Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Christian-ese Lexicon

In conversations within the context of modern Christianity, I've noticed there are some buzzphrases we like to throw around. These are words that may or may not have mundane meanings, but seem to be typically used in a highly technical, jargon-like manner by Christians to refer to deeper spiritual concepts. I call them "Christian-ese" terms. If you've been part of a church or Christian ministry I'm sure you've heard at least some of these. I'm going to help anyone confused by them by attempting to define them.

Generation (n.): An arbitrary grouping of Christians into a roughly five-year age range.
Walk with God (n.): 1. The current status of an individual's personal relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ. 2. The history of such a relationship.
Quiet time (n.): Time spent in solitary prayer and meditation on scripture, usually in the morning or evening.
People group (n.): 1. From this official-looking source, a people group is "the largest group through which the gospel can flow without encountering significant barriers of understanding and acceptance." 2. In common usage, it almost always means a tribe living in relative isolation and lacking modern technology.
Eternal perspective (n.): 1. The human approximation to God's perspective on the past, present, and future as an eternal, unchanging being. 2. Increased patience and "big picture" vision.
Spiritual warfare (n.): Spiritual oppression or opposition to God's redemptive work in the world by demonic forces.
Opposition (n.): The forces being fought against in spiritual warfare. Perceived hardship or difficulty in ministry.
Cast vision (v.): I'm honestly not sure what this one means. I think it's basically to tell others about some calling God has given you to do something or something you've been praying for.
Scandalous (adj.): Disgraceful.

Perhaps you know of others. The point I'm trying to make is that while terms like these can be helpful, they run serious risk of being turned into spiritual buzzwords to be exchanged, argued, and acted on with little connection to their underlying spiritual reality. You begin to care more about these words and your relation to them than your relation to God. (Not explicitly, of course, but in truth) I let terms like "walk with God", "quiet time", and "sharing the gospel" dominate my concerns until I forgot the Reason behind these things.

One thing that worries me about the church today is how careless we can be with words. I don't just mean hiding behind buzzphrases like this; the spread of social media has made it all too easy to share "Christian"-sounding ideas that may not be helpful or even entirely truthful. An example is the "Jesus vs. religion" dichotomy I went over in a previous post, which, while true in a sense, was easily twisted into a rallying cry against whatever part of organized religion you don't like. This is what I most dislike about memes: you're just repeating something because you like it on a surface level, with little thought as to the deeper meaning.

If a word is used repeatedly in a technical sense, it needs to have a precise, well-defined meaning. This is part of why the Bible gives me so much trouble--the link between common words like "justification" and "redemption" and their true, spiritual-reality meanings is absolutely essential, but they are such strange words to fallen minds that it's hard to make that connection and so much easier to just talk and reason and preach and teach about the words themselves without seriously looking deeper.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


As I've been striving to build an authentic life on the foundation God laid with my decision in early January, I've been noticing something kind of alarming on my second trek through the Bible. I made it through pretty smoothly in ten or eleven months the first time, but I've been making much slower progress this time. All these passages keep jumping out and rubbing me the wrong way! Before was like cruising with an oiled bike on nice pavement, this time it feels like crawling through dense underbrush. Or thumbtacks. A month ago 2 Chronicles 18 (also 1 Kings 22) sent me into another faith crisis for a few days. When I found myself continuing to pray to a God who logically I no longer trusted to be truthful, I truly realized there was more to my faith than a set of facts I believed--it was intimate knowledge of the Person of God and trust that couldn't be broken nearly so easily. Rather than denounce God, I was willing to stay with Him and trust that there He really is good, and that there is more to Him than I will ever know.

I still don't have an answer about that passage, but it's not the most important thing to me anymore. It was good practice for more passages I keep running into lately. Who ever thought getting through the Psalms could be so hard? King David, pre-Bathsheba incident, is starting to seem like an arrogant, self-righteous prick (see Psalm 26 among others). Psalm 32 got me confused for a while when it seemed like David was preparing to lecture God, though it's more likely a case of missing quotation marks. Even the language, the figures of speech, the structure are strangely hard for me; I definitely can't just tear through it like I did the first time.

Yet somehow I'm not terribly troubled that there are all these parts of the Bible and Christianity that I'm having trouble accepting. Because there is a difference between rejecting something and wanting, but failing, to fully believe it. There's a difference between me wrestling with these tough passages and an atheist reading them for ammunition with which to mock Christians.

