Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Buddhists, Not Buddhism

I recently had an abortive discussion with someone who was determined to research matters normally off-limits to Christians. The idea was to reach out to those involved.

I can relate to that. My introduction to theology came when one of my best friends went from nominal Baptist to red-hot Mormon. So I studied Mormonism and assailed it and him with my amazing intellect.

It didn't work.

For one thing, reaching people for God is a spiritual activity, so it's a mistake to rely on intellectual methods such as research. (Research isn't bad; it's just not enough.)

But the major problem is focus. I was not called to evangelize Mormonism; I had a chance to reach a specific Mormon. God generally calls us to deal with individuals more than groups, and groups more than systems. The higher up you go, the more abstract it all gets. An individual can accept Christ; a group can't (though its members can). A system can't be saved.

Kosuke Koyama is a Japanese theologian with an interest in missionary work. In his book Water Buffalo Theology, he says that one of the mistakes missionaries to Buddhist countries make is studying Buddhism when they should study Buddhists. But the system is only important so far as it enables the missionary to reach the system's follower. So why not study the one you want to reach?

In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C. S. Lewis wrote that it's easier to pray for a bore than to visit one. Isn't this the same thing? Isn't it easier to study Buddhism or Mormonism than to get to know actual Buddhists or Mormons? Study people!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Horror as it Should Be

Horror is one of the most profoundly theological genres of fiction. Other genres can be theological (or at least religious) without much effort, but the implications of horror are essentially theological. It deals with the life to come, the meaning and limits of humanity, and so on.

That's why it's so truly horrible when it goes wrong. The cheap scare, the sleazy accompaniment to the gasps--comic relief is better than jiggle, but not as marketable--all signs of shallow horror. It's probably the hardest genre to do right, given the theological weight, but it's too effective to leave to people who don't even understand the symbols they're using. At least the early Hollywood horror movies acknowledged their sources. Nowadays that's played as camp. But our guide for good fiction of any kind is always based on Philippians 4:8--Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-- think about such things. (NIV) Writing by this rule will always be true to its sources.

The other side of the problem is people who go for the gasp even if the theology is bad--assuming that they can be bothered to check it at all. One of the reasons I'm writing my essay on fictional demonology is to give would-be horror writers some idea of how horror can be handled in a theologically responsible way.

Acknowledge your sources. Know your sources. Remember the limitation of fear and of fiction: you can at best spark a teachable moment in your reader. But don't throw that moment away!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Frankenstein's Monstrance

For anyone who doesn't get it: a monstrance is an object (typically cross-shaped) that holds the consecrated host--in Catholic terms, the Body of Christ. Anyone made in God's image can likewise carry Christ around. But what about Frankenstein's monster? What about clones? In other words, what if we could bring something to life?

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I sketched out a story about a kind of Frankenstein's monster. Because it was created from dead parts, it had no soul (I would now likely say "spirit") of its own, but it was intelligent and immortal, so it spent its years awaiting Doomsday, when the God it could not know or serve would finally shut it down.

Is that valid? Or would it care? For that matter, would it necessarily be at odds with God?

A proper exposition would take a book or two, but here are my conclusions:

First, God's intervention on our behalf seems to be unique to us. Thus, God forbids murder (based on our being made in God's image--Gen 10:6) at the same time he allows us to kill animals for meat (v. 3). God helps us, not angels (Hebrews 2:16). So I would suggest that our uniqueness stems from our being made in God's image--a quality nowhere associated with any creature but man.

Second, I don't think it's possible for us to create in God's image. In our own image, yes; but not in the image of God. If that's true, nothing we create will have God's image. It may not be evil, but it can't be eternal, either. (This is similar to Jesus' remark in John 3:6.)

Third, I don't think there's any danger of our creating life anyway. So far we've only modified it. Cloning might be an exception: by its very nature, it avoids the normal process of transmitting life. While the soul--the life force--of the original creature is retained, I see no way for the spirit to remain after the creature's cellular brain has been removed. This would set up three possibilities:

1. A kind of zombie, because the spirit directs higher mental function;
2. A vehicle for a demon, because it would have the creature all to itself; or
3. An intelligent being driven only by whatever instincts (such as self-preservation) may have been transmitted to it. Although as intelligent as a human, it would be effectively amoral because it wouldn't have a spiritual component.

But what about Artificial Intelligence? I don't think that matters either. There is a difference between intellect and spirit, though the spirit powers the intellect. So even a highly intelligent machine will lack a spirit, as in option three, above). That should mean that it can't appreciate its situation, because all the Big Answers are spiritual. It would also be without moral imperatives, because as Lewis noted in The Abolition of Man, logic and research can't produce moral imperatives; they can only provide data for pre-existing morality. So while clone #3 would be an intelligent animal, possibly a dangerous one, AI would have no way of engaging the universe. It would be autistic unless it had built-in moral motions--and even then it would mostly just simulate moral thought and action.

