Unfortunately, for preachers December is a very busy month and I needed to take some time away after we got through advent with my family. And I couldn't make it. And then Gary passed away two months - two or three months later he passed away, March. Okay, I can't miss these things anymore because these are important people. People who have been become important in my life. I mean, Gary was someone I met at a gaming convention but he had also responded to my personal emails. We had spoken with each other on the message board Fans for Christ, which is defunct now, made me sad when I lost all my messages from him where we had discussed a number of things. So, when GaryCon one was coming to start, which, I think we maybe had a hundred, two hundred people there, hardly anybody there. A friend of mine who lives close to there, works in the industry, he works for a company called KinzerCo, his name is Jolly Blackburn, and he had - I had been friends before I ever went back into ministry - so he and I were good friends. We would talk and we would chat and he said, "Derek, you need to come up here. You can stay with me." Boom - I jumped on a plane, went up there, and went to the first GaryCon. Honestly, I was looking forward to going to GaryCon, but I was looking forward to seeing my friend Jolly because I'd already met and gotten to know some of the people through the tabletop gaming world. And so, we came and hung out, had a great time and I've just been there ever since. And after I'd been going for a number of years, I was kind of volunteering behind the scenes, helping out, I was doing weddings and stuff like that. And then Luke asked me to be his chaplain. And Luke's a military guy, so he's familiar with chaplains, you know, and so, I kind of look at it in a two-fold sense; one, I'm a real life cleric; but two, it almost functions like a military chaplain - military chaplains, at their best, are to provide religious services for all, people of all faiths. It is an interfaith job, but they also have to provide space for people of no faith. That's what people forget very often is that: if you're atheist or agnostic, military chaplains are there to serve you, as well. They're not there to proselytize you or evangelize you; they're there to be there for you, you know. It's a fascinating world and I think it's something that we just don't even consider as being an aspect of that convention culture. Anytime you have that natural culture forming, that sense of community forming, whether it is, like you said, interfaith or whether it is a more spiritual direction, or whether it's just a person - having someone that's there as that role, just to facilitate those conversations and those memorials, and that time of honoring people - I mean, that's - people need to be honored. People need to be lifted up and supported in a really wonderful way. So I think that's great. As we kind of wind down our conversation a little bit, I want to ask a question that we're trying to ask everybody. The answer is hopefully obvious, but I'm open to pushback... Do you believe that God can use fandoms - can use pop culture - for good? If so, you know, how have you seen that happen? And, if not, you know, what is it in that pushback? But I have a feeling I know your answer.
DEREK: Well, I wouldn't be who I am if I didn't think God could use fandoms, right? I mean, that's what I've been doing - I started doing it without being aware of it in my mid-20s, over half my life. I tell people, I said, you know, it's really interesting... When I went back into ministry, I went back in ministry with the UMC in 2007. 2007's also the same year I was invited to come to GenCon and be a part of a faith and gaming panel with the co-creator of dungeons and dragons. So I would say that, providentially, yes God could use pop culture. Now, the thing that we forget and, here's the pushback part, for you God speaks prophetically sometimes; sometimes... God speaks prophetically all the time. So, a prophetic speech is sometimes critical. Now, here's the problem, I think, if I critique pop culture I'm critiquing it as a geek, who is a part of that culture and has been a part of that culture for all of my life. What really ticks me off - and I almost said a worse word - but what really makes me mad is when Christians, who are not a part of that culture, critique it from the outside. Always remember: the prophets of Israel that critiqued Israel, the worst were still Israelites. Whether they were northern kingdom or southern kingdom, it didn't matter; they were all the same people. Very rarely do you see a prophet in the scriptures critique Israel who's not in Israel. Like, the only one who comes to mind off the bat is Balaam and he was an idiot, you know, he literally had to listen to an ass, okay? So, you know, but very rarely do you see in scripture... John the Baptist was an Israelite critiquing Israelites; Jesus, if you read Him in a critical way, is a Jewish man critiquing himself. This is why I don't critique Judaism. I'm not Jewish! I'm a Christian. If I critique Christianity, I critique it as a Christian. If I critique and speak prophetically to geek culture, I critique it as a geek. So yes, God does speak through geek culture, but God primarily speaks through geek culture to geeks. If our people aren't geeks, you know, and I've had to learn that the hard way. When I get up and I preach a sermon that is very geeky related, and I've got a 85 year old church member in there, they are very quick to tell me, "I don't know what you're talking about." So, if I'm going to use geek culture to speak to that message; to that 85 year old person; I have to find an area where the Venn diagrams overlap. And, to give you an example of what I did, at once is I did a sermon series on a theology of monsters, so, what I did was, I went back to the early Universal films of werewolves stuff like that. And I got up and I said, "I know y'all seen Frankenstein." We're not talking the new movie that came out; we're talking about the movie that came out in the 40s and the 50s. And they came up to me, they said, "I got that one pastor. I understood that." This goes back to what we've been saying the whole time, we've got to learn to speak the common language. Now, I will say, by the time I'm 80 I think that my generation is going to get all of those references, because we stay with that. And when God speaks prophetically through any culture, he's speaking through the people who are an integral part of that culture. All the street preachers that want to critique whatever, you better shut up, until you you've walked a mile in our shoes, and, as Jesus said, you got to walk two miles in my shoes.
