Wednesday, December 28, 2011


So. I have played Skyrim. But first, since this is my blog, there is no better place to tell my kind of ridiculous story of the past three days than here.

I was happy and not terribly surprised when I opened Skyrim Christmas morning. I soon installed it, which went smoothly enough, but wasn't planning on playing it until I got back from visiting family, or I'd be distracted. As I'm running an adware scan to make sure nothing is slowing my system from running Skyrim, I go take a shower. When I come back downstairs, my computer is off. Huh, maybe I did turn it off and forgot. I press the power button. Nothing happens. Uh-oh.

I open up the case and try messing with a few wires, but can't get anything to happen. I try my dad's power supply, which also doesn't work. The motherboard must be bad. I try my power supply in my dad's computer, which also doesn't work. The motherboard has gone bad and is destroying whatever power supplies I plug it into! I test my dad's power supply in his previously-working computer, which also fails. It's looking bad as we head out to visit family.

I try to forget about these horribly-timed computer troubles as I spend Christmas evening with my extended family. We have a great dinner and I (foolishly) play Settlers with my cousins. The next day I got to see my cousin's wife and their adorable baby daughter for the first time home from Okinawa! The baby is so cute she has a blog devoted to pictures of her, which is apparently way more popular than my blog.

Monday evening, we drive back home. I have just enough time for a Microcenter run before we see A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie. I buy two new power supplies, not having time to get a motherboard yet, and I figure I'll try these and see if they work.

I take them home and install one in my dad's computer first. It successfully boots. We go to the Guthrie. The show was pretty amazing, as I'd expected from going on backstage tours of it twice. Tons of cool stuff flying in and out, sliding/rotating Scrooge's house set, the the Ghost of Christmas Future is TERRYIFYING.

We go back home. Finally no other commitments (besides sleep) stand between me and fixing my computer. I try some stuff on my desktop, afraid to try the other new power supply for fear it will destroy another one. Eventually I try it, reasoning that if the only problem was both power supplies failing independently somehow, I'll be done and won't have to replace the motherboard.

I hook up the power supply; it doesn't start. But then I put it in my dad's computer, and it does start. My motherboard has clearly failed, but it's not corrupting power supplies. After more experimentation, I discover my old power supply is actually fine. Apparently my motherboard and my dad's power supply failed independently, which messed up my tests. (I'm not sure why testing my power supply in my dad's computer didn't work; I must have forgotten something in my hurry)

Tuesday morning I go back to Microcenter to get a new motherboard. At a friend's recommendation I look for a Gigabyte board, with USB 3.0 to make full use of the external drive Seagate gave me. I pick one out and bring it home, then spend the next few hours completely taking my computer apart and putting in the new board. When everything is connected, I hit power and--success!--it starts! And then tries to boot to Windows and unsurprisingly gets a blue screen due to the drivers being all wrong.

I discover I can only boot from my Windows CD to repair them if none of my hard drives are connected, in which case there is nothing to repair. I'm stuck by this and wait a few hours for my friend to come for an X-Men marathon my sister is having. He fixes this with some BIOS wizardry and I'm back in business. Soon I've repair and reinstalled all the necessary drivers and my computer successfully gets into Windows. Huzzah! I spend the evening watching X-Men as my computer runs the scans that were interrupted.

I hope to finish them before sleeping, but they take longer than expected. Finally, by this early afternoon, everything is ready. (I'm still encountering random, sporadic lockups, likely as a result of some driver that needs to be replaced, looking into that) And that's how I spent three days trying to play Skyrim.

But anyway, on to my first impressions of the game. After starting it up and messing with the options as usual, I start a new game. I go through the usual intro/character creation sequence, making my first character a Dunmer battlemage as usual. The story is that you start as a prisoner (as usual) whose execution is interrupted by the arrival of a dragon. No big deal. You and a guard take shelter in the nearby fort, which has tunnels (the tutorial dungeon) leading to safety, in which you get your needed weapons and armor and learn how to play. As a battlemage, I settle on a mace in one hand and a fire spell in the other, which works out pretty well for me. After this, he directs me to the nearby village of Riverwood, where I'm finally able to sell all the loot I've been struggling to carry from the dungeon.

By the way, being on Reddit has nearly ruined Skyrim for me due to all the silly memes. I refuse to do any of the things in them: I will not get a horse, I will not hire Lydia, I will not wear that ridiculous helmet, I will not become Thane of Whiterun, and if I meet the guy who took an arrow to the knee, I will kill him!

The trader there gives me a quest: his golden dragon's claw trinket has been stolen, and of course I offer to get it back. After rearming I set out to the temple the bandits are hiding in one a mountain to the west. They are no match for my mace and fireballs. As I progress into the caves, spiderwebs start covering everything. Soon I find myself up against the first boss: Shelob a giant venom-spitting spider!It very nearly kills me until I get better at dodging it charges while blasting it with fire. I manage to kill it and free the man trapped in its web, who seems to have the claw. Of course, after being freed he betrays me and runs off deeper into the temple. I follow and kill him, then continue in to see what he was going to do with it.

I get into some catacombs infested with zombies draugr who attack me with cool old Nordic weapons, and one strong one who can use magic. They are no match for my growing magical powers and shiny new steel mace. I come up to a door leading into the innermost part of the temple which has a three-ringed lock. It's clearly some kind of puzzle, but I can't find any clues, so I brute-force it. (It only has 27 possible combinations...not very secure)

The innermost sanctum has a large stone alter where I learn the first word of a dragon shout--I think it went "fury" or something. As soon as I do, a coffin behind me opens and an especially nasty draugr comes out. He likes to use the banshee-like shout on me, to which I respond by running away and throwing more fireballs. Once he's dead, I escape via a secret exit (why can't I ever enter through those?) and return to Riverwood.

The shopkeeper is happy to have his gold dragon claw back, but I run him out of money selling my loot, so I head off to Whiterun, where I am right now, to finish.

So far, my overall impression of Skyrim is that it seems simplified to the point of being dumbed-down--but the stuff they took out was unimportant and even annoying. Weapons and armor no longer degrade and need repairs; smithing is instead used to craft new gear. The leveling system has been completely changed; the only attributes are now health, magicka, and stamina, and you pick one to increase with each level-up. There are no more major and minor skills; everything now counts toward your next level, eliminating the need to "fix" the leveling system with mods. You no longer need to sleep in a bad to level up. (The horror!) Rather than have armor degrade your spell efficiency, there are now magical items that provide no armor but other great incentives for mages to use them like +50% magicka regen. (Wow!) Bartering with shopkeepers is now done automatically based on your speechcraft. All the little annoyances of Morrowind and Oblivion that I'd grown so attached to are now gone, and what is left is a sleek, more polished game. It will take some getting used to, but overall I think it's better.

Much of the gameplay is the same as in previous games--Skyrim is just as open and inviting as Morrowind and Cyrodiil were--but the combat system as been further refined. Your character is now apparently ambidextrous and can carry a spell or one-handed weapon in either hand--as a battlemage I carry one of each, but I could just as easily dual-wield swords or keep fire in one hand and healing in the other. Another nice touch is that many spells are now continuous--rather than throwing fireballs, I can now shoot a continuous stream of fire at stuff.

The game manages to evoke the same kind of wow response to its graphics as Oblivion did in 2006, maybe dampened a bit by the existence of Crysis, but still gorgeous. The dungeons are much more varied in appearance and layout than in Oblivion. I'll probably have more thoughts after I've played more than a few hours, but for now it's looking pretty good.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


In the category of "fun casual games I've found recently" is a gem called Magicka. It's an isometric beatem-up game that has you slaying legions of goblins, orcs, beasts, and daemons to save the world of Midgård. The difference is that instead of using weapons, you mostly use magic. Lots and lots of magic.

