The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is, in itself, a beautifully immersive open-world RPG… but what if, for those of us following Jesus, it becomes even more?
Please note, I do not mean forcing a Christian analogy onto the story, nor am I interested in making wild speculations of the developer’s intentions. Instead, what intrigues me to inquiry is both practical for a living faith and respectful to the game as its own narrative.
Specifically, when I see the unique factions of Skyrim each striving and struggling in a way the player character becomes a part of, I can’t help but think that every one of them (yes, even the thieves and assassins) contain lessons Christians can learn from about Church community. Or, if not learn for the first time, then reimagine in a refreshing light, because countless cases of church abuse and cerebral conjecture leave us sorely in need of Jesus’ parable simplicity– vivid stories to illustrate spiritual truth.
Fighting for honor and glory among Skyrim’s kingdoms, I found a near-heavenly escape from earth for a few hours… yet truly I tell you, God’s kingdom infiltrating our world through His people belongs to those such as these.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster: a longhouse crowded with proud warriors seeking gold and glory, without any of the iron-fisted discipline that typically binds such stubborn souls together. Actually, it’s the Companions of Whiterun, and their unique formula of leadership is what makes them a force in the province to be reckoned with.
The Companions trace their ancient history back to their first and only true leader, Ysgramor, who along with five-hundred fighters assaulted the elves for their genocidal aggression against humankind. Since that day, “none have been mighty enough to corral the great hearts that beat within Jorrvaskr,” and a different kind of authority is entrusted to a Harbinger, who “advises, resolves disputes, and helps to clarify when questions arise of the nature of honor.”
This same principle stands as we follow Jesus, who is the ultimate head of His universal Church. Sadly, Christianity has become better known as an institution of strict hierarchy, yet this is far from the Biblical model given by Christ.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:25-28 (ESV)
Far more revolutionary than abolishing titles and forcing equality, Jesus turns the whole notion of hierarchy on its head. Like the Companion’s Harbingers who “lead us through the darkness to glories in Sovngarde,” we obey and submit to those who already lead by example in following Christ, “for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). This is a sound structure that no earthly organization will ever successfully imitate, for the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit are alone capable of both humbling humanity and banding together that rowdy rabble known as the redeemed.
The College of Winterhold
Dignified through Disgrace
While mages were never a popular bunch in Skyrim to begin with, tension worsened after the Oblivion Crisis and compounded even further for this institution in particular. One glance at the college building will make their precarious place among the Nords obvious; while all but the city’s outskirts collapsed into the sea decades ago, the College of Winterhold stands alone and untouched atop a single earthen pillar.
Although Skyrim’s people still rely on these magical experts for enchanting services and scholarly knowledge, this is far from respect. Many of their fellow residents in Winterhold suspect the mages are to blame for the former city’s destruction, and citizens throughout the province gossip about the College’s suspicious activity… always ready to point out where arcane experimentation ended in a hazardous mess.
Yet despite this pressure, students and scholars alike in the College remain focused on their research and even excel beyond that. Winterhold’s mages maintain a healthy distance from political entanglements outside, pursue a high standard for their members within, and provide unconditional help to those around them.
That last point is most evident when – in a moment of piercing grief and the potential loss of their home – the College mages must protect their neighbors from an aggressive swarm of magic anomalies, and scholar Arniel Gane asks “Do we have to? They’d never lift a finger to help us”. He has the same right to honestly wonder as a Samaritan might, after spotting a critically wounded Jew along the road who would consider him a half-breed heretic. Like the good Samaritan of Luke 10:25, Arniel chooses to step in at his own cost regardless.
Christians today also face distrust and ridicule, sometimes for Jesus’ honor and other times by our own error. This does not mean our quest has a failed objective. Rather, it’s because others perceive us as enemies that our compassion becomes especially clear. Jesus knew the world would hate us, but He promised they would know us by our love. No matter how much Christianity plummets in public opinion, this is an opportunity for us to seize daily– examining ourselves as a redeemed community and extending radiant grace to others when they need it.
The Thieves Guild
What if I told you the thieves operating under Riften exhibit more faith than many Christians? Sure… they shun the gods and scorn the law, but faith (of a slightly different sort) is nonetheless a consistent and driving theme in the Thieves Guild’s story.
As the player first finds the guild, they are only a shadow of their former infamous glory, barely able to influence their home city of Riften. Despite dwindling numbers and ominous occurrences of bad fortune, a core group of the guild’s members remain confidently committed – trusting one another, the future of their order, and their personal calling as skilled rogues – even through great risk.