NATHAN: There's an interesting argument to be made there and some really, really fun stuff to dive into. Where does this go, right? Where are we going? What does this intersection of faith and pop culture look like in five years, 10 years, 20 years? If you could dream up a dream, what in the world would it look like?
DEREK: Okay, that question I might could answer. Yeah, I could dream a dream, because, as someone who who has worked in future studies and likes to try and predict the future; this last year of the pandemic has shown me, oh my God, I don't know what in the world's gonna happen next. Okay, you know, with what we've gone through politically in America what we've gone through pandemically in America, I have no idea where the world's going next. But what would I dream of? Honestly, I wrote about it a number of years ago. It comes from a book by a man named Spider Robinson. There is a place in there called Callahan's Saloon and in Callahan's Saloon that - you gotta remember this story was written in the 1980s, before the internet, so all you youngsters out there listening: this was before there was even dial up internet. If you wanted to communicate with someone online, you had to dial their phone directly and use a computer terminal. In that story what Spider Robinson talks about is this person who has Tourette's so badly that, whenever you saw them have a seizure, you couldn't help but laugh. It's called 'involuntary man's laughter.' These people who are called the 'cheerful charlies;' their whole job, the way they earned their living, was to cheer people up. And this young man was isolated in his home, because he couldn't go out in public his Tourette's was so bad. And every time he would have a seizure, people would laugh at him. Now, these cheerful charlie's were professionals and they went in and they could only hold out for maybe a minute before they left. And they said we've got to find some way to connect this person to other people. He's so lonely. And when I read this as a child the idea just blew my mind away, because the idea of community computers communicating with each other was just very rare. What they did is they set up a computer terminal in this bar and he could come in virtually into that bar and chat with the people. And they would have pun nights, where they would tell the worst puns possible and, whoever told the worst pun, won. And this young man could now participate in that with them, so what is my dream for the future - especially as the father of an autistic child who has trouble connecting to people socially - is to set up a safe, inclusive space online and in-person. Notice that: online and in person. Where we can interact together. Right now I've noticed churches doing two things: they're either setting up a purely virtual space, which I support because it's needed in a pandemic world, heck yeah it's needed; or, they're doubling down and they're just keeping their traditional spaces. And some of those places that have traditional spaces, they have the traditional, regular, come-to-church space over here and, then they got some two-or-three people working in the background doing online communications for them. And those two communities are becoming separate. They are not intermingling, and that's a problem. That leads to tribalism. That leads to "we're better than you" mentalities. My dream, in the next five years, we could see a space where people could gather together physically and virtually. Where you could have a worship service where people are able to interact with one another whether they're physically or virtually present. Where people could play games where, you know, and we do that now in the gaming world, I've played in games where there were two or three of us physically present and then we had a terminal with Zoom up, like you and I are doing now. And our friend who's on the other side of the country, who can't be with us physically anymore, sitting there talking with us and catching up. That's my dream. That's my hope. That's something I'm going to be trying to work on, because I'm taking family leave. I'm stepping away from pastoral ministry for at least a year, so that I can look into these things. So that I can see how that's going to go. It's also so I could work on a documentary and spend more time with my son, but that's the world I want to create: where people who are not comfortable being in a room with other people still have a place to connect with them. One of the rules we have at my gaming table is: I don't care how bad you look, if we're playing virtually, I still want to see your face. At least for a little bit, you know, just to check in to see how you're doing. Then, if that's uncomfortable for you, turn your camera off, that's okay, but I want to be able to check in with you. I want to see how people are doing. I mean, I get lots of text messages for prayer requests, but the best times I have is when somebody Zooms in with me and says, "Let's pray together," because then I get to see them. I want that real-time communication. So, even if I'm not seeing them face to face, even if we're just typing on the keyboard, if we're doing it in real time, there's something about that real time connection that's nice, you know, important, essential. Ultimately, we're wanting to unite - we're wanting to break down that division that happened so long ago and that keeps happening. It's not a new idea. Like you said, with the dawn of the internet, whether it was in the 80s when we were connecting over phone numbers, there's still that uniting factor of wanting to unite people.
NATHAN: To close out this time, what are you watching, what are you reading, and what are you playing? I can answer first. I'm watching Love, Death + Robots on Netflix. I loved volume one and so I'm deep in volume two. Love it already. I am reading a 2018 novel, historical fiction called Pachinko - pre-war korean family as they go throughout their generations. And then I am playing Resident Evil Village still. So what's on your list right now, Derek?
