Saturday, March 01, 2003

My Bible study is reading a book called Wild at Heart, by John Eldredge. It falls under the category in Christian literature of "men's book," but I am going to discuss it here anyway because I think this one has some good stuff to say. Actually I suspect I'll have a great deal to say about this as I get further into it. Rose's Bible study is reading The Sacred Romance, which Eldredge co-wrote with Brent Curtis. She quoted me some excerpts from it because she said it "sounded like me" speaking. Which it did.

Eldredge's premise in Wild at Heart is that there is such a thing as the masculine soul (as distinct from, though not opposite to, the feminine) and that modern Christianity - and society at large, for that matter - has badly missed what that soul is about. I quote from his first chapter:

When all is said and done, I think most men in the church believe that God put them on the earth to be a good boy. The problem with men, we are told, is that they don't know how to keep their promises, be spiritual leaders, talk to their wives, or raise their children. But, if they will try real hard they can reach the lofty summit of becoming ... a nice guy. That's what we hold up as models of Christian maturity: Really Nice Guys. We don't smoke, drink, or swear; that's what makes us men. Now let me ask my male readers: in all your boyhood dreams growing up, did you ever dream of becoming a Nice Guy? (Ladies, was the Prince of your dreams dashing ... or merely nice?)

And again: Little boys yearn to know they are powerful, they are dangerous, they are someone to be reckoned with; and again, Adventure requires something of us, puts us to the test. Though we may fear the test, at the same time we yearn to be tested, to discover that we have what it takes; and further, The battle itself is never enough; a man yearns for romance. It's not enough to be a hero; it's that he is a hero to someone in particular, to the woman he loves. In short, Eldredge argues, "in the heart of every man is a desperate desire for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue."

If it isn't already painfully obvious to you why my heart resonates with this book, you have missed an essential part of my being.

I should interject a note here: Eldredge is not conceiving of the "beauty" as some sort of passive object. He is explicitly rejecting the message that the apex of womanhood is to be "tough, efficient, and independent," and I agree with him there. But he is not saying that a woman should be some sort of wilting flower trapped, helpless, in the highest tower. Instead, he proposes:

Not every woman wants a battle to fight, but every woman yearns to be fought for. Listen to the longing of a woman's heart: she wants to be more than noticed - whe wants to be wanted.

I am not a woman, but I think that's a fair statement to make. So too:

Every woman also wants an adventure to share. ... So many men make the mistake of thinking that the woman is the adventure. But that is where the relationship immediately goes downhill. A woman doesn't want to be the adventure; she wants to be caught up into something greater than herself.


Every woman wants to have a beauty to unveil. Not to conjure, but to unveil. Most women feel the pressure to be beautiful from very young, but that is not what I speak of. There is also a deep desire to simply and truly be the beauty, and be delighted in.

Of course Eldredge isn't a woman either. But at the very least I think he's got his finger on the essential character of masculinity, and so at the very least I think he's identified here the kind of woman that a man's soul will resonate with. The most poignant moment in all of the Song of the Lioness quartet is when Alanna (this is the Alanna who is a bazhir shaman, the finest knight in Tortall, the woman who killed Duke Roger) comes into the common room of an inn at the Roof of the World in a dress with earrings. Liam guffaws at her, and what does she say? "Sometimes I like pretty things." I believe that that scene, in one form or another, lives somewhere in the heart of every man.

There are two points I think deserve to be observed here. First off, Eldredge is not speaking in strictly metaphorical terms. I think (I haven't finished the book yet, but I think) he is speaking metaphorically, but he's also speaking literally. In other words, there is nothing wrong with the man's desire for adventure, or to be dangerous - yes, literally, to be a perilous character, capable of inflicting grievous personal injury. In fact, I think he argues (and I certainly do argue), the man who is afraid of force is a hollow shell of a man.

And here I mean all kinds of force: Are others almost afraid to challenge you in debate because they know you can back up your position and defend it ably? Do people know that throwing tantrums around you won't work, because you aren't afraid of social confrontation? Are people afraid to disappoint you because they respect you that much? Are people afraid to mess with your loved ones because they know that you won't take that lying down? And yes, are you willing to apply lethal force until rendered physically unable to do so if your moral duty demands it of you? If not, why?

All of this has given me a curious angle on video games. There are two curious facts about video games that people often find difficult to reconcile: the fact that they're violent makes them fun; and yet that does not translate into an enjoyment of violence by gamers (you will hear otherwise on the news, but as a member of the first generation of young men to grow up playing video games I will tell you the media are wrong. Anecdotes of aberrant cases will not make them right. If you want to see the real heart of the modern gamer on the subject of real violence, watch me break down and cry about Iraq in Rose's car on the way home from church. Or, if you want a thoroughly non-Christian view, I invite you to consider the views of the Penny Arcade, widely held to be representative of the geek gamer, in this news post). And I will not deny that I enjoy slicing people up with my lightsaber. Because it's just so cool.

Let's stop there and analyze that statement. What did I just say? What I did not say is that I enjoy the thought of walking out onto the Stanford campus with a lightsaber in hand and hacking up my fellow students - I wouldn't even enjoy the thought of hacking up a bunch of Dark Jedi who somehow infiltrated the Farm. I said that lightsabering people is cool. Because in Jedi Knight II it is: it gives you the feeling that you're doing stuff from the movies, that you are in control of a Jedi's weapon, that you are skilled and are a force to be reckoned with. When you take down your first saber-wielding Reborn warrior in JK II, you know you've reached it: that is the moment (to borrow another video game quote) you officially become ... badass. And because physical, dangerous badassness is a part of all the other, more "acceptable" uses of force, the whole thing is emblematic. The game affirms that yes, you have what it takes.

What about the adventure? Well, take a good long look at video games and I think you'll find that the really great ones do give you an adventure. Sure, games like Quake and Doom are little more than twitch-fests - but those are not great games. They'll be remembered for their technical innovations. TIE Fighter, now, and MechWarrior 2, and Half-Life, and Myst, and the great Blizzard titles like WarCraft II and StarCraft ... those will be remembered for the adventure, the sense that the force is being harnessed to a purpose. Those games give you a chance to be a hero, not just some gun-slinging machine. Those are the games that people will tell you are the greatest games man has yet produced.

And the beauty? What about her? Not many games give you a beauty to rescue ... but then again, some do. How many people felt just awful when they found out how Sarah Kerrigan had been betrayed - and how many people resonated with Jim Raynor's inability to save her? You spend virtually all of Jedi Knight II trying to rescue Jan Ors, desperate in the knowledge that she might be dead and you never told her how you feel. And, corny as it sounds, Blue Rose will be able to corroborate that the end of Red Alert II sent me into a wistful state of shock, because it turned out that Tanya Adams was more than Rambo in a sports bra after all. Games may not be able to harness the power of romance very effectively - but I think that's because we have never yet seen a great game. Great by the standards of games, yes. Great by the standards we apply to other art? Not even close. Give me a game like that and I'll show you how much potential there is in giving the player a beauty to rescue. These others only hint at it.

All of this leads me to suspect that the failure of the media and all those concerned friends and citizens out there to prove that video games are bad for your character is because they're trying to make a connection that isn't there. The violence and adventure in a video game affirms a man's heart, satisfies in some way the deep core longings of his being. That's what they appeal to - not some morbid desire for death and gore.

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