Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A quick response on authenticity

Brett McCracken recently wrote an article on authenticity for The Gospel Coalition that I really enjoyed. The first few paragraphs are a brilliant summary of how evangelical Christianity has, perhaps, come to value this thing called "authenticity" a bit too much. When you collect and list a bunch of the phrases Christians use to describe how they don't quite have it all together, it looks awfully pessimistic:
In recent years, evangelical Christianity has made its imperfection a point of emphasis. Books were published with titles like Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People, Death by Church and Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and churches popped up with names like Scum of the Earth and Salvage Yard. Evangelicals made films like Lord, Save Us from Your Followers, wrote blog posts with titles like "Dirty, Rotten, Messy Christians," and maintained websites like,,,, and—a site that includes categories like "A Hot Mess," "Muddling Through," "My Broken Heart," and "My Wreckage."
McCracken explains how this emphasis on authenticity may have developed as a counterreaction against "fake people" in the church who care more about saying and doing the right things than on what's beneath the surface. So we throw off the pressure to be "good Christians" and adopt this kind of authenticity that generally translates to opening up about our sin, our struggles, and our imperfections.

But he points out that, absurdly, there is something inauthentic about this popular kind of authenticity: "Often, what passes for authenticity in evangelical Christianity is actually a safe, faux-openness that establishes an environment where vulnerability is embraced, only up to a point." So we open up about a safe middle ground of sins (while keeping quiet about the smallest or biggest ones) to establish our credibility as "broken" or "wounded" people, focusing on the 'victim' component of being caught up in sin rather than the 'perpetrator' part.

McCracken exhorts his readers not to use our sin as a badge of authenticity or as a way of being "real" with each other, and to also remember that Jesus cleanses us from that sin and calls us to be holy. It's a thoughtful critique of how pessimistic our quest to be "open" can become, and his insight and courage in calling out what is very much an active trend in the church (at least, in my church) is commendable.

The main critical thought I had about the article was how he seems to portray "authenticity" and "holiness" as if they were on two sides of a balance (or pendulum): we've gone too far over to the authenticity side, and we need to come back more to the holiness side (but not too far!). I think this is a subtle misconception. If we in the church place too high a value on holiness (relative to other values), we get "fake people" who put on a show of "good Christian" behavior. But if, in reaction, we place too high a value (again, relatively speaking) on authenticity, then people can just put on a show of authenticity!

But the tension here isn't actually between holiness and authenticity—it's between faux-holiness and faux-authenticity. Putting on a façade of either holiness or authenticity is actually inauthentic (and, it could be argued, a detriment or cheap substitute for actual holiness). The problem isn't too much authenticity at the expense of holiness; it's that we fake authenticity just as we fake holiness—and we do either because we're more interested in with looking good to other Christians or outsiders than we are in the harder task of actually becoming like Christ. The two aren't really in tension with each other, only the cheap approximations of them that we associate with the real things.

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Faith in" vs. "Faithfulness of"

I've recently been reading an excellent book by N.T. Wright on Paul. It's basically an in-depth look at Paul's religious, social, historical, and political contexts, and the various strains of thought that his presentation of the gospel brilliantly ties together.
Some of the more thought-provoking points Wright makes:
  • He emphasizes the role of narrative and story: how the Jews saw themselves as caught up in one story, and how Paul presents the gospel as the happy ending of this story.
The main point of narratives in the second-Temple Jewish world, and in that of Paul, is not simply that people likes telling stories as illustrations of, or scriptural proofs for, this or that experience or doctrine, but that second-Temple Jews believed themselves to be actors within a real-life narrative. To put it another way, they were not merely storytellers who used their folklore (in their case, mostly the Bible) to illustrate the otherwise unrelated joys and sorrows, trials and triumphs, of everyday life. Their narratives could and did function typologically, that is, by providing a pattern which could be laid as a template across incidents and stories from another period without any historical continuity to link the two together. (11)
  • He views Paul's writings on the gospel through two main lenses: creation and covenant, which he sees (and argues Paul saw) as deeply interwoven. God makes a covenant with Abraham to restore the fallen creation, the people of the covenant turn out to be part of the problem (sinful), so God comes in human form to fulfill the covenant where sinful man could not and ultimately renew all creation in Himself.
  • He proposes that δικαιοσυνη θεου ("the righteousness of God") refers not to righteousness that God imputes to us, but "the faithful covenant justice of God", which is revealed through the person of Christ and by which God is to be "faithful to the covenant and just in his dealings with the whole creation". This strikes me as a more plausible reading free of the focus we often place on individual salvation.
  • The whole chapter on Gospel and Empire, which made me realize just how political Paul's writing was. At almost every turn, he sets Jesus up over and against the emperor. People accepted the emperor as their "lord and savior", who ruled them and granted them "freedom, justice, peace, and salvation"—salvation from civil strife and external enemies. The announcement of these themes was known as the ευαγγελιον—"good news". The παρουσια, parousia, was the arrival, appearance, and royal presence of the emperor. So Paul declares the ευαγγελιον of Jesus Christ, not the emperor, the true Lord and Savior of the world. It's amazing to see how much of Paul's language was to show off Christ as a direct answer to the claims of the empire.
And most of all, he points out how he translates πιστις χριστου (e.g. in Galatians 2:16) as "the faithfulness of Christ" instead of "faith in Christ". I might have previously just remarked at this as an eye-opening linguistic trick to help us see another side of salvation by faith, but I have been renewing my studies of Greek lately, and my jaw dropped as I realized that not only was this a possible translation, it was the natural translation.

