Thursday, December 25, 2003

Today is the day on which Christians have chosen to specially remember the promise that the world need not perish, but that anyone might be saved. Today my people remember the God who says, "I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies. Therefore turn and live!" (Ez. 18:32), and we remember the strange events set in motion when our chieftain invaded our sphere not for mankind but for each man and woman, individually. I offer the following in tribute to all those who have ever gone to the aid of another human being with no regard to the cost, and especially to my national brothers and sisters who are spending Christmas away from their loved ones to aid their fellow men.

"In the grim logic of the universe this may be a weakness. Perhaps some race that never bothers to rescue an individual may exploit this human trait to wipe us out. The Skinnies have such a trait only slightly and the Bugs don't seem to have it at all - nobody ever saw a Bug come to the aid of another because he was wounded; they co-operate perfectly in fighting but units are abandoned the instant they are no longer useful.

Our behavior is different. How often have you seen a headline like this? - TWO DIE ATTEMPTING RESCUE OF DROWNING CHILD. If a man gets lost in the mountains, hundreds will search and often two or three searchers are killed. But the next time somebody gets lost just as many volunteers turn out.

Poor arithmetic ... but very human. It runs through all our folklore, all human religions, all our literature - a racial conviction that when one human needs rescue, others should not count the price."
- Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
- Julia Ward Howe, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," wartime version

May the day quickly come when the king returns once more for all, and the necessity for the arts of war will fade with the rest of this world like a bad dream. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Around this time of year you hear a lot about the Christmas spirit, by which I suppose people mean love and charity and warmth towards one's fellow men. That's a pretty decent message, and I'm all for love and charity and warmth towards one's fellow men. But I was reminded this past Sunday of what Jesus himself said about Christmas:

"For this is how God loved the world: that he sent his only begotten son so that everyone who believed in in him should not perish but rather have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world so that he might judge the world, but rather so that the world through him might be saved."

... "should not perish." In the original, mê apolêtai, the operative word being the verb apolêtai, from apollumi. What is meant by that? Check a Greek lexicon and you get an interesting sense of the connotations of that word. Jesus came so that all the world should not have to be destroyed. He came that they might not be emotionally destitute and rootless. He came that they might not be lost or forgotten. But rather he came for the explicit purpose that the world might be saved: sôthêi ho kosmos, the operative word being sôthêi, from the verb sôzô. He came that the world might be preserved for himself. That it might not die, that it might be rescued from danger. He came to remember it.

We are not forgotten - but rather, we are remembered. We need not perish, but rather, we may be saved. And such is the message of Christmas to all the world, from the mouth of the baby king himself.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

I'm writing this post separately because the previous one deserves its own post, but I feel sort of like I ought to comment on the Saddam Hussein thing. I posted the other one first because I figure of the two this one is the more likely to get comments, but let me just say right now that much more of my time has been spent thinking about how much I wanted Esther to be at Disneyland than it has been about Saddam's capture. This is partially because thinking about Iraq generally only succeeds in making me angry and frustrated, and partially because, let's face it, Esther is a lot more important to me than Saddam Hussein.

Anyway, I'm glad we've got him. I think that the military is being quite reasonable in saying to the press that they don't expect this to produce any immediate reduction of terrorism in the area. That's a prediction which I think is self-evident from the circumstances of his capture and statements from insurgents that have been flitting around the news, but I'm glad to hear the military saying it. I don't know if your average officer in Iraq views the press as very small children, but in my opinion they should. I think it's been fairly well established at this point that the major American news organs can't be counted on to infer even very obvious information from the situation in Iraq - or, if they can infer it, they can't be counted on to report to the American public in a way that acknowledges the inference. As far as I'm concerned, the more the military worries about being misquoted by the press or having their remarks used in a way that twists the fact, the better.

I also think that the military is being reasonable in focusing its statements on what seem to be the most plausible effects of Hussein's capture - the sense on the street that the man is gone, and that America a). believes in the best interests of Iraq, and b). is going to win. In other words, I think the military has been quite reasonable in focusing on Saddam's value as a figurehead (and really, without a country, what practical value does he have?). Those are predictions that I hope will come true. The less killing goes on over there, the faster we hand them a government which is willing and able to look out for the interests of Iraq, the better. The more the people of Iraq refuse to countenance the terrorism being directed against the reconstruction of their homeland, the faster that will happen - and hopefully having Saddam as a symbol of American implacability will hasten that.

I also hope it will give the cause of reconstruction a shot in the arm at home. This raises the question of why I care so much (which I manifestly do) about the Iraq war and its aftermath. I could plead Christian charity directed towards the people of Iraq, and to a certain extent that is true. But the truth of the matter is that I feel that the honor and integrity of my own people is at stake. We are a lousy country in a world full of lousy countries. I don't think that we went into Iraq primarily to depose a dictator (although I think we did intend to do that for the sake of that nation's people), or primarily to smash a regime which was a threat to its neighbors (although I do think we did intend to do that) - no, I think we went into Iraq because we thought we would benefit from having a U.S.-friendly nation in the area that wasn't Israel; let's not be silly. And there are lots of other terrible regimes we turn a blind eye to. I know that. Nevertheless, I think that we went in with some honorable motives mixed in with the nationalist ones, and the important thing, in my mind, is that America has a chance to do a truly good thing, something her people can be proud of. I think we really do have a chance to give Iraq a nationhood which will be governed by and for her people, which will create a society where parents can raise their children free from fear and look forward to giving them better things than they had.

More importantly, having smashed the nationhood which used to exist in that area of the world, I don't think we have any honorable choice other than to pursue that chance. If we don't stick it out until Iraq has a government with enough muscle to stand up against the terrorists which are trying to abort it before it's even born, then I think it's pretty clear that the area's going to devolve into Somalia, and that must not happen. We tore down a Bad Thing, that is well - but we can't just walk away or something equally bad (or worse) will take its place. If Iraq devolves into factionalist warfare where no faction has a clear military advantage (we just smashed the only source of clear military advantage in the country) - and in which ethnicity and/or religion can come into play - how long do you think the country will digest itself in civil war? The picture I have from Archimedes on how long civil wars last nowadays is not a pretty one.

I think America has a chance to prevent that, and I hope that the American people have the backbone to give it our best shot. Of course that means that our nation's sons and daughters will continue to die, and our media will continue to shrill about it. But not pursuing the chance that Iraq's reconstruction can succeed means condemning the sons and daughters of Iraq to die for many years to come, in numbers hundreds of times as great as our own people are dying. Our own men and women have training, equipment, resources, and organization that make them more invincible to terrorism than mankind has ever before known how. The people of Iraq do not have those advantages. I hate to sound like John Travolta, but what is all of our power good for if we aren't going to protect the weak from those who would (even unintentionally! I know that many of those "terrorists" are honestly fighting for the cause of Iraq as best they know how) bring the desolation of civil war upon the weak and their descendants, possibly for many generations to come?

And the thing that makes me angry and frustrated is that our military is, in that area, essentially invincible. I hope that people have been paying attention to the news articles and interviews recently which have finally admitted what was an obvious inference from the start: that the insurgents' strategy is not to defeat the American forces stationed in Iraq (as if they could!) but to kill so many of our sons and daughters that the American people demands we pull out. I desperately hope that my nation - my people - will not be scared off from doing the right thing because our troops are being killed in the line of duty. That is not the way to win a fight. I like this quote from the sixth Honor Harrington book on that subject: the secret to winning a fight and coming out alive, it says, is "making up your mind going in that you're not just gonna try to defend yourself. It's deciding right now, ahead of time, that you're gonna kill the mother-fucker if that's what it takes." That is essentially how I view the Iraq situation. If my people can decide right now that we're going to see this through until Iraq's people have their country back, we will win. If not, I am very much afraid that we will pull out and it will be a matter of decades, not a few years, before Iraq is owned by her people once more. And it won't be for any military reason. That unhappy fate will be inflicted upon Iraq because the United States of America, as a people, refused to pay the price of doing the right thing. If Saddam's capture gives the cause of reconstruction a stupid, irrational, political shot in the arm to make that eventuality less likely, then I will be glad.

Two more issues I've been wanting to comment on. Saddam's possible execution? Well, I don't know that the Governing Council's war crimes tribunal represents the Iraqi people per se, and I'm not sure what I think about our attempts to dodge the "commander-in-chief" argument for making him a prisoner of war (the legal consequences of which I am unsure of). I do know that many of the people who are arguing for POW status (and, presumably, for the situation to be handled by parties other than the U.S. or the Iraqi Governing Council) seem to be against execution primarily because they don't believe in killing, ever, and I think that's foolish.

Second, our decision to exclude certain foreign firms from bidding on lucrative reconstruction contracts. I can't say that I really see any injustice in keeping the best contracts for nations which did the work. If a nation didn't fight the war, and if her sons and daughters aren't dying in the Sunni Triangle to protect that war from having been fought in vain, what right does that nation have to reconstruction projects? I hope The Little Red Hen is still being read across the Atlantic.
Yesterday I went to Disneyland with the family, which was the first time we had done that (I mean, the four of us) in four years or so. It was so wonderful. I guess Disneyland probably gets old for some people, but I am not one of those people, and I don't live with any of those people.

This isn't a SoCal thing, it's a magical thing. Disneyland is not an amusement park in the conventional sense; it's a purveyor of magical lifestyles. Disneyland is about the total package experience of being wide-eyed and child-like and transported to a magical place where everything is good and sparkly and wonderful. Every love story that has ever been told, every prince charming that has ever loved, every beautiful princess that has ever loved, and every child that has ever hoped to wear shining armor on a white steed or a beautiful ballgown on a marble dance floor - this is what Disneyland is about. And especially at Christmastime, Disneyland takes on a special magic. And, as if that were not enough, now that Downtown Disney is up and running, Disneyland has good food. Wow was it good. Granted the prices are higher than you'd find for equivalent items elsewhere, but that doesn't really bother me. Of course it means that Disneyland cannot be a regular outing, but the whole point is that you aren't elsewhere. Disneyland has a value all its own. I wished that Esther Selene could have been there. Oh, how I wished that.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

As most of you are probably aware, Christmas is coming. This is the time of year (i.e., finals) when I feel most lonely for home. Maybe it's the fact that I keep forgetting to burn the proper Christmas albums and bring them up here, so my Christmas music is impoverished, and the fact that a college campus doesn't exactly get decked out in holiday finery (though the freshmen have tried, which I appreciate. And people wonder why I wanted to live here).

Lately I've been thinking about Christmas as a holiday - I mean Christmas as Christmas, not as the holiday which Christians decided would be our winter solstice holiday. Christmas is something that I think people tend to leave out of the Jesus story - I mean the fashionable Jesus story, which likes to paint Jesus as a traveling rabbi who said some decent things and was executed as a result of power politics. The Christmas story - the story that God made Himself a man and invaded the territory to which He had banished the Accuser all those eons ago - that doesn't fit in the fashionable Jesus story. The story of the return of the High King of Existence does not mesh very well with a story about Decent Moral Teachings. The moment you introduce Christmas into the narrative you have to ask what it was really all about, and the Christian explanation - that the King marched into enemy territory for the express purpose of getting Himself killed - is really the only one on the market.