DEREK: Well, you stole my first one there. Love, Death, + Robots. I'm also watching Love, Death, + Robots, but I'm also watching Shadow and Bone. I love Shadow and Bone, because it's got a fantasy, semi-steampunk feel to it. But I also like it, because all the characters - all the actors - look like real people. Nobody's too beautiful, right? When they get dirty, they get dirty. You know, when they get wounded, you still see the scars on them. That's pretty cool. I'm also watching The Nevers on HBOMax, which is kind of an alternate history Victorian England show about empowerment, especially feminine empowerment, the empowerment of women, which is really, really good. If you want to speak against the misogyny of that day, and today, you can tell where I'm at on those issues - I am a proto-feminist, I say proto-feminist because I don't know where I fit in on the spectrum, I just know that I support women in positions of power and authority. I don't physically read as much as I used to, so Audible is my friend and people have told me that audio books are reading.
DEREK: And so, I am currently listening to Dominion by Tom Holland. It's how the Christian revolution remade the world. It is probably one of the best histories of Christianity I've seen in ages, because it it does not leave out the bad stuff, you know, and it's not written from a pro-Christian rah-rah-rah viewpoint. It shows the good, the bad, and the ugly and I really enjoy that. I'm also reading The Wandering Inn of by Pirate Abba. I am on the third book of that series. Each one of these audiobooks is 30 something hours long and Pirate Abba released them originally as a web novel. It is kind of in the lit rpg world. Basically, you level up in these stories, but it's about people from our world who go into a fantasy world, where you gain levels, which - guess what I'm playing - I'm playing a lot of dungeons and dragons. I play dungeons and dragons. I play in a game almost every Thursday night. That started up during the pandemic, we play online via dnd beyond, roll 20, and discord, we use all three. And then I run a dungeons and dragons game every Friday night for my daughter, two of her friends from college, and a friend of mine I've known online for a number of years. Whenever GaryCon comes up, I'm running some horror role-playing games and I'm known for my Scooby-Doo Call of Cthulhu horror role-playing games. I run those for GaryCon and various other gaming conventions,
NATHAN: Well, super cool. It sounds like you're in some great things. I've added some things to my list, for sure. As kind of a way of closing, what are some shout outs? Where can people find you? We'll throw your LinkTree in the description of this podcast. Anything in specific, you know, that you want to point them towards?
DEREK: Oh, well, you can find me - If you do TikTok, you can find me as the Geekpreacher on TikTok. You can find me as the Geekpreacher on Instagram. If you go to Facebook, you can find my personality page, the Geekpreacher. You could probably go to my website, but I haven't updated it in a while. My LinkTree is probably the best place to go which is the Geekpreacher. If you want to support what I'm doing, because I'm going to be out of a job for the next year at least, if you want to support the work I'm doing, you can support me and follow me on Patreon at - guess what - the Geekpreacher. I've been in this space for so long that if you Google 'the Geekpreacher' I'm probably the the number one result you're gonna get. And the the worst part is - I'm not the one that's been around the longest. I've been the one at it the most steady, I guess you could say.
NATHAN: Yeah, gotta love that brand continuity. That's good; that's good stuff. Thank you so much for your time. Thanks for coming out to this podcast and for being a part of this.
DEREK: Hey, thanks for having me, Nathan, I really appreciate it.
NATHAN: All right, and that is a wrap on the first episode of Nerds of Prey. Folks, I hope that you enjoyed the podcast. The show is distributed free of charge and worldwide, but we would love your support and help by giving us a five star review and sharing the episode around your friends so that we can reach as many nerds, geeks, and gamers as humanly possible. Be sure to go and follow our special guest Derek White using all the links in the show notes and give him some kind words and encouragement for being the Geekpreacher that he is. If you enjoyed the discussion and want to talk more, feel free to join the Checkpoint Church discord. We'll be talking all about the exciting things that Derek brought to the table - not to mention this episode did actually premiere live on our twitch channel, so be sure to follow twitch.tv/checkpointchurch to catch the next episode and discuss it live with the viewers. Our next episode will be dropping two weeks from today and will feature one of the two leaders of Crossfire: Faith and Gaming, Russell Dornisch. Look forward to that and thanks again so much for giving us a listen! If you have any recommendations or you would like to be considered as a future guest on the podcast, submit your name and biography to email@example.com. Remember, Nerds of Prey is recorded, edited, produced, and distributed by Nathan Webb and Checkpoint Church. The Checkpoint Church Podcast Hub is the hub for all of our podcasts, sermons, and special projects. To learn more, go to checkpointchurch.com or send any questions you have to firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember that we believe three things to be true about every single one of you listening, regardless of where you might be with God, we firmly believe that God loves you, that we love you, and that you matter. You are a person of sacred worth. The world is better because you are in it. That is it for this one. I have been Nerd Pastor Nate and this has been the Nerds of Prey. Special thanks to our guest Derek White. Until next time folks, BUHBYE!