Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gotal'u An Kebise Evaar'la

Now it is Christmas.

This is the first Christmas in a long time that I have spent away from my immediate family.  Certainly it is the first without Thayet or Meshparjai.  I did not go to Dickens Fair.  My house is empty and undecorated.  There are no presents here.  I may not be able to stay in Charlotte.  There has been little about this Advent that has seemed Christmas-y.

But Christmas is not about family, nor love, nor togetherness, nor cheer.  It is not about goodwill towards men.  Those are all good things, and worthy trappings for Christmas.  But what Christmas is - what the Black Pearl really is - is praise.

This is not a plea to keep the Christ in Christmas.  Even in its most traditionally religious incarnation, Christmas is already an abstract memorial of events and ideas that the Church finds significant.  If other people want to turn it into an abstract memorial of other events or ideas that they find significant, I shan't object; it doesn't diminish the sanctity of my own memorial.  But for me, what Christmas memorializes is the invasion, the return of the king ... the promise that I make all things new.

And while I love spending time at the holidays with my aliit (moreso, truth be told, than with my family in the traditional sense), and I love spreading Christmas cheer at Dickens, and I love spreading a sense of magic with decorations and presents, the one thing that Christmas really needs for me is a memorial of that epic moment, when the trap was laid for the great enemy and the powers of heaven rolled forward upon the territory of the prince of the air with all the thunder of the angels of the one whose thunder and trumpet terrified the people at Sinai, spearheaded all by the cry of a newborn.

I need the sense of remembering with others who are remembering the same thing, and are similarly moved.  It used to happen with Xenophon over Christmas carols at my parents' house.  Then I moved away, and some years it never happened.  Tonight it happened at St. Mark's Episcopal, filling that old church with carols and invoking the weight of generations past.  And at home after midnight, in this empty house with the lights off, thundering songs of praise.

I may, as it happens, be trading in my accustomed low church tradition for something somewhat more liturgical.  But I think that my cathedrals will always be made of thunder and smoke, light and shadow: full-throated worship roared to the heavens, a vocal salute.  Tonight I build one of those in this empty house, and the home is full.

And now it is Christmas.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Things I Find Troubling About the Brown Shooting

The St. Louis County prosecutor released an interview with Darren Wilson recently, in which Officer Wilson recounts his version of his encounter with Michael Brown.  As I expect anybody reading this knows, the grand jury returned no indictment of the man, and naturally, I accept that as a matter of state law that's the end of it.  But I nevertheless find myself troubled by the story recounted.  There are, of course, questions of systemic justice that the case raises or at least has made people think about, but this is not a post about those.  Even among those who see this as an exemplar of systemic injustice, I expect that many people who are fascinated by this sort of thing are at least in part fascinated by the question of what they would have done had they been in the defendant's position, and I admit that a goodly portion of my own fascination is inspired by just that line of thinking.  In short: what do I think about Wilson's story, and how does that better help me understand myself?

According to Wilson, here is what happened:
Wilson encountered Brown and his friend walking down the middle of the street, heading towards his car.  He drew up to them in his patrol car and asked, "Hey guys, why don't you walk on the sidewalk?"  One of the two demurred.  Wilson repeated his request, and the second told him, "Fuck what you have to say," and the two continued to walk past Wilson's vehicle.  Wilson backed up, I suppose to keep pace with them, began to open his door, and said, "Hey, come here."  One of the two (Brown, the interview seems to imply), said, "What the fuck are you gonna do?" and shut the door on Wilson before he could even get his leg out of the vehicle.  Wilson tried to push Brown back with his door, Brown said something that Wilson doesn't recall, and then began punching Wilson through the window, pressing the door shut with his body.
Brown bent down to enter the vehicle with his upper body while continuing to do something with his arms ("tryin' to get his arms out of my face and him from grabbin' me and everything else," in Wilson's words).  Brown paused his attack to hand his companion a pack of stolen cigarillos with his left hand, saying, "Here, take these," which afforded Wilson the opportunity to grab hold of Brown's right arm.  Brown then rounded on Wilson with a full punch from his left hand.  Wilson continued to hold Brown's arm with his left hand while attempting to use his right to draw something to defend himself with.  He didn't have a taser, couldn't reach his mace on his utility belt (and didn't want to use it at such close proximity anyway for fear that it would incapacitate him too), couldn't reach his flashlight in the bag on the passenger seat without leaning away from Brown and rooting through the bag, and so decided on his gun.  He drew his firearm, pointed it at Brown, and ordered him to stop or be shot.  Brown informed Wilson that he was "too much of a fuckin' pussy to shoot me," grabbed it over the top with one or two hands (Wilson doesn't recall), and twisted it around to point at Wilson's pelvic area, with his hand around Wilson's trigger finger, which was inside the trigger guard.
Wilson let go of Brown's arm with his left hand and used it to lever the gun back around towards Brown.  He tried to fire twice, but the gun didn't fire, presumably because Brown's hand was still on the slide.  He tried to fire again and the weapon discharged through the door, sending glass from his rolled-down window flying along with blood.  Brown rocked back and then forced his upper body into the car again, swinging and grabbing wildly at Wilson.  Wilson defended himself with his left hand and tried to fire through the door again.  The weapon clicked, so Wilson racked the slide and as he did so the weapon "just came up and shot again."  Brown fled, and Wilson exited the vehicle and shouted at him to stop and get on the ground.
Brown stopped, and with "the most intense aggressive face I've ever seen on a person" charged Wilson at the run, putting his hand under his shirt into his waistband.  Wilson ordered him to stop and get on the ground again, but Brown kept running towards him.  Wilson began to backpedal, fired "multiple" shots and repeated the order, and Brown continued to run, "hands" still in his waistband.  Wilson fired multiple shots again, at least one of which hit Brown in the face and caused him to pitch forward onto the ground a few feet from Wilson.  Brown had "made contact" with Wilson "multiple" times, and landed "at least two" "solid blows," resulting in a swollen right cheek and jaw and scratches on his back, neck, and shoulders.
 Now, I have to admit that this story does not strike me as especially credible.  But let's suppose that everything happened exactly as described.  What are we to make of this?

My ethics of violence boil down to two aphorisms:

  1. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  To he who strikes you on the [side of the] jaw, offer to him also the other (Jesus); and
  2. Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill them right back (Malcolm Reynolds).
The difference in verbs is important to me, and dictates what I believe to be the morally appropriate response.  The first (socking you on the jaw) is, in Natalian parlance, merely violence.  The second (trying to kill you) is a threat.

To unpack that a bit - as a Christian, I think that killing is bad.  This is not to say that it is always the wrong thing to do; I think that killing can be the right thing to do, despite being a bad thing to occur - and I think it remains a bad thing, even when it is the right thing to do.  Because killing is always bad (even when it is the right thing to do), it seems to me that the onus is on the prospective killer to decide whether it is warranted.