Magicka's magic system is the centerpiece of the game, and it is endless barrels of fun. You have eight basic elements--water, life, shield, cold, lighting, arcane, earth, and fire--and you can combine them in nearly endless ways. There are plenty of rules to this--certain elements can't be used in conjunction with each other, and some of them can combine to produce new ones. You can also cast spells in one of four ways--in front of you, around you, on yourself, or enchanting your weapon. (You do get regular weapons, but they are much less useful than your magic...unless you get the light saber or machine gun)

The basic elements are predictable enough, but combining them is the fun of the game. Combining arcane with shield gives you mines that tick and explode, sending enemies who walk over them flying. Fire is normally a spraying attack, but combining it with arcane gives you a searing beam. Combining fire and earth gives you fireballs; combining earth and cold gives you hailstones that slow enemies. Combining water and fire gives you steam; combining this with lightning and arcane gives you a beam that soaks enemies as it electrocutes them. Ouch. And multiplying elements increases their power, making zapping enemies with deadly lightning a viable strategy. (Especially when they're wet)

Magicka lets you satisfy your deep-seated desire to zap stuff like the Emperor.

Adding to the ridiculousness is the game's simplicity; there is no mana system, so literally the only limit to your magical exploits is how quickly you can cast spells. It makes you feel almost godly, but the game has plenty of challenges to your magical prowess, not the least of which are other spellcasters. These battles are some of the toughest in the game; predicting their spells is essential as one false move can blow you up or send you flying off a cliff. The potential of magic battles to blow up in your face (literally) gets a bit ugly in one particularly frustrating series of battle, but usually it feels surprisingly balanced.

Besides the basic elemental spells, there are special spells ("magicks") that can be cast by queuing up elements in a certain order. These let you do special actions like making it rain, calling down lightning, (best if enemies are wet from said rain) messing with time, and teleporting. The element system is compelling and practically begs you to experiment with it to see what fun combinations you can come up with. The possibilities let you try many different fighting styles, like running away from enemies and luring them onto mines, gathering them around you and casting area-of-effect spells, or just lasering everything.

Spell-slinging galore!
Besides its fantastic magic system, Magicka also benefits from some truly fantastic writing. If you enjoy less-than-serious medieval adventure games like Kingdom of Loathing or Munchkin, or if you enjoy the humor of games like Banjo-Kazooie, Magicka is worth checking out for its humor alone. The characters constantly spew cultural references, break the fourth wall, and in general constantly find new ways of making you laugh. So far the best I've seen is a boss fight that has James Bond, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings references, all within a few minutes.

One example of the game's countless references.

Your narrator and giver of advice is a fellow named Vlad who is most definitely not a vampire. You also get a fairy companion who is an obvious parody of Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and frequently gives you gems like "Maybe you can cast spells on enemies?" and "If you die, I will hate you!". Even the game mechanics have references; when casting beam spells, don't cross the streams! My only complaint of the humor is that it seems a little too reliant on pop-culture references, as opposed to original silliness. But it's great fun all the same.

Your fairy companion is an endless source of obvious advice. And yes, you are carrying a Master Sword.
If you got Magicka during the 75% off sale like I did, congratulations. Otherwise, it's certainly still worth the $10 purchase. The adventure is 10-15 hours long, but the fun combat, humor, and endlessly deep magic system encourage heavy replaying, and there is are many DLC expansions to be had. If you can convince your friends to buy it as well, it also has online co-op and PvP!


I've enjoyed getting into the Christmas spirit this December and have gotten presents for my friends and family. It's really fun to think of gifts people will enjoy (mostly books), and then get them for them. Creative wrapping jobs are also fun. (At a "manly" wedding shower I was at I saw a gift card given in a box that I think had previously held a cabinet) The joy of Christmas as you grow up is that instead of eagerly waiting for Santa Claus to give you stuff, you get to be Santa Claus. (Sort of)

I've noticed that a common reaction in my friends upon me giving them the present is to apologize for not planning to get me anything, and resolving to do so. While I appreciate the sentiment, this seems like missing the point. The whole point of a gift is it's a one-way transaction, not an exchange. I am giving you this gift because I appreciate you and want to, not because I secretly want you to get me something to "pay me back".

Greedily is one way not to accept gifts, but beware also of unconsciously turning gifting into bartering. What is it in human nature that makes it so hard for us to just accept grace?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Stop Online Piracy Act

Yeah, I'm sure you've heard plenty of outraged responses and scary proclamations about the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) currently before the House Judicial Committee. So I'm not even going to editorialize about it at all; just providing a link to the bill itself is enough. Specifically, read this except of the summary:
Authorizes the Attorney General (AG) to seek a court order against a U.S.-directed foreign Internet site committing or facilitating online piracy to require the owner, operator, or domain name registrant, or the site or domain name itself if such persons are unable to be found, to cease and desist further activities constituting specified intellectual property offenses under the federal criminal code including criminal copyright infringement, unauthorized fixation and trafficking of sound recordings or videos of live musical performances, the recording of exhibited motion pictures, or trafficking in counterfeit labels, goods, or services. Sets forth an additional two-step process that allows an intellectual property right holder harmed by a U.S.-directed site dedicated to infringement, or a site promoted or used for infringement under certain circumstances, to first provide a written notification identifying the site to related payment network providers and Internet advertising services requiring such entities to forward the notification and suspend their services to such an identified site unless the site's owner, operator, or domain name registrant, upon receiving the forwarded notification, provides a counter notification explaining that it is not dedicated to engaging in specified violations. Authorizes the right holder to then commence an action for limited injunctive relief against the owner, operator, or domain name registrant, or against the site or domain name itself if such persons are unable to be found, if: (1) such a counter notification is provided (and, if it is a foreign site, includes consent to U.S. jurisdiction to adjudicate whether the site is dedicated to such violations), or (2) a payment network provider or Internet advertising service fails to suspend its services in the absence of such a counter notification.
I have serious doubts that this bill will pass, contrary to what many commentators would have you believe, as information about the effect it would have in the Internet is being widely circulated. But if it does, mark my words: I will boycott the internet until it is repealed. Yep. Unplug my desktop's connection and switch off my laptop's wireless adapter. A free internet or none.

Monday, December 5, 2011


What gets you up in the morning? What do you boast about, if only to yourself? What, if you fail at it, leaves you completely devastated? What to you look to in order to justify your existence? We all have something, if it's just one thing. One of my smarter friends put it this way: "Most people desperately strive to avoid feeling small." Small, I think, as in meaningless or inconsequential. We all need to feel significance. One of the key points of any religion you can think of is it provides some way to attain this significance, whether by obeying a moral code, finding nirvana, or ascending in a golden spaceship to a higher plane of existence. There can't just be everyday life in all its fleeting joys and defeats, there has to be something deeper than that that really, really means something to us in the grand scheme of things. When existentialist philosophers lacked a higher power from which to derive any significance, they asserted than man is responsible for providing his life with that meaning himself.

This feeling of significance, Tim Keller says in a talk by him I just heard, is what is meant by the term "justification". In the Christian worldview, justification is like getting a high five--a standing ovation, even--from God. It is not just finding meaning, it is being counted worthy and accepted by the Source of all meaning. I think it is the most fundamental need of every human being.

And how do we get this fundamental affirmation, this justification? Many people (Christians included) think it's by  our moral performance; our ability to conform to a list of do's or don'ts. This could be from the Bible, from some other author, or from osmosis of the culture around us. Those who don't look there often look for approval from friends, significant others, or family. Or having a lot of money. Or being an ambidextrous piano virtuoso. But if you are conscious of your need for justification, and how the things you look for it in inevitably fail, then the gospel is the best news in the world. Justification is free! Completely free! There is nothing you can do to deserve it, or not deserve it! Paul writes in Romans 3:21-24:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
("Righteousness" here has a similar meaning to "justification") I'm finally starting to really "get" this definition of justification and it's amazing. I still have a lot of processing to do in answering those first four questions. Even though these other sources of meaning we hold onto will inevitably leave us hanging, it's so hard to let go of them. Many of them are genuinely good things, like family or a pleasant personality. Of course you shouldn't walk out on your family or become a jerk if you put too much importance in these things; even as we keep them in our lives, we're challenged not to make them the one thing that we need.