Just ask Niruin, a Bosmer longing for more than the prospering business and promising betrothal he was born into, “Because it was dull. Every day was the same boring routine . . . I just wanted a little excitement. Something dangerous.” He first turned to working with a local criminal guild in Valenwood, but after his father learned of this secret life, Niruin left home and possessions behind entirely. Following that day, this thrill-seeking elf found contentment in his place in the Thieves Guild, as well as peace as he reflects on all he sacrificed.
The apostle Paul held his ambition just as seriously, counting all the achievement from his former life as a Pharisee and anything else in this world as loss, “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. . . . that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:8-9).
The motivations of Riften’s thieves may be misplaced, yet I cannot fault them for the desire itself– aspiring for something more than a predictable existence. While contentment in various situations is certainly virtuous, our reliance upon comfort and control can keep us from ever venturing where faith becomes living and active. Let’s be a gathering of undaunted disciples, where every security is surrendered for Christ’s sake and all wayfarers are welcome to join us in this exhilarating journey.
Bearers of our Lord’s Name
Regardless of your opinion on Skyrim’s civil war, the men and women under Ulfric Stormcloak’s banner display a devotion to be feared as well as admired.
Feared, since allegiance to one person is never to be taken lightly. In the eyes of the Stormcloaks, their leader is a true Nord standing up for Skyrim, as Imperial influences corrupt their warrior culture and High Elven adversaries prowl the land persecuting their religion. His critics, on the other hand, claim that the war-hero of Windhelm provoked conflict from a relative peace for his own benefit, and that he is just as oppressive toward the non-Nords in his realm. Whether wise or foolish, the war for Skyrim’s independence is intertwined with the integrity of the real Ulfric.
Yet the Stormcloaks should be admired also, for there is a noble simplicity in how they focus upon and identify with their leader. Generals will explain to curious players that, “”at first they called us [Stormcloaks] to belittle our cause. But we gladly accept being named for Ulfric Stormcloak, the only true High King of Skyrim.” Whereas loyalists can belong to and serve the Empire from self-interest, these rebels take on another’s name and obscure their own, reflecting a willingness to endure ridicule and take up arms for his honor.
The concept of being a “Christian” is likewise an outsider’s invention; as the Church included both Jews and Gentiles in Acts 11, the city of Antioch recognized this community was imitating and rallying around Jesus. Additionally, just as Stormcloaks stake their war upon Ulfric… if Jesus of Nazareth was never resurrected, and the Good News is for this life only, the consequence according to Paul is that “your faith is futile,” “you are still in your sins,” and “we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19).
Thank God– Jesus in fact was raised from the dead, the true human who Adam was meant to be and our High King who is coming back. We receive the honor of sharing His suffering and magnifying His name. Too often, “Christian” has become interchangeable with various labels – creationist, theist, moralist – that distract or divide… but when the person of Christ alone is our hearts’ united battlecry, the world will notice and God will be glorified.
Subject for the Lord’s Sake
We have just as much to learn by observing the Imperial Legion, particularly from soldiers who readily acknowledge the Empire’s flaws and genuinely empathize with Skyrim… yet submit for a greater purpose.
I have Legate Rikke in mind, the Nord second-in-command of General Tullius. She introduces herself as a loyal citizen to the Empire, as well as a lifelong daughter of Skyrim… which has allies and enemies alike questioning her allegiance. To the Legate, however, her love for the land is what leads her to fight for a unified Skyrim, for “if there’s any hope of a long term victory against the Dominion, it’s in the Empire.”
Surely, it would have been an easy choice for this daughter of Skyrim to join the Stormcloaks. Ulfric formerly fought alongside her in the Great War, General Tullius regularly disrespects Nord culture, and Imperial law currently would condemn her for even whispering an oath to Talos, the human-turned-Divine who established it. Despite all this, with eyes set upon securing future triumph versus elven aggression, Legate Rikke remains steadfast for the sake of Skyrim.
Whether you agree with this logic within a fictional war is besides the point, since Scripture challenges us in the real world with a similar calling. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
We cannot dismiss this command as blind patriotism, for Peter was crucified by the Emperor Nero, nor can we assume the apostle’s writing is cowardly appeasement, if we remember this is the disciple Christ appropriately called Rock. Instead, our subordination is founded upon a confidence of God’s sovereignty even over tyranny, combined with a desire to avoid offense or discord. Only when authorities order us to directly defy God will we disobey them in civility… but until that day comes, we the Church are loyal citizens of our homeland and eternal children of heaven.