Christians have of course struggled with when it is appropriate to kill someone since almost before there were Christians.  My personal resolution of the dilemma is bound up in the distinction between violence and a threat.  I do not believe that Jesus intended for us to suffer every attack without resistance, and God seems to be perfectly okay with killing human beings under many circumstances.  The moral question for me boils down to what is actually being threatened.  Mere injury, or loss of honor or authority, does not warrant resistance.  If something more important is threatened, such as a life or a psyche, then resistance is warranted.

I don't believe in threats, and I don't believe in going into any kind of fight that you aren't prepared to finish by any means necessary.  So if resistance is warranted, death is on the table.  If it isn't worth killing over (if the altercation should escalate to that level), it isn't worth punching over.

How does all this apply to the Brown shooting?  I find myself troubled by the fact that Wilson drew his gun.  At the moment he made that decision, he had suffered back-talk, a punch to the face, and attempted grabs.  This is certainly offensive, but does it warrant killing?  I hesitate to say that being punched and grabbed on the street rises to the level of a threat, let alone when the attacker is awkwardly wedged through a car window.  I cannot help but notice that in Wilson's account, Brown only went for the gun after Wilson drew it - and then did so in a way that one normally associates with preventing an automatic from firing, and in fact did prevent it from firing twice, even after Wilson had regained some control over his weapon.  Is that a threat?  To be honest, I find it ambiguous.

I find it less ambiguous - somewhat, I admit, but significantly less - as to whether a large, wounded, apparently berserk teenager charging one is a threat.  I do not believe in reciprocal force.  Once an actual threat has been offered, I believe in ending it as decisively as possible.  I can buy classifying as a threat being charged by a kid with murder in his eyes, even if he does have to hold up his pants while charging.

But how did it get to that moment in the first place?  It is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that the escalation to lethal force came from Officer Wilson, after being offered no more provocation than being punched and unsuccessfully grabbed - in short, after being attacked, but not threatened.

It would be disrespectful to say that I would have done differently.  If that is what happened, though, it is difficult for me to say that it was right.

I do understand that what I am classifying as the morally correct way to deploy force is not the tactically correct way to deploy force.  If a person is close enough to strike you, after all, they are in all probability close enough to kill you before you can effectively resist.  Not only that, but your chances of being able to effectively resist are significantly diminished if you have first been struck, even by blows that are in themselves not actually threatening.  At the end of the day, I think that following Jesus sometimes requires one to do the tactically unsound thing in order to do the morally sound thing.

It's worth observing, though, that civilized society requires the same.  Imagine a society in which you can be justifiably killed for punching someone in a bar.  We all know instinctively that being punched in a bar is highly unlikely to be a prelude to homicide.  It's almost certainly about establishing dominance, not about rending body from soul.  But of course that's an assumption, and after all, one has been attacked by a person at a very dangerous range.  It would be safer to incapacitate them than to ignore it, or walk away.  And there have been and are times and places when society was much closer to that norm.  It was not, I feel confident in saying, an improvement.

I should emphasize that it is not the escalation per se that troubles me.  As I said, I don't believe in reciprocal force.  In fact, I affirmatively believe in unreciprocal force, which is why it does not particularly bother me that Brown was, at the time of his death, unarmed.  What troubles me is why Wilson, according to his own account, chose to escalate.  His account does not make it sound like Brown intended to kill him, or indeed was in any reasonable danger of doing so inadvertently, and yet Wilson threatened to kill him.  That is what troubles me.

I have heard from various parties variations of the sentiment that Brown deserved what he got, because he assaulted a police officer.  To this I feel it should be sufficient reply to ask why, if assaulting a police officer is sufficient cause to warrant death without a trial, no legislature or court has seen fit to articulate that doctrine.  We will search the law in vain to find the proposition that a police officer may lawfully kill another prior to receiving an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury that an objectively reasonable person would interpret as such, even the laws of self-defense.  And we know, of course, that not all assaults do constitute, to an objectively reasonable person, imminent threat of death or serious physical injury.  In this case, Brown was allegedly attempting to punch and grab Wilson through the window of a patrol car.  It is difficult for me to see how he could have caused Wilson's death or serious physical injury in that position, and if he could not have done so or done so only through a very improbable series of events, then he could not present Wilson with an imminent threat.  So again ... what was it, other than Wilson's subjective fear, that justified his drawing his weapon?

I find myself troubled.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fencing Retrospective, A Year and Three Months

When I first came to New York, I gave myself five years to get any good at fencing.  It has now been fifteen months, and I am headed to my second competition at the end of the month.  I've decided to participate in four tournaments at Iron Gate Exhibition: dagger, longsword, "mixed weapons" (really a series of competitions all involving one-handed swords), and basic cutting.  This will be the first time I've competed in a dagger or one-handed tournament, the first time I've competed with a steel longsword, and the first time I've competed with a sharp sword.  I am, in other words, jumping in with both feet, and we'll see how I do (perhaps later I can share my thoughts on why).  But this seems like a good time to ask: how is it going?  Am I getting any good?

Somewhat to my surprise, I find myself able to answer that question unambiguously in the affirmative.  Liechtenauer divides his unarmored longsword art into seventeen hauptstücke, high-level concepts that group together several individual plays or techniques.  I've now at least seen all seventeen, can explain them all at least superficially, and I am starting to be able to apply them when analyzing other people's fights and in my own fighting.  Occasionally I can even make some of them work.  Five of the hauptstücke are special cuts, and I can execute about half of them with a sharp sword against a resistive target almost all the time.  In fact, there are thirteen cuts on my "to do" list (there are others that one can do with a longsword, but these thirteen will do for now), and I can reliably cut about eight of them (eight and a half, if that's a thing).  My fundamentals are definitely better than they were a year ago.  And I find, as I contemplate my first steel tournament, that I am willing to fight anybody.  I don't necessarily expect to win, but ... I'm confident that I won't completely embarrass myself.  In cutting, I am by no means capable of fancy or complex feats, but I feel that what I am capable of is solid.  The gap between my sparring and my cutting is narrower than it was, and I feel like the one informs the other.

I'm not really good yet, by any means.  When it comes to dancing, there are a few dance forms in which I feel like I can dance with a partner of any skill level and any training background - anybody from anywhere - and make the experience uplifting.  And as for other dance forms, while I may find them scary, I am confident that I have the skills to pick things up quickly enough that I can at least make it workable in short order.

That's pretty much what good means to me in fencing: I want to be able to fight anybody from anywhere, at least with my chosen weapon(s), and make the experience uplifting.  I don't necessarily have to win (in fact - post for another time as well, I suppose - the more I learn, the more complex I find is the line between the martial and the non-martial), but I want my opponent to come away from the fight feeling like my fencing really brought out the best in them.  And I want to be able to pick up any weapon and be able to at least make it workable in short order.

And ... while I'm not there yet, you know what?  I think I am getting there.  And hey, there's another forty-five months to go.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

You Keep Using That Word

... I do not think it means what you think it means.

This is one of those topics that has bothered me for a long time.  To be perfectly honest, it's one of those topics on which I feel like the church lied to me, and that made me pretty mad.  I am speaking of the issue of lust, that bugaboo of American Protestant Christendom about which we harangue our young people from puberty until about the age of 30.

