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.