Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Ash Wednesday

A Lenten poem.

God is gone into the desert
'Mid the jagged rocks and the sand
Where the lizard lies under the rock
And the heat haze hangs over the land;
He furrows His brow 'gainst the sun
And wanders with purposeful plod.
Begins now in dry desolation
The long Lenten fast of God.

God is gone into the desert;
Alone He sits for love.
The Bread of Life will not cause
Any manna to fall from above.
No water will burst from the rock,
But He treads where His people once trod,
Redeeming the steps of His fathers
In the wilderness wand'ring of God.

God is gone into the desert,
And those who would follow Him, are.
They go armed with self-denial,
Led on by a new Shekinah;
'Neath cross-emblazoned brows,
Ten thousand faces nod,
Winding their way through the wasteland
In imitation of God.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A Warning to the Nameless Businessman Whom I Saw Buying a Cream Bun at the Local Chinese Bakery

Another bit of random doggerel.

The difficulty of the cream bun lies
In how one may ingest this gustat'ry
Delight while under harsh and public eyes
Maintaining still some air of dignity.
Among the civilised, hygiene demands
Are never waived (and seldom ever moot);
You'll get the cream and sugar on your hands-
For heaven's sake, don't eat it in a suit!-
And on your face, on lips and cheeks and chin,
Your visage painted white, flecks on your clothes;
In modern life, there is no greater sin
Than meeting clients with cream on your nose.
From what sadistic, nameless bakery
Did this concoction first emerge? Each fool
Who eats will suffer such indignity....
And yet the thing's so irresistible.
Sir, mark my words, this bun you'll come to rue-
I think that maybe I might buy one too.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Ascetics Ancient and Modern

I recently found this article on Roger Ebert's blog (you know, that film critic fellow), and was fascinated by it. My fascination exists on several levels, and I thought I might try to articulate exactly what it is that fascinates me about the event the article describes.

Chris Burden, of course, is not the only man who does these kinds of bizarre things. There's also David Blaine, whom the article mentions in passing; probably the more famous for such stunts. What motivates these men to do such things? Arguably, in Blaine's case, there is a large element of vanity and desire for fame. Although, come to think of it, there must surely be easier ways to achieve fame; I can't imagine the anticipation of rousing applause and a welcoming crowd would be enough to sustain one through a 44-day long fast. Or perhaps I have underestimated the lengths some individuals will go to become famous.

With Burden, though, there is clearly something else at work. Something far more interesting. And it reminds me of nothing so much as some of the more extreme of the early monks. Not so much the Egyptian fathers, who were for the most part rigorously commonsensical and seem to have generally eschewed the more showy forms of asceticism (though they were plenty ascetical in their own way). But some of the Syrian monks, for example, did crazy things. Fasting for dangerous periods, standing for days on end, etc. The most memorable of these, of course, is St Simon Stylites, who sat up on a pillar for 39 years. To what end did these men inflict such things upon themselves? The easiest thing to do with them is dismiss them as wackos, extremists, individuals who are so far from the mainstream of their religion that it is better to ignore them and act as if they hadn't existed. But they are not so easily dismissed. People clearly looked up to them at the time. In addition to the legends of the miraculous that surround them (which the modern is also inclined to dismiss or downplay), people came from great distances to seek spiritual advice from them and they were even consulted on occasion with respect to doctrinal controversies. By all accounts, both their spiritual and doctrinal advice was impeccable- when reading about St Simon Stylites, he seems decidedly sane and, indeed, wise- except of course for the whole living-on-top-of-a-pillar thing. Likewise with Chris Burden, there's something fascinating and yet tantalisingly indefinable about him and what he does that draws people. Like with the monks, it goes beyond the mere morbid curiosity that inspired nineteenth century circus and freak shows. There is mystery in his actions. What do they mean? Because, as Ebert says, they must mean something.

As regards the monks, Simon Tugwell, the Oxford Dominican, has an intriguing answer. In writing of the monks in his book Ways of Imperfection, he suggests that they took seriously the idea that with Christ all things were made new. By taking on human nature, Christ had opened up innumerable possibilities for the human person. The severe asceticism of some of these monks, Tugwell suggests, was an almost scientific desire to see where, in this age of grace, the limits of the human person now lay.

"What [the monks] all had in common was a quest for a definition of human life independent of any definitions contained in the ordinary structures of life....The coming of Christ had reopened the fundamental question, what it means for us to be human beings. It is no longer sufficient to accept from our social milieu the values, aspirations and so on which structure our concept of ourselves; the question has to be pushed to a much further limit: 'What is a human being as such, as envisaged by the Creator?'

"It is difficult to avoid the feeling that at least some of the curious practices adopted by some ascetics were intended to be a kind of experiment, designed to extract further evidence of just what it is to be human. It is almost as if they were saying, 'Let us fast for a week and see what happens,' or 'Let us fasten ourselves to rocks and see what happens.' It is by pushing human nature to the limits of its endurance that you discover what human nature really is."