Now of course that explanation is, in its way, a moral one. The idea that "greater love has no man than this, that someone should lay down his life on behalf of his friends" - the idea of selflessness - is, I think, the heart of Western morality. Possibly Heinlein's Col. Dubois was right and it's the foundation for all morality. But that is clearly not what Jesus, at least, is getting at. "This is my command, that you love one another just as I loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that someone should lay down his life on behalf of his friends. You are my friends ..." The "someone" in question is, at least in the immediate sense, Jesus. Which raises again the problem of Jesus dying (in fact, looking for death) being the central point of the Jesus story.

So what I've been thinking is that Christmas as Christmas is a holiday about freedom from morality. Let me explain what I mean by that. I suppose the purpose of morality (by "morality" I mean "virtuous conduct") is to produce righteousness (by which I mean being in line with the moral standard). Those are, of course, pipe dreams: the first thing anyone learns about morality is that nobody can do it. And I mean nobody can do it all the time, which is really the only satisfying standard: who wants a moral standard that says, "well, you tried your best, that's good enough?" That would be a moral standard which compromises, and the whole point of being a standard is that you don't compromise. Christmas is the story of the Return of the King, who set things up so that righteousness could be attained in a way different from morality. Morality doesn't work for human beings. Maybe it was supposed to (that's my opinion, anyway), but for human beings as they are now it doesn't. Christmas is the celebration of the incident which allowed morality to bypassed on the way to righteousness.

Now, I don't for a moment mean to suggest that Christmas throws morality out the window. (I remember Antilles and I talking to Violet about this four years ago.) It does mean that the motivation for morality changes - and this entry has gone on long enough, so I'm going to leave it at that unless somebody actually wants to talk about it.

Friday, December 05, 2003

It is dead week up here at Stanford, which at other schools (so we are told) means "the week where there are no classes so students can study." At Stanford, it means "the week in which there are classes but you still have to study." I think what sustains most people through this week is the thought that soon, for better or worse, it will all be over. I'm certainly looking forward to going home: to seeing my sister and the DM after their Italian sojourns, to telling those who haven't heard about Esther Selene (I wrote a rather lengthy e-mail on the subject, then pressed some arcane combination of keys which deleted both the e-mail and the draft, which was so depressing that I couldn't bring myself to write another one), to finally resuming Phoenix Earth, to Christmas with the family. This will be the first Christmas break since coming to Stanford which doesn't start with a Testimony tour, so hopefully it will include lots of good roleplaying. To a certain extent I realize that I'm holding on to outmoded conceptions of the place of roleplaying in my life - but it is still something I love in a universe which I love, with people whom I love, and I am looking forward to presenting my characters with moral problems. And of course there is Disneyland, which truly is the most magical place I know. More magical, on a per-area basis, even than Maui or Disneyworld.

My dead week has not been bad at all (I mean, seriously, I can't complain) but it has had its own stresses (e.g., my early short story final and tomorrow's LSAT), and that is distressing in its own way. Lack of sleep and scholastic stress are enough to push a body over the edge into old patterns and out of modes of living fitting for Christians. As a Stanford Christian, I wonder about this a lot: how much do we work against ourselves by punishing our minds and bodies? I mean, to be sure, a certain amount of stress must simply be lived with. But on the other hand, how much do we stray from holiness because our wills are tired from lack of sleep and our emotions are frayed from stressing about school unnecessarily?

I don't mean to blow this out of proportion, of course - it is not our lifestyles which are credited to us as righteousness, but our pistis - our faith, or trust. Nevertheless the desire to live becomingly is there; it's even more organic than that - hoitines apethanomen tê hamartia, pôs eti zêsomen en autê? And when it comes to what I do, there is still that preposterous truth, that all really depends on what I do. But I am still an animal; the state of my will is not insensible to the state of my body. It is like Max Payne says: you look back and see the choices you didn't know you'd made. Procrastinating for an hour now might be harmless. But it might mean (and all too often does) losing that extra hour of sleep, which leads to that extra iota of stress. And then when the time comes to stand on the battlefield of moral decision you are fighting with a stressed-out, sleep-deprived will ... and what kind of weapon is that?

Friday, November 14, 2003

I just got back from the classics trip to Baltimore to see the Archimedes Palimpsest, which was way cool, though it's a shame Neani had to miss it owing to an untimely faint. Still, the trip was wonderful. A few highlights of non-Archimedean character (and, fair warning, my highlights are long):

Listening to Michelle Tumes' Dream on the flight back. Dream would probably strike someone of more advanced musical training as musically weak, especially compared to her earlier work, but I do not care because the album touches me, musical merit or no. Antilles once said that an album should be experienced as its own artistic creation - or words to that effect; I don't recall the exact quote. Dream is especially touching to me as an album, as it is obviously the product of a recently married, Bible-loving girl who lives far from home and sees the road of love as the adventure which validates all her dreams of ancient nobility and wonder to which she has clung all her life. If it surprises you that I resonate with this album, you need to go back and read some archives. Besides, decent ideas about love and marriage occur infrequently enough that they ought to be treasured when they do.

Re-finding my favorite waltz quote, in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia: "I must waltz, Septimus! I will be despised if I do not waltz! It is the most fashionable and gayest and boldest invention conceivable - started in Germany!"

Listening to the Philosopher perform his epic poetry (and here's where it starts to get long, since I'm about to meditate on Ephesians). Of course it was good to see one of the good old Hetairoi again, and his poetry embodies the Hetairic ideals of heroism, integrity, and bringing scholarship to life. A right good gathering of classicists it was, there in my room with even Alexander himself present, the man who taught us Homer - but there was more to it than that.

Simply put, the poetry was good. The Philosopher also demonstrated a real gift for storytelling - it made me long for storytime, or Phoenix Earth, or just to get up myself and tell the assembled classicists a story from Phoenix Earth - to tell the tale of Dis Neanidos, or of the final confrongation between Chastity Tomalov and Karlhoss Modron, or the destruction of the Paul Revere and the deaths of Veronica Kayne and Mackenzie Taylor. To tell the tale in the language of epic, not of history like I usually do.

It was interesting t hear the Philosopher's decidedly secular, and rather humanist, take on heroism. On the one hand his take on the modern heroic ideal is that of character shown through peril, and so far we are in accord. On the other hand, his hero Erik goes sailing to the ends of the earth to prove the measure of the worth of man, and that is where I differ with him. The Philosopher seems to view the worth of man as something intrinsic, waiting to be exploited or discovered or utilized - I see it as potential to be put into us "according to the power that works in us" (Eph 3:20); and again, "that He would grant you to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man" - and this strength of the inner man is character; i.e., the worth of man (Eph 3:16).

And of course that is another difference - I don't think honor and courage and nobility and heroism (i.e., character) are precisely good things (i.e., worth) inherently. I do think they are good, but only because (as my sister has recently observed) they are integral parts of Christianity and part of the "fullness of God" which Paul prays that we be filled with (Eph. 6:19). And to be sure, like Erik the viking, we must choose to be grand and true; I do not mean to suggest that we will one day wake up irresistibly heroic: "put off ... the old man;" "be kind to one another, tenderhearted;" "be imitators of God;" "love your wives;" "be strong in the Lord" - all things we are told to do, things we cannot do without God working in us but things which we must ourselves will to do all the same (Eph. 4:22, 32; 5:1, 25; 6:10). And truthfully these things are not really the "worth" of man - as if God valued the hero who believes and walks in the light and fullness more than the man who persists in his folly and mistrust of God. On the contrary, neither faith nor good works make a man worth more than his fellows, "lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:9). This strength of the inner man is less the worth of man than the potential: what we were created to be.

And because this strength of character is merely (merely!) returning to what God has always wanted for us, I must take issue also with haring off after adventure in order to discover it. On the contrary, we operate "by what every joing supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share" (Eph 4:16) - in other words, according to God's plan and not ours, the "good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). To do those works we must certainly partner with God as He invites us to do, but to choose our own good works - our own perils and quests - is folly.

This brings me back full circle to Dream, for in that album's liner notes Tumes writes, "It occurred to me this year that God is the only love, because He invented love and displayed love by sending His Son. So all the love we give would not exist without Him. I know it sounds simple, but it is so real to me." This connection of love (and especially romantic love, given the album context) to God makes me wonder: is it possible that love for a woman stems from a love for God? Of course a love for God and from is a prerequisite, but is it also possible that love for a woman may in fact be an act of loving God, part and parcel with that larger, more primal relationship? Is it possible that for the time to come when love for God demands love for a particular woman? Something I intend to think about.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

I love Pirates of the Caribbean. There are lots of reasons to love that movie, especially for someone like me who's grown up in SoCal and loves Disneyland. I love the performances, I love the fact that it's quotable, I love the fact that it's full of beautiful people. I love the pageantry of that kind of costume drama. I also love the pageantry of that kind of story. Pirates has all sorts of wonderful things that an adventure love story should have. It has an exotic setting, in a world of breathtaking beauty where real seediness and evil lie beneath the veneer of civilization. It has the shy, girl-awed hero obsessed with his identity and the improvement thereof, whose innocence and good looks hide true grit and depths of strength he could never have guessed. It has a beautiful woman who is full of grit and power herself, and is a fitting partner for the hero instead of just a love interest. It has a dashing antihero with a heart of gold who gets to form a bond of true camaraderie with hero and heroine by the end. It has the stodgy but noble red herring lover, who doesn't get the girl but nevertheless proves himself a good man and true. It has a plot which shows forth, through peril and drama, the true colors of its characters - and which shows forth the centrality of love to peril and character, for love also shows forth the true colors of character, and without love peril is not worth facing, and so character is not shown forth.

These are the things that a boy dreams of - a world of beauty, a chance to face peril and not have his soul found hollow, true and trusty comrades and among them a woman to love and be loved by. These are the things that make my heart sing. They are what make Pirates of the Caribbean a film I love far beyond its merits as a piece of cinema.

And they are what make it a fitting start to a moonlit walk with Esther Selene.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

I finished Max Payne 2 this morning. The story was fantastic. I loved it. It filled me with a wonderful, IG-esque sense of horror and anger at the way the world is broken, yet fulfillment and satisfaction that after all is said and done we have not given in, that we have refused to trade a vision of the world for which humans were made for a vision of the world in which we actually live. I don't want to say more than that because it will spoil things, but if you've played the game I'd love to gush with you about the story. If you liked Max Payne 1 you need to own this game.