What follows is a brief excursion into Biblical Greek explaining how this translation works. If you already believe me, feel free to skip to the next heading.

Greek has four main noun cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. Nominative is used for nouns that serve as the subject of a sentence or phrase; genitive roughly corresponds to the possessive case in English (τον πλοιον Πετρου means "Peter's boat", or "the boat of Peter", with Peter in the genitive case); dative is used for indirect objects or spatial relations like "in", "with", or "by"; the accusative is used for direct objects.

Here is Galatians 2:16: "Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified."

What is happening here is that in the phrases translated "faith in Jesus Christ" and "faith in Christ", "Jesus Christ/Christ" is in the genitive, not the dative case. If Paul really wanted to say "faith in Christ", he would put "Christ" in the dative case and use εν, the Greek preposition for "in" , as he does in Colossians 1:4:
την πιστιν υμων εν Χριστω Ιησου = "your faith in Christ Jesus".
This construction is also used in Acts 27:25, Ephesians 1:15, 2 Thessalonians 1:4, and 1 Timothy 3:15.

Or he might say "Christ" in the accusative case and the preposition εις, "into" as in Acts 24:24:
της εις Χριστον Ιησουν πιστεως = "faith in Christ Jesus".
This construction is also used in Acts 20:21, Acts 26:18, Colossians 2:5, and 1 Thessalonians 1:8.

But Paul doesn't do that in Galatians 2:16. In both cases, "Jesus Christ/Christ" is in the genitive case. There is one possible translation of the genitive that can give us something like "faith in Christ" (actually "the faith received by Christ"), but if this is what Paul is getting at it seems much more likely that he would use one of the two unambiguous ways of saying "faith in Christ" he already knew. Again, translating πιστις Χριστου as "faith in Christ" gives a meaning much closer to that of the dative or accusative cases. The natural inclination when you see the genitive case is to assume it refers to possession or description (using the key word "of") unless this does't make sense. But here the natural translation does make sense, if we recall that πιστις, besides meaning "faith" or "trust", can also mean "faithfulness".

The Faithfulness of Christ

So πιστις Χριστου, while possibly translating to "faith in Christ", much more defensibly translates to "faithfulness of Christ". Of course, after realizing this, I searched for other times when this phrase may have been...shall we say, strangely translated. They are as follows (again, try mentally substituting "the faithfulness of" for "faith in"):
  • Mark 11:22: And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. (This one arguably makes more sense translated as it is)
  • Acts 3:16: And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.
  • Romans 3:22: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:
  • Galatians 2:20: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (This one is difficult for me to translate. The relevant part literally means something like "And that which I now live in the flesh in [faith/faithfulness] I live [it? in it?] of the son of God". So the Greek for "I live it" could just be inserted into the phrase "the faithfulness of the Son of God", or it could be something I don't understand.)
  • Galatians 3:22: But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
  • Ephesians 3:12: in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him (Interestingly, the Greek here has nothing like ημων, "our"—it is added in the translation.)
  • Philippians 3:9: and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—
  • Colossians 2:12: having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
  • James 2:1: My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (Also makes more sense translated as it is)
These last two examples are grammatically ambiguous, as the conjugation of "Jesus" in the constructions "of Jesus" and "in Jesus" are impossible to distinguish.
  • Romans 3:26: It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (This is even more confusing. The straight literal translation is something like "in order to be just and justifying the one [from/out of] [faith in/faithfulness of] Jesus". The best translation of this is beyond me.)
  • Revelation 14:12: Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (This one makes more sense translated as it is)

