Pack a lunch.
On 21 Feb 2012 I received an e-mail from David Drury, and David was soliciting my feedback about a documentary he is featured in called Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians. I love documentaries -- even really bad ones. I like to see how the documentarians use their skill in telling stories to tell the story at hand and to see the sorts of things which really happen in our world. So I said, "Sure - send it and I'll see what I have to say about it." I have since viewed the video, and I have been procrastinating about blogging it for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that this topic is burdensome and, frankly, surrounded by people who are not theologically-serious when they talk about it. It leads to high-maintenance comment streams, to say the least.
Now, if you want the book report on this movie, you can go right here. And the trailer for the documentary is conveniently on youtube:
And for those who roll like that, you can find the history of the discussion of gambling at PyroManiacs right here. Needless to say, I think Phil nailed it. That doesn't mean we're against playing games that involve dice (like Yatzee or Risk) or even card games (like Spades or even Poker): as Phil covers well in the linked series above, I'd oppose "gambling," which is "to wager on a contest or to play at a game of chance for stakes. When you gamble, you are risking money (or something else of value) on the outcome of something that involves an element of chance, uncertainty, or hazard—for the possibility of winning something someone else has put at stake." At the core of the matter is greed, pure and simple.
Now, there's an interesting issue which I think is central to this documentary which is treated in a rather breezy way by both the subjects of the movie and the director: the question of what they are actually doing here. We can see the issue even in the trailer at about 37 seconds when the young fellow in the yellow t-shirt says this:
It doesn't seem like (laughs) one of the most noble things a person could do in the world, but at least we can liberate the money from the clutches of those who would use it for ill purposes (laughs). I mean: that's a start.See: the assumption here is that Casinos are, inherently, doing something that is at least of dubious ethical value. But if the casinos are doing something wrong, what exactly are they doing wrong? In the view we have espoused here at the blog, it's simple: Casinos sponsor games that inherently structured to put the maximum number of players at a disadvantage, and to turn that disadvantage into a profit.
That's very polite statistical language, but at the end of the day, Casinos cheat people out of their money, and the reason their endeavor is illegit (in spite of being legal in some places) is because they intend to cheat people out of their money.
And the people in this video know this -- on both sides of the table. The reason the people on this team get turned out of casinos is because they are called (as in the trailer) "advantaged" players, and casinos aren't having people who are not at a disadvantage playing. The long-run consequences of playing systems other than card counting are that the Dealer will bust less often than the paying players, and the Dealer (therefore the House) will clean up.
From a day-to-day standpoint, there's no question that what Casinos do is morally unconscionable.
To that end, as in the quote from the trailer, the team documented in this movie see themselves as legitimate people undoing what the Casinos have done -- taking ill-gotten gains with a system that is not technically illegal, but is forbidden in every casino which sponsors the game.
But is that the case? In fact, the movie has a lot of problems with unanswered questions. It's a little dead-pan when it comes to the people and events it's trying to tell us about, and it doesn't seem interested in thinking more or less about the moral, spiritual or ethical issues involved here than the players themselves do.
Two examples come to mind -- the first involving the question of how the team winds up losing thousands of dollars at some point past the midpoint of the team's lifespan. It turns out that the team grew pretty significantly over time, and they reached a place where, frankly, several of the players were not trained to count cards properly. This causes the team managers (who were also the team founders) to sort of re-test the whole team and find out if there's anyone doing it wrong. There are a few -- including one fellow who is a pastor who, frankly, didn't think he was going to have any trouble passing the test, and he failed pretty badly.
Think about this: they were handing out thousands in cash to people they really didn't know were trained well enough to handle that cash responsibly. The management explanation tendered by the film and the team managers is that the team grew too quickly, and therefore the training process simply didn't scale up quickly enough to cover all the people coming in.
But the problem doesn't stop there. It also seems to the managers of the team that someone might be stealing from the team at one point, and they seem a little puzzled by the problem. Then -- and I admit I saw this coming like Cujo toward the Pinto -- one of the team members who bears a striking resemblance to Judd Nelson in "the Breakfast Club" has a moment of Christian clairvoyance and "the Spirit" tells him it's one of the unbelievers on the team who was stealing. That unbeliever, of course, gets let go.
So at the end of the day, if this was all there was to the matter of whether or not people were trained and trust-worthy, it makes the whole enterprise look very naive; if there was more to it -- and I suspect there was, given that this was an enterprise with investors who have a concern about getting their money back -- it looks dishonest to play it off as a little thing.