Gameplay-wise it is the same thing, improved by about the amount you would expect given the elapsed time between the two games and consequent improvement of practical technological capacity. But the gameplay was good, and it remains good. It has also gotten better in a few notable ways. For one thing the weapons you have vary more thanks to the way they tell the story, so you do end up using lots of different guns. Generally speaking the ammo capacities of your weapons are corrected towards the side of reality. Rates of fire have also been tweaked - your automatic weapons fire slower than I know they are capable, but I think on the whole they fire more realistically. Sure a MAC M10 can pump out 1100 rpm, but who could hold it steady? So unlike MP1, where you could unload your Ingrams more or less at the full rate of fire, in MP2 you automatically fire bursts. I appreciate things like that, and it doesn't actually seem out of place at all juxtaposed with firing a .357 Desert Eagle one-handed (or rather, firing two one-handed). I mean, it's an action movie. In a good action movie we expect to see SPAS-12s, MAC M10s firing bursts, and people wielding two Desert Eagle Mark XIXs. Check, check, and check.

The interactivity of the environment and the ways in which characters respond to bullets are all quite satisfying. It's very nifty to whack someone with your SVD and watch them actually go tumbling head over heels into the dirt, or watch someone stagger back into a pile of boxes and have it collapse on them. Or, for that matter, go flying through that same pile of boxes, guns blazing. And then of course there's bullet time. Bullet time has been differentiated into two different maneuvers now: regular bullet time and shootdodging. Shootdodging consumes no bullet time and has the obvious advantage of letting you shoot while dodging - plus, now, the ability to stay prone and keep shooting. On the other hand it takes a moment to get up from being prone, and your slow-motion effect is at a fixed rate. With regular bullet time you can reload very quickly and your slow-motion effect can get even slower, but on the other hand you're not dodging as effectively and you don't have an unlimited amount of it. The two maneuvers are useful in very different circumstances, I find, and that's very nice. People are also no longer invincible while shootdodging, which is both satisfying and cool.

Then there's the damage model. Overall I find this satisfactory - again, for an action movie. I shudder to think how many bullets Max must have in him by the end of this game, held at bay by painkillers. But hey, we're not concerned about that, and I like the fact that some foes are obviously wearing bullet-proof vests which actually do something, while others are not and quite obviously so. The amount of punishment anybody (including you) can take is, I would say, roughly three times as many as they ought to be able to take, give or take fifty percent since I'm not 100% sure how many rounds a man can actually take. But that's darn good - say, about as realistic as Counter-Strike - compared to many games like this (e.g., Half-Life, where a man can take thirty rounds of 9mm and only end up with a limp). Where you hit or get hit has a huge impact on how much damage you inflict, and guns have satisfyingly different amounts of kick - which affects your rate of fire but also how much kick the foe feels (which in turn affects both the way he goes flying when he goes down and whether or not, and how fast, he can recover from your rounds).

Having spent so long talking about guns, I feel I should reiterate a point or two about these games. First off I should like the record to show that I do not like killing. I have very mixed feelings about actual firearms - and I daresay that, contrary to what the media periodically screams, that my increased familiarity (by way of Phoenix Earth research as well as games of all kinds) with firearms over your average American kid has given me a greater, not lesser, appreciation of the fact that these are very dangerous tools and not to be handled except by people of character, any more than you should give a man the killing capability of a black belt without the discipline and character that goes with that. I wouldn't mind learning how to shoot - I think I'd probably be pretty good at it - but the thought of handling an actual firearm, even on the range and surrounded by qualified personnel, fills me with a certain amount of dread.

So what do I see in these games? Partially it is an homage to those men and women who have accepted the dreadful responsibility of the gun and all that goes with it. I am reminded of a line from Perelandra: "And at that moment, far away on Earth, as he now could not help remembering, men were at war, and white-faced subalterns and freckled corporals who had but lately begun to shave, stood in horrible gaps or crawled forward in deadly darkness, awaking, like him, to the preposterous truth that all really depended on their actions." Of course the analogy of morality to warfare is as old as the prophets, but I like the way Lewis puts it here. To me, at least, but I suspect universally, the gun is indeed a symbol - not of phallic masculinity but of dangerous morality. I am not so foolish as to believe that gunfights are like what you see in John Woo movies, or even in Stephen Spielberg movies. The reality of a gunfight, I am certain, would be completely separate. When I play these games I do not see gunfights. I see a stylized representation of the gunfight used as a symbol of force itself. And force is, I think, a Good Thing. Not for nothing is the Lord called a man of war. It is like the symbol of the knight, the good man in arms for a good cause. It is like Honor Harrington, doing the right thing whatever the cost. It is like any number of good men and women in the stories of our race who have faced the onslaught of evil - of the Evil One himself and all the horrors he has worked in our world - and decided to go to war rather than submit to the rule of darkness.

I have said earlier that these "violent" games (whether they show the violence or not) are also resonant with masculinity, and I should like to reiterate that point as well. The question at the heart of every man - "do I have what it takes?" - is answered in these games. The game whispers, "yes, you do." Of course it is only a fiction - but I am not prepared to reject it on the basis of that fact. Inspiration is valuable, whether it comes by means of fiction or not. And some games, Max Payne among them, touch on other parts of a man's soul as well - like the part which cries out for a woman to rescue, but who is morally beautiful and morally dangerous in her own right. Mona Sax is a type - a fictionally distorted type, but a type nonetheless - of such a Belle, and if I can draw some inspiration from that fiction I will. And of course there is the allegory of the adventure, of sweeping the beauty into an adventure (not that she herself is the adventure) which is shared together. That is a type and symbol of romance - and, indeed, a type of the relationship between mankind and God Himself. To be inspired by this lesser thing to the greater thing of that grand Adventure is, in my view, worth my time. "As many things as are true, as many things as are majestic, as many things as are righteous, as many things as are pure, as many things as are dear, as many things as are of good repute - if there is any excellence and any commendation, take account of these things" (Phil. 4:8).

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

I have just finished the day's round of Max Payne 2, and I have to gush about it a bit before I go on with my work. I didn't think I would like MP2 at first, since the gun sounds are not as good (in my opinion) as they were in the first one, and I was afraid that the story was going to be dumb. Well, I still have my complaints about the gun sounds, although some of them are quite good (it's really just the 9mm stuff and Ingrams that I have complaints about, and having never fired a weapon in my life I don't even know if those sound wrong or my expectations of what a gun should sound like are wrong). But the story ... oh, the story.

Max Payne 2's story is darker, I would say, than the story in the first one - the writing is still aware of its film noir-ness, and still pokes fun at itself a bit. But the direction is much more straight-faced, and the stuff that happens in the story has hit my heartstrings much harder. Max is by no means a respectable character, but I do actually feel for him, for the way his world comes apart. And there is something he's holding on to inside which fascinates me. Mona is also a fascinating character to me, and I do actually resonate with what's going on. It is dark and overdramatic, but it is also about the hope that love gives a man, and the bonds of camaraderie and shared danger, about refusing to give in to the slings and arrows of the world. And it is told so well, too. So satisfying.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Pastor Scott's family has taught me a number of things over the years - or, rather, they've been the instruments whereby things which I was taught in a number of ways were crystallized. I was reminded of one of those truths at his memorial service, when one of his sons (and my friend) spoke about how his father had taught him how to "hustle" after the things of God, how to give it your all when you seek after more of the Holy Spirit in your life. I was reminded of these words from the eleventh chapter of Luke: "I say to you, even if he will not get up and give to him on account of the fact that he is his friend, indeed on account of his shamelessness he will get up and give to him as much as he needs." There is a majesty and an overpowering grandeur to the Presence, of course - but we are also invited to throw aside our sense of shame, the worthless lies which say that God doesn't want us, or that asking for more of Him is impertinence verging on blasphemy. Rather we seek after gifts from God, at His invitation, with boldness and no shame.

So worship today at The River was so good. The River has recently started providing a stretch of carpet in front of the stage, and inviting people to use that to dance, kneel, or do whatever before the Lord as part of their worship. It has been my privilege to watch The River grow as a congregation in seeking the things of the Lord in a reasonable, unassuming manner. They seek after charismata out of a recognition that the gifts of the Spirit are made available to us for a reason - never a hint that the goal is anything other than drawing closer to God and seeking after his dunamis to do His work.

(I say charismata because that is what it is, although they do not call it that. But "the speaking voice of God" is nothing other than prophecy, words of knowledge, words of wisdom - and, conversely, prophecy is nothing other than the speaking voice of God. One of the things I appreciate about The River is that they have no pretensions that the gifts of the Spirit are weird and spooky - and because they realize that they deliberately don't use the traditional terminology for these things, presumably because that might spook those who are seeking God.)

Anyway, this is another area in which I see The River growing - expression in worship. Now on the one hand I don't mean to suggest that people who aren't dancing around and prostrating themselves before the Lord and so forth aren't worshiping. It isn't even the best part of worship - the best part of worship is when the Lord shows up, and I would rather have that and no music at all than the most jamming worship session if the Lord refused to be present. On the other hand, I think that this sort of thing is like sex. Sex is not the best part of marriage, obviously (I admit that I'm not so sure about what the best part is - but I'm sure it's not that). But to say that because a couple's love is better than sex, and therefore they're going to dispense with the sex, would be silly. On the contrary, it is because the love is better than sex that the sex occurs at all - because with a love like that you can't not give everything you have to your spouse, whatever it may be. Love delights in the smallest of expressions, and it considers none of them superfluous. So it is with worship. My desire to worship as freely as possible (and for my school congregation to worship as freely as possible) is not born out of a desire for intensity of emotion, trendiness, or any sort of pseudo-Christian voodoo invocation of God by elaborate ceremony (although I admit that the intensity is a very pleasant gift - from God to me). But the root of my desire is to give everything I can give to my Beloved - if I want to dance in my own clumsy fashion, I want to be in a congregation that encourages that. If I want to fall literally on my face, it's nice to have the carpet there. If I want to clap, lift my hands, sing harmonies, shout praises to the Lord, be still on my knees, do whatever - I want to be able to. I want to do all those things, as I am so moved - there is a certain amorous adventurousness to it, in that sense. I want to worship the Lord shamelessly, brazenly even - and it is good to be part of a congregation which is feeling that too.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

"I'm flying home tonight, I've got a ticket bound for my shore ..."

That's a line from a Michelle Tumes song that I always sing to myself when I fly home. Unfortunately I am flying home this time for the funeral of my friend and pastor, Dr. Scott G. Bauer. There are a lot of thoughts in my head about Pastor Scott, which I hope to be able to write down some time in the near future. Now is not the time, though, and I don't think is the best venue for them. Maybe later, after I've had a chance to attend the service and write to his family.

Death is a very funny thing. On the one hand I think, "would that he were not dead ..." But I also think that is a very silly thought. Death, by itself, is neither a calamity nor an ending, and in many ways it is a blessing. It is strange to me how human nature cries out for an end to death, an end to pain, an end to suffering, and yet views with horror the very thing which delivers that release. Partially of course my grief at his death is the grief of losing him ... as if he had gone on a very long trip to a place I will never visit. But there is a part of me too which abhors death itself, and I think that is a very silly part of me.