I think America in general cares far too much about morality, and American Christendom is certainly not immune to this peculiar cultural defect.  And I suppose, if one is going to focus on morality, one might as well focus on sexual morality - since, for better or worse, we as a species seem to be obsessed with it (Christianity hardly being the only religion, and America hardly being the only people, who have made veritable fortresses of rules to protect our sexuality from ourselves).  But that doesn't stop me from feeling like the church lied to me about it.

Specifically, I feel like the church lied to me about lust.  I don't think anybody did it intentionally.  They just ... left out a really important piece of information.

APC teachings on lust generally begin with Matthew 5:27-28, with the better sort ending at verse 29 instead.  My favorite commercial translation (the NKJV) renders it thus:
[27] You have heard that it was said to those of old, "You shall not commit adultery."  [28] But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  [29] If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you, for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
I say that "the better sort" include verse 29 because I think that makes it pretty clear (if the preceding verses were not clear enough) that there is ample Biblical support for the notion that the problem is with the luster, not the lustee.  That by itself gets lost often enough.  It doesn't get lost in the teaching, precisely.  Frankly, you have to be a fairly incompetent teacher not to get that point.  Everybody I know teaches that it's my responsibility not to lust.  But it gets lost in the overall messaging mix, because everybody I know is also deeply concerned to let people know how they can help me not lust.  And the next thing you know well-meaning older women are teaching younger women in their women's groups (no men involved!) about what to wear and not to wear, to "help" their brothers, and girls are getting sent home from proms because their dresses aroused lustful thoughts in the chaperones, and even I am deeply, genuinely upset over what a girl is wearing who is trying to convince me to date her.

I don't think that the APC obsession with lust is to blame for all of America's sexual dysfunction.  But I think it drives - granted, oftentimes from many removes - a lot of it.

And there really is no problem with the desire to help me avoid what is, quite clearly, something Jesus thinks I should avoid.  "It's your problem, not mine" can (and should) live hand in hand with, "How can I help?"

But.  Before we get there ... what exactly is the problem?

Matthew 5:28 starts off simply enough.
Egô de legô humin, Jesus says: "But I say to you all."
hoti pas ho blepôn gunaika, "that everyone who is looking at a woman."  Still pretty straightforward.
pros to epithumêsai ...
... and here is where I think insufficient attention is focused, in APC practice.  Pros is a preposition that, like most prepositions, can have a variety of meanings - but they all have to do with the idea of directionality.  Epithumêsai is an infinitive (specifically an aorist infinitive, I know, but I don't think that's relevant to my present argument), here being coupled with the accusitive article to, to make it clear that pros (whose meaning, like most Greek prepositions, is shaded by the case of its object) is being used in the sense of motion or direction towards the object - in this case, the infinitive epithumêsai.

Epithumêsai is conventionally translated as "to lust," but I think we have a tendency to forget what that word means - and since it is the thing Jesus is exhorting us to avoid, I feel like that is a significant oversight.  Ancient Greek is a language that is in love with compounds, and this is one such.  There is a danger in getting too reductionist with foreign compounds, since sometimes they don't literally mean what their compound would suggest (idiom is a thing!), but in this case, I think the lexicon is on the side of a reductionist reading.  So what is this word?

Epi is another preposition, also with an overall idea of directionality, but in a much more pointed way than pros.  If I walk pros to you, I am walking in your direction.  If I walk epi to you, I am headed in your direction with a more distinct purpose.  Thumos is the "soul," if you want to put it that way (but English-speakers tend to be used to thinking of psyche as the soul); it's the part of you that houses your strongest passions and feelings.  Epithumêsai, therefore, is to "set one's heart upon," to drive your desire towards something (in this case, the aforesaid woman) with great purpose.  So lust is ... not a bad translation.  "Covet" is equally good.

No matter how familiar one is with grammar, it should be clear by now that there is a lot of directionality in this prepositional phrase.  In fact, as much as I like the NKJV generally, this is one area where I feel like it drops the ball.  "To lust" is an adequate translation of epithumêsai, by itself - both are infinitives.  But it does nothing to render pros to - we are not just lusting here, we are looking pros to lust.  We are looking in order to lust (or, if you aren't particular about translating the infinitive literally, for the purpose of lusting).

There are two small points that just got made, both of which have what I believe are outsized significance for real-world morality.

Point the first: Jesus is not talking about lust in general.  He's talking about looking, for a specific purpose.  Why is this significant?  Because all too many young people in American Christendom (myself included, and I feel like I generally had a higher-caliber of theological teaching than most) are worried about the fact that they just lusted after someone.  We twist ourselves into real knots about this, as a community.  We have gender-segregated groups to talk about "struggling with lust."  We form awkward partnerships for "accountability."  We wring our hands about pornography because of it (depending on the pornography in question, there might be other valid reasons to wring our hands about it, but in my experience, those are never the actual reasons hands are wrung).  In a million and one ways, we feel ... guilty.  Dare I say it, we feel condemned.  And that is not something we should ever feel.

And all over ... well, what?  Because we had some sexual thoughts about a person, or our sexual response cycle started.  I'm going to avoid the secular cop-out of saying that there's nothing wrong with that; there can be.  But let's start with the text: did you look (even if we're defining "look" pretty broadly, for instance to include imagination) for the purpose of lusting?  Or was it something that happened?  It makes me almost want to giggle uncomfortably just typing that, as if lust is something that can happen by accident, but ... well, look, that's what the text says.  We are not talking about lust.  We are talking about looking for the purpose of lusting.

Universities, high schools, and youth groups are filled with young people wringing their hands about lust, and the nation is filled with adults who never really stopped, but how many of them - how many of us - actually do that?  How often do you really take a mental step back, and deliberately cast your gaze upon someone to lust after them?  I won't say it never happens; it does.  But it happens a lot less frequently than one might infer from the amount of play this issue gets with our young people.

Point the second: what is lust, anyway?  I can't recall a single sermon, or discussion, of this point that has bothered to ask that question, let alone answer it.  But I can say that, even in my generally high-quality theological environment, the never-actually-discussed, de facto, assumed answer is that lust is sexual arousal.

This is a lie.

Epithumêsai is not describing getting aroused, or finding someone sexually appealing, or having an orgasm.  There is a reason that the Septuagint uses it in the ninth commandment ("Thou shalt not covet").  It is describing a state of mind in which you have an object in mind and, like Sauron, all your thought is bent on it.

Now, this can be sexual, yes.  But it is a very particular part of a person's sexual life.  A person can find someone attractive, initiate a sexual encounter, and have sex, all without lusting after his or her partner in this way.  Most of a person's sexual life, I daresay (most of mine, anyway), occurs outside of this focused, laser-like, I-must-have-it-and-it-will-be-mine state of mind.

How often do we bother to explain this to the generations of people who have grown up wringing their hearts into knots about lust?  How often do we actually ask, "Have you ever felt that way?"  I have, but not often - and when I first started hearing sermons about this passage, I definitely had not experienced what it is actually talking about.