It seems to me that the best example of full AI is actually Tik-Tok from the original Oz books. This clockwork man is not good or evil but simply does what it is wound up to do. The example of Tik-Tok is important to resolving a problem that occurs in the final installment of the League of Superheroes Origin Series.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Adios, Suckers!

Vampires are more theologically interesting to me than werewolves, though perhaps that's because I see them as fairly straightforward. While a werewolf can be tortured by the knowledge of what he becomes and does, a classic vampire is comfortable in his own skin and someone else's neck.

But what is a vampire? In the early Hammer films, Van Helsing claimed that vampirism was a Satanic parody of and response to the Church. It's an intriguing thought, but unfortunately over time the Hammer films went from speculative theology to PC babble and over-sexed scripts. Avoid any of them from the seventies, and be careful of any from the late sixties. The two best vampire movies I've encountered are Return of the Vampire (with Bela Lugosi playing a vampire that specifically isn't Dracula) and Brides of Dracula (even though the vampire isn't really Dracula). Odd note: the Spanish version of Universal's Dracula somehow has a better script (or else the English version I saw was cut badly). I'd recommend the Spanish one to those who know Spanish or don't mind a subtitled version.

Now, the status of "traditional" vampires (much of the tradition deriving from Hollywood) is fairly clear: they are corpses animated by demonic entities. In some fashion, the soul or spirit of the victim is bound to the corpse, a fact that presumably enables the possessing spirit to use the body. When the victim is released (generally with the wooden stake bit), the demon can't maintain the lifelike appearance of the corpse, which then rapidly degrades as the demon leaves. Theologically tricky at best.

The "St. Judas Syndrome" is especially common for vampires, particularly in modern work. The problem is that a corpse, even if the victim's spirit is somehow bound to it, is still a corpse. The victim, if able to act freely to begin with, can at best hope for a blessed death, as happens in Brides of Dracula.

So a common solution these days is to have a non-traditional vampire. The condition is a metabolic quirk (Ann Rice), the result of a disease (as in the movie The Last Man on Earth), or something similar. The problem is that these aren't vampires as such; they are merely vampiric. It's like having fairies turn out to be just vaguely humanoid bugs.

If I were going to do something along this line, I would have a traditional vampire, but with one (not uncommon) difference: the victim isn't dead, just possessed. The demon has a hang-up about death, so the victim lives in a tomb (Mark 5:2-5). The victim may even enter a death-like state when the demon is less active for whatever reason. I'll pursue this idea in a later version of my essay on fictional demonology.

For another Christian take on the subject, see Sue Dent's novel Forever Richard.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Once in a Full Moon

I admit I'm not into werewolves, though I've used them in some of my stories, including "At the Mountains of Lunacy" in Light at the Edge of Darkness. It's an interesting idea and all, but it usually has a hyper-Calvinist angle that annoys me. As the Universal movie put it,

Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.

So you're pretty much toast if you're "infected" with lycanthropy, though more recent stories have introduced cures. In my own short story "Sheep Among Wolves," Martin, a man called to confront and destroy outposts of demonic power, is threatened by a werewolf, currently in human form:

“What would you do if I scratched you or bit you?” the old man asked.
“I believe I would eject you from the camp.”
“You’d try. But what else?”
“I’d probably bleed a bit.”
“Yeah, but what about tonight? What would you do when the moon is full tonight?”
“I would use it to read the Bible and proclaim God’s Kingdom to you and your masters.” Martin paused and chuckled softly. “I am not afraid of your so-called curse. ‘The curse causeless shall not come.’ You should know that. It must be accepted, and unlike many of your victims, I refuse to accept it.”

I find that theologically more acceptable. But there is theological value in the werewolf idea as a metaphor for escaping the curse of sin. For in that case, we are stuck: we are born into sin, like it or not, and we shall die from it, like it or not. But there is definitely a cure.

One example of a Christian werewolf novel (which I admit I have yet to read) is Sue Dent's Never Ceese.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The "Saint Judas" Syndrome

Hope is not enough. Just as the doctrine that God is love can be distorted to eliminate God's justice and eternal punishment, so hope can eliminate the point of no return. But Moses really did lose the Promised Land through one impetuous sin. King Saul forfeited his kingship and life through several acts of what might seem like minor disobedience. Yet we tend to assume automatically that no such line exists, and that's the basis for some bad stories, some of them horror.

The classic example of this is Judas. From time to time, someone comes up with a story about how misunderstood Judas was, how he meant well but messed up, and so on. Some even claim that he was acting on Jesus' orders, so he was saved.

Nonsense. Jesus said he was "a devil" (John 6:71-72), which doesn't sound so innocent. Yet people not only try to save Judas but sometimes even a demon or Satan himself.


Because we can't bear to say that someone is without hope. And the good news is that if someone's still alive, there's technically hope. (I do believe that there is an unpardonable sin, which involves knowingly attributing the Holy Spirit's work to the Devil, as in Mark 3:28-30. But it's not as easily or lightly committed as you might think.)