Sola sola sola sola sola sola sola fidei fidei fidei fidei fidei fidei fidei

If this is making you uncomfortable, know that I'm definitely not trying to mount some kind of hermeneutical assault on salvation by faith per se. There are still plenty of verses that unambiguously support it. What I am getting at is the reason this realization practically took my breath away as I searched through the New Testament looking at it. Namely, the strong emphasis in Protestant (particularly Reformed/Evangelical) circles that is placed on salvation by faith, which to me is almost suffocating at times—strong enough to lead to such a counterintuitive translation of relatively straightforward Greek. It's almost like an arms race, or a game of one-upsmanship, to see who can focus more on just how totally salvation is by faith alone.

This emphasis on faith leads to an emphasis (possibly even stronger) on what is perceived from Paul's writings as its opposite—that dirty five-letter word, works. So Paul is read, perhaps anachronistically, as almost constantly proclaiming the freeness of salvation, depending only on faith, never from works. Sometimes it's seemed to me like the gospel is presented more as the opposite of salvation by works, or that Evangelical boogeyman known as legalism. For someone like me who doesn't closely identify with Paul's former legalism (my delusion tends to be that I can redefine what it means to be "justified" to a definition more suitable to me, not that by working hard enough I can satisfy what I perceive to be God's definition), this negatively defined gospel is meaningless.

It also leads to something of a contradiction of methods. We constantly, adamantly insist that salvation is a gift of God, that we can never possibly earn it in or do anything to deserve it in any way—yet equally prominent in Evangelical rhetoric is the be-all and end-all condition for salvation, namely our faith. Salvation absolutely doesn't depend on anything we do, but it absolutely is conditional on the faith we have. How is this contradiction resolved? Simple—by presenting faith itself as a gift that God gives us or creates in us, not something we choose or decide for ourselves. Nevermind the obvious question of why then God doesn't just give everyone faith, and all its implications—placing all this emphasis and importance on something in ourselves (whether we do it or God does) when the point of faith is its reliance on something outside ourselves is merely a less obvious contradiction, one that could be alleviated if we realized that πιστις, the Greek word for faith, equivalently translates to "trust".

This is why my realization from N.T. Wright was such a breath of fresh air. Shifting our focus from salvation by faith in Christ to salvation by the faithfulness of Christ, ironically, helps to create faith in Christ by concisely showing how the primary actor of redemption is not ourselves having faith, but God, in the person of Jesus, acting with perfect faithfulness to the covenant He made with Abraham, by which He has always intended to make all things new. I felt a bit like the first Christians felt, rereading their whole Bibles through the lens of their new knowledge of Christ. I will probably say much more on this subject as I continue to think about what the Gospel really means, but for now I prefer to (re)read.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Some deep thoughts on games

Disclaimer: This post is far more subjective and personal than my usual. Everything I say here applies only to me, as far as I know. Enjoy!

In the rush of games that happened over Christmas break (from Marissa getting Power Grid for Christmas to a marathon that stretched over New Year's Eve and Day when my friend was visiting from New Jersey), I glimpsed the almost unequaled ability games have to work me up emotionally. One round of Dominion could put me in a sour mood for an entire evening. With some prompting, I remembered the simple truth that my submission to Jesus extends to every part of my life, even to things that I normally consider idle distractions. So I started asking some long-overdue questions: why do I enjoy playing games—of the board or video variety? Why do I sometimes get so frustrated at them? Why have I disliked competition since I was little?

One of the first things I found was that my enjoyment of games breaks down into a few discrete categories. Just as flavors have five basic tastes, so I realized the the appeal of games to me consisted of four different "flavors". For lack of any other literature to draw from, I've tentatively named these flavors "strategy", "flow", "immersion", and "progress", and I describe them below.