As a side note, the more I study Greek the prettier it seems to me. I think it looks pretty, too. Unfortunately I do not think it looks pretty in Roman characters. This presents me with a problem, because more and more I want my blognames to be in Greek, but when I transliterate them they look silly to me. Well, I shall have to think of something creative.

Monday, October 20, 2003

One more thing an infantry simulator ought to have: no fourth wall. In the first person view, most shooters give the appearance of perspective without the reality. That is, it appears that your rifle projects in front of you, but in fact it is a two-dimensional projection which only occupies the vertical plane of the monitor screen. This makes handguns and all forms of melee combat fundamentally obsolete. What is the real reason that soldiers carry pistols? Not because they're afraid that they might run out of ammunition for their primary weapon! If that were the case they would replace the pistol with extra clips for their rifle. No, soldiers carry handguns because they're handy, because rifles are long and unwieldy in indoor situations, and there are some cases when you cannot use them (e.g., when you are toe to toe with your foe). If an infantry simulator gives me a rifle, I want it to exist as an object with the proper dimensions in the world. If I run into my foe I shouldn't be able to shoot him with that weapon. Similarly, suppose I am a man with a knife facing a man with a rifle. I should be able (assuming he doesn't gun me down, of course) to run up to him so close that his rifle is worse than useless, leaving him at the mercy of my knife.

Friday, October 17, 2003

It's game post time. Feel free to skip if this is not a side of me you're interested in. But just to be fair, this is connected to the themes of the last several posts, at least in my mind. Also, I'm posting this here (as opposed to at because I have no desire to hand Marweas another piece of "we hate Sierra" prose. That said:

Tribes: Vengeance is on its way (though admittedly it's a ways off) and I'm expecting to be disappointed. Let me clarify that. I am not concerned that Vengeance will be a bad Tribes game. I am not concerned over game balance. I am not even especially concerned that Irrational is going to screw with the fabric of the Earthsiege\\Starsiege\\Tribes universe. I am not actually consciously familiar with Irrational, but if M'lakMavet has faith in them then that's good enough for me until I actually see them screw something up. I am fully expecting them to turn out a game which nails their goals dead-on.

I just don't like those goals.

And that is the reason I am expecting to be disappointed. Call me a hidebound retroactive DOS-hugger, but I still think of the "Tribes" franchise in terms of the early 1990s. And the dominating factor of the four franchise games released during that period was that they were science fiction simulators. Granted they had some of the standard science-fiction absurditiesas their base assumptions (e.g., the bigger the autocannon, the shorter the range), but if you accepted the basic fabric of the world they took themselves seriously, and (most importantly) they invited the player to take the world seriously.

The advent of the Starsiege era in the late 1990s saw, in my opinion, a fundamental shift in this doctrine: Dynamix added more of a world, but it took it less seriously. Compared to Earthsiege 2, and adjusting for the technological capabilities of the two games' eras, Starsiege was an arcade game. It had lots of good ideas, I'm not disputing that - but it didn't feel real. There was a dissonance between what you knew the world to be (e.g., full of hulking engines of death armed with a motley assortment of weapons) and what your experience of it was (e.g., a dimensionless vehicle armed exclusively with blasters). For a variety of reasons, tactics were boiled down: instead of a serious attempt to implement the "walking tank" idea by actually making HERC pilots think like tankers, the tactical problem was dogfighting in two dimensions - that is to say, instead of "like tanks, only with more options and things to worry about" the problem was "like jets, only with less options and less things to worry about." The universe claimed to have advanced, but anybody could see that the game didn't bear that claim out. You weren't presented with a simulation of the world, you were presented with a caricature.

Then we come to the Tribes series, the flaws and virtues of which I am not interested in discussing. In many ways the Tribes games have been wonderful shooters, and no doubt the next game will be too. But I don't want a shooter. I want an infantry simulator. I want the franchise to go back to its original distinctiveness, and that is not likely to happen.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not asking that the game be paced slower (something which Marweas appears to live in perpetual opposition to). I am asking that the game present a believable representation of battle armor combat. A few things that I think an infantry simulator should have but that I don't expect Vengeance to seriously contemplate:

1). The player should have subsystems which can fail. Nobody would accept a mecha simulator in which you couldn't blow off weapons and limbs, disable key subsystems, etc. That just wouldn't feel realistic. Well, that standard doesn't change in an FPS. An infantry simulator should not be peopled with moving shooting range targets. If the player (or his victim) is hit in the arm, he should lose the use of that arm. Or that leg. Or (if we're feeling ambitious) the hand, or the foot. If that means you can't shoot as well (or can't shoot certain weapons at all), or you can't run anymore ... well, that's what you get for allowing your limb to be broken.

2). A reasonable tactical model. An illustration: Earthsiege had a real-world tactical model (late 20th-century tanks). BattleTech, much as I love it, does not. There are certain things which are common to combat at all times. One of these is the supremacy of maneuver. The first problem a soldier faces is never "can I outshoot my opponent?" and it never has been. For an infantry simulator to feel real (i.e., like a simulation of something that could actually happen, in real life) the player must be presented with viable ambush alternatives. Closely related to the supremacy of maneuver is the importance of reconaissance. Reconaissance has always been and ought to always be of paramount importance, and the game model should reflect that. The game model should not push the player towards protracted gunfights like fugitives from some sort of ahistorical Old West. Use of cover is another. Riflemen, tankers, chopper jocks - all understand the value of putting something between them and incoming fire, and the game should allow that. Which means allowing people to go prone and crawl (the fact that crouch-waddling has historically been preferred to crawling makes absolutely no sense to me. You try moving while crouched, then while prone, and see which you prefer). Of course there are times when "hitting the dirt" is inappropriate (e.g., when receiving artillery in the woods) - and that should be incorporated too. But infantry combat will not feel real if there is no cover.

3). Death. Ground combat is not about killing people; it's about making the enemy stop fighting - it's about morale. It will always be about morale, whatever you wrap around the infantryman's body. In a computer game of course this is difficult, particularly in multiplayer. But you can approach the fundamental problem of ground combat if you actually let people die, instead of letting them respawn. Force people to actually take care of themselves and they'll start to behave like soldiers.

4). Weapons that people would use. Of course soldiers will always complain about the inadequacies of their weapons, and weapons will always be, for one reason or another, at least partially inadequate. But very, very rarely have people fought with wholly inadequate weapons. If you want to construct a universe where infantry can travel at 100 m/s, that's just fine. But, given such a world, soldiers would not fight with weapons which throw their projectiles at 87m/s. Heck, I have a paintball marker which can shoot at a higher velocity than that. This is not an issue in a game where men are limited to more or less their natural mobility. If you are going to postulate that men can move as fast, or faster, than cars on a freeway, you had best start paying attention to the muzzle velocities of your weapons. As it is, it would be easier to hit a skiing light with a two thousand-year old bazooka than with a spinfusor. When the discrepancy between target velocity and bullet velocity becomes that great, you've got a big problem (or else you need to explain why the battle armor tactical problem is akin to that faced by World War II submarines).

Of course Irrational isn't setting out to make an infantry simulator, and Sierra doesn't want one. Personally I'm not at all sure that the market wouldn't like one - we've been desensitized to one-life rounds ever since Counter-Strike, and it seems to me that after Soldier of Fortune 2 the idea of disabled limbs and so forth is one whose time has come. In fact the existence of battle armor would be a huge crutch to the public. For one thing you wouldn't even have to worry about injury until your shields were depleted (and wouldn't it be nice to see shields - a staple of the franchise since day one - make a real appearance in game, instead of lurking in the realms of after-market rationalization?). For another, you could postulate some sort of Elemental-style dealing with injury - sure things would be fuzzy and your broken leg might be locked in an armored cast, but you would be able to walk. And as for muzzle velocities (my number-one pet peeve with the Tribes series), well, again, that's been with the public since Counter-Strike. And personally I don't find it very hard to imagine Joe Gamer getting a lot of satisfaction out of popping poor fools out of the air left and right (as Johnny Rico reminds us, "it's tempting to get the most out of your jump gear - but don't do it!").

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

It's been a while since I updated, and I reckon it's time. I have been cast as the Pirate King in the Savoyards' production of Pirates of Penzance, which is ever so much fun. Pirates is the highlight of my week, even if Archimedes and Phoebe aren't in it this time around. I love singing with this cast - I love that it isn't just this cast, it's my cast. I am part of a company again, a company with good points and weak points and foibles and people to get to know. I love doing stage work again, singing songs where I'm encouraged to act - and oh, what a fun part this is! How wonderful it is to be able to roar at the top of my lungs one moment, and crack a joke in the middle of the song the next! And of course I love singing this music, because the numbers are expressive and the lyrics are clever and witty. And also it's no mean feat to take these inverted words and fun melodies and shape them in a way that they mean something to the audience. Succeed or fail, it's a great challenge, and lots of fun.

I just got back from my short story class, which is thankfully getting less shallow. One thing I will say for that class, though: reading Chekhov and Joyce has actually given me a greater appreciation for modern fiction, and short stories in general. It is nice to see that there are authors who had the guts to feel something other than despair and hopelessness at the state of the world - authors who could see where the world was going and write, as it were, "Hell no, we won't go!"

Of course this has also given me a greater appreciation for the fiction that I actually read. I admire the aforementioned authors for protesting, but they didn't actually offer any sort of suggestion as to where we should go - in fact, if my professor is to be believed (and on this point I think he is) they didn't think it was the writer's business to answer that question. As for me, I'm aware that the world is full of terrible things and that people are declining and paralyzed and oppressed and all that other hellish nonsense. I don't need James Joyce to tell me that.

This is why I prefer other kinds of fiction. It is not escapism, not in the dictionary sense of "The tendency to seek, or the practice of seeking, distraction from what normally has to be endured" (thank you, OED). What I am looking for is encouragement, the "trumpet's martial sound," as the policemen in Pirates put it. I read Honor Harrington and Tortall because they offer visions of character: not just of men and women who know that there is something better, but who have some idea of what that something is, and are determined to live it, come what may. It is not distraction that I seek, but inspiration: something to rouse my fighting spirit. Despair can wait. There's a war on.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Speaking of decompression, the a cappella auditioning madness has ended and I am once more At School in fact as well as geography. I'm listening to Disney songs, which is all the proof you should need. I have played through Jedi Academy once already, and I have fairly detailed thoughts on it that I might spew forth at a later date, since it's been a while since I've had a game review post here. (I give it about an 87% as an overall gaming experience.) I am seized with a desire to see Beauty and the Beast and Moulin Rouge to celebrate the resumption of school. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am most assuredly Back To School.

I have now officially become a Testimony alumnus, which is just fine with me. Not that I won't miss the group, of course, and it would have been nice to be in a group with Archimedes too, and besides all of that the new Testimony absolutely rocks and I think they would have been a lot of fun to fellowship and sing with and serve with. Also I perceive that God is moving Testimony into another phase of his plan for the group, and it would have been really nifty to be around for that. But instead of rejoining Testimony I have joined the Stanford Savoyards in their production of Pirates of Penzance as the Pirate King. The show is going to be a lot of fun and stands a very good chance of being an excellent show, plus I love my part.