But let us finish Jesus' thought.  Êdê emoikheusen autên en têi kardia autou, he finishes: everyone who is looking at a woman in order to covet her already committed adultery with her in his heart.

I mention this final phrase because I think it nuances what Jesus is talking about in a way that I think is incorrect misunderstood to the sorrow of whole generations of Christians.  I think the most common understanding of this verse is that looking at a woman in order to lust after her is morally equivalent to having sex with her.

If we understand pros to epithumêsai in what I believe is the vernacular way, we might translate the verse like this: "Everyone who is looking at a woman and finds her arousing has already had sex with her in his heart."  And this would indeed be a terrible challenge, one so difficult to meet that it could well justify all the effort and, frankly, broken spirits that the American church has sacrificed to meet it.

But that's not what it says.  The looking must be with purpose.  And the object of that purpose is not mere arousal, but hyper-focused desire.  Again, to covet is a perfectly good translation here, and one that I think is helpful.  What I understand Jesus to be saying is this: If the only thing stopping you from having sex with someone is that you have not, in fact, had sex yet, then in your heart, you have had sex.

And this does happen.  But again: how often do we ask our youth groups, in all of our earnest discussions, "How many times has this happened to you?"  In my experience, this verse is taught (with due solemnity by our elders, who presumably know what it's like to be a young person) as something that every young person struggles with, pretty much all the time.  That is certainly how it was taught to me, and I left a lot of sweat on the ground struggling against what everyone assured me as a daily struggle.

And ... well, I feel like the church lied to me.  Sexual arousal is a daily occurrence.  Looking at a [person] for the purpose of lusting after [him or] her, quite frankly, is not a daily occurrence.

When I in college, I met a girl.  She was amazing.  She was ... well, I haven't discussed this with her, so I won't give any more details than that.  But she was intoxicating.  From pretty much the instant I saw her, I wanted to jump her bones and do things I didn't even have names for with her.  The attraction, we quickly discovered, was mutual.  We flirted not just outrageously, but intensely.  When she was anywhere near me, I could barely keep my hands off her, let alone think straight.  We weren't dating, but the sexual tension between us was so thick that a knife would barely have made a dent.  We planned a date in my room to watch a movie we both thought was sexy and had no plans to watch the movie, except maybe as foreplay.  Leading up to that day, we both texted and IM'd each other to drive each other even crazier (this was before that was cool).

That is looking at a woman for the purpose of lusting after her.  It's intentional, it's consuming, it's directed.  Sex is a part of it, but its defining features are not actually sexual at all.  The critical thing - the thing that left me with such an indelible impression that now, for the first time, I had really seen what Jesus was actually talking about - was that I wanted her (and she wanted me) in a way I had never wanted anyone before, and we both took deliberate steps to encourage that desire in ourselves and each other.  We both came to our senses before "anything happened" (if you'll forgive me the use of such a mealy-mouthed phrase), but for a few weeks, the only way in which we hadn't had sex was ... well, we hadn't gotten around to having sex.

Contrast this with a more typical scenario.  I am walking down the street.  I see a woman wearing pants.  Like many women's pants do, these pants show off her legs to advantage.  I find this sexually appealing.  I maybe even get the start of an erection.  We go our separate ways.

In that second scenario, while there is certainly a bit of attraction, I think it is plain that the intensely directed experience of coveting is missing.  I don't actually want that woman at all, and if she offered to have sex with me right then and there I'd not only say no, but be kind of repulsed - despite the fact that I find her attractive.  And while I did look at her, I certainly didn't do it for the purpose of coveting her (which I didn't do, in any case).

This leads me to suspect that one of the greatest lust bogeymen of the American church is actually a paper tiger.  I speak, of course, of pornography.  The principal use of pornography, in my experience, is to arouse.  It may have many ancillary uses (comfort, relaxation, a sense of safety, stimulation of the sexual imagination, whatever), but I think one use is almost always missing: desire to be in the scenario depicted.  People don't use porn because they want to have sex with a particular actor or a particular character.  In my experience, there is almost never any wanting involved at all.

Now, there are many reasons why we could wring our moral hands about porn.  It may be professionally exploitative (but it doesn't have to be).  It may be morally destructive for the actors involved (but I'm not sure it always is, and there aren't always actors involved to begin with).  It may just be an artistic travesty (which, let's be honest, most of it is).  But is it looking at a [person] in order to covet [him or her]?  I see no way to make that argument with a straight face.

I don't think that what Jesus is talking about never happens (nor, I should probably state for the record, is it always bad).  It happened to me in the story above (and it's happened to me since).  But it's a lot rarer, and a lot more recognizable, than I think it is generally given credit for.  I don't think this verse should never be taught, but neither do I think we should teach our young people - by our words and by how much time we spend dealing with "lust issues" - to be constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure they haven't lusted after someone.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Phoenix Earth

This weekend at Fechtschule New York somebody asked me, again, what my phoenix earth patches are about.  I've been asked this a bunch of times since adding them to my HEMA gear, and I always chicken out.  Yeah, I guess part of it is that I don't really know how to explain, but mostly ... I chicken out.  Usually I say that the phoenix earth stands for me, or that it's been my coat of arms since I was fifteen or so (when my sister first designed it).  And those things are true ... sort of.  But that isn't what my patches are about.

My phoenix earth patches are representations of my arms as they have existed in my mind since some time in late undergrad: On a circular shield gules, a diminished bordure, a phoenix earth Or.  The circular shield recalls a hoplite aspis, and symbolizes faith (a shield) that benefits others (in the hoplite form).  The red field is for strength and magnanimity, and for honoring a father (or, if you will, the Father).  The gold is for faith, obedience, gentility ... and for vengeance.

Which ties into the phoenix earth itself.  The phoenix earth represents Earth after the end times, the New Jerusalem.  It is the new beginning after the resurrection of the dead, after whatever tribulations the end times may bring, after the reign of a thousand years (if there is such a thing), after the last rebellion of the adversary, after Judgment Day and the second death, after earth, after heaven ... when all that is over and done with and life begins.  I saw a new heaven and a new earth, says Revelation 21, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.
And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
When I look forward to an "afterlife," this is what resonates with me: when there is no more heaven and no more hell, when the brokenness of the human condition and the glories it can produce in adversity are replaced by a better human condition, one utterly free of the brokenness that haunts every corner of our existence and yet produces better glories, in ways we, who have come to depend upon darkness to let us distinguish and appreciate the light, can hardly imagine.  When we get our bodies back, recognizably flesh and bone and yet transcendently better than before, and live in a physical world that is recognizably our own and yet so much better that it may as well be an alien planet, when the source of all joy and satisfaction is closer, and more present, than any human being has ever experienced.  When all things - all things, everything that makes life the bittersweet mixture of joy and sorrow that it is - are made new.