(I'm actually no good at chess, but it's a highly recognizable example)
Strategy is possibly the most fulfilling flavor for me, because it engages the intuition/thinking loop that forms the core of my thought process. It gives enjoyment by allowing me to use strategic, high-level thinking to creatively overcome complex challenges (even more complex than checkmating the opponent's king). Ideally, it involves open-ended play with lots of options, echoing the nonlinearity of the real world. Where I often find details difficult to handle in the real world, these games help me to practice uniting them into a "bigger picture" with strategic thinking, pursuing my goal from many different angles at once.

On the other hand, strategy gets frustrated when I am unable to engage in this kind of creative/strategic planning, either because my options get cut off or because my choices are no longer meaningful/impactful to the course of the game. This feeling of powerlessness or a sense of meaninglessness to my actions is the opposite of how I seek to feel in Strategy games.

Examples: Strategy games (obviously), some puzzle games, most adventure-type board/card games; Supreme Commander, SimCity 4, Civilization V, Portal


Once again, I don't play DDR, but good example.
In contrast to strategy, Flow doesn't focus on higher thinking at all and simply employs a stream-of-consciousness, act/react loop that emphasizes skill and precision at high speed. It's hard to describe why, but successfully strumming/drumming a hard song on Rock Band just feels good, much in the same way climbing a difficult wall does. The appeal of Flow games is the development and successful use of a skill; conversely, I get frustrated with them if I feel that skill is not being judged or evaluated fairly, or if I'm prevented from using it (like if a display lag in Rock Band makes me miss notes and fail a song).

Examples: Rhythm games, fighting games; Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Divekick, Super Smash Bros.


I miss Skyrim almost like I miss the Canadian Rockies.
In contrast to both of these, Immersion appeals to my imagination, emotions, aesthetics, and sense of wonder. Games of this flavor attempt to create a sweeping, cohesive world that you can lose yourself in, and so appeal strongly to my inner escapist. If they are done well, you begin to feel attached to the people and places in the virtual world almost like real ones. Obviously this can lead to unhealthy, addictive behavior, but mostly I find the chance to step into another world incredibly enjoyable and refreshing. Some of my favorite games became so because of this flavor.

I don't get frustrated with Immersion games as much, but when I do, it's usually because something breaks the immersion—such as a game-breaking glitch, poor camera control, or a bad mechanic that keeps your character from doing something they "should" be able to do.

Examples: Most RPGs, adventure games; Paper Mario, Golden Sun


Progress becomes possibly the most addictive "flavor" by appealing to my sense of (obviously) progress, or accomplishment. It encourages the regular setting (and meeting) of goals, and a steady increase in abilities, resources, or prestige that gives the game a bigger and grander "scale" over time. There's something highly rewarding about going from a penniless Rogue with a wooden dagger and no armor to (say) the leader of the Thieves' Guild. I get frustrated with Progress probably the least of any of the flavors, but when I do, it's usually because the steady effort-reward cycle the game builds up has been disrupted, or the sense of accomplishment I seek has been invalidated. ("I can't believe my awesome team of dragons I spent weeks building up got swept by an Aerodactyl!")

Examples: Some RPGs, Pokemon games in particular, FarmVille

Of course, hybrids of these flavors are also possible, such as:

Strategy/Flow: Call of Duty (single player)
Strategy/Immersion: Braid, Portal 2
Flow/Progress: Sequence
Immersion/Progress: Lots of MMORPGs, The Elder Scrolls, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy

Strategy/Flow/Immersion: Halo
Strategy/Flow/Progress: Call of Duty (multiplayer)
Flow/Immersion/Progress: Mass Effect?

I'd be very interested in hearing from any readers who can identify other "flavors" of games that they enjoy besides these.

Since this post was prompted by my experience with board/card games, which generally all fall into the category of Strategy games (though collectible games like Magic or Warhammer have elements of Progress, and tabletop RPGs also have Immersion), I'll be focusing on their appeal and challenges for the rest of my time.