One other cool thing Tim Keller mentioned was the difference between justification and forgiveness. Christians believe that we deserve death and eternal separation from God for betraying Him and sinning, but in Jesus we can be forgiven and get a clean slate--it's part of the package along with justification. That's great, but they aren't the same thing. Keller drew up the analogy of a prisoner pardoned and released from jail, but who is now homeless, jobless, responsible for making his way in the world and proving himself. This is what forgiveness alone would be like: sure, we're free now, but we're on our own and we'll just fail again. Whereas justification is like getting the Congressional Medal of Honor and everything else they can give you (only better); it's receiving all this honor and affirmation from outside ourselves and knowing that yes, we really are worth something.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

OWS: An Addendum

I have two more things to add on developments in the OWS movement, one positive and one negative.

  • I've been horrified by the stories, pictures, and videos of unparalleled police brutality on protesters in the last few weeks. The willingness of law enforcement to use such extreme measures with so little provocation on peaceful protesters is frightening and, I assert, unjust. That the officers committing these acts are virtually immune to legal accountability is even more shocking. The OWS protesters are almost making more of a point by the reactions against them than by their own words and actions, and their courage is admirable.
  • Meanwhile, the self-righteousness displayed by some identifying with the more extreme side of the movement is not. Specifically, I groan when I see comparisons drawn between bank executives and criminals, or even vigilante efforts to punish them as such. It turns out there is no law against tanking the economy. Talking as if they were criminals replaces the law with your own conviction of right and wrong, which varies widely from person to person. Acting on these convictions, apart from the law, opens the door to anarchy. Imagine if everyone tried to take their own vision of right into their own hands. If they actually have broken real, established laws, find them and point them out rather than arguing from passion and frustration. Even if new regulations are enacted to make the practices that led to the crash illegal, they can't be applied retroactively. And condemning people for acting in their own self-interest within the established law is condemning everyone--this is exactly what policymakers should assume from people and corporations.

Seeds and Shells

The kingdom of heaven is like a seed. (Matthew 13:31) Planted and properly cultivated, this seed will grow into a magnificent tree, for birds to nest in and people to rest under. But some, seeing or hearing of the majestic trees of others, decide to shortcut the process and put fake, hollow trees up over their growing seeds. They ornament these "trees" with finely crafted leaves and blossoms that look convincing unless you get right up close. Whole forests of these hollow trees pop up and people give them names and pay them great respect. But they are nothing but shells. Meanwhile the real seeds are stuck inside the shells. Without sunlight and fresh air, they can't grow and just stagnate or even wither.

Other people without seeds also desire the grandeur of the fully-grown trees. No problem! They get the synthetic trees all the same and put them up over nothing. No one can tell the difference. Almost no one, anyway. Still others don't see the point of the trees in the first place and go without, or prefer nice bushes or ivy.

How do you tell shells from real trees? How can you tell if a shell has a seed inside it? What is your shell made of?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

In Which I Simultaneously Tackle Religion and Politics

As this rather biased article a friend pointed out to me shows, a good deal of the front-running candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination are keen on getting our laws to match up more closely with Christian "morality". (This just from the candidates' responses, not the editorializing) This idea, which has been around for decades (especially since the establishment of the Moral Majority in the 70s), is known in some circles of debate as "legislating morality". Here is my position on it. I'm going to take apart this idea in a two-pronged fashion, explaining why it's a bad idea politically and why it doesn't line up with the Christianity they claim to represent.

Note: Before I get into all this discussion of what government is "really about", let me state that my view is that the purpose of government, on the highest level, is to promote and preserve the liberty, legal equality, and physical welfare of all the people under it. There is plenty of room for debate on how far in either of these directions it should go, which I won't get into.

The Political Side

As I previously argued during the whole Scott-Walker-collective-union-bargaining debacle in Wisconsin earlier this year, doing politics based on put-together ideologies (whether economic, political, or religious) is disastrous business. Steadfastly trying to govern your way, based on your particular ideology, which is right because you're right because it's absolute truth, leads to an inability to compromise and, in our democracy, an inability to get anything done that is becoming increasingly obvious in the higher levels of our government. Willingness to compromise and a pragmatic concern for the welfare of everyone involved in decisions are essential to successful government. According to centuries of political philosophy the state exists to serve the people living in it--not any particular ideology. Making policy decisions based on ideology replaces these with a "principled" stand for what you believe is right and a primary concern with upholding the purity of your views above those who disagree with you. I'm sure you can think of examples of what this looks like.

And, unfortunately, I think religion-based ideologies are the worst for this, because at heart your religious worldview isn't arrived at by a series of perfectly rational thought-steps that others at least have a chance of following but by a leap of faith that others simply have not taken. The way an evangelical Christian like myself processes the world--in relation to an almighty God who sustains and redeems everything--is very different than how a Muslim thinks about things, which in turn is very different than how a nonreligious person sees the world. I shouldn't need everyone to accept Christ for my political views to simply be intelligible to them.

This difference in viewpoints when everyone is keeping their religion to themselves, or engaging in friendly, unofficial conversation about worldviews--it's freedom of religion in action. But this completely changes when one religion legally imposes itself over all others. For one thing, if you take the candidates' desire to make civil law line up with "Christian law" to its logical conclusion, then of course the first such law you should legislate is the greatest commandment in the Bible: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Matthew 22:37) Whoops, that goes completely against the first amendment. It's almost as if it was specifically written to prevent religion from legally establishing itself like this.

Quite simply, religion is one thing that people have never, ever been able to agree on in thousands of years of searching. But politics demands agreement, or at least sufficient agreement and compromise to allow government to carry out its responsibilities. I think at least some of the troubles our government seems to be having in getting even simple things done lately are a result of attempts to turn once-conciliatory political dialogue into inevitably fiery and dogmatic religious dialogue. I hope this has convinced you that basing political views solely on religious views is a bad idea. I say "solely" because I think political and religions worldviews will inevitably intersect, but there has to be something that allows for understanding, for compromise.

But, you may say, as many of my intelligent friends who are Christian and Republican-leaning have, all politics is based on ideologies. Either you're basing your views off a Christian ideology, or something else. Like I said before, it's absurd to try to separate your political views from your faith--particularly Christian faith that ultimately changes every part of your life. Of course Christians will look at politics differently than non-Christians. But for reasons I'll go into detail on below, letting your faith guide your political participation doesn't just mean reading a list of the laws you support out of the Bible.

The Religious Side

As bad as trying to codify Christian "morality" into civil law is from a pragmatic political standpoint, it's even worse from a spiritual standpoint. Firstly, as I explained in the conclusion to my series on the Old Testament, being ruled by law is a hallmark of the old covenant, not the new one under which we now live. As Paul explains in Romans 6, we are no longer slaves to sin under the law but slaves to God under grace. (This is a paraphrase of verses 14-18) From a spiritual standpoint, trying to obey the laws, or trying to get others to do so, is futile and even counterproductive as focusing on the should of the law distracts us from the get-to of the gospel. This is Paul's central message in much of his letter to the Galatians. This is why I keep putting "morality" in quotes, as under grace the term becomes somewhat nebulous. The law is a yoke that the Jews were unable to bear (Acts 15:10) even with all they had going for them to do so, and it's pure pride to think we can do any better.

But I'm not trying to save people by obedience to the law!, you might say, I'm just trying to help them live more moral, Christian lives by setting guidelines that keep them on the right path. Well, if you make laws that correspond to more commonsense teachings of Jesus you might get away with it, but where to stop? Remember that God's standard is pure perfection. You agree that murder should be illegal, but according to Jesus getting angry at your neighbor is just as bad as murdering them. So if you're trying to get civil law to line up with Christian "morality", you should penalize yelling at someone the same as killing them, right? And if you get it passed everyone will obey the law and we'll have no more anger, right? And if you decide to stop somewhere before that, aren't you forsaking the teachings of Christ?