Now, in horror, this tends to come out in the idea of the monster in search of a cure. In the old Universal werewolf movies, he was always looking for a cure. I admit I have a theological problem with the standard werewolf concept, as we'll see in a later post, but the idea is that there are some curses you just can't get out of. Ask Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11:29-40)!

There's an intriguing scene in the Hammer film Brides of Dracula, where Van Helsing confronts a woman who has been vampirized by her own son. He says that vampirism is a curse, but she can renounce it and be saved. The problem is that she's dead, so although she does make things right with God, part of that involves submitting to the stake that frees her spirit. The theology is quirky to say the least, but the balance isn't bad: there is hope, but it is the hope of a blessed death and eventual resurrection. Would we accept that kind of hope today? Probably not. But like it or not, hope has its limits.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Christian Horror?

We have a reputation as copy cats. And not even as good copy cats. If a type of book or music starts selling well, you can be sure that someone will turn out a "Christian" knockoff of it. And what's worse, we seldom bother to figure out whether the thing really can be copied without messing up our core beliefs!

So can horror stories be Christian? It depends on how they're done. And that leads to the two types of horror. Simply put, these are

1. More-or-less happy (hopeful) ending and
2. More-or-less hopeless ending.

Even an unhappy ending can be hopeful, in which case it provides a warning. Look at some fairy tales for example. (The old ones, not the la-de-dah modern versions where everyone gets counseling in the end.) In fact, fairy tales may be considered the first horror stories (together with some myths).

What about hopeless stories? Well, pretty much anything by Lovecraft, or most any modern horror movie--and most horror books. Lovecraft was an unusually candid atheist. He believed that the universe was at best indifferent to mankind, and more likely actively hostile. Christians shouldn't copy that view.

Sometimes the hopelessness comes from the desire for a sequel--you've got to leave some room for the Horror to return, which means that the story doesn't altogether resolve. And resolution matters, because it's the frame of the story: the thing that marks the boundary between fact and fiction, the sign that you can close the book and go on with life.

Now, since one of the foundations of the Christian message is hope, I think we can eliminate right off anything that produces despair. A hopeful ending is called for. In our next post, we'll see why it isn't enough.

Other posts in this series:
The "Saint Judas" Syndrome
Once in a Full Moon
Adios, Suckers!
Frankenstein's Monstrance
Horror as it Should Be

Monday, October 22, 2007

Stopping a Goliath, part two

Murray the Alchemist: Last time, we tried the brute force approach with Titan. This time, we'll use finesse and maybe get a better explosion. My lovely assistant Tachyon--I know, don't ask about my social life--will use his mastery of time and a pack of gum to wipe out a Goliath.

Titan: I like how eager the volunteers are, but they're crowding the stage. I'll brush 'em back with my gun.

Calamity Kid: That's some gun. You know we don't kill, don't you?

Titan: It's okay. I'm just blowing their mechanical legs off. They can still applaud.

MtA: Okay, Tachyon, your job is to chew this pack of gum in a couple seconds.

Tachyon: That's more Titan's job--he has the super mouth. But I'll do it. Gah! That was bad! I won't be able to open my mouth at all tomorrow.

Titan: Which proves God still does miracles after all.

MtA: Now stick it in one of the smaller barrels of that Goliath.

CK: You've gotta be kidding!

Titan: No, it'll work: the gum doesn't have to stop the ammo, just slow it down enough that the explosive force behind the bullet has nowhere to go for a moment. There! See? Like that.

CK: Okay, but we still don't have suits that let us speed up time.

Tachyon: Talk to your wardrobe people.

CK: The deal was, you guys would show us how to stop Goliaths. So far, it's stuff we can't do.

MtA: What's the "CK" for, "Constant Kvetcher"? Shut up and learn! I guess you can't send a superhero to do an alchemist's job, though, and the last few explosions have been pretty pathetic. I wouldn't mind a gun like Titan's...

Titan: Private property, Murray. It'll go boom if a non-superhero messes with it.

MtA: So it's time for my never-fail method. Here, I'll slip off the robe and put this on...

Goliath: Surrender, Fundi dog!

MtA: Hey, watch who you're calling a Fundi! I'm from the pizza place on the corner--that's right, the one you bozos almost blew up! We'll give you a free pizza to aim at someone else.

Goliath: Your pizzas are that effective as weapons? Oh, no, wait. You mean a bribe, right? Okay, I'm good with that. But remove any pepperoni first! I wasn't born yesterday.

MtA: Your loss--they're the best part. Okay, there. Now say "Aah"!

Goliath: Wait--I didn't want anchov--

[Earth-shattering KABOOM]

MtA: Idiot. Only an amateur would mine the pepperoni. Anchovies are better for that, and since no one eats them anyway, it's no loss.

CK: Why didn't the blast kill you?

Titan: Murray's immune to explosions. And every pesticide we've tried so far.

CK: Okay, but what about the pizza? How'd you get it in there?

MtA: C'mon, you don't think a guy would get into something like that if it shut him off from pizza, do you? There had to be a pizza delivery slot.