The Bard’s College
Though humble in comparison with warriors and wizards, the unassuming artists trained in Solitude prove that a lute may very well be mightier than any longsword.
Students of the Bard’s College combine two commendable qualities– a love of tales in all forms, and creative mastery to tell it. They first study to grow in appreciation for history, poem, and song. Once armed with this knowledge and practiced in their musical abilities, they are sent out to Skyrim’s inns, battlefronts, and courts… any corner of this wintry land which welcomes the warmth of myth and melody.
Not only do bards entertain, but their songs can shape the view of others. Because of their intervention in Solitude, a traditional festival which at first seems distasteful (burning a king’s effigy) can be seen with a fresh historical perspective for salvaging the celebration. Their storytelling looks back, but it also provides a lens for the present and foreshadowed future… as each bard in his or her time contributes to the overall narrative of “the Poetic Edda, the living history of Skyrim.”
How much more should Christians cherish and share stories? We have a Bible composed of history and poetry; parable and apocalypse. From Israel’s ancient warfare to the triumph of the Lamb from heaven, singers and musicians belong in the thick of battle. We may not add to the book itself, but Scripture is truly living and active, equipping us for godliness as we participate in the plot between Acts and Revelation.
May we be diligent to dismantle stagnating stereotypes – that Christians hate creativity, that our art will always be a poor imitation, etc…. – and in their place uphold imagination and excellence as allies of the Gospel.
Recognizing the Power of Words
Words contain power. According to the Greybeards of High Hrothgar, this potency only grows as we patiently wait and speak with wisdom.
There are only four Greybeards at their mountain monastery. They are masters of the Thu’um – shouts in the Dragon language – yet three of them will scarcely whisper a word (one utterance is enough for the whole mountain to tremble). Arngeir alone possesses the strength to speak safely.
Tamriel’s earliest humans won a war against dragons by learning the Thu’um, and its magic followed them into battle in the First Era… but the founder of the Greybeards, Jurgen Windcaller, believed it should be reserved for times of true need, and used toward the purpose of the gods’ glory. This philosophy, the Way of the Voice, preaches restraint and reverence for the Thu’um, since not only does it heal or harm externally but ”knowing a Word of Power is to take its meaning into yourself.”
Granted, the path of the Greybeards’ is extreme, yet it is not entirely alien for followers of the Word made flesh. God spoke our world into existence; Proverbs reminds us that speech can give or destroy life; Jesus warned in multiple gospel accounts that we will be judged by our words, and it’s what comes from our mouth that results in spiritual corruption.
It’s for these reasons that James writes of the tongue as an untamed beast and blazing fire, following his thesis that brothers and sisters in Christ must be “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Perhaps even more than the Greybeards, disciples of the Way should be known for respecting words as the supernatural forces they are… not shunning their use in strict silence, but practicing self-control and saturating all our speech with grace.
Engaging in Spiritual War
The vampire-hunters of Fort Dawnguard are… well, they’re persistently paranoid and driven by hatred (though it’s human and fits their vocation). Despite these flaws, as their story unfolds and they uncover their enemy’s schemes, the Dawnguard shines in strategically and insightfully disarming true evil.
At first, this re-formed order led by Isran the former Vigilant of Stenndar is concerned with one thing only: fighting back against a growing vampiric threat. However, as the Dragonborn will quickly discover, it’s not the blood-sucking hosts alone Skyrim should fear. Rather, it’s a prophetic plot to blot out the sun, and preventing this doom proves impossible without the help of an unexpected ally.
Serana is her name, a vampire. To the black-and-white dichotomy originally held by the Dawnguard, she is assumed to be a monster. Her heart and actions tell a different story, of a woman tragically fallen… yet compassionate for Tamriel’s fate and desperate to see her family reconciled. Serana’s role is pivotal in the dire conflict, providing invaluable aid to the Dawnguard as they reluctantly grow to trust her. The player character befriending Serana may even persuade her to investigate a cure for vampirism… but I will not spoil that (my only caution is to choose words for caring rather than converting).
Because we too “. . . do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12), the nature of our war completely changes. This verse, often misused to demonize others as servants of Satan, is actually a call to make a key distinction. Humans made in God’s image (marred as it may be in spiritual undeath) are not our foes… but unseen forces which hold them as thralls to sin and obscure the Son through deceit undoubtedly are.
Let us therefore sheathe our blades when dealing with those lost souls Jesus longs to save. In doing so, as we truly join others in their pain and thereafter lead them to the Messiah’s merciful healing, men and women manipulated as our enemy’s weapons are not merely discarded, but reforged in holy fire and adopted into God’s glorious armory.