So what is Chris Burden up to? Is he tapping into something similar? Perhaps; though I suspect that he would be able to articulate what he's trying to demonstrate less well than the monks could. Of course, the theological rationale that the monks had (assuming Fr Tugwell is correct) is absent from what Burden is up to, but, given that at least in his case there appears to be no particular vanity or desire for fame in what he does, it seems reasonable to suppose that his various conceptual-art pieces are driving at similar questions. And, in this age of self-indulgence, any act of asceticism, whatever it's goal or purpose, is countercultural and, thus, impressive in a way.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Korean Game Culture

In a similar vein to the previous post. Weird, yet strangely compelling.

Religion in PC Games

Being a frequent connnoisseur of games (Hi, my name is Glenn and it has been three months since I last played World of Warcraft), I found this article marginally interesting, if a bit shallower than I would have liked. There is, I suspect, a great potential for treating of religious subject matter in games, but it seems that most of that potential, maybe from the nature of the medium, has been and will continue to be channeled more in the direction of what one would in another context call moral theology. For the rest, the majority of religious subject matter in games would fall naturally into the category of Crystal Dragon Jesus. Which is not particularly interesting on the face of it.

There are, of course, other more minor religious avenues in gaming. In particular, I have in mind historical games. Some of these have a better track record than others. The Civilization games, for example, encapsulate in their basic game mechanic a quintessentially nineteenth century concept of Progress, where theocracy and monarchy belong to the ancient/medieval periods and secularism and democracy belong to the modern period and one is inherently superior to the other, so one graduates from one to the other as the appropriate technologies/philosophical advances are discovered. I recall also how Age of Empires II had a terribly PC slant to it, where you had to play as peaceful Saladin against the evil crusaders, as misunderstood Frederick Barbarossa (strangely, you never got to play as him on the Crusade after his change of heart later in life), then as the peaceful Aztecs against the evil conquistadors in the expansion. On the other hand, the Total War games tend to be a bit less ideological and a bit more matter-of-fact about religions. And are more enjoyable for that (it does, for example, give you a buzz if one of your cardinals whom you have trained up and been using to evangelise in your country or abroad suddenly gets elected to the papacy).

To what I mean about moral theology in games, it is an element that is growing more commonplace and is becoming ever more interesting as games become more sophisticated. More and more games, particularly (but not exclusively) RPGs, have been incorporating some form of good/evil metre over the past few years and offering players several different ways of solving problems, some more morally acceptable, some less (and, naturally, a genuine moral dilemma from time to time to keep things interesting). There is an intriguing potential here- an avenue to explore the ethics of situations in a context without real-world consequences but which nonetheless, if one has become invested in the characters and the world they inhabit, can have an impact on the conscience.

An example: I have recently been playing the game Dragon Age: Origins. At a certain point, it is revealed that, by virtue of various details of the narrative, to slay the dragon in the battle, it is inevitable that one member of the Order to which the player belongs will have to sacrifice his own life. Naturally, the player expects that the person to make that sacrifice will be him. But then, soon after this revelation is made, another character offers a way out. Maybe no one will have to die. Another course is available. But, if you take it, there may be other much more far-reaching consequences, and those are ambiguous at best. I sat in front of my screen for fully five minutes trying to decide which course to take. Why? Because in that moment, with the richness of the story, characters and environment (as detailed as a good novel), the decision had all the weight of a genuine moral choice. Does one choose to embrace death for the greater good, or to live, with the knowledge of one's cowardice and the possibility of one's deeds coming back to haunt one at some indeterminate point in the future?

This is one example. Like a good book, the game player lives the adventures, deeds and dilemmas of the protagonist vicariously, but with this one vital difference- the player can alter the course of the adventure, make choices and thereby change the moral tenor of the character, for the better or for the worse. There is some fascinating potential in that mechanic, much of which remains untapped.

Monday, 1 February 2010

First Edition?!

At some point in the long-forgotten mists of time, I must have accidentally selected 'Yes' to a question while purchasing something from when in fact I should have selected 'No', for now I find myself the occasional recipient of random email recommendations for books on the site. Ordinarily, I simply delete these with nary a second thought, but the one I received today made me do a double take.

It purported to be for a first edition of Homer's Odyssey.

Yes, you read that right. Someone is trying to sell a nice leatherbound copy of an originally orally-transmitted poem that was first written down over 2500 years ago as a first edition. In translation, no less. It's even got "First Edition" in big gold letters on the front cover.

As it turns out, it's actually Pope's translation, but Pope's name is nowhere on the cover (or indeed inside, so far as I could tell from the glimpses Amazon permits to potential buyers, or, for that matter, in the product description on the site). Any poor pleb with no background in Western literature would naturally assume that this was an historic keepsake being sold for an unmissable low price.

Definitely one for the 'Strangely Interesting' box.