Going deeper

I often think of games as decision trees, a perspective which focuses on the choices the player makes and the control I have over my position in the game. Each choice alters the game state and leads to more choices. It is this diversity of choices that makes, for instance, Chess more interesting to me than Checkers. Here is a sample decision tree for the first few turns of a game of Dominion.
Of course, as the game goes on you would also gain the option of playing the various cards you buy, which further multiplies the complexity of the game in ways dependent on your earlier choices. But I'm getting ahead of myself. With some more introspection, I identified three reasonably discrete properties of Strategy games that I enjoy:

Open-ended play/high complexity: I prefer games that present me with a wealth of options and choices to navigate. This means a decision tree with a high branching factor, enough to allow for "creative" gameplay, yet with enough structure that you don't feel hopelessly lost. It means having many paths to a successful outcome to allow for a variety of viable and interesting strategies, each of which might involve making goals, subgoals, and so on. I like games that resemble optimization problems (simply trying to do the best you can at overcoming complex challenges) rather than a simple decision of winner/loser(s).

Proactive gameplay: What I mean here is that I like when the real challenge and thrill of the game is in "figuring out" and implementing my own strategy, not responding to the actions of others. (This contrasts sharply with Marissa's style of play) Lest you think me inflexible, what I mean is that the game should (ideally) allow you freedom to form a strategy at a high enough level that unexpected circumstances (such as other players' actions) can only affect the implementation of a strategy, not render it completely invalid. My preferred style of thinking handles complex challenges by innovating or stepping one level "out of the matrix"—being able to partially define my challenges, rather than simply being the best at a particular one that I am forced into. I like being able to roughly decide a big-picture "path" through the decision tree that is general enough to adapt to other players' actions, so I readily have another tactic to fall back on. If I lose sight of this big picture, I begin to feel helpless.

The "Feedback Principle": This is probably the most important one. I define the Feedback Principle as the general rule that the outcome of a situation requiring my input should be connected with my actions. In other words, success should be contingent on sound play, and failure on mistakes made or ineptitude. It's important that I be able to see a meaningful connection between my actions and their outcomes, or I quickly get frustrated. If I fail, I must be able to at least recognize choices that, made differently, could have led to success—otherwise, failure was inevitable and then what was the point of playing? Of course, there is probably some self-serving bias at work here, but not in every case.

Addendum: On his blog Richard Beck defines "power" as the intersection of capability and opportunity. I think a lot of what I am saying about my preferences above are that I like to be limited in my "power" in a certain game only by my capability, not by my opportunity—or I like it if part of my capability is redefining and shaping my opportunity. If I see opportunity as a limiting factor to my ability to play, outside my control, then I get frustrated.

Hopefully some examples will help illustrate these preferences...

Case studies

Candyland: As an extreme case, Candyland gives the player no choices, and so I don't develop any expectations of strategic thinking (or attachment to the game). Not suitable for adults.

The Settlers of Catan: I'm pretty biased against Settlers because, to date, I've lost every game of it horribly due, as far as I can tell, a combination of improbable dice rolls and inconvenient robber placements. (I think I keep picking the most favorable spots for resources without thinking, and so get heavily affected by both of these) Overall, it gives external things, namely the whims of the dice (which I swear are weighted to not roll 6 or 8) and the actions of other players, too much control over my options, which are generally pretty slim to begin with.

7 Wonders: Both an interesting and somewhat exasperating game. It has seven different resources you have to balance and a multitude of ways to win like military, science, civic buildings, and guilds, which must be pursued somewhat all at once.  On the other hand, you only ever have a maximum of eight choices of what to do each turn, and these decline over the course of each age. Plus, several of the cards in a given hand are usually useless to you due to either not being able to play them or their contributing virtually nothing to your position, and the most desirable cards in an age are often snapped up before they ever get to you. Like Catan, 7 Wonders gives other players a high degree of control over your options (often the best move is to take a card that the player next to you would love to have), which I don't find enjoyable.

Power Grid: I like how Power Grid promotes long-term strategic thinking with such relatively simple mechanics. The rhythm of the game is a simply feedback loop: you collect money by powering cities, use the money to buy plants, resources, and cities (that part doesn't really correspond to reality), and feed resources into the plant to make more money. The balancing system is interesting; players often jockey for last place to get the best pick of plants, resources, and cities while plotting to pull ahead in the last few turns for the win. Lastly, I also like the simple way in which the resource market mimics the law of supply and demand.