As soon as you start pushing laws that climb closer to the standard of perfection (or even laws that purport to defend the Christian view of life or marriage) you get into the kind of ideological politics I mentioned above. You lose the ability to reason with anyone who sees things differently than you unless you manage to convert them to your particular understanding of who God is. They might come to view Christianity as a pushy set of "shoulds" and judgments on those who don't obey, as so many do today for this very reason. And for Christians who may agree with the basis of the law, what difference does it make for them, since they would practice (or at least attempt to) whatever behavior the law was trying to induce anyway? Sanctification, the process of becoming more like Jesus and wanting to obey His commandments not out of obligation but out of love and joy, is founded on a relationship with Him (John 14:15) and enabled by His power, not our own. (Philippians 2:12-13, Romans 8:13) The motivation for us to live differently and become more like Jesus comes from within (the Spirit living in us), not from without (threat of legal punishment). Nowhere in the New Testament do we hear Jesus or any of the apostles praising laws that aid believers' sanctification or wishing they they were different so as to do so. If the only thing keeping someone from a life of theft is the threat of punishment by the law, what good does that law do him from a spiritual standpoint? Absolutely none!

Indeed, Jesus is surprisingly disinterested in politics. I believe the only recorded political statement He ever makes is in Matthew 22:21: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's." I want to be the last to put words into Jesus' mouth, but He seems to hold a view of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world as being quite separate. Indeed, in John 18:36 He says, "My kingdom is not of this world." A bit of context: at that time the Jewish view of the foretold Messiah was a conquering earthly king who would set them free from their Roman oppressors and reestablish the greatness of the pre-captivity Jewish nation. Jesus' total failure and even outright refusal to meet these expectations was a big part of the reason so many people doubted Him and ultimately had Him killed. To Jesus it doesn't matter which earthly kingdom (i.e. country/state) you belong to: only whether you're a subject of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of this world. Jesus didn't spend time talking about any earthly kingdom but the heavenly one He came from and invites us to, right here and now.

Likewise Paul in describing his ministry says in Ephesians 6:12: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." He's fighting spiritual, not physical, powers in his ministry. Not much more to be said. It's surprising that he says this considering how many times he was thrown in jail or almost killed for his faith; he never prays for God to change the laws that keep getting him persecuted for his ministry.

But what about in Romans 13:1-7, you may say, where Paul says that governing authorities are appointed by God? Surely this means our politicians and laws should be "Christian"? Think about this verse in context: Paul wrote during the reign of emperor Nero, an active persecutor of Christians (persecutor as in feeding them to lions, not preventing them from organizing prayer in public schools). To anyone who thinks Obama is the Antichrist...just look at Nero. And don't forget that it was the governor Pontius Pilate who ultimately sentenced Jesus to death. So clearly Paul doesn't mean that governments will always appear overtly "Christian", but that no matter what their authority comes from God and they are His instrument. Paul goes on to say that Christians should give obedience and due respect to government (possibly part of loving your enemies), unless ordered by law to sin or prevented by law from obeying the commands of God. And even then, he says nothing about trying to change or do away with such laws--nor does any other part of the New Testament. I'm not trying to say that Christians should stay out of politics (they didn't have much of an opportunity to participate in Paul's time, hence the lack of treatment of the issue), but clearly it's a relatively low priority in a Christian's life and should be approached with the above facts in mind.

Finally, an addendum from talking with my friend, whose input I was waiting on before posting this. He and I turned out to agree more than I expected on this issue, but his perspective was of course different. He gave me a picture of the sphere of influence of the church and the state as a Venn diagram--intersecting in some places (some aspects of public life, like helping the poor, come to mind), but mostly separate. After all, the church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), whose kingdom is not of this world and who came to redeem the world by self-sacrificial love, not by taking power over it. Putting on the church the task of forcibly conforming the world around it to God's will makes it an instrument of the old, law-based covenant, not the new grace-based one. It is the state that bears the sword (i.e. the power to devise and enforce laws over the public; Romans 13:4), not the church. They are very separate entities and conflating them is detrimental to both. (The effects of this philosophy on the church could be the subject of a whole other post)

So hopefully I've made my case for why seeking to align civil law with Christian "morality" is all-around a bad idea. With most of the Republican frontrunners for the 2012 election expressing some kind of desire to do so, this issue has never been more relevant. I wish Christians in politics were better known for their honesty, integrity, and compassion than for their "holy wars", blind ideological rhetoric, and inability to compromise. I can't say I expect anyone holding this kind of view to read this post and have their mind changed, but I hope that it has given you some stuff to think about and some good talking points in conversations on the subject.


While laying out this post I thought of another question that is likely more relevant to liberals than to conservatives. What about seeking to make laws that help the weak, elderly, sick, or poor, like Medicare and social security, in keeping with Jesus' call to love the "least of these"? A few thoughts on this subject:
  • I don't think this is a bad idea in principle, as this is arguably part of the role of governments. I would say that the government is currently not doing its job of promoting liberty and equality for everyone by helping the rich get richer at everyone else's expense, and pursuing the opposite goal (raising up those who cannot help themselves) is more desirable. However, just as in the conservative case, making this issue your sole political imperative and blindly pushing for such laws with nothing but commands of Jesus to back you up is not the right response. (I don't see this nearly as much as I see the former case) Again, Jesus didn't try to rearrange earthly kingdoms to be fairer to the poor but preferred the direct approach to helping them.
  • Remember that laws like this provide help not just out of your pocket, but everyone's. Programs based around income redistribution might make things "fairer", but they tend to help some at others' expense, not creating any new wealth. "Forced charity" is an oxymoron. Voting for laws that help the poor is no substitute for loving people yourself.
Addendum #2

A few weeks ago I had a very edifying and respectful Facebook conversation (which is a very rare and precious thing) with a high school friend who has relatively fundamentalist views on this topic. Since then, I have shifted my position slightly. If politicians like Rick Santorum want to try to legislate a more Biblical morality (because all legislation has some kind of a "should" behind it), there is nothing instrinsically wrong with that. The problem isn't when politicians base their political stances on Biblical principles, but when they do so poorly, misguidedly, and uncompassionately. Simply justifying your position with Bible verses, "God's plan", or thinly veiled references to Biblical teaching is an example of how to do this. This kind of rhetoric is fine for letting God direct your own life (Jesus said He would incite division, after all), but is worse than useless in politics where not everyone shares your faith and they may come to resent you and the God you claim to represent for imposing it on them.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

You're in a Chair in the Sky!

This half-obligatory Thanksgiving post is a partial paraphrase of a sermon from my church from last December. Specifically, one that showed the following video featuring a comedian named Louis C.K. on Conan O'Brien: Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy. Warning: some minor foul language. But a hilarious and relevant commentary on how entitled we as a culture feel: we complain the in-flight wi-fi doesn't work when we're sitting in a chair in the sky! My pastor used this as a lead-in to one of my favorite Bible passages, Ephesians 2:1-10:
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
 God raised (past tense) us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places with Jesus! If you believe in Christ, you really are in a chair in the sky! (Spiritually speaking) Our amazing position in Christ, he then argued, should be enough to blow your mind every day and fill you with gratitude and joy. We testify to the hardness of our hearts by treating life as mere routine.

This realization of how good things really are is what I think Thanksgiving is about. Not just how amazing modern technology is like Louis C.K. went on about, but how much we've been blessed in our family, our relationships, our place in life, and above all the mercy God showed us giving His son for our sake. Be blessed this Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Truly "Immersive" Gaming

With signs pointing to the current generation of game consoles sticking around a while longer, the biggest innovations of the "big three" console manufacturers in the last few years has arguably been the development of motion-based gaming technology. Nintendo's Wii has had it since its release and received some upgrades like the WiiMotionPlus and in the last few years Microsoft's XBox 360 and Sony's Playstation 3 have gotten the Kinect and the Playstation Move, respectively. The point of motion-control systems like these, if I may paraphrase, is to give players more novel or intuitive ways of interacting with games that often more closely mirror the actions being performed in-game. Instead of aiming by moving a control stick, you can aim by pointing the controller at the screen. Instead of pressing buttons to make your character perform actions, you can now trigger them by doing something that at least superficially resembles the desired action.