The second example is the question of what passes for Christian, and therefore Christian discipleship, in this circle of people. At some point, it is mentioned that the team is a kind of Christian fellowship -- it's in the title after all. There's a lot of eating and beer-drinking demonstrated, and maybe one or two incidents of people praying, but no incident of actual Christian fellowship or togetherness. Scripture does not rear its head except in the sequence where one member of the team (surprise) realizes that there's something essentially wrong with baptizing people one morning and then that night flying to Vegas or someplace Casino-rich to take the Casino for $10,000. The kind of "Christianity" we get exposed to here is so soft-soaped as to be virtually indistinguishable from a service fraternity -- except that the local service frat probably doesn't serve beer and allow smoking while they meet.
When I ran the nearly-final draft of this review past the Dirctor of this movie, his response to this point was like this:
I still don't know what your definition of Christian fellowship is because I consider times where Christians get together to eat, drink beer, pray and talk fellowship. They were in a close knit community, hanging out together and building each other up in their faith. Maybe their conversations didn't go as deep as you would have liked in the film, but I couldn't put everything they said in, and I do feel that some fellowship is portrayed. There was much deeper stuff off-camera and you have to somewhat assume that if Christians are getting together to eat, drink, or do anything that fellowship will also occur at times.
I wonder what distinguishes, in his mind, the difference(s) between human friendship and Christian fellowship. I think the meetings represented in the movie, as they were represented by the movie, demonstrate the kind of friendship any 30 people could muster -- be they agnostics, republicans, an HOA, or any mixed-bag of people who like to drink and eat. They reminded me of gatherings I used to get involved with when I was a college kid and there was a screening of an art film or an open mike at a local hipster bar. That is: they could have been about anything at all.
My specific point is that I think this movie diminishes what it means to be a Christian in a very meaningful way. One of the subjects someplace says that they intentionally live in the gray areas to "make people think" or to "challenge" what people think they are doing. Astonishingly, again, that's not at all how the Bible describes the Christian life. Jesus himself says that you-all (you disciples, you Christians) are to be a city on a hill, or the salt of the Earth -- and what good is salt that has lost its saltiness?
In my mind, and I think as the Bible represents it (a point of view broadly exempted from reflection in the film), "fellowship" turns out to be something like this:
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. " (Acts 2:42-47a)That's not the only place we find this sort of description -- 1 Cor 11-14 gives us some insights into Paul's outlook on what makes Christian fellowship (and to be fair: worship) different than just having people over. The book of Hebrews gives us at least two clear admonitions about how Christian fellowship is different than having friends over for food and drinks. Anyone with two eyes can see that indicts a lot of what passes for traditional church, but it certainly indicts this shabby post-house-church view demonstrated in the movie. That none of these people seem to grasp this makes me wonder how they form up the category of "Christian" in such a way that it doesn't just mean "nice person".
And with that said, how likely is it that if the team couldn't tell that a significant number of players couldn't count cards that they could actually tell that anyone on the team had any spiritual or moral problems -- apart, of course, from faux Judd Nelson getting a word from God?
The video doesn't help us at all with these issues. It doesn't ask any leading questions about these issues, and it doesn't allow that someone from the outside might see something about these people which the people themselves don't already see. It treats all of the players here as morally neutral -- except, of course, for the slight air of malevolence the film creates around casinos.
If there's a message in the video at all, it's that Casinos are Bad. Which: fair enough. But the reason Casinos are bad is not at all explored by this film. If what has happened is that these casinos have unfairly taken money from "disadvantaged" players, isn't the just action to return the money to the players who lost it in the first place? Yet the team seems to operate from the logic that if you take the money lost by disadvantaged people and give it "to the Lord" (which in this case means "to me, the minister of the Lord, and my [anonymous] investors"), you have come back to something which is on-net justified. The ends justify the means, apparently -- especially since God knows the order of the cards in the shoe. It's a funny time to appeal to the sovereignty of God.
But answering that question, frankly, undermines the business plan of Ben and Colin -- the managers of the team (which has disbanded) who are (surprise) now professionally training other people to count cards for fun and profit. Just to tack it on the list, it's further troubling that their backing of this movie is essentially white-washed from the web site (they have one link to their "Blackjack Apprenticeship" web site on the front page). Maybe it's seen as implicit in the conclusion of the movie, but it really is two different things to say, "hey: we have started a blackjack school," and "oh yeah: the subjects of this movie also have a stake in the success of this movie." When I asked the question regarding whether or not they had input into the final cut, the answer from the director was, "no." However, that this movie essentially promotes their business and is less-than-transparent about their financial stake in the effort seems, again, naive at best or deceptive at worst.
So I found this movie pretty one-dimensional, and not at all challenging my notion of what Christians are or ought to be. It actually enforced my view that people looking for a new kind of Christianity are not really looking for Jesus at all.
And the comments, for better or worse, are open. Play nice.