Of course the real reason I am part of the Savoyards and not part of Testimony is that I feel like God has called me to the one and not the other. I say "feel" because that's the expression, but of course analyzing this sort of thing is rather difficult. I am not part of the play because it makes me happy, although it fills me with an ineffable happiness which kept me awake for at least an hour last night. This is one of the things that makes me trust God - every time I do something because he tells me to, it ends up being the most wonderful thing, in ways that I could not have imagined, even if it was something which by all rights ought not to have been delightful at all.

And I am not a part of the play because of anything written in the word, although there is plenty of logos about the whole thing. I would not precisely call myself a theatre person, but there is something about theatre which thrills me, something about acting which makes sense to me as a way of communication in a way that even writing does not. It does make sense to go back to a place that is a part of me, and which has been neglected for a long time. It also makes sense that I be in a place where ministry would be by contact, as it were, like yeast. Ministry activities which are designed as ministry activities make no sense to me, although I will not deny that there is a place for them in the battle plan of the Kingdom. But ministering to a theatre company, or through a theatre company - that is done primarily by being a person in whom Jesus lives, whom the Spirit is transforming. It is ministry through leadership, both of which are rooted in personal excellence - and that is something which makes sense to me.

It also makes sense to me that I would leave Testimony this year, precisely because it is the start of something new, and the group is growing more and more into its existence as a ministry. The ministry of Testimony is never something I have understood very deeply, although I have done my best to be a part of it. But I can see very clearly how I was part of the work God was doing in Testimony for the past three years, and that work has been established. I daresay that if I were to remain I would stand a very good chance of getting in the way. One has the sense that something big is going down, and I don't think it's something that my gifts are well suited to. So I don't find it surprising that I have been reassigned, as it were - nor do I find it surprising that I love my new post.

Not that I know precisely why I am in the Savoyards, or "what good will come of it." One cannot go around attempting to do good all the time. For one thing there's more good things you (and here I mean "you" generally) ought to be doing than you can be doing, if all you have to go on is your own moral code or the Scriptures or whatever. For another thing you have a comparatively bad idea of what good you actually can do, having no way of knowing if any particular action will ultimately turn out for good or for bad, or how far the ramifications will go and whether or not they will be ultimately good or bad in the end. You would need to be both omniscient and atemporal to have a satisfactorily long view of something like that. And finally, you have a very poor idea of what will actually be good for you - what will give you the requisite experiences, skills, and whatnot to do important work later on in life. This is why it is much better to go around doing what one ought to do rather than go around trying to figure out how you can do the most good, or make the biggest difference in the world: you simply don't have enough information about the plan. The only way one can possibly hope for the church to make a difference in the world is by trusting God to know what he's about, and stick to the plan regardless of how "important" it seems (we cannot all blow up the Death Star. Where would Luke have been if the man in charge of shipping those proton torpedoes to Yavin 4 had decided that logistics wasn't as "important" as flying X-Wings?). The Watchmaker must not only be in the watch (thank you, Alanna); he must be communicating to the cogs what to do - and they have to be used to listening for instructions. If we don't have that, the cosmic Resistance which is the church might as well be Norsemen - fighting on the right side, but doomed to impotence.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Well, I'm back from the big O-Show, the last big show that I will sing with Testimony for the general Stanford public for the forseeable future. O-Show (Orientation Show) is the biggest a cappella event of the year, actually, with all eight a cappella groups (and, this year, three dance groups) singing their best for the freshman class and whoever else decides to show up (which lots of people do; Memorial Auditorium is not a small place, and it's reduced to standing room only). As I write this, O-Show is still going on, but I (obviously) am not there.

This is not because I didn't want to see the other groups. I'm sure it would have been very entertaining, what with everybody bringing out their best and all. I just needed to decompress after our performance. Some people seem to think that I don't get nervous before a show. That's not true (well, it was true of some Chaminade Players shows ... but with those I had the benefits of a character to get into and hours upon hours to just be still and know). If I seem calm before a show it's probably because I'm channeling all the nervousness into good backstage behavior, with the aid of a naturally placid disposition and lots of practice. But afterwards I need to decompress, and I felt like I would explode if I stayed in a sweltering auditorium (it's been really hot up here) with no time for myself, to reflect on the show and be thankful.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

For the last several days I've been playing the demo for Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Given that the demo contains only two levels and no multiplayer component, this probably strikes some of you as rather strange. If so, believe me: it undoubtedly strikes my family as stranger. I can't help it. I require my lightsaber. If at all possible, I require two lightsabers. I may even require a saber staff. But it's more likely I require two lightsabers, and right now this is the only way I can get them.

Part of the appeal here is, undeniably, that Jedi Academy has been clearly designed to give players (and specifically, Star Wars fans) what they want in a game like this. The saber combat model is better than ever: more special moves (more than triple!), more styles. We've got customizable characters and sabers - all eye candy, of course, with no actual bearing on gameplay. But a game is more than the gameplay (one of my pet peeves in games is when designers forget that). Gameplay is an important aspect of a game, of course, but there are others. If all we cared about was gameplay, graphics would have peaked with chess. But we want more than graphics, too. We want a game to spin a world - or, if the world already exists, we want the game to know about it.

This is not true for all games, of course, but it is true of the design philosophy behind the overwhelming majority of modern computer games, and it is this which has allowed Jedi Academy's demo to enthrall me so: the little things that say, "this is a Star Wars game" (and a good Star Wars game. I do not love all Star Wars products, but there are few things I enjoy more than a good Star Wars products). A few examples: the saber staff is in the game, and therefore we have zabraks as a playable race (Darth Maul's species). The moves are not all from the movies, either; some come from the books (e.g., the introduction of thrusting moves, which come from Mara Jade in the Heir to the Empire trilogy). And then there's the fact that the game is giving us things we want to see: the Stouker concussion rifle returns, we have dual sabers and saber staves, we have really really cool moves, old favorites like Chewbacca and the Falcon, the list goes on and on. I can't wait until I get the full version.

Friday, September 05, 2003

I just finished reading Lady Knight, which is the fourth of Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series and the third quartet set in Tortall (well, the fifth if you count the two quartets she wrote for "younger readers"). I have a tradition of only reading Tamora Pierce books when the entire quartet is available in mass market paperback, since I find all other sizes of book annoying to hold. However, I am thinking that I ought to get myself a set of Tortall books in hardcover, for posterity.

I want a copy of these books for two reasons. One, I'd like it if my children could read them. Two, my paperback copies won't last forever in storage, and I want to have a copy of them. I doubt that any other set of books (well, I suppose we can except Scripture) has stuck with me the way these have. Their imprint is on every word of Phoenix Earth (the influences on Phoenix Earth are many and varied, of course, but Pierce's Immortals quartet would be high on a list of influences ranked by level of influence). I can't imagine what Phoenix Earth would look like without the framework laid down by that first campaign - and what would that have looked like with no neomagic, no astral plane, no dragons? It all comes from Tortall.

But more importantly, and dearer to my heart, their imprint is on me. It was from Pierce's books, way back in elementary school, when I got my first glimpse of heroism, and all the things that are important to me - everything, from the fact that I like to dance to the way I process my relationship to Jesus - are ultimately founded on heroism. It was from Pierce's books that I first learned to work hard, whatever the odds - that I learned that a noble (read hero, man, woman, or whatever appellation makes most sense to you, but I meant and mean noble, literally) never complains, never gives up. It was from Pierce's books that I learned that the spirit which will not be conquered cannot be conquered, and that if you throw enough hard work at a situation you will win through. From Pierce's books I learned to despise bullies and cowards, to love courage and hate physical violence. And of course my entire attitude towards women stems from Pierce's books, the result of concluding some time in middle school that most of mankind treated most of womankind neither the way they deserved nor the way they truly wanted, and I was determined to be different.

I say "learned" but that's not quite right. I would have said that from Pierce's books I "vowed," but of course that's not quite right either, because it wasn't that conscious. It was a more unconscious process than that (but not a passive one) as I filtered through the messages that are found in those books - many excellent, some not - and the results of that filtering process sunk deep into my bones. I have, I admit, a certain suspicion that I was intended to find The First Adventure in the Canoga Park public library, that these books were intended to spark in me and provide fodder for the deep-seated (God-seated) love of heroes and adventure that forms such an inextricable part of my academic life, my Christianity, my masculinity, and - I suspect - will form such an inextricable part of my romantic life as well. I would not like to lose these books because they fell apart on me and were out of print. It will be good to pull them out every now and then - and I admit I have hopes that my wife and children will read them one day and go, "ohhhhhhh ... that explains a lot."

Along the same lines, but on a lighter note, I like lightsabers. A lot. I particularly like strong, capable, no-nonsense girls with lightsabers, which means I love Mara Jade (who ought to look more like the art in Mysteries of the Sith and less like Shannon Baksa, no offense to said model). It also means I am really, really looking forward to the release of Jedi Academy and Knights of the Old Republic (for the PC; I know it's out for X-Box) this fall. One of the perks to going back to school is that the start of fall is one of the major game-release seasons, and I am really looking forward to getting my hands on a lightsaber again. For the character interaction in Knights of the Old Republic, which I hear is good. For the chance to go, "I recognize that move!" (I recently watched the lightsaber duel from the end of Phantom Menace. If you look, you really can recognize basically all the stances and moves in the Jedi Knight games from that choreography. Thank you, Ray Park). And of course for all the other things that that lightsabers mean.

Monday, September 01, 2003

So yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary celebration for my Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Eva. Actually they're my great-uncle and great-aunt, but we never call them that. It was about a hundred miles away but it was pretty fun all the same. The room they rented in the hotel was packed with Asian people I didn't know, which was kind of weird. Nobody actually asked me why I was there (which is also funny ... ever thought how easy it would be to crash a big family reunion?) but I kind of felt like if they had the best I would have been able to come up with was "well, the car stopped here, and I got out." Fortunately the adults of my party had some idea of who was related to who, so I was able to find out that I was in fact the grand-nephew of the couple of honor.

Despite being in a room full of unknown relatives, I did have a good time. For one thing, we got to sit next to the minister who administered the renewal of vows and his wife, and they were a lot of fun even though I mostly sat and listened to them talking with my parents. They were interested in what I was doing, and it was nice to be able to talk about that with Christians who I thought would understand the answers. It's hard to talk about big decisions in life to people who don't presuppose that God has a plan for everyone's life and is interested in communicating that plan to them. I also found out that one of my cousins frequents Gaskell's, so perhaps I should get myself out to one of those one of these days. Especially if I could go when a lot of Stanford people were going, or go with Phoebe and Neani and Archimedes. That would probably be fun.