I don't deny that these control systems are really cool, even when used for their intended purpose of game control. (Hackers have done some really amazing things with Nintendo's and Microsoft's hardware) The well-known danger is that the coolness of the motion control can sometimes become a substitute for overall quality in the rest of the game, leading to gimmicky, bargain-bin games that rely on the novelty of the control scheme (which might suck anyway) and aren't terribly special in anything else. Even Wii Sports, which comes bundled with the Wii, and its successor Wii Play are well-implemented and fun for an hour or two at parties, but are rather short on depth.

But what about when these new control schemes are applied to the latest in a series of solid games known for their fantastic gameplay, charming graphics, music, and all-around immersive experience--case in point, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword? Fans have been anticipating it for its 1:1 sword control, but now that it's out the response to the controls has been mixed. (Gamestop famously gave it 7.5 despite critics saying the reviewer just didn't understand the controls) Yesterday I found a discussion on Reddit from a disappointed fan; if you don't want to slog through it all, just read the comment that caught my attention:
I'm enjoying the game so far, but in a way I find the motion controls less immersive. When I play with a traditional controller I can easily lose myself in the game. Pressing buttons is like breathing for me. I don't have to think about it. But in SS so far I have been frequently made aware of myself holding the controller, thinking about how I need to move it around, and that brings me out of the game.
He found the motion controls less immersive? It's an interesting theory--players are supposed to be able to get more into games if they're identifying their actions with those of the player character, but this fan found mirroring Link's actions distracting from the game. Pressing buttons and moving control sticks on a traditional, ergonomic controller may seem boring compared to swinging the "Wiimote" like a sword, but it's so easy that gamers (myself as an example) are able to form mental pathways that map the actual manipulation of the controls to muscle memory. You don't have to think "press right bumper" or "contract right index finger" to reload, you just do it. It's a different kind of immersion that is broken by the complex motions involved by motion controls. In light of this, I don't see motion controls making much progress out of the realm of "casual gaming" anytime soon. Thoughts?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Humble Introversion Bundle

Maybe you've heard of those "Humble Indie Bundles" they've been periodically releasing the last few years. Apparently the latest one just dropped, featuring a pack of games by indie British game developer Introversion. The basic model is that you pay however much you want for the games (including nothing) and select how much you want to go to the developers, two charities, and the site itself. To foster a spirit of competition, it tracks the donations by OS (currently Windows is the most tight-fisted, and Linux users are the most generous) and the top donors. It seems like a pretty cool business model and I recommend checking it out.

As for the games themselves, I've tried a few and they've been worth my payment. Crayon Physics is a pretty brilliant sandbox-puzzle game that lets you literally draw in your solution and let the game's realistic physics engine take over. Reminds me of a video I saw a few years ago of similar drawing-based physics being demoed on a whiteboard, which I thought was the coolest thing ever at the time. It's especially great when played with my Wacom tablet. To get it and one other game, you need to donate at least the average donation, another smart touch. I've also tried Darwinia, an odd RTS-type game with similar aesthetics to Tron or Synaesthete, and a Windows-only demo of a procedural city generator that creates lifelike street plots of cities that will never exist in seconds. Very shallow and not a full game, but promising. I have yet to try DEFCON, a satirical strategy game simulating the cold war, and Uplink, which apparently simulates Hollywood-style hacking. If you're into smart, offbeat-type games, I would follow this site. (It's free if you want, after all)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Evangelism and Entertainment

Note: For reasons discussed herein, this post was written on the evening of Friday, November 18th, hence the apparent anachronisms. Take the content of this post as personal opinion, and with a grain of salt.

In less than 24 hours the biggest evangelistic event ever at the U of M, PULSE Twin Cities, will hit the field house. This may come as a bit of a surprise to those of you who were just expecting a free Owl City concert. Indeed, from the large amounts of promotion for it around campus and online all I could gather is that it's a concert (free for students, unknown for non-students) featuring Owl City, Family Force 5, and Grits with some kind of important message of hope. My perspective in Cru, however, assures me that besides the music there will be gospel presentations and other Christian content as in excerpts I've seen of PULSE events at other campuses. For Cru this is pretty much the event of the year and many of my friends have been inviting their friends all kinds of ways and changing their profile pictures in excitement for the big day tomorrow.

I won't be there. Indeed, for the past few months I've done my best to turn a blind eye to all the hype leading up to PULSE. "But why, David?" you may ask. "This is the fulfillment of the Great Commission, turning the campus back to God!" I can't argue with this statement, and certainly not with the gospel to be presented at PULSE--which is why I will be waiting to put up this post until it's safely over, its impact made. But I feel that eventually, this needs to be said.

My uneasiness with PULSE and events like it (like the Maze of a year ago, which was indisputably pretty amazing) isn't with the matter of of the gospel message it seeks to spread (which is truly wonderful and life-changing) but with the manner of its operation. Like I said above, pretty much all even a very curious person can deduce from the abundant promotion of the event is that it's a free big-name concert, perhaps with some kind of agenda. (Most free things around campus have one) I expect that for people at PULSE who aren't "in on" the background of the event, the gospel message of the whole evening will come as a surprise, as it did with the Maze. To put my issue with PULSE in the simplest possible terms, it feels like a bait-and-switch. The big draw of the event (free Owl City concert!!!1!11!!) is not the main point of the event (the gospel message). To a Christian like me it's obvious why this promotional decision was made: to make the event more inviting/appealing to nonbelievers so more will come and hear the gospel. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Have "Jesus" and "gospel" become bad words? Are we so concerned with removing barriers to the gospel that we hide the gospel itself until we have a safe-sized audience? Are we Christians more concerned with numbers than the Biblical model of evangelism? I have no doubt that the gospel presented at the event will be real and authentic--like I said, I'm concerned with the manner, not the matter. The subtext of the decision to promote PULSE solely as an Owl City concert is this: "Many of the people we're trying to reach don't like the gospel. If we promote this as a big gospel presentation, they won't come, so let's promote it as an Owl City concert so they will come and hear the gospel!" If people don't like the gospel to begin with, how do you think they'll feel when they feel tricked into hearing it? (To my Christian readers, imagine if it were CASH [The campus group for humanists and atheists] putting on this event instead of Cru) Another interpretation might be that it's combining the gospel with some great music to make it more appealing. It's the gospel. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, came to earth as a man, loved us personally and perfectly, took the just penalty for our sins on Himself so we could have a life-giving relationship with God, and defeated death to let us know that in Him we will have eternal life! It's the best news of all time; what can we do to make it more appealing?

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." - Romans 1:16

"But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God." - 2 Corinthians 4:2 (emphasis added)

Let's look at some early gospel presentations. In the first ever Christian sermon in Acts 2, Peter is speaking to an audience of mostly Jews in Jerusalem. At first he's explaining why he and his friends have been acting crazy and speaking languages they never learned (as Pentecost just happened), but he soon sets into a detailed explanation of Old Testament prophecy and how Jesus fulfilled them in recent happenings.

Fast forward to Acts 17 where Paul is speaking to an audience of Greeks in Athens. He doesn't cite any scripture here, but instead quotes their own philosophers and poets, tying parts of Greek pagan worship in to the one true God.

The difference between these gospel presentations shows the need to be culturally sensitive in how we share with nonbelievers. One thing I noticed was that Peter and Paul focus on things their audiences believed that were true (Old Testament prophecy or correct views of God) and relate them to the truth of the gospel, rather than tearing down their false beliefs to "make way" for the truth. Telling random people why they're wrong tends to put them on the defensive, especially today in the culture of "your views are as valid as mine", so this approach should be very appealing today. It's not pretty when people try the opposite.

But this aside aside, notice what Peter and Paul don't do. They don't start talking about something popular until enough people show up, then break out the gospel. Beyond connecting the gospel to listeners' already-held beliefs, they didn't try to make it more appealing--they trusted in the Holy Spirit to make it come alive to people.