The New Testament almost always uses one word to mean doubt: διακρινω (diakrinō). It also means to decide, determine, or contend/struggle. This seems to describe what I'm going through pretty well. I'm fighting to believe in a way deeper than just saying "yes" to a list of things. I'm fighting to make my faith my own. And these doubts don't mean I'm going backwards. They are the manifestations of the parts of me that are still hostile to God and want nothing to do with Him. They have always been there, previously hidden, influencing me to interpret and distort Christianity through a lens so it avoiding touching them. Now they're out in the open and I'm willing to let God work with me to deal with them.

To expand on a thought I had at small group last night, God is helping me make the choice to fully believe in Him. I've already signed the (metaphorical) contract, made the commitment, but we're poring over the fine print. Looking at all the difficult truths of Christianity and accepting them in a shallow, too-easy way--"Oh, okay, praise Jesus!"--is not making this choice for yourself, but forfeiting it in exchange for surface-level obedience. Yet even as you seem to be living a fine and dandy Christian life, the rebellious part of you that creates all these doubts is still down there, at work beneath the surface, unworried by how holy you seem to the believers around you. Admitting I have a long way to go and dropping the facade is among the first steps to actually being holy. (This is starting to remind me of that crazy seeds-and-shells post I made the night all this craziness started happening)

Don't pretend everything is okay if it's not. God has a map for bringing you from where you're at to perfection in Him, but the terrain won't always be easy. On the voyage of belief, it's okay to have doubts.

Skyrim, Revisited

Well, I've logged a respectable 35 or so hours on Skyrim, and despite having gotten almost nowhere in the main quest, I'm feeling about ready to provide a more educated opinion on the game.

I've come a long way from rolling into Riverwood as a fur-armored ex-convict loaded with cheap loot. My character is now a level 42 badass battlemage who owns a shack in Whiterun and a very nice cave house in  the western city of Markarth. He wears a mixture of glass and dragonscale armor (I need to kill one more dragon to finish upgrading the dragonscale) and is extremely dangerous with his Legendary Daedric Sword. He throws fireballs, summons atronach companions, and is quite good at delivering devastating sneak attacks. If you can't tell, the gradual but undeniable sense of advancement is one of Skyrim's biggest draws.

I can't believe I only touched on the leveling system last time. The leveling systems of Morrowind and Oblivion were deep, rewarding, and multifaceted, but also quite flawed. The system of major/minor skills in Morrowind and major skills in Oblivion meant that when you created your character, besides choosing your name, race, birthsign, etc., you also picked a subset of skills your character was especially good at. You would advance more quickly in those skills, and increasing a total of 10 of them cause you to level up. Except your total skill gains also controlled the possible attribute bonuses you received upon sleeping to level up, and you could only pick three, and if you had too many bonuses you'd waste some of your skill level ups, and if you had too few you weren't gaining attributes fast enough, and you had to devote one of the bonuses to luck almost every level if you wanted to maximize it, and you had to maximize endurance quickly by leveling Armorer, Heavy Armor, and such to maximize your HP...

As you can see, the leveling system of previous games was a mess. The major skills were the ones you were supposed to be good at, the ones that defined your character's archetype, but you wanted to make them skills you wouldn't be leveling, at least not naturally, because then you wouldn't be able to precisely control when you leveled up to ensure you always gained the right amount of skills to maximize your attribute bonuses. If it sounds confusing, that's because it was; I had to get mods to "fix" the leveling system and keep myself from having to obsess over which skills I was leveling when. It was nasty and seriously broke the immersion of the games (at least for calculating players like myself) by keeping you from playing your character "naturally".

The leveling system in Skyrim, then, is probably its biggest improvement. I would say it's even better than any of the mods of the previous two games. Basically, there are no major or minor skills anymore; all skills count towards your next level, though higher-level skills (the skills your character is best at) count more. Makes sense. Also, as I mentioned before all the attributes (strength, endurance, intelligence...) have been removed; health, magicka, and stamina (which also controls how much you can carry) are now your character's only attributes, and rather than bizarrely tying their advancement to your skills, you simply pick one to increase by 10 whenever you level up. Total control. You can increase mostly health and stamina for a beefy fighter character, or more magicka for a mage. Just being able to do whatever I want, increase whatever skills I want, actually leveling up a diverse variety of skills willy-nilly, is tremendously freeing, like the way The Elder Scrolls should be. The birthsigns and specialties of previous games have both been folded into the guardian stones; rather than picking them once at character creation, you choose a guardian stone and can switch at any time by visiting another stone.