So, back to why I had a good time. Apparently Uncle Gilbert and Auntie Eva have been dancing since the fifties (they met at a dance when they were introduced by Gilbert's date, who was the mother of the minister and his wife at our table ... how cute is that?) and their friends like to dance, too. So during the cake cutting my other aunt Stephanie grabs Auntie Eva and my cousin Denise (whom everyone calls Dee-Dee, but I don't actually know how that's spelled) and tells them that I like to dance and they should dance with me. This was somewhat embarassing but turned out to be a good thing. Said cousin is apparently in her forties but looks and acts (at least on the dance floor) like she's in her mid to late twenties, and she grabbed me as soon as the dancing started (with "In the Mood," hee hee. I love that song). That was fun. It's always fun when a pretty girl (I know she's not really a girl, but you wouldn't say that if you'd seen her) asks you to dance. Anyway, the dance floor needed to be bigger for all the couples out there, but I had a lot of fun dancing with various relatives and impressing them. And I will admit that it makes me smile inside when a pretty girl enjoys dancing with me. I guess a lot of people noticed me because they kept asking Dee-Dee and Eva who I was, and there were things being said like, "that's my grand-nephew!" So that too was a little embarassing but there was no harm done and I was glad that people enjoyed dancing with me. I enjoyed dancing with them. Also, the live music (which was just one middle-aged Chinese guy and a vocalist) was really, really good. I usually don't like live music but these guys were great, especially when you consider there were two of them and only one instrumentalist.

It's ironic that the best time dancing I've had all summer should be with a ballroom crowd, but there you have it. Of course it was mostly so much fun because the crowd was full of fun, friendly people, which is really the most important factor. I even danced a tango with Auntie Eva, which she could follow pretty well - which is impressive when you consider that she had never seen my quasi-20s, quasi-cross-step tango before (and when you consider the level of my tango skill). It was kind of a mess of a dance, but it was a lot of fun anyway. Also, the crowd wasn't strictly ballroom (ha ha) since they also knew swing (east coast and jitterbug only ... it's funny to think that most of my generation's "old people" are too young to have learned eight-count lindy hop when they were teenagers). So they were actually pretty easy-going about style, and that made for a fun time.

This is an application of the dancing skill that I hadn't really considered when I decided to take Social I two years ago. All I was thinking of then was not feelnig left out of the unofficial Testimony activity, and getting to spend time with Blue Rose. But this is the second time I've made a big impression (quite by accident, mind) at a large family-style event just by dancing. Go figure. Still, it will be fun to be back on campus when I can dance with people I feel comfortable with ... where people don't waltz ballroom, and know how to lindy, and care about things like counterbalancing and centripetal force. Seeing Shanah and Rose and Chariessa and Phoebe and Lady and Neani and the Ailouriskai and Tigranassa, and some of the folks from Waltz Week/FNW as well ... I mean, that'll be fun. And all of the guys, too, but it's been a long time since I've held a girl's right hand and had that instant jolt, like I was holding a live wire, or felt my partner waltz me around. I look forward to it.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

I am currently sick, and therefore my last day at The Museum Company turned out to be yesterday, instead of today like it should have been. As a direct result of being sick, I have slept in for many many hours and am now blogging since I have been meaning to do that for a while and now my energy level is low enough that other things have been pushed down on the priority list.

I'd like to post a bit of errata regarding my last post. I have revised my definition of harm in a way that I think is much more satisfactory, so that it more closely resembles the everyday definition of harm. As my parents argue, God wouldn't bother to heal people if sickness and injury weren't a cause of concern for him. (I was inclined to argue that God healed people - or, conversely, gave them beautiful things - because he likes to delight his children. But Mom and Dad pointed out that that casts God in the role of the bad parent, for a good parent acts out of his or her own beliefs about what is good for a child, not the child's beliefs. And God is not a bad parent; if he were, he wouldn't call himself our father so often.) I still maintain that physical harm is about the least important kind of harm you can suffer: I would say a good man who can look forward to an eternity without death is harmed much less by starving to death than is a bad man who lives in every kind of luxury but has not bothered to attend to the fact that he is an immortal creature. But of course it would be better for the good man not to starve to death. This modification is made possible by the newly recognized distinction between whether or not something is harmful, and whether or not it harms you. For instance, if a man is wearing a bullet-proof vest, a bullet will not harm him (well it might, but bear with me). But that does not mean that the bullet is not harmful.

I think this is something like what it must be like to be one of the "spiritual men" that Paul talks about: what does a humble, obedient, consistently growing man have to fear? But of course most men are not pneumatikoi, and for the rest of us the bullets are very real dangers. And this is something else I like about admitting that even trivial, ephemeral harms are harms nonetheless: it means that God cares very much about what is going on with me right now, down to the smallest detail: even the fact that I am sick right now (and of course I am going to get better, and in a hundred years, or after the resurrection of the dead, what will it matter that I had a cold on August 24, A.D. 2003?) is of supreme importance to God. He cares very much about the people who are starving, and the people who are being blown to bits, and about all those people who are suffering evils which, when compared to the prospect of suffering the second death after the aforementioned resurrection, are really very trivial things. And of course God cares about the states of their souls as well - he cares very much about all of it.

So this all sounds much more like the God that I know than my previous definition of harm did, which makes me happy. It also rather answers my previous question about why we are told to do things like feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for widows who have nobody else to take them in. My previous confusion (for those of you with short memories) was that I couldn't see how that did anybody any good: the physical circumstances are so fleeting, after all, and surely the only harm that was real harm was the harm which echoed through eternity. (Of course if I had been trying to think about it from God's perspective, instead of the perspectives of either the charitable man or the recipient of his charity, I would have immediately spotted a glaring fallacy in this way of thinking: for to God, who is outside of time altogether, there is no such thing as "fleeting." The word doesn't make any sense if you take away the dimension of time. God has all the time in the world for every knee that has ever been scraped.) And so I can now see that when we are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, et. al., we are being told to alleviate suffering, to undo harm that has been done. That is answer enough for me - but if I wanted to wax big picture, I might also speculate that since suffering is the result of the brokenness of the world, charity is our resistance movement's small way of combating that: it is sabotage, just as much as intercessory prayer or evangelism. And of course we resistance fighters ought to sabotage the enemy in every way we can.

Now I still have a problem with people who imagine that differences of wealth or power ought to be squashed all the time, for I still fail to see how differences in the distribution of wealth or power cause harm. They may cause harm, of course: and in such cases they ought to be combated. But surely they don't always cause harm: Bill Gates has a great deal more money than I do, but how does that hurt me? And, to be sure, I don't have as much political clout as many rich and powerful businessmen - but am I hurt thereby? I do not think so. And I daresay that a person can have much less money than I have grown up with, and much less political power as well, and still be well beyond the point of actually being harmed. But of course there does come a point at which a person is being truly oppressed (as opposed to inconvenienced), or really starved (as opposed to being forced to eat plain food instead of champagne and caviar), or what have you - and that is another matter altogether.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

I'm also home from visiting Hearst Castle today after a three-day trip that made me think that Cambria would be a good place for a honeymoon (though I still might hold out for either Hawaii or Disneyworld, given my affordable druthers). If you're not familiar with Hearst Castle, it was the dream home of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, one of the great early twentieth-century American millionaires, and his home in San Simeon is fabulous. I mean, simply phenomenal ... heck, just the outdoor pool is phenomenal. The decor isn't all to my taste but that is just one jaw-dropping estate.

I'm never quite sure what to think of Hearst Castle, really. I mean, on the one hand, there's kind of an urge to sputter in outrage that anybody should be living in such opulence in the middle of the Great Depression. On the other hand, I'm not really sure what to fault him for. Was he using his money irresponsibly? I don't think I'd say that of a man who owned 92 businesses and woke up at 5:00 AM every morning to run them. It's not a question of whether or not he deserved the money, or whether or not he "earned" it. Hearst was certainly doing his part to build up the American economy. Money is like heat - it doesn't exist unless it's being transferred between people. That's what causes depressions, after all: people stop spending money. A hearty exchange of money makes for a hearty economy, and a hearty economy makes for places where most poor people have clean, running hot and cold water, microwave ovens, and televisions.

Nor can I really object to people like Hearst having so much more money than the rest of the nation (or the world). For one thing, distributing the nation's (or the world's) wealth is sort of a nonsensical idea. That sort of talk treats "wealth" as if it's a commodity - as if you could distribute wealth the same way you distribute acres of land. But it seems to me that "wealth" is not that sort of thing at all. Wealth is basically the same thing as value. If something has a high "price" it has a high value. And value is of course what determines price. Take the case of the Faberge egg. To some people an original Faberge is worth tens of thousands of dollars. To me it's worth zero. If I am "wealthy," my wealth consists in a certain number of people valuing me (or my services) a certain amount. That may be unfair, but that is the way it is. And in any case, I see no injustice in "unfairness." If Jenny wants help with her stats homework, I am useless to her (value zero) whereas Archimedes is of great use to her (value nonzero). Is that fair? Not really ... but so what?

And of course I can't complain that Hearst lives (well, lived) in luxury while many live in great hardship, because that is to say that it is better to live in luxury than hardship. And that is not true at all. When Christians are told to rejoice in hardships, and when we are told to search, like Paul, for the secret to being content in all circumstances, the God who tells us these things means them. It is not good for a man to be very wealthy (c.f. the young rich man who came to Jesus); it is not good for a man to be very poor. But of course it is not bad for a man to be very wealthy (God did not make Solomon wealthy as punishment) any more than it is bad for a man to be very poor (it was not bad for Paul to be destitute - or Jesus either, for that matter). We may say that we would prefer luxury to hardship, but that is only because we are very foolish people. For we recognize all the time that money will not make you happy, and that happiness comes from within, regardless of circumstance - truly regardless of circumstance, not "regardless of luxury." What we really want is to feel that we are worthwhile people doing worthwhile work, content with our lot and satisfied that love and are loved. And of course if a man thinks that he can achieve that through the presence or absence of wealth - or if he imagines that he can bestow that upon his fellow man by bestowing or taking away wealth - he is a very silly fellow.

Where does this leave charity? I am not honestly sure - but I doubt very much that the person who admonished his pupils, "the poor shall always be with you" seriously meant for them to create a system where the only poor people are lazy slobs. In the first place, God does not always give people their just deserts this side of death. That is one of the things we love about him - for if he were to be fair instead of just we would all be dead, and living out a very unhappy death at that. But more importantly, it seems to me that God's admonition to look after the poor was not an admonition to get rid of them. I imagine that that would be rather like asking the French resistance to eject the Germans. That is a job properly left to the actual invasion force. I personally suspect that this has to do with love, which is something that is not of moral value to the receiver but is nevertheless of great value to the receiver - and of moral value to the giver. But I am not really sure of much in this regard, other than that we should not give an answer that is tantamount to saying that it is morally inferior for a person to be destitute than not. This may make charity one of those things that look morally arbitrary from the human perspective. But many such things are of immeasurable value to humans all the same - and the one who designed the human being in those seemingly morally arbitrary ways is not limited to the human perspective.
I finally went dancing last Friday, at a swing/salsa club called Memories. Clara (=Maelana) came with me, which was probably for the best since that way I had a few more decent dances and I had someone to be uncomfortable with. It wasn't that Memories was an unwelcoming place, or that it was populated with unfriendly people (though it was populated with very few people). The first problem was that most of the people there weren't very good. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it became a problem when coupled with the fact that the way people danced swing (swung?) out there was really outlandish.