CK: It's not in the specs.

MtA: That's the kind of important info you only get by word of mouth. Like a secret handshake.

CK: How can you get a secret handshake by... Hey, wait! The Goliath operator is lying there with his eyes exed out! I told you we don't kill!

Titan: Relax. It's just a cartoony way of saying he's in his happy place. And Darklight says this is gonna be an unhappy place in just a minute, so we'd better leave before the janitors show up. They hate people who leave a mess behind. We can discuss this over lunch.

MtA: I'll bring the pizza!

What others say:
Fantasy Thyme
Write and Whine
Hoshi to Sakura
Wayfarer's Journal
BlogCritics Interview
Daniel I Weaver
Disturbing the Universe
Grace Bridges
Queen of Convolution
Virtual Tour de 'Net
Christian Fiction Review Blog
Yellow30 Sci-Fi: Review
Yellow30 Sci-Fi: Interview
MaryLu Tyndall
Cathi's Chatter

The Book, etc.:
Purchase Flashpoint at
Purchase signed copies of Flashpoint

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Stopping a Goliath, part one

Murray the Alchemist: In the book Flashpoint, Goliaths are big scrapheaps that make life hard for the good guys. Kind of like Shecky the Paladin. So as a gesture of... Oh, sorry--wrong gesture. Anyway, some of Ansric's characters are showing this dweeb how to handle Goliaths without even a sling and stones!

Calamity Kid: How'd you like some nap time, Murray?

Titan: It won't make any difference. He talks in his sleep.

MtA: And you're both talking over my intro! We sent the One State an invitation to the First Annual Fundies vs Goliaths Games, and here they come. You gotta like an enemy who drops everything and sends you free toys whenever you want. I'll send them a thank-you letter bomb later.

CK: Are you nuts?

Titan: If you don't know by now, that gum's rotted your brain.

CK: The Neros'll be all over us!

Tachyon: No problem. Darklight's not only jamming the Goliaths, he's telling their base what they want to hear. When we're done, the guys can even listen to an inspirational talk on getting to know God. Your Hacks worked it up for us. You know e-girl, don't you? She's nice.

CK: You are nuts. She's my sister.

Tachyon: So it doesn't run in the family? Being nice, understanding computers? Hacks do a lot of the important stuff in Flashpoint.

Titan: Stop him before he starts singing the Hack Anthem! So Allen's got a girfriend! What did you say, "Hey, nice avatar"?

Tachyon: That's "Tachyon" to you, Titank.

CK: Those Goliaths are getting close! I'll try to hold them off...

Titan: Nah, here, I'll get the first one. Whoa! Frisky guys...

MtA: Goliaths are two-legged tanks with lots of firepower. Well, lots by some people's standards. I bet I blow up more stuff by 10 a.m. than they do all day. How's it feel, Titan?

Titan: Halfway between the time you fixed the chili and that first time we met when you offered to fix the gas grill.

CK: They hit you with enough firepower to kick a tank for a field goal! How come you're still standing?

Titan: My shields route the impact through hyperspace to blast the daylights out of a nearby piece of real estate. But here's a new trick: I can set the destination closer. I'll just put my left hand on this Goliath and wait for somebody to shoot--Whoa!

CK: At least that knocked you back.

Titan: Of course--I was right next to the blast. But now watch this! Come on, turn around, you tin gorilla. TURN AROUND, STUPID! I want your good side, and it's not your front.

CK: Great. Now you're mooning me with a Goliath?

Titan: No, I'm just trying to get behind it and... Hyaah! Tadah! Huh. Okay, I guess you can't give a Goliath a wedgie. At least the insurance company can't say I didn't try.

CK: I never saw a Goliath walk that way.

Titan: Yeah. Maybe they'll ship it out to California.

CK: This is real interesting, but we don't have suits that let us walk right up to Goliath and pound it.

MtA: Okay, next time I'll show you how to stop a Goliath with a pack of gum.

CK: You're not getting my Winterfresh Extra!

MtA: Relax! I prefer cinnamon anyway.

What others say:
Fantasy Thyme
Write and Whine
Hoshi to Sakura
Wayfarer's Journal
BlogCritics Interview
Daniel I Weaver
Disturbing the Universe
Grace Bridges
Queen of Convolution
Virtual Tour de 'Net
Christian Fiction Review Blog
Yellow30 Sci-Fi: Review
Yellow30 Sci-Fi: Interview
MaryLu Tyndall
Cathi's Chatter

The Book, etc.:
Purchase Flashpoint at
Purchase signed copies of Flashpoint

Frank Creed: The Genuine Fake Interview

I was going to interview Frank Creed, author of Flashpoint, but a few of my own characters (mostly Darklight, who can change his appearance) decided to hijack the proceedings on the grounds that their responses will be more colorful and controversial than his.

Could be.

Ansric: So you're Frank Creed.

FC: As close as you're getting to him, anyway.

Ansric: And you're a cat.