As I finish this post, PULSE is (presumably) wrapping up. I pray that people who don't yet know the love of Christ would meet Him there. At the end of the day I am happy this event is happening because I know God will work through it, which is why it's so hard to criticize. My comments above have been more concerns about what could be happening under the surface from my search for the root of my uneasiness, and less my informed and decided judgment of the situation. My last word is this: it's critical to know where God's will stops and our implementation of it begins--to be aware of our surprisingly passive roles as "earthen vessels" bearing the glory of God for the world to see. No one came to Christ because of a fantastic concert or a silver-tongued speaker. God sends His laborers into His harvest field. Go and make disciples.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Minor Change in Direction

I'm well aware that I've been doing a lot of faith-focused posts recently, including quite a bit of heavy theology. While I'm not ashamed of this and truly enjoy writing about God, I never intended this blog to be about any one thing--hence the hodgepodge of objects in the header image.

So, to break from this tradition I'm going to shamelessly plug a cool computer game! Specifically, Audiosurf. It resembles a cross between hyper-fast futuristic racing series F-Zero and an earlier indie game, Synaesthete. Unlike Synaesthete, Audiosurf is not free (the full version costs $10), but it's well worth the modest price.

Playing some DragonForce should be anyone's first reaction to this game.
The big draw of Audiosurf is, of course, its ability to dynamically generate tracks by analyzing any song you select. The result is that you can literally play (as a game) your favorite music. Colored blocks come at you in time with the beat, and when the music gets louder or faster the track changes to hotter colors and everything speeds up. Calm, acoustic music is largely an uphill climb in blues and purples, while intense metal becomes a frenetic downhill of orange and red. The track bobs up and down to the ebb and flow of the music, various cool visual effects sync up to it, and the thrill you get just before the start of a steep section is similar to being on a roller coaster.

The gameplay has two main modes. In Mono (pictured above) you simply ride the track, picking up colored blocks and avoiding gray ones. Matching colored blocks gets you points--bigger matches equal more points. On the easiest difficulty it's pretty laid back, but on Ninja the track is congested with gray blocks you have to avoid, a tough test of reflexes and precise control. The other main mode has no grey blocks, but multiple colors of blocks that must be grouped together to form matches as well as some special powerups. There are five different "characters" (game modes) to play which all give you special abilities like storing blocks and dropping them at will, erasing everything of a certain color, or controlling two cars at once. This mode is more cerebral and making complicated matches requires some strategy. These modes provide some variation to the gameplay, but mostly this game's replay value is limited by your music library--finding songs that will translate to exciting and varied tracks is a fun challenge.

The graphics are fairly simple by modern standards, but fully 3-D and undeniably pretty. The tracks are laid out as winding, multicolored ribbons that stretch out ahead of you for virtual miles. The ability to plug your own music into the game and experience it rather than just listen to it raises Audiosurf a step up above the sea of music games that have been popping up in the wake of DDR and Guitar Hero and makes it well worth checking out, if only the demo version. Definitely recommended for music and puzzle game lovers.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Answer is Love

Buckle your seatbelts, interblog. Tonight I'm going to walk through an entire book of the Bible. You heard/read me right. A whole book. All in one go.

Don't worry, it's just the book of Jude. (25 verses)

The first two verses are the standard greeting found in the New Testament letters--the sender, the recipient(s), and a greeting. Similar to the To, From, and Subject lines of an E-mail, actually. From these we see it was written by Jude, the brother of James. (Probably the brother of Jesus; Jude humbly doesn't make the connection, instead calling himself "a servant of Jesus Christ") The recipients, "those who have been called, those who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ", is extremely non-specific; Jude might have intended the letter to be copied and passed around among churches like a chain latter.

And after the greetings, Jude launches into a 14-verse verbal assault against false teachers occupying well over half the book. In verse 3 he mentions he'd have preferred to write a nice, fluffy letter about their salvation, he "felt [he] had to write and urge you to contend for the faith." In verse 4 he explicitly warns about false teachers in their midst, seeking to replace the gospel with an excuse for licentiousness. Defending the gospel against corrupt teaching was a common theme of Peter and Paul's letters as well; we can be thankful for their devotion to making sure the churches got it right. It was especially scary as the New Testament as a compiled volume didn't exist yet; the churches mostly had oral teaching on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and whatever the apostles left them with. When the apostles left to plant churches elsewhere, the "baby churches" were vulnerable. We all tend to forget or live without the gospel on our own anyway; just imagine how hard it would be to hold on to it with someone charismatic trying to alter it into such pleasant lies.

In the following verses, Jude gives numerous warnings about the justice reserved for those who reject the Lord, citing Old Testament examples like Sodom and Gomorrah, Cain, and Satan and his angels. Verses 12 and 13 poetically compare false teachers with drifting clouds, uprooted trees, "wild waves of the sea", and wandering stars.

Then in verse 17 he gets to the practicals. This is the part of the book that really struck me. After finishing warning them of these men, I would have imagined his advice for the churches might have been something like "rebuke these godless men and their teaching, and cast them out of your midst." Shows how much I know. His advice is amazing:

But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.
Jude's advice isn't to rebuke the false teachers, practice some apologetic arguments to counter their words, or reject them from the churches--it's to continue building their faith and be filled with the Spirit in order to love these people. The quality of the love varies--show mercy to some, "snatch" others from the fire--but the point is to defeat false teaching with love, not aggression or carefully crafted arguments. And if this is how they were to treat unbelievers in their midst trying to alter the gospel, how much more fellow believers with whom they didn't see eye-to-eye?

The best thing the gifts of wisdom and knowledge have taught me is when to use them--and when not to try. Words of wisdom can help someone plagued by questions, or they can deepen interpersonal rifts. The love of Christ is more important than being "right". Maybe I'm just reminding myself of this fact, but this blog is an overflow for my brain and I've been thinking around this topic a lot lately. Good night.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. - 1 Corinthians 13:2

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Old Covenant and You

After far too long, it's about time I wrapped up the three-part series I started over a month ago on the Old Testament. In the first part I argued that the Old Testament is of critical importance for every Christian and we can't afford to brush it aside just because it's more challenging than the New. In the second part I unpacked the two main covenants, or agreements, in the Bible: the old covenant, or "law", and the new covenant, or "gospel". Finally, I'm going to try to get a bit more practical by tackling the question: what is the relationship between Christians today and the old covenant? Having already been saved by faith, are we still supposed to try to obey the law as part of imitating Christ? Luckily I have a bit of help on this one as this post will largely be a summary of a conversation I had with my pastor a few months ago on the subject. (Assuming I can decipher his cryptic notes) Partly because of this difficulty and partly because it's just very shaky theological ground, please take what I write here (especially at the end) as speculation, not established theology. But with so much confusion about the Old Testament today, I feel that something needs to be said.

One of my main takeaways from meeting with my pastor was the revolutionary nature of the gospel not just in its depth (deeper than our darkest sin), but its breadth--it is freely available to absolutely anyone for their salvation. Contrast this to the old covenant which was specifically for God's "holy nation", the Jews. Paul muses on this in Ephesians 3:4-6:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
That the gentiles (non-Jews) were now part of God's plan of salvation was a surprise for the earliest, Jewish Christians. (Acts 11:18)