This is, as I said, the afterlife that resonates with me.  I do not care for heaven.  In heaven, I am still dead.  Not obliterated, perhaps, but my body and soul are sundered, and that is just fundamentally wrong.  The Biblical descriptions of heaven, if that's what they are, sound either dreadfully dull or eye-wateringly intense yet dreadfully one-dimensional.  Give me a body, give me an earth ... give me the promise of the wild, unfettered and alive life that my [probably metaphorical] ancestors experienced.

But it is not really the afterlife itself that motivates me.  It is what this new life - this New Jerusalem, this phoenix earth - represents in the here and now.  For me, the [Biblical] phoenix earth is the ultimate expression of the promise that God makes things better.  That he is not the god of consolation prizes, nor the god of jury-rigged solutions held together with duct tape and a prayer, nor a god for whom some things are simply broken beyond repair.  If the earth - the human condition, life itself - can be fixed in Christ, then anything can be fixed in Christ.  And not only fixed, but made better than it was before.  No matter how bad a marriage is, it can be better than it was before.  No matter how broken a friendship, how sundered a family ... it can be made better.  It may involve a phenomenal amount of effort, soul-breaking vulnerability and hard work.  But in Christ it can be done.  Whatever it takes to get there, it's not impossible.  Knowing that makes all the difference to me.

So what do my patches say?  They say, I believe in a God who not only can, but wants to, make all things new.  I believe he will come in indomitable strength to have his vengeance upon evil itself, not only to fix what is broken but to make everything better than any human being has ever experienced it.  I believe in creating that kind of world through self-mastering forgiveness and unconquerable gentleness wherever I go.  And I will hold this trust in the face of the slings and arrows of life, for my sake and for yours.

That's what my phoenix earth patches are about.

Fechtschule New York 2014

This past weekend was Fechtschule New York 2014, which was my first "formal" tournament since beginning KdF almost exactly one year ago.  By "formal" tournament I mean one in which every match in the tournament was judged and refereed according to rules that had been prescribed beforehand.  I had competed in one tournament before this, at an event called Shortpoint 2014, but that was a very informal gathering of fencers and the "tournament" was simply the result of every match that a fencer happened to have during the course of the day, be it a friendly sparring session or "in the ring."

At FNY, I was competing in both the paired forms competition (in which teams of competitors performed specified techniques from a particular fencing treatise, each team competing to present the technique as cleanly and "ideally" as possible), and the beginner's longsword tournament.

I didn't advance beyond the first round of either tournament, but I feel very differently about them.  My partner for the paired forms tournament got her left little finger broken earlier during the event, so I competed only sort of by accident, at the last minute - another fencer from my school also found out he needed a partner at the last minute, so the two of us practiced ten techniques for about an hour and then threw ourselves into the competition.  That's about six minutes per technique, which isn't exactly a lot of time to polish things even if we did know most of them already.  Given that, I am proud of what we were able to present to the judges, even if we didn't make it past the first round.  And the people who did go far really did deserve it; their fencing was clean, exacting, and accurate.

The beginner's longsword tournament was a different matter.  Competitors were divided into three pools of five fencers each (I think one of the pools might have had six), and each fencer fought every other fencer in his or her pool.  The two best fencers from each pool went on to a bracket system for the semi-finals and finals.  The rules for the tournament, and the judging procedure, had been refined at Shortpoint and in my opinion were excellent.  Not only did matches run very quickly, but judging felt very accurate (i.e., few instances where the fencers thought one thing had happened, but the judges thought another), and the incentives for the rules felt very good.  In a nutshell, they discouraged people from taking shots to easy targets (such as the forearms) unless they could also defend themselves while doing so, and encouraged people to make technically strong hits to the head and torso, preferably while simultaneously controlling their opponent's blade (and, thus, defending oneself).  While no tournament rules are ever going to be perfect, and no tournament will ever be a very good simulation of a real fight - even a real duel - I have nothing but good things to say about these particular tournament rules.

I do have very critical things to say about my own fencing.  It was timid, overly intellectual, and restricted itself to a smaller range of techniques than I know.  At Shortpoint I felt like I fought about as well as I knew how, win or lose.  At FNY I did not feel like I fought as well as I know how.  I found myself discomfited by the incentive to go for the vitals, but did a poor job of defending myself when going for my preferred strikes against exposed hands and forearms.  I let myself believe that my opponents were better than they were, and as a result forgot to fight with basic good technique, which foreshortened my range and made it even harder to fight at a good distance from my opponent.  That belief also restrained myself from doing what I knew was the right thing in many situations.  "I'm not especially good at what I know I should do in this situation," I might think.  "My opponent will probably counter it."  But that is no way to fight.  Everything can be countered, but counters are generally harder to pull off successfully than the things they are counters to.  And in any case, if one isn't willing to attack, one might as well throw in the towel.  Attempting to substitute techniques that I knew I was better at, but also knew were sub-optimal for the situation, did not go well.

This is why I am not pleased with my fencing in the longsword tournament.  I certainly would have liked to win more matches, but mostly, I feel like I did not fight with my all.  I have been brooding over this for the past couple of days; it's taken me that long to break down what exactly I did wrong in terms that are specific enough that I can work on them but broad enough that I can draw generalizable conclusions from them.

I've decided that I need to own this failure.  On the one hand, this weekend was not the best fencing I have ever done, or even the best fencing I know how to do.  But it is the fencing I actually did, and that makes it part of me as a fencer.  It's something I need to face if I'm going to get better.

It's also, despite the pain of giving a poor showing, a reminder for me of what kind of fencer I want to be.  It might be nice to say that I lost because tournament fighting is not real fighting.  But in fact, the opposite is true.  The event as a whole demonstrated that the best way to become an excellent tournament fighter is to learn real, martially applicable skill.  And you know what?  While I'm perfectly happy to hew into somebody's forearm to win a fight, I don't want to be someone who can't attack and defend.  The elegance of the longsword that I find so appealing is precisely in using it both to attack and defend.  And I don't want to be the kind of fencer who wins fights by nickel-and-diming my opponent to death in the legs and arms.  I want to annihilate them.  I want those head shots - one of the most oft-repeated phrases in the treatises we study is "stab him in the face."  Yes, it's scary to close that extra few inches to be able to hew or stab the skull, or the collar area.  I want to face that fear and conquer it.

Because that's what fencing is about to me.  Force without is force within, and vice versa.  I'm not interested in killing because I have any particular desire to kill people.  I'm interested in it because it's a form of authentic force, and I believe that authentic force is what is necessary for real self control or self possession.  And that - to hold oneself in the grip of one's own will - is something I prize very highly.  So I will get better at fencing the way I want to fence, and I will get better at being me, and I will remember that most of all, this is something to learn.  More than twenty years later, Alanna still calls to me to work, even at the things you aren't good at, to bend myself to my will through sheer bloody-mindedness:

Sacherell was well enough.” Coram yawned. “He’s a bit of a natural. Ye’re just not a natural with a sword, Master Alan. Some are born to it, like me. I never knew aught else, and I never wanted to. Now, some—some never learn the sword at all, and they don’t survive their first real fight. And then there’s some—”

“Yes?” Alanna asked, grasping at this straw. She was obviously not born to the sword, and she had no plans for dying in her first fight.