FC: What, that again? "Oh, you're a cat! Read any good mice lately?" What's everyone's problem?

Ansric: Well, we kind of get the impression you're human.

FC: That's Scott Morris. I don't know why people get us mixed up; we don't look that much alike. I've told him to shave his beard.

Ansric: And on your Shoutlife photo page, you're listed as "Mavis."

FC: Have you tried publishing something like Flashpoint as "Mavis the Cat"? I have to use a pen-name.

Ansric: But isn't "Frank Creed" just a pen-name for Scott Morris?

FC: Ha! No way! Scott can't write!

Ansric: Really?

FC: Not even a grocery list. It's sad. That's why I do all the writing.

Ansric: So what does Scott do?

FC: Carries me around, mostly. And he types. He's a good typist. Well, good enough that his wife can clean up his work.

Ansric: You can't type?

FC: Not with these paws. Computers are supposed to improve access, you know, but they still don't have a cat-friendly interface. And don't do any mouse jokes.

Ansric: Do you ever bring your, uh, feline viewpoint to your stories?

FC: I try, but The Man is always censoring me.

Ansric: "The Man"?

FC: Your species as a whole. Not that I'm prejudiced. I tried getting a story through recently, but The Man blocked me.

Ansric: I'm sorry to hear that.

FC: Yeah, but I'm rollin' now. I have my own Shoutlife page under my own name. Scott's been doing his usual cutesy stuff, but I've been talking to Calamity Kid, and he thinks it's time for a coup.

Ansric: Okay, thanks for sharing that. But what about Flashpoint? Did your felinity influence the story?

FC: Of course! You don't think a human would come up with all the "wire-fu" stuff in the book, do you? Cats have been doing that forever! The book's about action, and cats are all about action. That and day-long naps.

Ansric: So do you hope to be the first cat in the Who's Who of Wu Shu?

FC: Maybe.

Ansric: I bet you can't say it five times fast, though.

FC: It. It. It. It. It-- Gah! Got a hairball on that last one!

Ansric: Well, that looks like an interview-ending injury to me, so we'll post some links that can't help but be more informative:

What others say:
Fantasy Thyme
Write and Whine
Hoshi to Sakura
Wayfarer's Journal
BlogCritics Interview
Daniel I Weaver
Disturbing the Universe
Grace Bridges
Queen of Convolution
Virtual Tour de 'Net
Christian Fiction Review Blog
Yellow30 Sci-Fi: Review
Yellow30 Sci-Fi: Interview
MaryLu Tyndall
Cathi's Chatter

The Book, etc.:
Purchase Flashpoint at
Purchase signed copies of Flashpoint

The Horror!

And now, a sight so horrifying it will probably scar you for life. If you're like me, you're a junior geezer with a lot of scars already, so one more won't matter. But for the kiddies, note: Please ask your parents first. It will probably go like this:

You: Is it okay if I look at something on the Web that will scar me for life?

Mom: Is it kinky or illegal?

You: Uh... No.

Mom: Then your father probably hasn't seen it yet. Ask him.

Dad: Does it cost money?

You: No.

Parents: Great! We'll get the popcorn!

Anyway, click if you dare! (It'll prepare you for the next few days...)

Fear Factor

I'll be dealing with horror topics through Halloween, with a brief detour to horrify Frank Creed of Flashpoint fame.

One thing you see a lot of about now is churches doing some kind of illustrated sermon about Hell in place of the old haunted house project. There's a slight point to that: they show you how obnoxious Hell is, and maybe you'll repent. Not as likely to happen with a haunted house.


Although Jesus did refer to Hell more than most moderns think, he didn't go into detail very much. The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is about as graphic as he gets, and that only says that the rich man is tormented by fire. Elsewhere he mostly just warns us that Hell exists and leaves it at that. Why don't we?

To begin with, we like to be scared, and Hell is a scare you can feel good about. I went to a church once that gave a dramatic presentation wherein people died and went to Heaven or Hell. The piece was at least three times longer than necessary, given that most of the individual vignettes were interchangeable. Worse, Jesus popped out like a character from a game show to tell the lucky contestant what he'd won. You know something's wrong when the demons have better stage presence than the Son of God. As I recall, I originally concluded that only about five or six of the skits were fairly good, which would've cut the time down to half an hour or so. (After sitting through the whole thing, I believed in Hell in a way the writers didn't intend.)

Did it work? Yes, remarkably well. So well, in fact, that when the church had a second presentation about a year later, a lot of the people who got saved at the first one got saved again.

Today's Free Clue: Salvation involves faith in God and love for him. Fear is opposed to both. Sure, we're supposed to "fear" God reverently and based on the fact that he is a consuming fire. But that's fearing who he is, not fearing for our lives.

Fear can lead to a very shallow commitment, and sometimes, by the grace of God, that develops into something deeper. But Jesus and the apostles generally gave their audience a greater scare by confronting them with their sinfulness and need for God. They also used miracles to show that God was willing to help them out--he's not looking for an excuse to throw people into Hell. He already has that.