Most of my hard times with Power Grid come from how it comes close to simulating a real-life economic race (though energy markets tend to be monopolies), but not quite. The resource market could more accurately be said to capture the law of demand, as the supply rate is based entirely on the stage in the game and not the rate at which resources are being used. This allows the players who go first to exert a crippling degree of control over the players who go later if resources get depleted. Likewise, the limited selection of the plant market makes for heated bidding wars, but doesn't really intuitively justify itself with any basis in the real world. I simply don't see how other players choices should be able to restrict which plants I can build.

Wizard: Wizard is another simple, but enjoyable strategic card game. The bidding system means that there are basically no "bad" hands, only easy or hard-to-bid hands. Still, I notice that while pondering bids I tend to set expectations for how many tricks a given set of cards "should" be able to take, and I get frustrated when these expectations are broken.

Dominion: Is probably my favorite card game. The huge number of possible games makes the game extremely open-ended and favors the creative exploration of new strategies and combinations instead of sticking to just a few. Still, my preferences come through; I strongly dislike attack cards when they cut off my options or force me to respond to other players' actions instead of focusing on my strategy. Why can't we leave each other alone? (Or have reactions that are more positive/interesting, as with Governor)

And as benchmarks, three of my favorite strategic computer games...

SimCity 4: Ah, SimCity. No interactions with hostile opponents out to ruin your city (except the occasional alien, kaiju, or giant robot) Just you, a plot of land, and the open-ended challenge of building your dream city. Most of the challenge comes from complex, intangible environmental forces like the education level, health, safety, traffic levels, and land value of your city, which if optimized will make it a more appealing place to live for tax-producing Sims. There are always at least several things to do in your city (zone for more industry, expand the bus/subway system, put in some libraries and museums...), and the whole game is something of an optimization problem on a city-scale. It encourages the setting of broad goals (expand your city's commercial sector, cut pollution, improve traffic...) and their methodical implementation.

Supreme Commander: Easily my favorite real-time strategy game because it exposes other games of its genre as real-time tactics games by virtue of its epic scale. The maps range from 5 x 5 km (corresponding to a mid-sized StarCraft skirmish) to a ridiculous 81 x 81 km. The slow pace that these larger maps lead to encourages analytical, long-term thinking about your strategy, and the extremely nice order-queuing system lets you assign all sorts of complex behaviors and plans to your units with a minimum of hassle. It gives a lot of room for creativity in strategy that goes behind the simple unit-combination mechanics of other RTSes. You can play aggressively, expand defensively try to claim more territory (and resources) to slowly choke your opponent, sneak a secret firebase within striking distance of them, rush to an experimental unit/nuke... The possibilities and choices are nearly endless, which is just what I like about SupCom.

Civilization V: Much like with the other two games, I enjoy how much is always going on in Civ V. You have cities to manage, units to direct, diplomatic relations to navigate, and a world to conquer. there are over a dozen various resources and variables to manage, and you have a great degree of control over the direction you take your empire, which is exemplified in the four victory conditions: domination, cultural, science, and diplomatic. Like SimCity, it throws a great deal of complexity at you but manages to do so in a clear way that lets you manage it surprisingly easily. All the parallels with real history allows each game to be its own kind of alternate history, some more entertaining than others (like the time I played as Gandhi and slaughtered the rest of the world with Giant Death Robots, or when George Washington besieged Mumbai for 500 years straight). Civ V encourages you to combine creativity with strategy and just a bit of megalomania, leading to the legendary "Just one more turn..." syndrome.

From preferences to obligations

It seems like I have different expectations for games than most people. I don't enjoy competition for its own sake; I enjoy the strategic challenges that it accompanies. When the competitive elements of a game get in the way of the strategy (e.g. by violating one of the three properties above), it's no longer "fun" for me. So I tend to gravitate toward games (like the last three) that embody these properties more, by design. All this research into how I enjoy strategic games might even help me to identify such games before I even try them.

I also noticed something else that you might have as well: all the times I use "should" or other words conveying a sort of moral ought-ness when talking about what are supposed to be my own subjective preferences. This way of projecting preferences into a moral dimension is seen in how I usually dislike using "attacks" that hinder my opponents: I'm applying the golden rule. Similarly, I reinterpret violations of my expectations as injustices committed against me. Once a situation has been cast in this light, it's easy to get angry; after all, (I'm convinced) I have a right to be.