“Some learn the sword. They work all the extra minutes they have. They don’t let a piece of metal—or Aram Sklaw—beat them.”

Alanna stared at the forest and thought this over. “It’s possible to learn to be natural?”

“It’s just as possible as it is for a lass t’ learn t’ beat a lad, and the lad bigger and older than she is, and in a fair fight."

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Loathe Entirely

When I talk to people about New York, I try not to focus on the negative.  It's unhealthy and unworthy to do so on a regular basis, and also quite possibly rude, since odds are good I'll be talking to a New Yorker.  Instead I try to focus on the positive, such as the fact that I have a job (and a pretty decent job, taken on its own merits), AHS, or my church.  This may give the impression that really, I don't think New York is that bad, or that I only don't like it because Thayet and Meshparjai are not here.  This is untrue.

I hate this town.  I hate it with an incandescent fury.  I hate it with such passion that its very existence offends me.  I hate its understocked little stores.  I hate its endless, green-less stretches of concrete.  I hate its weather.  I hate its smoke-shrouded sidewalks.  I hate its wretchedly cramped apartments, and the fact that even nice neighborhoods can't be counted on to have basic amenities like free laundry facilities, or level floors.  But most of all, I hate the subway.

I am writing this instead of sparring right now because I just spent two and three quarters hours not getting to fencing, due to subway delays and reroutes caused by construction.  I suppose I could have called a cab, but this infuriatingly self-absorbed town is expensive enough as it is.  Eventually, I gave up and turned around, never having gotten more than a third of the way to my destination.  You might think it's kind of ironic that I didn't make it to fencing when I could clearly stand to hit something right now, but fencing isn't really good for expressing anger, so I guess that's something.

I understand that the New York subway system is an attempt to make a public service out of what was originally a collection of for-profit proprietary networks.  I understand that it runs 24/7.  I understand that it is over one hundred years old and desperately needs renovation.  I understand that it is still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Sandy.  I understand that I hate public transit in general, because you can't sing on it and it runs on the opposite of lawyer hours.  And I freely admit that, miserable as it is, the New York subway is far superior to BART.  Nevertheless, the New York subway system has got to be the least reliable system of transportation I have ever experienced.

And it is the backbone of New York transportation.  There is no comparable method of transportation available out here.  I cannot simply go places in New York; I must subject myself to the vicissitudes of a public transportation system that is as reliable as it is pleasant.  There is something deeply, personally offensive to me about a city that tries so very hard to prevent me from going wheresoever I please, but if it must, it could at least make its precious little miniature Niles run reliably.

So yes, there are good things to be found even in this swamp of human misery - even things that, individually, I will miss when I finally shake off the dust of this terrible cesspit.  And I try to focus on the good things, because for now - for now - the alternative is a breach of duty, and that is unacceptable.  But let there be no doubt that I hate, hate hate hate hate, this waterlogged trash-compacted smoke-impregnated railroad-dependent wretched excuse for a town.

Friday, January 24, 2014

I Noticed Something About "Submission"

I think a lot of people learn ancient Greek in order to read the New Testament for themselves.  That wasn’t my primary motivation, but it was certainly on my mind.  For the most part, I haven’t found any great insights into Scripture by reading it in the original.  I suppose that’s to the credit of our translations.  The other day, though, I did notice something that I found rather interesting.

Ephesians 5:22, as we all know, says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”  That’s the New International Version.  The New Revised Standard Version says, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”  Both the English Standard Version and the New King James say, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”  Translation after translation carries the imperative: submit, submit, submit.

It’s the sort of thing that we often find embarrassing, and many a sermon has been preached on just what Biblical “submission” means, and how it really isn’t that bad.  The exegete might grab onto the phrase “as to the Lord” to differentiate this submission from abject subjugation.  Or the sermon might focus on the later verses, about how husbands are called to “give themselves up” for their wives.  I’ve grown up with these sorts of sermons all my life, and while I think they are morally sound as far as they go and on firm textual footing, there’s something I noticed just recently that I don’t think I’ve ever quite heard before.

Ephesians 5:22 doesn’t say, “Submit.”

I don’t mean that in the original, “submit” isn’t in the imperative.  I mean that the word “submit” isn’t in the verse at all.  In point of fact, Ephesians 5:22 doesn’t even have a verb.  What it actually says is, “the wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.”  This is not a sentence in Greek any more than it is in English.  This should give the reader pause, and perhaps put him in mind that Ephesians 5:22 is not an appropriate place to begin a citation.

So where is an appropriate place to begin the citation?  I don’t actually think that’s very clear.  This may be surprising, and lest we think poorly of our translators, I think a short digression is in order.

The issue of how to break up sentences is not quite so trivial as it might first appear.  Ephesians was written prior to the adoption of punctuation, so we must infer punctuation from content.  Oftentimes this is reasonably straightforward, but there are times when it isn’t.  Ancient Greek is also fairly fond of embedded clauses and phrases and the like.  For instance, you might encounter a sentence with a structure like this: 
“Hesitating on the front stoop, holding each option in his mind and considering whether to knock or to leave, he entered the house.”
Even without the punctuation, this is fairly obviously a sentence.  If you know enough English, you can identify that by the presence of the verb (“entered”), and you can infer that the preceding clauses and phrases relate to the main clause.  But suppose you had a sentence like the following:
“hesitating on the front stoop holding each option in his mind and considering whether to knock or to leave he entered the house with trepeditation looking this way and that trying to make as little noise as possible he crept through the empty rooms”
 Is that one sentence?  Is it two?  Is it two, with a fragment of a third?  There are multiple ways that you could punctuate the passage above that are equally correct, even if the actual meaning of the passage is quite clear.

Now imagine that what I have written is not actually English but another language, one in which my stringing together so many gerund phrases is not bad style.  If asked to translate that, you might actually take some of my gerunds and turn them into verbs.  For instance, you might render it like this:
“He hesitated on the front stoop, holding each option in his mind.  Considering whether to knock or to leave, he entered the house with trepidation.  He looked this way and that, trying to make as little noise as possible, and crept through the empty rooms.”
 And that might not be a bad translation at all, at least for general purposes.  Even though it isn’t exactly “word for word,” it flows much better, and that’s not a quality to be despised in a translation when none of the meaning has been lost.