We'll look at the problem tendency to focus more on fear and evil than on God later this week.

Spiritual RPGs--summary

Do RPGs have to be spiritual? If you mean, "Do they have to feature witnessing and prayer meetings?" then the answer is No. But I doubt a Christian will (yes, or "should") feel comfortable participating in a world that by its nature excludes God. I'm not advocating "Church: the Roleplaying Game!" (that happens too much as it is), just RPGs that are open to my faith. And as I discovered in my writing, not only does giving God the best seat at the table leave plenty of story lines, it also leads to better ones.

A narrative (purposeful, creative) emphasis is more in tune with Christian views than a random, mechanistic one.

Immersive games are more likely to affect your views and behavior. An old-fashioned dungeon-crawl game on the computer isn't as likely to harm you as a first-person shooter or a game where you're stealing cars and beating people up.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to see some games that feature a Christian premise without trying to mechanize the spiritual aspect. For example, a Christian version of Dogs in the Vineyard set either in early times or perhaps in a "post-Apocalyptic" (Hollywood sense) period would be good. (An RPG based on on Frank Creed's Flashpoint is under development.) I would tend toward a "rules-lite" approach such as Risus for general gaming and narrate the spiritual phenomena.

I'd like to hear about any games you come up with along these lines. Perhaps if we can pioneer instead of just cloning secular games, we'll get some useful, even evangelistic, dialog going. For a truly Christian RPG that encourages thoughtful, biblical narrative could make it Satan's turn to ask whether RPGs are "threat or menace."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Spiritual Roleplaying II

Since a more narrative approach can reinforce a Christian worldview, is that good enough? Not always.

Back in high school, I knew a lot of gamers who seemed to think that the vicarious experience they gained from games was roughly equivalent to life experience. It isn't. For one thing, it's possible to be fooled. I pulled an apparently clever trick in a D&D game once that I later discovered was physically impossible--yet the justification that I used and my DM/ref accepted was physics!

Free Clue #1: You can fool the ref, but you can't fool God.

But sometimes the very nature of the game situation is contradictory. For example, a lot of Christian groups (especially youth groups) roleplay witnessing and similar situations. It makes sense: by playacting the situation, newbies get used to the unfamiliar aspects in a safe environment.

This is why it's a catastrophically bad idea:

Witnessing (like the other things they enjoy roleplaying) is a spiritual phenomenon. Sound familiar? The great weakness of RPGs is handling spiritual matters--and here it is far worse. When you are really witnessing, you can count on God to inspire you. Will he inspire you with the hypothetically right approach to a hypothetical situation? No. (God doesn't seem to like hypothetical questions, probably because on spiritual topics in particular, they turn from reality to unreality.)

So what do you learn from these exercises? Well, if God isn't helping you, you learn to rely on your own wisdom rather than God's. Does that sound like a good idea? Yet this sort of exercise is extremely common, at least in the U.S. (and thus probably in many other places). The proper way to learn witnessing is either to jump out and do it or pair up with someone more experienced. (This used to be called discipleship.) If you pair up, you give prayer and other support to the guy who's doing the main work, and then you trade off, and your mentor can help you when you get into trouble.

Of course, we aren't going to do that, because like parents reading to their kids instead of plunking them down in front of the tube, it takes time and effort.

You might try it anyway.

In the next post, I'll try to sum all this up.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Spiritual Roleplaying

Last time we ran into a problem: even if you try to incorporate spiritual matters into a game, you wind up with an underlying non-spiritual worldview. Salvation can apparently become a die roll.

So what's the alternative?

Well, we can try to sidestep the randomness problem by using a diceless game, but that alone can be a superficial answer. I'm going to consider possibilities based on GNS Theory--yes, I know it's old in some ways, but it gives us some useful terms. (For a more general overview of theories, check here.) Specifically, a game or player may be

Gameist--looking at the game as a problem to be solved by improving stats, gear, etc.
Narrativist--looking at the game as a storytelling experience
Simulationist--trying to recreate the world or a genre faithfully.

I would suggest that Gameist systems are no more problematic than chess or go. Even if they are technically RPGs and immersive, they are pursued at a fairly superficial or abstract level. These can be a lot of fun, too.

Simulationist systems can be a problem, because they are very immersive (though abstraction still matters). There is no way to simulate spiritual phenomena, so I would have a problem with a strictly Simulationist system. (But see below.)

Narrativist systems are the most promising. The Bible itself is mostly a collection of stories, and Jesus was fond of parables. So Narrativism closely matches what God has revealed about the world. There's a good intro here. Although it's technically possible to play most games from a Narrativist perspective, it seems to me that rules-lite/non-Simulationist systems would work the best. (On the other hand, I always admired Chivalry and Sorcery in High School and early college...)

So instead of using dice to figure out whether a character converts, why not do what I would do in one of my stories? Consider the character and the situation (and the effect on the story as a whole) and act accordingly. We do not live in a random universe but in an authored universe. Modelling that in a roleplaying game could open the door to God.