So between the old and new covenants we see a big difference not just in the terms of the human side of the agreement (obey the law perfectly vs. repent and believe), but also in the parties involved: the old covenant was just for the Israelites, God's "chosen nation", but the new covenant is for everyone. This leads into the other main thing I remember from the conversation. My pastor outlined six purposes he and other church elders had discerned for the law of the old covenant. (I think there is one more that he forgot, but these seem fairly complete)
  1. To show that everyone is a sinner and convict them  of their sin. (Romans 3:19-20) The law is God's standard and failure to adhere to it perfectly is sin, imperfection that God in His perfect justice and holiness cannot tolerate.
  2. To increase (or heighten) the trespass (or guilt) of our sin. (Romans 5:20, 7:13) As circular as it sounds, another purpose of the law is to make sin more sinful! Perhaps to demonstrate how much God hates sin.
  3. To show us how to walk in God's ways. (Deuteronomy 8:6) The law told the nation of Israel how to live in right relation with God in the land He was going to give them.
  4. To set Israel apart from other nations as God's "holy nation". (Exodus 19:5) 
  5. To give life by obedience to it, as mentioned last time. (Leviticus 18:5)
  6. A shadow of the reality to come. This anticipation is explained in retrospect in Hebrews 8-10, which compares Jesus to the high priests of the old covenant. The high priests functioned as intermediaries between the people and God (for they were too afraid to approach Him themselves in their sin; Exodus 20:19) and offered sacrifices for the sins of the people. By coming in the flesh and dying, Jesus was like the perfect high priest, able to perfectly act as intermediary between us and God (because He was God) and able to forgive sins by His blood, unlike animal sacrifices. (Hebrews 10:4)
These purposes help us make some sense of how the Old Testament law relates to us today. Basically, purposes 3 through 6 listed above no longer apply to our situation in Christ.
  1. We have something better than a list of laws to show us God's ways: we have God himself, in the person of Christ, whose life is the ultimate example of the "Christian life" and whose teachings are for the new covenant, not the old.
  2. The distinction in God's eyes between the "holy nation" of Israel and the gentiles is no more. (Romans 3:22) In contrast to Exodus 19:5, Peter refers to a large group of Jewish and gentile believers as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation". (1 Peter 2:9) There is no longer any notion of people being "inside" or "outside" God's fold. Now everyone is inside.
  3. As I've hit on before, because of sin no one is justified by the law; grace is our only option. (Galatians 3:11) In Romans 15 the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem gather together to determine whether to hold gentile believers to the old covenant law. They restate this, realizing the futility of trying to be saved by the law. Verses 10-11 say:
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
  1. The terms of the old covenant served their purpose as a shadow of the reality to come, but now in Christ the reality is here! This is the joyful message of Hebrews 8-10: Christ is the culmination or fulfillment of the temple and sacrifice traditions of the old covenant. As an illustration of this, Matthew 27:51 mentions that when Jesus died, the curtain of the temple, which separated the holy of holies (where the spirit of God dwelled and the high priest only went in once a year with a rope tied to his waist and bells on his feet in case he died) from the rest of the temple was torn in half. The message is that we no longer need a temple and high priest and sacrifices to connect with God: Christ is our high priest and our sacrifice, and we can enter into His presence at any time with no fear of being struck dead.
As Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, He did not come to nullify any part of the law; it is still intact to show us the depth of our sin per purposes 1 and 2 above. (Romans 3:20) But for the reasons above, our situation regarding what we do about the law has completely changed. Certainly our response to hearing the law should not be to try (and inevitably fail) to obey it, which leads only to despair and death. Rather, by admitting this, repenting the sins it convicts us of, and believing in the Son, we are saved by faith. Christ's self-offering did what the law was powerless  to do because of our sinful state. (Romans 8:3)

So, finally, we get to application. What do you take away from all of this? That since we are saved by faith and not by the law, we can do whatever we want? By no means! (Romans 6:15) Christ made us dead to sin and alive to God, so we are simply called to live as we truly are. By abusing His grace we deny who we are and abuse the gift of salvation. So, then, does the law serve as a goal or guideline for how we are to live "by the Spirit", having already been saved? (Note: This is where the mostly solid theology stops and the sanctified speculation starts) Again, because of the differences in our situation listed above, I don't think this is the case.

Specifically, we must consider the "holiness" laws that are based on purpose four above. My pastor broke these up into four main categories: food laws, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and laws relating to temple practices and sacrifices. I don't think (again emphasizing my lack of certainty) that these laws apply to the universal church today for the reasons given above: these laws are part of the yoke that "neither our fathers nor we [the Jews] have been able to bear". And what do we stand to gain by following them? Certainly not salvation or relationship with God, for we already freely have those.

But I have to stop here, for the accusation commonly leveled at Christians that we "pick and choose only the parts of the Bible we like" is becoming far too relevant. At this point I'm not nearly certain enough in this reasoning to be certain that there is nothing in these laws that applies to us today. So, as a cop-out, I'll make the easier statement that we primarily learn how to live by Christ's example and our relationship with Him, not by the law. That we should follow Christ's teaching before the laws is evident from how He authoritatively added to or qualified the law in His ministry. Similarly the writings of the apostles in the New Testament, written in light of the new covenant, should be considered for guidance in living as a Christian before the writings of the Old Testament that are in light of the old covenant.

But again, the whole point of the new covenant is that its terms for us are not a list of rules like the old, but belief (John 6:29) that leads to repentance and salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10). Our biggest concern should not be for how well we are obeying God but how close we are in our relationship with Him. For a Christian who is already forgiven for past, present, and future sins, disobedience is harmful insomuch as it damages this relationship with God. And the natural result of the relationship is not machinelike adherence to the law (which is primarily a list of don'ts, not dos) but transformation in every area of our lives to make us more like Christ. (Ephesians 5:1)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Absurdity of Life without God

Why have I not read William Lane Craig before? In this except from his book Reasonable Faith he makes the best presentation I've read of what I consider the most convincing apologetic for the Christian faith today, tackling the postmodern worldview by taking it to its logical conclusion.
Turn now to the problem of value. Here is where the most blatant inconsistencies occur. First of all, atheistic humanists are totally inconsistent in affirming the traditional values of love and brotherhood. Camus has been rightly criticized for inconsistently holding both to the absurdity of life and to the ethics of human love and brotherhood. The two are logically incompatible. Bertrand Russell, too, was inconsistent. For though he was an atheist, he was an outspoken social critic, denouncing war and restrictions on sexual freedom. Russell admitted that he could not live as though ethical values were simply a matter of personal taste, and that he therefore found his own views "incredible". "I do not know the solution," he confessed. The point is that if there is no God, then objective right and wrong cannot exist. As Dostoyevsky said, "All things are permitted."
But Dostoyevsky also showed in his novels that man cannot live this way. He cannot live as though it is perfectly all right for soldiers to slaughter innocent children. He cannot live as though it is all right for dictatorial regimes to follow a systematic program of physical torture of political prisoners. He cannot live as though it is all right for dictators like Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein to exterminate millions of their own countrymen. Everything in him cries out to say these acts are wrong--really wrong. But if there is no God, he cannot. So he makes a leap of faith and affirms values anyway. And when he does so, he reveals the inadequacy of a world without God.
I am a Christian because I cannot consistently live otherwise.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Gospel

In response to a question asking about the basics of Christianity, I inadvertently gave possibly the best succinct description of the gospel that's ever come out of me. I don't mean to blow my own horn or anything, but hey, what is this blog for? You be the judge on whether they were God's words or merely mine.
If I had to distill the message of Christianity to as few words as possible, I would say that yes, there is a God, inconceivably higher and more complex and powerful than us who authored the universe. He is the origin and example of concepts we have like truth, justice, goodness, and love. Unfortunately, though he is perfect, we are not. The gulf between our imperfection and his perfection is so great that we can't even look upon him and live, and he would be perfectly just to snuff out the life he gave us.
But the good news is that it doesn't have to be like this. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus God made a way for us to know him, the infinite creator, personally, at no cost to us. Because of this relationship our lives are transformed and we change to live more like Jesus.
So the message of Christianity is really that it's more than a message, it's a relationship. If I could leave you with anything, it would be to try and look past all the denominations, all the politics, all the tradition, all the debate, all the hypocrisy and sin of us Christians, to try to understand that relationship. None of it makes sense without that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Correction on OWS

An addendum to my previous post on Occupy Wall Street. The purpose of that post was to criticize the protest's metarhetoric, or the manner in which it presents its goals and argues for them, as well as its assumptions about the purpose of corporations. But I think I didn't make it clear enough that I wasn't criticizing the movement as a whole or what it stands for. As I've looked at some of the hard data behind it, I've realized that OWS really is onto something. The machine of American capitalism seems to be running down and breaking, so to speak--in need not of replacement, but a tune-up and some new parts. The wealthy have increasingly been finding ways to influence politics to gain more wealth, which gains them more influence... The feedback loop has been escalating for decades and OWS is proof that many people have had enough.