In the case of Ephesians 5:22, though, I submit that this practice has resulted (all inadvertently, I am sure) in some meaning being lost.  So let us return to that passage.  Let me back up to what I think is the clear start of a sentence and refuse to impose any punctuation after that.  Keeping the verb forms as close to their original as possible, I would translate that block of text (Ephesians 5:15-30) like this:
“Look extremely closely how you walk not as unwise but rather as wise buying out the moment because the days are painful through this do not become foolish but rather understand this the will of the lord and do not become drunk with wine in which is wastefulness but rather be full in spirit saying to each other psalms and hymns and spiritual songs singing and strumming your hearts to the lord thanking always above all god the father in the name of our lord jesus christ submitting to each other in fear of christ the wives to their own husbands as to the lord because a husband is the head of his wife as christ is the head of the church himself the savior of the body but rather as the church submits to christ so also the wives to their husbands in all things husbands love your wives just as christ loved the church and himself gave for her in order that she be cleansed purified in a bath of water in the word so that he might stand her esteemed the church not having either spot or wrinkle or any such thing but rather so that sacred and blameless in this manner the husbands must love their own wives as their own bodies he loving his wife as himself for nobody ever hated his own flesh but rather rears and warms it just as christ the church that we are limbs of his body …”
 And so it goes on.  You can probably see several places where you might put punctuation in that block of text.  One thing I don’t think you can get around, though, is this: “the wives to their husbands as to the lord” is grammatically tied up with “submitting to each other in fear of Christ.”  That is where our translators feel they have license to insert the word “submit” into Ephesians 5:22, and you can see that for most general purposes it isn’t a bad translational choice at all.  Moreover, all translations are careful to keep Ephesians 5:21 reading something like “… submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.”

What I think is particularly noteworthy, though, is that the omission of the verb from 5:22 makes it clear (to me, at least) that this whole notion of wives submitting to their own husbands is simply an illustration of the larger point about everybody submitting to one another.  In other words, while it is true that wives are told to submit to their own husbands, it is equally true that husbands are told to submit to their wives, and in fact that all Christians are told to submit to each other.

I am hardly the first person to have noticed that, but seeing where the verbs are (and are not) casts the various teachings I have heard about submission in a new light.  In light of this new, more nuanced reading, I think it is clear that when we exegete this passage by pointing out that the “submission” referred to cuts both ways between married persons, we aren’t just making frantic excuses for an inherently misogynist text.  We are instead correctly pointing out that the thrust of the text is not on wives at all, but on the entire body of believers living in a state of submission.  And that too makes clear that when we talk about “submission” in lofty spiritual terms and pooh-pooh the notion of a wife being subject to her husband’s reign as a mere strawman, we actually aren’t just whistling in the dark.  If the entire church is supposed to be submitted one to another, then the “submission” being referred to really can’t be some misogynist subjugation.  Everybody can’t be subjugated to everybody else.  So if everybody is “submitted” to everybody else, then clearly something less literal than subjugation must be going on.

And although it’s been said many times by other people, I suppose at this point it might be appropriate for me to offer up my own short exegesis about what this “submission” is, if the context of the passage precludes it from being literal subjugation.

The main thing I get from this block of text vis a vis “submission” is that it is a desirable state for the entire church.  But what else can we tell about it?  It seems to be contrasted with the wastefulness (dissipation, if you like) of being an alcoholic.  Rather than that, Paul says, we should be filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to each other, singing and making our hearts thrum (psallontes the heart, playing it like a stringed instrument), giving thanks and submitting to one another.  To me, all these gerunds, with their musical imagery, sound like they are being arrayed to describe the same thing, a sort of spiritual harmony among persons.  But what has submitting to do with music, or harmony?  At this juncture we might safely observe that the word “submitting,” hupotassetai, means “arraying under,” as one might “array” things in an orderly fashion, such as a body of troops - we might observe this etymology without fear of being told we are simply making excuses for the obvious misogynist meaning of the text (we might also observe that another use of this verb is "to place in the shelter of").  This idea of arraying ourselves under one another strengthens my opinion that the concept Paul is trying to get across is not subjugation, one to another, but rather harmony and interleaving with each other.

Still, of course, Paul does say, “the wives to their husbands as to the Lord, because a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church, himself the savior of the body.”  So very well, we might object - insofar as husbands and wives are a subset of everybody, clearly husbands are told to place themselves in harmony with their wives.  And then wives are told to place themselves in harmony with their husbands, because a husband is the head of his wife.  What are we to make of that?  We might observe that the very next words (in the same sentence?) are, “But rather as the church submits to Christ, just so also the wives to their husbands in all things.”

We are starting to get far afield from the point of this post, which is that “modern” interpretations of submission as some sort of spiritual harmony rather than misogynist subjugation are in fact much more grounded in the text than they might first appear.  But to carry things through to conclusion, at this point we really must confront the issue of just how the church submits to Christ.  If we imagine that Christ is the head of the church in that he gets to tell the Church what to do and what not to do and sets punishments for the church when it contravenes his words, then I suppose we really are in trouble.  But I don’t think that is either a textually or historically correct view of Christ’s relationship with the church.  Paul does not define Christian morality in terms of obedience to Christ’s dictates (not that Christ had a great many moral dictates in the first place, so far as we know), but rather in terms of reaction to being.  We are the church, and therefore we act in a certain way.  I don’t want to further digress by backing up that assertion with other examples from the Pauline corpus, but even the text before us, which has a certain moralistic cast (talking about how best to live life in the moment), has nothing to do with what Christ tells the church to do.  If the reader can accept this morality-from-status assertion for now (cf. Ephesians 5:1-14, the lead-in to this whole thing, which also ties direct exhortation towards specific moral behavior not to the command of Christ, but to the status of the believer), we may observe that this is a perfectly unobjectionable way for a married woman to model her life.  She alters her behavior, to the extent that she alters it, not because her husband tells her to do anything, but simply because she is married to the man she chose to marry.  We might object if he were ordering her about, but it would be quixotic if she chose to marry him and that choice meant nothing to the way she acted.

And yet, I think, the egalitarian (feminist, if you like) objection to this passage is not so much that it envisions a husband as his wife’s dictator so much as that it envisions the husband as superior to the wife at all (even if that superiority doesn’t involve subjugation).  The response I am used to in sermons to this objection is essentially incredulity: a reader who seriously thinks that Christ, or even Paul, teaches that men are superior to women must simply not be very familiar with the whole body of our extant texts.  And I do think there is something to that.  It is difficult to imagine that the man who wrote that there is neither man nor woman in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) believed that in the proper Godly order of things, men were superior to women.

Still, let us consider the text before us in light of this objection.  It must be admitted, for one thing, that Paul uses different language towards husbands and wives.  Even if we don’t believe those exhortations to set up an inherent superior-inferior relationship, they aren’t literally the same.  Neither does Paul say, "... submitting to one another in fear of Christ, husbands and wives to each other ..." or something like that.

On the subject of sameness, however, we might observe that the principle relationship between Christ and the church in this passage is that the church is the same flesh as Christ: “That we are the limbs of his body,” it says; and earlier, “himself the savior of the body.”  Paul is not here just trotting out his familiar turn of phrase for the church, “the body of Christ.”  He spends some time discussing how, through Christ’s sacrifice of himself, the church becomes to Christ as Christ himself.  “Loving his wife as himself,” he says, “for nobody ever hated his own flesh.”  Again, the theme of spiritual harmony - and, significantly, of equality (indeed, identity).