Next we'll look at a problem that arises even from a non-random, Narrativist activity, however.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Christian RPGs

I originally meant to name names in my example of a Christian RPG, but then, I also meant to give the people in question fair warning, and the last week has been too hectic.

The RPG in question has a "Spirit" attribute (along with the usual ones such as Strength and Dexterity); it "measures the PC's ability to do things according to the Spirit, such as preaching the Gospel." And that's where the trouble begins, in my view. One example involves a character preaching the Gospel to an elderly woman outside an inn. He is a Specialist in such preaching, and he also has a "Belt of Truth" Rhema (note: the rhema/logos bit usually yanks on my gag reflex), all of which tells him what kind of dice to roll to figure out whether he succeeded.

Now the question is, what does "success" mean in this context? That the woman converts? That the PC doesn't make a fool out of himself presenting the Gospel? Who knows? For me, the important point is that a spiritual matter (witnessing) has been reduced to a mechanistic matter (rolling dice and comparing the result to a table). That's not how witnessing works.

This puts us right back where we were last time: how can we have spiritual phenomena (perhaps even God) in a roleplaying game? I'll try to answer that in my next few posts.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

God and Randomness

The big difference between RPGs and other games is that RPGs are immersively interactive: you aren't just moving a token on a gameboard; you are a character in a gameworld. So a problem arises that doesn't occur in chess or Monopoly: Where is God?

Option 1: Ignore the problem. Since God seldom commits miracles, to some extent whether Ugg the Barbarian will connect using his club works the same in a Christian or agnostic universe. (We'll not go into the problem that some gameworlds are inherently non-Christian.)

Objection: If Christ is at the center of your life, he will naturally affect everything else. At the very least he should be allowed, and I would think a Christian would prefer to play as close to a Christian as possible. (Even Plato knew, as mentioned in the Republic, that role-playing a bad guy--in our case, a pagan--will have negative effects.)

Option 2: Christianize the game. This is harder, because spiritual phenomena don't lend themselves to simulation. Many attempts have been made, and we'll look at one tomorrow.

But this leads to the second problem: randomness. You see, there must be rules of some kind, and most RPGs resolve conflicts (the player wants to do one thing, the GM another) by randoming, usually involving dice. From a modern standpoint, this is reasonable, since we are supposed to live in a mechanistic, rule-based world.

But God is personal, not mechanistic, and the rules are less important than the Ruler. So the mechanics of most RPGs reinforce a secular mindset, not a spiritual one. Is there a way to Christianize RPGs even on the philosophical level? I think there is. We'll get to that post after next.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Role-playing Games: Threat or Menace?

Okay, neither one, really--at least not inherently. I played D&D in high school, and I did eventually quit the regular pen-and-paper RPGs for spiritual reasons. But those reasons may no longer hold, and I'll spend the week examining the matter.

In case you somehow don't know what RPGs are, check here. I think we're at last beyond the stage where "Dungeon Master" or "Game Master" is treated as a kind of rank, like 33rd-degree Mason (some of the early anti-RPG writing made claims like that), and I hope we can pursue more important points.

To simplify matters, I'll ignore genre, so I won't spend any time on whether Christians may play wizards or psychics. It's a complex matter involving the distinction between literary and occult magic.

But there are two aspects of RPGs that do trouble me. I don't think they're inherent problems--in one case, I'll give an alternative. Nor do I think I have the final answers; in fact, I'm hoping for some helpful, informed opinions. But I do want to ask some questions that will make people squirm. Fair warning. Also, given my personal schedule, my posting this week may be erratic, so please be patient.

Tomorrow, we'll look at randomness and the presence of God.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Jewish Girl

Our final Andersen story for the moment is "The Jewish Girl." It demonstrates another area where modern Christian writing tends to fall short: We either ignore crucial differences ("Everyone gets to Heaven somehow, because God's such a nice guy.") or overemphasize them ("You don't agree with my ideas? Are you sure you're a Christian?"). We need balance.

From time to time there's heated discussion about the place of Jews in God's Kingdom. Strangely, there's not as much discussion about the place of Gentiles there. The answer is the same: if you acknowledge Jesus as fully God and fully man, the sinless son of a virgin, the one who died in our place, and if you trust him for salvation and yield to him as Lord, you're saved. Ethnicity doesn't matter. If you don't accept him, even if you say he was a great teacher, but certainly not God, you're outside the Kingdom, and again ethnicity doesn't matter. And there are people who are moving graudally into full belief. God knows where they are.

What we believe does matter. I exchanged a-mails with someone who mentioned an episode of X-Men where they ran into Dracula. Nightcrawler, a devout Christian, could turn the vampire with a cross, when Wolverine could not. But Kitty Pryde's Jewish faith also turned the vampire.