I think I'm somewhat of an escapist in how I approach games, as I often am with books and music. I play them to temporarily leave the real world for a simpler one that is more like my idealized world-that-should-be. So, recast in moral terms, those three properties that I like games to have correspond to three ideals I value, perhaps excessively: freedom (to blaze my own path with my choices), power/agency (or a realized internal locus of control), and justice/fairness (or a simplified version of justice I'd label "karma"). I recently came across an article about the video game jump that sounded surprisingly like me (emphasis added):
Begy claims that jumping in a virtual world is "ultimately about expressing power." This is not just limited to power over the physical opponents in a game. In many games, the greatest challenge a player faces is the environment itself.
"Jumping over ledges, walls, or down stairs is defying the environment's attempts to constrain or influence your navigation of it," Begy says. "The dominating jump can be a means of attack or avoidance, but dominance is always present."
Donkey Kong's "Jumpman" jumps to dominate the barrels. If he does not jump over the barrel, it will dominate him. But by jumping over it, he can render it harmless.
Begy's theory is that the real world does not always grant individuals the control over their lives that they desire. However, through the jump, video games provide a virtual world in which freedom, dominance and autonomy can be expressed at the mere press of a button.
There's nothing inherently wrong with valuing freedom, fairness, or a sense of dominance and seeking to enjoy them in games. But my giving them a moral dimension indicates that they have become more than mere preferences. I feel entitled to have games I play meet my expectations by embodying these things for me, and in a selfish way that views other people as obstacles to their enjoyment. When they don't, I feel like I've been wronged.

But "love does not insist on its own way" (1 Cor 13:5, or more literally, "love does not seek its own"). When this moralizing insistence on my expectations gets in the way of enjoying my friends' company, then I stop loving them and act selfishly. I'm reminded of God's question in Jonah 4:4 (I can't remember the translation): "do you have a right to be angry?"

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why did Jesus teach in parables?

A familiar tale

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells one of His better-known parables, the parable of the sower:
[1] That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. [2] And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. [3] And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow.[4] And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. [5] Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, [6] but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. [7] Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. [8] Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. [9] He who has ears, let him hear.” 
[18] “Hear then the parable of the sower: [19] When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. [20] As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, [21] yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. [22] As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. [23] As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
This parable is applicable both to evangelists and to all believers, and after Jesus' explanation it needs little other interpretation. The obvious takeaway is that we should hope and pray to be (parabolical) "good soil", hearing and understanding the "word of the kingdom" (remember that Jesus started off preaching "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand", Mat 4:17). Even reading this recently, I still felt conviction, and concern that I might be choking this word out, or not understanding it fully. It's certainly worth meditating on in your own reading.

"To them it has not been given"

But what I focused on this morning was what comes in between Jesus telling the parable and explaining it (to His disciples).
[10] Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” [11] And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. [12] For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [13] This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. [14] Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
[15] For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

[16] But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. [17] For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
I wrestled with this section on the bus this morning. It really seems like Jesus is teaching in parables to prevent people from understanding "the secrets of the kingdom of heaven". So it has been given to the disciples, but not the crowds, to understand; this is an example of the "theological passive" where the implied giver (or withholder) is God. Jesus then quotes (in a somewhat modified form) Isaiah 6:9-10, explaining that the people's dullness has been prophesied (and, in the original context, decreed by God).

How can this be? The Calvinist in me says there is no problem here—God, of course, does not owe anyone grace, and He is perfectly just to withhold it from those who have closed their hearts to Him. The sinfulness of these people is shown to be deplorable, enough to blind them to the Son of God standing before them, and their condemnation is deserved. The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven (read: salvation) is God's to give according to His will, and He gives it to whoever He sees fit, and so He teaches in parables so that only the chosen will understand. Who are you, O man, to talk back to His justice?

But this answer throws orthopathy (right feeling) under the bus of orthodoxy (right belief). If our head leads us to a conclusion about God that our heart can't swallow, we are right to stop and rethink; this is not what "submitting to God's word" means. Of course God is not so callous towards the lost. (The ESV's translation of mepote as "lest" in verse 15 is especially unfortunate because it implies that God does not desire the outcome of people turning to Him; the NIV better translates it as "otherwise".) The community of the redeemed is not a special club whose invitation God only gives to some. As much as I earnestly want everyone to be saved, I know that God wants it much, much more (1 Tim 2:4), even while hating their sin and rejection of Him much more. So why does Jesus speak in parables?