So yes, I would say I agree with OWS's basic message--that the government has become too oligarchic and that corporations need restraint to serve the good of everyone rather than just their executives. I disagree with how the movement is pursuing its goals--it should focus on constructive dialogue and concrete solutions rather than just expressing rage in hopes of getting corporations to magically change their ways. I think it would make more sense for them to protest at Washington (where they have a voice) than Wall Street. (Where they don't, unless they plan on buying stock)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Free-Floating Argument Fallacy

Free-Floating Argument Fallacy: Attempting to establish an absolute property of something (i.e. morality status) by comparison with something related, with no connection to an external point of reference. Free-floating arguments may sound convincing, but are meaningless on their own. They derive their perceived meaning from assumptions held by the speaker and (presumably) the audience about the things being compared. They are often stated in the form of an observation or question, with the argument only implied. They may have a very different or nonexistent meaning to someone holding different assumptions.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

In the Name of God

Why is this prog metal gem from Dream Theater's "black album" not on my music blog? Because I have more to say than just "listen to it". "In the Name of God" is an indictment of religious extremism and a warning of its dangers. Specifically it refers to American cults that are distant offshoots of Christianity--apocalyptic doomsday cults, leaders taking plural wives, and works-based perversions of the gospel. I was listening to the album while grading tonight and suddenly the third commandment (Do not take the Lord's name in vain) came alive to me. This song is filled with examples of how to break it. Exploit peoples' faith for selfish means, live a life of hypocrisy and lies, try to convert the spiritual authority God bestows on you into worldly power, or just spread false teachings and pervert the gospel. All these are taking God's name in vain--doing things and living contrary to His character and will for our lives while maintaining the pretense of being on His side. Please know that people who do these things don't stand for God or His church.

It's a bit staggering to realize that God has made us as Christians His representatives to the world--His image-bearers. Those who don't know God form their view of what He must be like from watching us. With all the abuses of religion that have happened in the past fifty years, it's hard to blame people who have become hostile to the church and want nothing to do with God. Obviously no one can perfectly represent God, which is why it's important to work towards developing Christlike character and to be honest about times when you fail to live up to His image.

A Tale of Two Covenants

After a few political interruptions, it's time to continue my post trilogy on the Old Testament and its relation to today, previously started in Why the Old Testament?. This time I'm specifically going to talk about what is meant by the terms "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant", which you've no doubt heard if you've spent time in theological circles. First off, what is meant by "covenant"? The word simply means a formal agreement of some kind--like a treaty or resolution today. Specifically, one between God and people. Covenants could be unilateral (basically a promise made by one party to another, requiring no action on the receiving party's part) or bilateral (some kind of conditional agreement or exchange between the parties).

There are quite a few covenants in the Bible besides the two main ones I'll be dealing with in depth. The agreement between God and Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 is a covenant of a sort; in exchange for obeying God's one command not to eat from a certain tree, Adam got eternal life and a true, personal relationship with God. (Can you believe he broke that covenant? Stupid Adam) God makes a unilateral covenant with Noah after the flood not to destroy the world with water again. (Genesis 9:11) In Genesis 15 promises to make Abram's offspring as numerous as the stars.

But there is one covenant that dominates most of the Old Testament, simply referred to as the Old Covenant or just "the law". It was made between God and the Israelites (descendants of Isaac) during their escape from slavery in Egypt. God promises to deliver them from oppression to a land of their own. (Exodus 3:7-8) On the way from Egypt to the "promised land", God gives the Israelites laws telling them how to live rightly and in relationship with God. If they keep the laws, God promises that they will be his treasure among all the nations (Exodus 19:5-6), that they will receive great material blessings (Leviticus 26:3-13), and that they will live rather than die like their ancestors. (Exodus 18:5) In short, God offered the Israelites salvation by works--if they live rightly and obeyed God's commands, they would gain eternal life. This is the essence of a system of legalism.

When I speak of the failure of the old covenant, then, it's important to realize that this has nothing to do with any deficiency in God (who is perfect) or His holy and perfect law. The deficiency is in us. Even after God spelled out the terms of His covenant with His Israelites, they continued to doubt and disobey Him. Not one of the Israelites, who had been given God's law and His blessings, was able to carry out the human side of the Old Covenant; everyone turned to sin and fell short of His standard of perfection. (Romans 3:23) Under the Old Covenant, no one is counted as righteous or worthy of salvation, we all break God's law and deserve to die. And God would be perfectly just to sentence us all for our disobedience.

If you understand this, then you are completely ready for the New Covenant, also known as "the gospel". "Gospel" means "good news", and in light of the Old Covenant it really is the best news imaginable. John 3:16 has possibly the most compact description of the gospel in the Bible:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Allow me to break this verse down and put it in terms of a covenant (sorry about messing with the order):

For God: The first party of the covenant is, of course, God--the same God who lifted up the Israelites and made the Old Covenant with them.

the world: The other party--namely, us. This covenant isn't just between God and a specific group of people, but it's open to everyone.

that he gave his only son: God's end of the bargain wasn't cheap--He had to give up His beloved son.

 should not perish but have eternal life.: The ultimate benefit of the New Covenant is the same as that of the Old: if we satisfy our end of it, we won't die but have eternal life in God. The best part, however, is what our part of the gospel deal is...

that whoever believes in him: That's it. We don't have to meet any standard of behavior, memorize and obey any set of laws, meet a church attendance quota, walk X little old ladies across the street, reach level 5 of Kohlberg's scale of moral reasoning, or anything like that. All we have to do is believe. It's the complete opposite of the Old Covenant. Under the Old, no one could be saved because everyone sins; under the New, everyone can be saved for free!

so loved: The New Covenant exists solely because of God's love. He would have been just to condemn us all to death and close the book on the human race after we blew it. But instead we can receive eternal life in exchange for nothing but our faith.

This, quite simply, is the best news in human history. My church has a slightly longer, but comprehensive statement of the gospel:
Through faith in Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven of our sins, welcomed as sons and daughters, and empowered by His Spirit to live lives that reflect His goodness and love. 
 There are so many directions I could go exploring the depth and riches of God's grace in light of the gospel, so many different angles by which to look at it, all of them pleasing. This is what most of the letters in the New Testament, particularly Romans and Ephesians, like to do. But for now I'm going to stay focused on the Old Testament. So to close this post I'm going to tackle the question that would have been on the mind of any first-century Jew grasping the gospel for the first time: "How does this fit in with the the law?"

This is a theological point on which some well-meaning and thoughtful Christians disagree. Particularly, the Dispensationalist view (which I still don't claim to really understand) apparently distinguishes itself by its view on the relationship between God's covenants. But in Romans Paul gives us plenty to go on to find an answer. He hits this topic repeatedly in chapters 4-8. The core thing that makes the New Covenant work is our identification with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Somehow, when we believe, we are united with Christ in His death and resurrection. (Romans 6:5). Our symbolic death with Christ sets us free from the law as explained in Romans 7:1-6 and by His life we receive life apart from that provided by the law under the Old Covenant. Romans 8:1-4 is a great summary:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
God's law, though good and holy, cannot save anyone because we all sin and fall short of its requirements. By taking our sins upon Himself and giving us His righteousness in exchange, Jesus allows sinners to be justified before God by the standard of the law, not by works but by faith.

So the answer is that the law of the Old Covenant is still in place, and if it were possible to go through life without sinning then we could be saved by our works. But this is impossible; faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation. By faith Christ's righteousness is attributed to us and the law's demands on us are satisfied. In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus explains that He has come "not to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them". At the same time He says that "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of Heaven". God's standard of perfection has not been lowered, it is Christ who lifts us up to meet it.

So that's plenty of theology for now. In the next and final post in the series, I'll explore a practical implication of all of this: what exactly is the relation of the OT law to Christians today, if we aren't saved by obeying it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Modest Proposal to Improve Political Debate

In a bit of the same vein as my previous post, here is a list of word which I think, if banned from public discourse, would tremendously improve the American political conversation, at least in the short term until people come up with new ones.
  • Wall Street
  • Main Street
  • Elite/Elitist
  • Fat Cat
  • Take America back
  • Barack Hussein Obama
  • Agenda
  • _____gate
  • Sarah Palin
  • Death panels
  • Obamacare
  • The 1%