I replied that this was the old idea of faith in faith: a sufficiently convinced atheist could have done the same thing, or a Satanist. For non-Messianic Jews believe that Jesus was just a man, not God in human form. So while Jews and Christians worship the same God in one sense, in another they don't: the God of the various Jewish creeds did not incarnate, and Jesus is not in any sense God. Historic Christianity says otherwise. A dividing point came. Until then, their God was the same; now he isn't. From a Christian standpoint, Kitty believed in a non-existent god; from a Jewish standpoint, Nightcrawler did. They could not both be right: either Jesus was God or he wasn't, and the cultural context did not allow for a fuzzy pantheistic response.

Do we have the guts to pick a side? It doesn't mean berating those on the other side, just acknowledging the difference and its importance.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

A Vision of the Last Day

Yes! H. C. Andersen meets Left Behind!

Okay, no, it's not that kind of last day, but "A Vision of the Last Day" is still a good read. It's another example of what some people will call "preachy" without realizing that "preachy," if properly done, is good. Why? I suppose in this spin-sick world, people like the idea that someone actually believes something and will state it without hedging. I keep seeing "Christian" downgraded to "Inspirational" downgraded "Warm Fuzzies" downgraded to "Tepid Fluff." If you aren't securely anchored, you will drift, and the flow is always downhill. Scared of chasing people off? Don't be. The real power involved is from the Holy Spirit, who will draw people. Let him handle the PR. Our job is to present Christ faithfully.

Does that seem so horrible? It shouldn't. If you love someone, you will tend to talk about your beloved all the time. If you love Jesus, if he's your center, he will naturally come into everything you do. I wouldn't want to do a story that doesn't somehow lead to Christ, because only the story that connect to him have eternal value. Why work on a story that will burn up like dung before the saints and angels someday? Go for the gold!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Story of a Mother

Today's story has a message. If you try that in modern writing and aren't a Big Name, they'll probably say it's "preachy" or "heavyhanded," synonyms that appear to mean, "Hey! How come you got a spine and I don't?" Worse yet, it's a message that contradicts modern soundbite piety.

Andersen's still right.

In other news, I said I'd explain why you should have a message (and a calling, too) or shut up. It's simple: writers today are effectively either teachers or prophets, and if you aren't called as either one, shut up. There's enough nattering already.

You can be in a subgroup (encouraging and exhorting are essentially types of prophecy, as I understand it), but unless God gives you something to say, you shouldn't say it anyway.

Now, I've encountered people who want it both ways. If you point out a theological or scriptural problem, they'll say, "Well, it's fiction. It's for Entertainment Purposes Only." (Just like a phone-in psychic! How cool is that?)

"Well, if it's just fiction, what's the harm in correcting it a bit?"

"I can't do that! GOD gave me this story!"

He gave you an unchangeable story For Entertainment Purposes Only? Cosmic!

Now, if the story is God-given, you are a teacher at least, more likely a prophet. And presumably God doesn't contradict what he says in the Bible. This is why it's astonishing how few Christian writers bother to read the Bible or otherwise check their facts. (Remember what used to happen to false prophets...)

The truth is more important than Your Story. Even if you think you're writing For Entertainment Purposes Only, you aren't. Just like sports and entertainment celebrities are role models even if they say they aren't, you're teaching your reader whether you like it or not. Shape up or shut up.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Loveliest Rose in the World

Okay, again it's Andersen, but this time more in your face: The Loveliest Rose in the World.

So, would this story make it today? In some areas, perhaps. What's the problem? Well, it must be with readers, writers, or editors/publishers (or some combination thereof).

Is it readers? To the extent that they aren't reading this sort of thing, yes, and that we can blame on parents and teachers (in that order) who aren't doing their job. But there are readers--plenty of them, I think--who would read this.

Writers? Most of them are in roughly the same boat as the readers, though they usually read more. (Unfortunately, it's usually modern dreck.)

So that leaves editors and publishers. Why do they tend to avoid stuff like this? Let's be blunt: it's generally moral cowardice bolstered with ignorance. They say it won't sell because it's old-fashioned. So's Jane Austin, and she's done pretty well over the last decade. Too preachy? What about the "Left Behind" series? The Christian Booksellers Association is more likely to go for something like this, but its members ultimately worship the bottom line too much to risk even something that isn't that risky. A lot of new "independent" Christian publishers seem to be stuck in stealth mode: they don't want to antagonize non-Christians (who watch a lot of Christian TV and listen to a lot of Christian radio and music anyway), so they are effectively Christian in name only.

So what's the answer? I think it's up to the writers to fulfill their calling regardless of what others do. God will find an audience for his message. You say you don't have a message? Then please-please-please shut up. I'll back that up tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


I'm going to take a few days to try to call you back to some classics. They're short stories by Hans Christian Andersen (yes, of "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Little Mermaid" fame). The stories can be found online, but I've posted a version based on Jean Hersholt's. It's fairly mild compared to some we'll see in the days ahead, but it's still a good example of Christian fiction. In days to come, I'll comment on why we aren't seeing fiction like this very much these days. But do read the story!
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