For one thing, they were doing Hollywood. Fair enough; Savoy vs. Hollywood is a nonissue so far as I'm concerned. But the way they danced Hollywood was with a lot of footwork and very little rotation - I mean, like, people would spend whole blocks of music facing one another doing footwork and maybe some underarm turns or stuff like that, like they were doing six-count lindy in eight. When they did rotate it wasn't counterbalanced; they pulled in to each other and kind of spun on the balls of their feet.

Now, I don't mean to sound like a dance snob - there's nothing wrong with swinging that way. But like I said, most of the people there weren't very good (by which I mean that a lot of them were flashy but their lead/follow skills were pretty lousy, you could tell just by watching the couples). The trouble was therefore that I didn't know enough to match my partners' styles, and only a few of them could follow me with any sort of ease - and of course, to be fair, it's neither fun nor fair if your lead keeps throwing stuff at you that you've never seen. So the whole situation was rather unfortunate. I danced with one girl (who was actually a fairly good follow) and went into a four-bar liquid that made her dizzy as a first-time waltzer. Fortunately she told me, so I backed off into six-count for a while ... but when I went back into a regular swing-out she got dizzy again. And again, it was fortunate that she told me - but I don't know how to swing in eight-count without rotating. Very surreal.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

Tomorrow evening the family is going to see Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life. I am way excited. I actually rather enjoyed the first one (and not just because I could identify almost all of the guns on sight, thanks to my Modern Phoenix Earth research), and I think that the sequel actually looks quite good. I'm not expecting it to be Pirates of the Caribbean - now there's a movie that will put a light in your eye - but I am expecting to enjoy the fight scenes (even though they're probably going to be missing that little something which makes me giggle in my seat).

And of course I am expecting to enjoy Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. Lara Croft is the only woman character I can think of who is cooler than Trinity (no, I haven't played any of the Tomb Raiders). I am sure that many a pundit out there in the wide wide world has, is, or will criticize Lara as nothing more than the incarnation of "sex sells" - and I will not deny that I find Jolie rather sexy in that wetsuit, or whatever it is she's wearing on the posters and billboards - but there's more to it than that.

I don't mean that there's more to it than that she's sexy. That is precisely the point, and you need look no further than that - although you should recognize that being smart, self-possessed, and skillful is part of Lara's sex appeal. And of course it is the sex appeal that is the point, not the body - the body is merely a means to an end, and Lara is particularly potent because she includes the aforementioned three S's along with the body (I say body deliberately because there is more that is attractive about Lara - and Jolie - than just the breasts). But the end result of all that is sex appeal.

And is there really anything wrong with that? Of course there is many a movie that uses sex appeal irresponsibly, and a great many individuals among the movie-going public are so hopelessly immature and untutored that they really shouldn't be availing themselves of this at all. But surely we will admit that sex appeal has its legitimate uses. For instance, I should fault very much the spouse who cannot be bothered to be sexy for his or her partner. Sexiness is fundamentally a skill. Everyone has to learn it (although some admittedly have inborn talent in this area), and refusing to learn to be sexy in the eyes of your spouse is not only reprehensible behavior in a married person; it is an insult to the partner and the marriage bond itself. It says, "I have more important things to do than learn how to live in your world" - for of course our ideas of sex appeal are very close to the center of our personal worlds. Learning to be sexy is not only a pleasurable gift. It is one of the supreme compliments - a growing-closer which values and assimilates part of the beloved's core identity. It is, I would venture to say, one of the ways in which we submit ourselves to the reality of a married couple being a single organism (though not a single personality, of course - let us not confuse the two). And therefore I would call it a great obedience, and a great good.

Now I am personally inclined to believe that married people are going to have a very hard time with this if they do not give it a good deal of thought beforehand, for learning how to be sexy (much less learning how to be romantic, of which this is a sub-skill) is neither an easy nor an intuitive skill. And so I would say that it does young men (at least - young women I suspect benefit from this as well) to watch movies and read books and sing songs that deal with both the fundamental and individual nature of sex appeal. But even without that, I find that when I watch movies designed to "sell sex" I have one or two responses - and the two are not very often mixed at all. In the case of movies which are actually about sex, in whole or in significant part, I do find myself thinking thoughts which are perfectly natural but most unfitting. But in the case of movies where the sex appeal is present but not the point (e.g., Pirates of the Caribbean, Charlie's Angels 2) I find myself appreciating the beauty\\sex appeal of the women on screen - but I am not thinking about that. I am thinking of how good it is that mankind has sex and beauty, how pleasing it is that these things are neither physical nor mental nor emotional but all three, and possibly more - I am thinking of how wonderful it will be to share this goodness with an appropriate woman, when I am (and for whom I will be) an appropriate man. I am thinking, I daresay, of something much higher than how hot Kiera Knightly is.

I do not want to sound like I am trying to excuse boorish and ungentlemanly lust for movie stars. Such behavior is reprehensible and no apology can be made for it. But I do not want to sound like I am being mystical about the effect of beauty in art, either. I find that this general pattern of behavior is consistent to other things as well. When a person watches Black Hawk Down or Gettysburg, for instance, his thoughts are not drawn to the horror of infantry combat even though that is the subject of such films. His thoughts are fixed on the higher thing which that horror reveals - namely the nobility of love, for one's comrades or (in a few rare cases) one's home; the nobility of love so strong for those things that one is willing to die in the most horrible way for them. When a person watches a romantic movie (name any you like; my personal favorite is Beauty and the Beast) he is not particularly thinking of the joy found between the couple on screen, even though that is the subject of such films. He is rather thinking of the nobility of love for another person, and the excellence of being romantic for their sake - and it is this which the on-screen romance is designed to point to. And so too, I think, it is possible to watch a movie about how sexy Charlie's Angels are, and not be thinking about how sexy Charlie's Angels are - to find one's thoughts instead drawn above the subject of the film (yet by the subject of the film) to the nobility of love, and the excellence of expressing it through sex appeal.

So I am looking to seeing Tomb Raider very much.

Friday, July 25, 2003

People continue to comment on the July 10 post, but I don't know how many folks in the reading public (which, for all I know, consists solely of the people commenting - but probably there's at least one other person) check that comment box which persists in reading [0]. So here's a transcript of the ongoing dialogue, which can continue here:

Well said. Interesting to read this so soon after I had a long conversation about religion with a friend yesterday.


I agree with your statement that "the nature of God is not an idea to be built; it's a truth to be discovered." But then how do you go about discovering that truth among the sheer proliferation of religions and people's "obvious" freedom of choice in this area? If it were something we could figure out as easily as we perform physics experiments, I think there would be a lot more religious agreement in the world, and less of a difference between "agreeing" and "believing." But since this doesn't seem to be the case, we have to have some other way of evaluating the choices. With a lack of definitive proof, it seems reasonable that people would turn to their gut feelings as all they have to fall back on. Sure gut feelings are unreliable, but so is listening to other people and their various ideas about God. There are so many ideas out there -- who's right? When it comes right down to it, I'd rather be true to myself and risk being wrong, than be true to someone else and risk being wrong. Obviously, being true to God would be best, but it's not generally clear how to do that when your beliefs are still in the process of getting sorted out.

I'm a little curious about your last sentence, where people should just ask what their beliefs imply. You seem to be saying that they should just take what they already believe and work from there. I suppose that's good, assuming they already have definite beliefs of some kind. But what about the people who aren't sure what they believe, or are wavering in their beliefs?

Anyway, this is all the sort of stuff that tends to be on my mind these days, so it's interesting to hear your thoughts on it.


Definitely well said. It made me happy to read this on Friday. Your wordcraft never ceases to amaze me. I'm looking forward to catching up with you soon! :)

Blue Rose

As to my last statement, I didn't necessarily mean to imply that they should just take what they already believe and run with it - though unless you're actively putting your current beliefs on hiatus for the purpose of re-evaluation I think that's a good rule of thumb. If your beliefs have no implications for your life, I would question in what practical sense you actually "believe" them. On the other hand, if you're one of those people who thinks that Islam is true but just can't "believe" the words of the Prophet, I'd suggest that you're fooling yourself: what you're really feeling, I'd wager, is a belief in Islam coupled with a self-deceiving reluctance to acknowledge that a belief in Islam necessitates living your life like a Muslim - and if you don't know what living like a Muslim is, then it behooves you to find out or else your belief in Islam is fundamentally useless to you and you might as well not believe it at all. What I meant to imply in my last sentence was that if you're waiting for religion to whack you upside the feelings, you've got a long wait ahead of you. Once you acknowledge the truth of a religion you owe it to your self-honesty to knuckle down and figure out what life as a follower of that creed is like, whatever your feelings.

As for evaluating other religions, it seems to me that you've got essentially three possible tacks to take. You could just despair of ever evaluating all the religions on the market and just give up. If you're evaluating other religions at all obviously you've decided not to take this route, so we can pass it by. Or you could decide to withhold judgment until you've evaluated all the religions you're aware of - an impractical task in my opinion; you'll be dead and moldering in the grave before you finish getting a handle on humanity's multiplicity of religions.

So the third option is to evaluate starting at some religion that seems plausible or attractive in some subjective way, and then stop once you've decided that that one is true. Unsatisfyingly ad hoc (of course, so is quantum mechanics, and so what?), but it seems like the only practical possibility - and chances are the choice you settle on will necessarily exclude all others. For example, you simply cannot believe Christianity and consider other religions to be true where they differ from the Christian creed; to do so denies one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity - and I think that will turn out to be true for most religions if you're serious about the claims they make.

As for my personal evaluations, which is really all I can comment on since I've really only seriously evaluated Christianity ... I'd say they come twofold. My own religious experience is a nice personal touch, but I consider feelings to be an inadequate rubric for this sort of thing and all religions have genuine religious experiences - nor does my creed necessitate that I consider those other experiences fraudulent. What it really comes down to for me is the history of the Jews and the resurrection of Jesus. Given those two facts, and what they imply about Jesus' words, I go with Christianity. I'd much rather evaluate a creed by historical events than its philosophy. In the first place, I find history much more concrete in its verdicts than philosophy and therefore much more amenable to actual evaluation. In the second, while nothing is free of interactor bias, I trust my ability to evaluate history objectively much more than my ability to evaluate philosophy objectively ... perhaps others better trained in philosophy can evaluate religious creeds on something more universal than whether or not they like it, but "whether or not I like it" is about the size of my ability to evaluate philosophy unless you allow me some basic axioms. And if we're evaluating religious philosophy, basic axioms seem unfair to allow; there's no set of axioms that no significant portion of the population will disagree with. Historical axioms may be up for debate, but I find that they vary less than philosophical ones do ... and they're up for debate less often.


