The foundation of the world of Super Mario Bros. is built upon Newton’s third law of cause and effect. It is perfectly ordered according to its brilliant programing design. Each enemy moves and attacks according to a predictable pattern: ghosts travel towards you when your back is turned, turtles/mushrooms walk or fly, etc. Within this mastery of programming the variable, of course, is YOU the player. Mario is a puppet that moves according to the player’s willful manipulations. Yet Mario is bound by his own natural restraints – he jumps the same rate and height, runs the same speed, spits the same bouncing fireballs, and swims the same speed. Consequently, the player must navigate through this world of cause and effect by exploiting its design for their own good. The player must kill enemies before they kill you. If you jump too low to a moving platform, then you fall to your death. If you jump on the right brick, then you are rewarded with a 1-up.

In theory, it seems that Mario is advocating a return to Greek philosophy: the cosmos (i.e. the game) is ordered in a given way (cause-and-effect) and we must live in union with that ordering to attain true life and meaning. Or as the contemporary writer Paulo Coelho puts it:
“There is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.”
The result is the same: the better we are at living in harmony with and exploiting the world’s order, the better life will be. In theory, we should be able to understand our actions, their causes and their effects so as to live in peace and prosperity. The point of the game is to win, right?

Yet in practice, Mario pointedly reveals how absurd cause-and-effect thinking is. I have never met anyone who has beaten the game on their first try – without dying once. (For that matter, I still can’t beat Mario 3 – even with 100 lives!) There’s always a random shell, fireball, or cannon ball that ruins my best of intentions. Despite such a perfectly ordered universe, no one can beat the game without failure and death.

In the real world, even if we are enlightened enough understand the complex patterns and particularities of our actions (however unlikely that is), there’s little chance that we would be able to accomplish that which we know to be good. We cannot control our actions; much less control the effects of those actions. No matter how refined the parenting technique, children will still act out. Despite my best efforts to be more patient, I am still overcome by impatience. In the cause-and-effect world we live, such failures result in anxiety and despair. Consequently, we are unable to handle life on its own terms. Even if we were to earn a second or thirtieth chance, we would still live with the weighty frustration and guilt of failure. Far from living in union with the moral order of the world, we live at its mercy.

Now, if you’ll forgive the (absurdly) extended metaphor, the Gospel proclaims that Jesus beat the game of life, satisfying the law’s demand for perfection. He did so without pressing the wrong button or hitting the reset button. By faith, his victory has become our own. We who were losers and failures have become winners. Such grace transcends and nullifies the world’s inherent orientation towards conditionality and cause-and-effect. It frees us from our endless anxiety and fear. Fortunately for us, it turns out the game is a whole lot more fun when winning and losing are no longer… in play. Let’s a-go!