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Don't Waste your Blackjack: Holy Rollers and Christian Gamblers

March 14th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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What Ben Mezrich did for card counters in Bringing down the House, Bryan Storkel aims to do for The Church Team, a now defunct group of Christians who made a hefty sum playing blackjack.

"What's that, you say?  Christian gamblers?"   Yes, I do indeed.

When I was in elementary school, I decided that cards held more fascination and promise than just about anything else.  My trusty deck went with me everywhere, and I set out to play anybody at nearly any game.  Including at church, where my mother (rightly) confiscated them and chastised me for my insensitivity.  Gambling, you see, was then still frowned upon and cards the devil's tool.

We've come a long ways since then, though in what direction I leave you to decide.

(Okay, that's not true.  I have opinions, and you're about to hear 'em.)

Holy Rollers goes inside a group of Christians who take it as their business to count cards and beat the house at Blackjack.  "Business" there is the operative word:  they're a team of folks, some of whom are bivocational, with investors who have expectations for profits.

The film, which is excellently done, rides the heights and the depths and explores some of the idiosyncratic challenges that they face by virtue of being all Christians.  During a rocky patch, for instance, a Charismatic-type gets a word that the only non-Christian on the team might be stealing, and they toss the fellow overboard in a weird inversion of the Jonah story.  Whether this effects the turnaround, or whether it happened thanks to more rigorous testing and training, is never quite clear.

And that's precisely what makes the documentary interesting.  Nothing about it is ever quite clear, including why they're going about it all.  They enjoy the sport, favor the money, and praise the sense of community that holds the team together.  All sound reasons to do something, of course, unless perhaps that something involves participating in a practice that seems to be genuinely predatory on poor folks.  Given the downside, I expected someone to play the "Robin Hood card."  But perhaps I counted the deck badly, as I got to the end and it still hadn't come up.

These are the sort of chords that Holy Rollers leaves largely unresolved.  The film plays the notes deftly, drawing out themes that any creature of evangelicalism would recognize--especially those in the younger set.  They underscore just how many of the team are church planters or leaders, and nary anyone in the film looks a day over 34.

Watched from that angle, Holy Rollers is an interesting exposition of many of the limitations of our current approaches to ethics.  The near-antinomian makes an appearance, decrying the "extra rule" that make Christians seem "uptight."  The pietist has his day:  "I don't always have a clear conscience," he tells us, "but I feel like I'm okay with it, and I feel like God's okay with it."  Okay, then.

I may get in trouble for saying it, but even a young reformed fellow shows up, or a fellow very much near one.  Counting cards prompts him to meditate in his heart on God's sovereignty over the deck, as God has "determined every card" that will be played.  The fellow tacks on some Biblical support and then confidently proclaims the task his "calling."

But there are highlights, too.  Like Mark Treas.

A pastor who left painting houses to join the team, Mark eventually talks himself out of the game.  And in doing so, he displays a depth and honesty that gives me hope for the future. As do his reasons:

"As a Christian, I think that whatever we put our hands to do should bring out more value in the community.  It should be left better than when I found it.  My problem with blackjack is it in itself doesn't actually do anything...I know for sure for myself I can not live on blackjack and say what I am doing is a worthy pursuit, a full pursuit or a righteous pursuit. I think man was made to experience something way more tangible and simple than just  robbing a bunch of casinos, making a bunch of money, and making awesome comps."

(Mark, if you're reading, call me.  Let's be friends.)

There's more to Holy Rollers than all that, even, so I commend it to your queue.

For the sake of drumming up some dialogue down in the comments, here are a few questions that I find myself kicking around:

  • If you're counting cards in order to "bet" when the odds are in your favor, and you can know when they're in your favor, does it still count as gambling?  Or is it more like strategic investing, maybe on a quantitative model?
  • Does the fact that the whole thing is a business adjust the moral evaluation of it at all?  How?
  • I think Mark is pretty clearly right about work vis a vis the nature of gambling.  But what if we answer my top question differently?  What then?

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.