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the church is Christ in all respects, indistinguishable from God himself.  Rather, I want to point out what Paul is pointing out.  Paul is plainly using Christ’s relationship with the church as a metaphor here, and I think it is an uncontroversial assertion that when one uses a metaphor, one intends only to highlight certain similarities and not others.  When Lincoln used the metaphor of birth for the American War for Independence in the Gettysburg Address, he did not mean that the Revolution was like birth in all respects.  Figuring out in what respects a metaphor applies and in what respects it does not (for instance, presumably Lincoln did intend his birth metaphor to express the idea that a new entity was created through a tumultuous, blood-soaked process, but did not intend to express the idea that the new entity was incapable of existing on its own and would in fact be dependent upon its mother for a very long time, or that the new entity was incapable of rational thought) is something we have to do from context.

Here, Paul spends all of his words highlighting one particular similarity: that Christ went through a great deal of personal trouble vis a vis humanity in order to bring about a state of such harmony between man and God that humanity could be, as it were, Christ’s own flesh.  We might expound on other similarities between Christ-and-church and husband-and-wife, but this is the similarity that Paul is expounding, and I submit that if we take it farther than that we are simply riffing on our own.  To bring the metaphor home, the text here is saying that husbands should love their wives in such a way that they expend great effort, and brave what hazards may be, in order to bring about such a state of harmony with their wives that they are as inseparable as a person from his own body.  Is that something that only a husband can do, while the wife simply waits to be integrated?  I don't think so.  As every married person knows, after all, the process of altering your identity in light of your spouse - that which "the wives" are called to do - is not only an exceptionally active one, it is the very means by which two spouses harmonize with and become inseparable from each other.  The metaphors used when talking about wives and husbands are different, but the actual activity described is the same: husband and wife achieving a state of profound harmony, a metaphorical oneness.  So I am not really very comfortable saying that the text here is setting up some kind of second-class citizen status for wives.

So what are we left with?  We begin with a depiction of “submission” as an example of the mystic sort of harmony that is supposed to hold sway among all believers, which should put us off the idea that “submission” means subjugation right away.  Paul then goes on to give two more particular examples of what this sort of submission looks like, or perhaps applications of the principle.  It is, he says, the sort of thing that causes wives to care that they are married to their own husbands (and here I think we perhaps see why the text bothers to say “their own husbands,” instead of simply “their husbands,” as some translations have it - implicit in this profound, life-shaping recognition of choice is the fact that this man, and not just any man, is the one that I married).  It is, he says, the sort of thing that causes husbands to chance any consequences in the goal of achieving profound marital oneness.

As I said, these are far from original thoughts, and I hope that they are old hat to anybody who reads this.  But I also hope that, having read this, the reader may feel more confident that these are not attempts to dodge the real thrust of the passage, motivated by a modernist or feminist desire to twist the words of Scripture away from their original antiquated misogyny.  They are the real thrust of the passage, and it is those who have attempted (and attempt) to use the text to justify misogyny who do the twisting.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

In which Silverway finally reaches its heroic tier finale

The heroic tier finale of Silverway has finally come and gone, after much delay and party-winnowing.  I was pretty happy with it.  Unusually for me, this encounter had been in the planning for several months, and its final iteration was quite different from the original conception.  Instead of fighting through a giant map of a ruined university quad, the entire finale ended up being nothing but talking.  I thought this was fitting, since we’ve had a lot of combat set pieces in Silverway lately.  This has been driven by the fact that the D&D rules continue to be better at making a combat game than making any other kind of game - I figured that since I was running a D&D game (and I actually like the D&D 4e combat game), I might as well embrace it.  This is also a significant departure from my other current game, Skyfall (which follows a more traditional Natalian mix of lots of character work occasionally punctuated by very short, very sharp combat), so it offers me personally a nice balance.

But at the end of the day, I don’t think that roleplaying is about fighting.  It’s about storytelling.  As a DM, that means manipulating the emotions of your audience (the players) while they are at the table in order to guide the production of a desired experience.  As a player, that means inhabiting the headspace of the game in order to experience the collectively shaped experience.  So much of the essence of the game takes place in the players’ heads (which is one reason I like to talk to my players about their experience - even as the DM, there is much of the game that I am not directly privy to).  Sitting at a roleplaying table merely as an observer, even for an entire session, is like hearing about a Broadway play from your friend who just got back from New York.  Hearing about a roleplaying session after the fact is like hearing about that play from your friend’s friend.

While the D&D combat game is fun, it is not particularly good at facilitating different emotions (in fact, I would highlight this as the key difference in design philosophy between Silverway/D&D and Skyfall/PhE combat).  Indeed, one reason I’ve had so many set pieces in Silverway is that I’ve been experimenting with different ways to make the D&D combat game an emotionally resonant experience.  For the finale, though, I ultimately decided to go with something more purely in the players’ heads.

Ironically, this meant throwing out months of half-baked encounter plans, so virtually the entire session was improvised.  This too was a throwback to my usual style of DMing, which I think was a nice touchstone for me.  For me, improvised sessions and well-planned sessions are like the difference between social dance and choreography.  The one feels natural and spontaneous, and there is the thrill of touching and adapting to something vital and alive and instant.  The other can be technically impressive and may be artistically affecting for the audience, but feels dead to perform.  So it was nice to gin up ten ghosts’ worth of plot-critical conversation on the spot (including two new ghosts whose presence had not been foreseen until literally seconds before they appeared in the narrative).  Then I had to gin up an audience/interrogation with the pantheon, which harkened back to an experience in my very first D&D game with Twilight, and was even more improvised than the university encounter.

This conversation with the gods was probably the biggest moment of player choice I have ever managed to pull off.  The party was presented with two stark options, and they actually pretty much stuck to those two instead of trying to find a hidden third, this-was-not-actually-hidden-and-it-destroys-all-the-plans option (I held pretty much all the cards in the scenario, but then again, the DM never holds all the cards).  I have had lots of player choice in my campaigns by now, but I have never before had a single choice that so defined so much of the game.  This choice determined not only the goal/narrative arc but also the setting for the next ten levels.  And then I all but told the party they would have to give up their classes.

Whenever I need help planning Silverway I turn to Twilight, Ayudaren, and The DM, and I had a lot of conversations with them leading up to this moment.  Class is fundamental to the D&D game.  The challenge of the game is built around a proper mix of classes.  It’s baked into the way players design a character, and is often the most important decision a player makes when designing a character (even dominating such seemingly non-mechanical choices such as personality and motivations).  In fact, many character concepts in a D&D game begin with class: “I want to play a paladin,” or even just, “I want to play a character who casts spells.”  If the party made one choice - the choice they made, as it happens - they would find themselves cut off from all magic (I wouldn’t even have let Neani become a psion, except that I really could find no way to make a martial incarnation of her character that felt right).  This would invalidate virtually all of the class choices my players had made, and force them to play new versions of their characters as interpreted through the lens of a brand new class.  It gave mechanical bite to a momentous roleplaying decision, and clearly marked a major transition in the mechanical progression of the game with an emotionally memorable event.  It was the right decision.  But would they go for it?

I guess you never really know what’s going on in your players’ minds, but I think they really did.  It was angsty, but it was supposed to be.  These moments are among the most satisfying for me as a DM - when you do something that requires you to trust your players, and they go with it.