Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
Everything is permissible…but not everything is beneficial.
~Letter from Paul to the Corinthians
Great fiction has a tendency to draw us into its world. Games, books, and films captivate us with their imaginary universes with such strength that we find ourselves wishing, if only for a moment, that we could leave the real world to inhabit theirs. And when fictions overlap with reality in part, we sometimes wish they overlapped in full.
For me, Assassin’s Creed is one such fiction. After hours spent filling the shoes of Ezio and Altair through Desmond Miles, peeling back a conspiratorial veneer to reveal the true machinations behind so much of history, it’s almost disheartening to realize that there is no actual ongoing power struggle between the vast Templar and Assassin brotherhoods. Like many of the NPCs one recruits throughout the last two games, we are bored by a life driven merely by personal needs and desires; we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
A couple weeks ago I sent an email to my friend Jonathan regarding the opening of the epistle of James. “I just spent the majority of the last several days playing through Assassin’s Creed Revelations,” I told him.
One of the things I’ve always found really cool about the game is the idea of a brotherhood, an order of people all over the world who subscribe to a core set of beliefs about the world and live every day in an effort to make the world a little bit more like they believe it ought to be. And then I read this verse (N.b. James 1:1-2), addressing the letter to brothers scattered throughout the world, and I realize that’s exactly what my faith could be like (if less secretive). That said, “nothing is true, everything is permitted” is a lot easier to memorize than the apostle’s creed.
Candidly, he replied, “You could memorize 1 Corinthians 10:23 instead.”
Christianity is pretty complicated, but that verse from Paul speaks volumes to the overarching task we are faced with each day. Given freedom, it is up to us to determine which actions are best, which will make us and the world better, which will draw us closer to God and one another. Our end goal is the good of others (see verse 24), but we pursue this goal within the confines of liberty. As Altair says, “Our Creed does not command us to be free. It commands us to be wise.”
Ironically the “Christians” within the Assassin’s Creed universe — the Knights Templar — function in opposition to both the “Muslim” Assassins’ creed and the words of their own saint. If the true Christian and the Assassin seek wisdom through freedom, the Templars seek freedom through wisdom. The conflict between the two views comes to a head about two-thirds of the way through the main story of Revelations, when Ezio is confronted by an antagonist who tells him “We both strive for the same end, Ezio. Only our methods differ.”
Ezio responds, “Liberty can be messy…but it is priceless.”
The misguided Templars of the AC universe provide a wonderful cautionary tale for modern believers. In our efforts to spread the gospel and reshape society to reflect God’s kingdom, we must never try to force our beliefs on the unwilling. Free will is part of our imago Dei; to suppress or deny it is to deny the face of God.
Indeed, despite the initial disclaimer that has appeared before every Assassin’s Creed title screen that the game is the product of a tapestry of religious cultures and faiths, the titular creed and those who have carried it down through the generations are extraordinarily Christian. Desmond comes to realize that who he is and what he can do are a direct result of the great lineage he is a part of. His greatness is quite literally in his DNA. Without that inheritance his life is meaningless and empty — a fact driven home in the Desmond sequences of Revelations.
Moreover Desmond’s ancestors, while productive in their own age, come to realize that they are merely conduits for a power and a story bigger than themselves; vessels for transmission of a message and a responsibility older than time. Such is the message of the gospel: a creed of love and liberation established before the foundations of the world and transmitted from God via Adam down through the generations to Christ.
It’s rather incredible, I think, that a franchise which could be summed up as “a Muslim terrorist killing Christian leaders in various holy lands” carries beneath all the violence and intrigue a deeply enriching message that affirms, rather than dismisses, a godly worldview. And given the new context, it’s rather thrilling to know we’re invited to be part of the brotherhood.
Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
Everything is permitted. Not everything is beneficial.
What a creed.