But even with no specialties or major skills, you are still encouraged to specialize your character; it just happens gradually as you play the game and explore, rather than at the outset when you barely know your character yet. This is made possible by the "perk" system, which is almost as brilliant an improvement as the skill/attribute system was a fix to previous games. Basically, every time you level up, you get a perk point to spend. Each skill has its own tree of perks to explore and choose from; as you increase the skill and go deeper into the tree, more perks become available. Simply increasing the numerical value of your skills is less powerful than in previous games; to really get good at a skill, you have to get the perks of that skill. These range from greatly increasing the effectiveness of a skill beyond what simply increasing it could do, to nice little bonuses (the chance to critical strike with sword attacks) to awesomeness. (Having two summoned minions at once) It makes leveling much more dynamic, interactive, and all-around fun.

Update: My level 51 character (now the Archmage of the College of Winterhold) has maximized his smithing and enchanting skills. He has fully moved into a three-floor mansion in Solitude, the seat of Imperial power in Skyrim. I've killed enough dragons and captured enough souls to finish his legendary, double-enchanted Dragonscale armor that boosts his stats, lets him resist elements, and lets him cast Destruction spells for free. Yes, spamming the expert-level Thunderbolt spell is tons of fun. Amazingly, though, even with that and my infinite-charge Legendary Daedric sword that does fire damage, the game still has its challenging moments. This game is amazing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Singleness and Spiritual Gifts

I was going to write nothing for this Valentine's Day and let the silence speak for itself. But instead, I'm afraid I'll be pulling off the old cliche of writing about singleness on Valentine's Day because I'm single. Not because I'm not content with my relationship status, but because I am.

Most people, Christians and non-Christians, fall into the trap of agonizing about their singleness and how to best (and most expediently) end (or, dare I say, "solve") it. So many books have been written for and by Christian singles about waiting for the right person, being the right person, and letting God write your love story because so many people need to hear these lessons There's also plenty of bad advice packed with unhelpful or outright false cliches about singleness, often originating from the lie that marriage or family is the ultimate goal for all Christians. I'm truly blessed to have so many friends who aren't always trying to set me up or share Biblical wisdom for marriage with me as if I needed help.

No, for the past few years I've fallen more towards the other extreme of being too comfortable with my singleness. I don't know of any Christian books for that. I took the fact that people almost universally tended to fall into the trap of idolizing relationships, which I considered myself to have escaped, and fell right into the biggest sin of all: pride. I wasn't so weak as to be enslaved by my passions and feel incomplete without my "other half"! I was a whole person! And besides, relationships were hard and painful. (It was easy for me to say this because I'd had a 100% failure rate with mine) Being single was so much better; to think I would ever throw it away! This attitude began before I was really trusting God with the direction of my life and continued in a milder form afterward.

Obviously I don't think this way anymore. Last summer God chipped away at my pride and fear of "drama" until after a good deal of soul-searching He got me to admit that maybe, possibly, someday, I could get married. Doing so was almost painful and He had to drag me figuratively kicking and screaming away from my prideful pedestal. Marriage still isn't looking likely anytime soon, and I'm fine with that, but this admission was another step towards letting God guide my life instead of myself--trusting Him with my future as One who knows best instead of whatever I can come up with. Seriously, my future plans are pretty lame: work as a software engineer, live in a tiny apartment, drive an electric car, listen to cool music. That's pretty much it; nothing to be excited about, no transcendent significance. And the possibility that my singleness might end someday helps remind me to make the most of this time of freedom while I can.

Until then, I'm content. Whether I remain single for one year or ten, I'm learning to see the extra time, freedom from concern, and ability to live extremely cheaply as gifts to enjoy and use in service to my God. I'm not incomplete. I'm not lacking anything I need. If you are single this Valentine's Day, please hear this: you are not the least bit less valuable or lower in status for it. Don't let anyone make you feel otherwise.

More generally, every gift, even one considered a "curse" by most people, has the potential to be abused. If we only pay attention to the gift and how cool it is--if we get greedy with it--and forget to thank the giver, then we've missed the point. This also applies to the other spiritual gift I'm pretty sure I have, knowledge.

Unlike with presents you get once and keep forever, spiritual gifts from God are continuous things--you only have them when He is actively giving them to you. The fact that the word used for the Spirit in the New Testament, pneuma (πνευμα), also means "breath" is a nice illustration: the working of your spiritual gifts is like God breathing through you. Some nights at Bible study the secrets of scripture seem to be plainly laid out before me, other nights I can barely make any headway and have to rely on everyone else. It's a gentle reminder that this wealth of knowledge isn't my own.

Whatever your spiritual gifts are--preaching or serving or administration, whatever that means--I hope you realize just how great they are and how not-your-own they are.