Hi, Eric, this is Ryan Mitchell.
It's been a long time, hasn't it? I suppose it's a bit odd to be hearing from me, but I stumbled back upon your blog by accident, and I felt compelled to comment.

Since we last saw each other I've had a wealth of important experiences, and having read this last post of yours, I would have felt irresponsible had I not taken the time to voice my agreement. In the fairly recent past I have become a very firm devotee of a Buddhist practice called Falun Gong, and I have also been studying Jungian psychology. Exposure to these complementary perspectives has changed a lot about the way I look at the world, by far for the better.

As I have come to restructure my life around the Law, I have also come to appreciate genuine religious sentiment of the kind you describe. In my view both Christianity and Buddhism are equally reliable paths to the end goal of subsuming one's imperfect ego to the intrinsic wholeness of all things existing.
You might be extremely interested by Jung's work - he is what I would call a great defender of faith, refusing to hide beneath the dogmas proclaimed by so many psychologists in their efforts to deny the inexplicability of so much of human experience.
That which is inexplicable to cause-and-effect formulations,

oops, got cut off - suffice it to say that that which cannot be explained by cause-and-effect formulations or by the highest reasoning of the human mind must, thus, since we live in an ordered universe, be a sign of higher formulations and reasoning beyond our understanding.
The inexplicable actions of human minds themselves, the structures of our societies, even our capacity for thinking at all; these do indeed defy what we know of the universe.

Religion is the invaluable framework we have been given for enlightening to the connecting principles which supersede causality and acknowledge that, as human beings, we are equally creatures of matter and of spirit: our understanding should not reflect only the physical reactions we see in nature around us, but also the deeply veiled eternal Act of Creation from which all our reactions, physiological or psychological, have stemmed.
All that said, I would also like to say peace be with you. I speak to you with that which is foremost in my heart, the comradery of those who have meditated on things greater than themselves.

Your Cousin in Faith,


Thanks for commenting, Ryan. It has been a long time, and it's good to hear from you.

Christianity and Buddhism may be equally reliable paths to subsuming one's imperfect ego to the intrinsic wholeness of all things existing; I wouldn't know. That isn't the end goal of Christianity, and not something which Christianity concerns itself about. The end goals of Christianity are to overcome one's rejection of God and to produce people who live as sons of God. The ego is perfected but never subsumed, and the perfection which it is patterned after is infinite but by no means "all things existing;" it is one particular Thing out of a great many which exist. Nor is Christianity particularly concerned with "religious sentiment;" it is a religion which expects the believer to carry on irregardless of the presence or absence of religious sentiment.

It is also a religion which is concerned with much more than the Act of Creation. If the Act of Creation was all there was to it, the Christians would say that there would be no need for Christianity - or rather that Christianity as a religion would be irrelevant, since all the things that accompany life in Christ would be as natural as breathing. It is only because there is more to the Big Picture than the Act of Creation - primarily the Fall - that Christianity as a religion exists. That is a cause-and-effect statement, it seems to me, and therefore I would say that Christianity does not reject cause-and-effect as something it should be concerned about.


I've been meaning to ask, Eric--what exactly does Jesus say on the subject of pantheism (the theory that everything in existence is part of the substance of God--that God = everything)?


As Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, he didn't have to say much (I don't think he ever discusses it explicitly): he was talking to Jews, who reject such doctrine as blasphemous nonsense (they rejected the idea that *Jesus* is God as blasphemous nonsense; c.f. John 10:33. Note that the Greek quoting Ps. 82:6 is a little deceptive). Both the religion of the Greeks and the Achaemenid Persians before them differentiate between the divine and the rest of the world, so I wouldn't expect Jesus to talk about it very much. Everyone in his audience would have taken it as axiomatic that a rock is not God.

I have a hard time imagining that anybody would come to the Scriptures of the Jews and/or Christians and conclude that either religion regards pantheism as anything other than blasphemous nonsense, unless of course they were pantheists already. But I think it's fairly easy to detect the denial of pantheism in the way people phrase things: for instance, "My Father is greater than all" (John 10:29). Or consider John 14:16-17: "And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another helper, that he may abide with you forever - the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him." If the world was of the same stuff as the Holy Spirit there would be no problem here, any more than there is a problem for the Father to receive the Son.


Very true. I note that there is one quote attributed to Jesus that carries the vague suggestion of pantheism--"Lift the stone and you will find me, cleave the wood and I am there." But then, that was from the gospel of Thomas, which is also reported to contain a story in which a six year old Jesus uses his divine powers to smite a group of children that were making fun of him.


Interesting, however, that Jesus doesn't seem to speak much to the eastern religions, such as Buddhism (which is what made me think of this). The religions that do carry the suggestion of pantheism (as Ryan refers to the "cosmic whole" below) don't really seem to get their share of explanations in Jesus' gospel. What is a Christian to say to a pantheist?


I feel I should point out that one of the reasons the Gospel of Thomas was rejected from the canon (besides the fact that it was written about two hundred years after the fact) is that it doesn't jive doctrinally with the other things. But as to pantheism, I'm really not sure there's anything to say. If it isn't patently obvious to you that a rock lacks one or more of the criteria for godhood, I'm not convinced that there's any way to argue around to that point. What Christianity does offer is an alternate cosmology backed by historical verifiability. If Christianity is true then pantheism isn't, so if I were personally in the mood to debate pantheism I would prefer to talk about the verifiability of Christianity - talking about the criteria for godhood is just going to get me talking in circles.

Jesus didn't come to teach, though. If his job on Earth was primarily to dispense moral and philosophical doctrine (which wouldn't, I think, be very much use to us - we don't follow moral or philosophical doctrine and we never will no matter who gives it to us) then we might expect him to provide teachings which systematically deal with all the wrong philosophies which he, as God, would be in a position to identify. On the other hand, how does a physics teacher explain to someone that the universe is not actually composed of celestial spheres? Rather than wasting a lot of time arguing about evidence for and against celestial spheres, he's much more likely to say "look, here's the real picture of the universe" - without mentioning celestial spheres at all, probably.


Lewis puts forth a deconstruction of Pantheism in 'Miracles', if anyone's interested.

To return to your original post, E, I do not think that people regard the existence of hell as a contradiction to God, per se.

As you describe him, God is the 'I am'. Not the 'I am supposedly'; not the 'I should be according to your perception', but the 'I am'.

If we have been trained in our educations to be skeptical of accepting without careful examination, then it is perhaps natural to raise concerns over the fact that one of God's most well-known characteristics appears compromised by one of his creations.

'Take it or leave it' probably isn't the most comforting answer, because it does nothing to address the injustice that another perceives in the embodiment of justice.

It's ironic how steep a hill this question is though. Of those that I've seen, the nonchristians have oftentimes attempted to surmount it, but have stopped short. The Christians have overcome it and ran all the way down, with a peace of mind that is perhaps puzzling to those who have not submitted their wills to the One whom they yet do not trust.

The question I tend to ask when faced with a person in such a dilemma is whether they realize that they are not presently standing on neutral ground; that hell is not a destination for punishment, but rather a denial of entry to better pastures. To go to hell, as I see it, is not entry into a jail, but simply never escaping an island.

And in that sort of situation, it is not that God punishes Man, but rather that Man never finds God.

The skeptics oftentimes do actively resist God and Christianity. But there is great danger in confounding evaluatory rigor with denial...

BTW: I'm thrilled to find somebody who posts entries as long as mine. ;)
You know me as the failed Testimony Bass and dormmate of one Mr. Russell and Mr. Mues.


I agree. I always thought of Hell almost as God's last gift to Christianity--a way of saying, "Alright...if you don't want to come live with me, that's alright--I'll make a place just for you. Just don't blame me if it turns out you don't like it."


I think that nine times out of ten objections to damnation center go something like this: "Well, look, I'm a good man - or anyway a halfway decent one - and I want to get to heaven just like anyone else, so isn't it horribly unjust and unloving for God to even create the possibility that I might not get there? Or maybe I'm not good enough to get into heaven, but what about someone like Ghandi?"

This is a case of dissecting Christianity out of context: it is looking at the doctrine of damnation, but not at any of the context which makes damnation anything other than an absurdity. But if you look at in context - if you realize that damnation must be taken with the rest of Christianity and that the whole thing hangs together - you immediately come up against the fact that you are not a "good man." You are not even remotely a halfway decent man. You will also run up against the fact that the doctrine of salvation has nothing to do with being "good enough." The very idea of being good enough to be saved is absurd. It would be like a man saying, "I am good enough to bear children." The idea of "good enough" is a million miles away from being relevant, because however good a man I may be, I am missing something vital.

How anybody can object to something like that I don't know, short of rejecting Christianity wholesale - which is what I have been trying to get at all along. Not, that is, unless they say something like this: "Well look, okay. We'll admit that I'm a sniveling wicked little wretch of a human being who has no hope of getting into heaven. Well, isn't that where God is supposed to come in? I mean, I *want* to get into heaven! Who doesn't?"

And that of course is exactly the conundrum identified by and solved by Christianity. I think a man would be very self-deceiving if he honestly asked that question of the sky and then refused to swallow his pride and become a practicing Christian (because of course he would not have reached that point except in intellectual relation to Christianity). But the real heart of the problem I think is in the last part: "I want to get into heaven! Who doesn't?"

I find that a lot of people run into a difficulty when they think of heaven or hell as a place that you are sent to. If I were God, I think I might have phrased those parts of the Scriptures more like Lewis did: in terms of becoming either a heavenly or hellish creature. But I can see the objection to that illustration and I think the geographical one really does make more sense, if you bother to think about it. I think it is like this:

Suppose a man in Los Angeles wants to get to New York. With this sole objective in mind, he hops into the Pacific and begins to swim towards the Arctic. What are we to say to such a man? We should correct him, of course - he is not heading for New York, and in fact could overshoot the Arctic by a million miles and still not end up in New York. But suppose once we correct him he says to us, "F*ck you and your geographical bigotry! I want to get to New York, and I'm going to get there my way! If I have to follow your instructions I don't want to get there anyway!" What are we to make of such a man? Does he want to get to New York or not?

(Of course that illustration is imperfect too, since you might get to New York by way of Moscow even if you started in Los Angeles. You would be very silly, but it could be done. But that is more like getting to the Christ-life by way of a very long and convoluted route, not like getting to it by way of Hinduism.)

Anyway, I think that is at the root of peoples' suspicion that hell is a really unfair feature of the universe. They simply refuse to believe that behavior X or attitude Y is, in reality, walking away from God (it is not bigotry to point out that heading for the Arctic will not get you to New York; it is merely a consequence of reality). And it is then that we run into Twilight's point. God has (only he knows why) this fanatical devotion to letting human beings make their own decisions. If a human being spends all its life trying to get away from God it would fail, unless there was some "place" like hell where God was not - else it would be like Jonah running away from God by heading for Italy.