Reverse prophecy

As I prayed about this on the bus, my eyes were opened (theological passive again). The next few paragraphs are an abbreviated version of my thoughts on God's providence.

The heartless understanding of this passage I was struggling with assumes a more simplistic view of how God's will interacts with ours, saying that it can be overridden by God in His sovereignty, so that He can make some peoples' hearts dull and prevent them from seeking Him as easily as reaching in and turning a few dials (or, in this case, telling a parable). This is a parody of the theology known as monergism. Isn't it a "bigger" view of God that makes Him Lord over even our hearts (Pro 21:1)? Perhaps, but it leads to a plethora of question that it is not equipped to answer: If God really has this kind of control over the wills of other begins, why is there evil? How can there be a conflict between good and evil? Why does anyone reject God? Does God make people sinful, and is there any real difference between this and leaving them in sin when you have the power to change them?

To explain the world we actually live in, we must admit that the reality of how God meets us in our hearts is more complex than this. Though clearly our hearts are not independent of God, neither is His will independently (unilaterally) in control of them. What seem to be our own thoughts and actions, freely chosen, from an everyday "below", human perspective can also be seen as parts of a plan from a divine "above" perspective (see Phl 2:12-13). Where we may see hopeless chaos and randomness, God sees order and direction. This is meant as a source of great comfort.

The problem with my heartless understanding of the Matthews passage is that it is ignores the familiar, human way of looking at things, and so dehumanizes the people in the story, reducing them to hopeless, blind sinners, passive vessels into which God either does or does not put knowledge of the kingdom of heaven, or whose eyes God either does or does not open. It keeps us from feeling pity for them, because if God felt any pity for them He would have opened their eyes as simply as flipping a switch. But God did not become fully human to see us as any less than fully human. The function of prophecy is to move the recipients from seeing things in a purely human way to also glimpsing the "God's-eye view" of a situation, but here we must do the opposite. So I ask: is there a more balanced way to read this passage that acknowledges the humanity of the crowds while still recognizing God's sovereignty over them?

Before going into what I thought about today, I should at least recognize a healthier interpretation I've heard. Jesus' parables, it explains, are meant to convey truth to those who seek to know it, while avoiding hardening the hearts of those who don't. "The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay", the saying goes, and so preaching using plain speech could serve to strengthen the resistance of some in the crowd. So Jesus preaches in parables, so that those who seek the truth might find it while the others will merely be left puzzled. This is indeed a better interpretation, and my thoughts will mostly only add to it.

Waking the dull

But my heart still goes out to the people Jesus describes in the prophecy from Isaiah: their hearts have grown dull, their ears can barely hear and they have closed their eyes. Is there no hope for these people? If they have closed their hearts to the incarnated God, who can open them? How can Jesus' parables help these people? (If He really loves them and hates their sin, He doesn't want to let them stay in it, whatever you may say about it being "just")

First let's analyze what Jesus said a bit more. He says "seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand", but of course He doesn't mean that the people were literally blind and deaf (for when He met blind or deaf people, He did just heal them). The Greek word for "dull" used here more commonly means "fat" or "thick", which would rule out an active, willful rebellion that excludes them from our pity (as the heartless interpretation would say). What I think Jesus is getting at is not raw sensory data, but perception, or lack of understanding. The Son of God was before them, speaking words of great spiritual import and power, yet they don't seem to understand or care. They were just words.

Does this remind anyone else of countless churchgoers today? We may be sitting in church on Sunday morning, but our minds and hearts have not accompanied us to meet Jesus there. We are spiritually AWOL, if you will. Though we see the preacher and hear the words spoken, do we really see? Do we really hear? I don't, a good deal of the time. Maybe the pastor should start teaching in parables.

In light of this, I glimpsed an answer to the question this passage has always raised for me: "Why didn't Jesus use plain speech so that they would understand Him?" I realized that the parables were not being used to prevent people from understanding (and thus perversely fulfill the Isaiah prophecy), but to help them understand their lack of understanding. If He taught them in plain speech, they might just smile and nod, think they understood what He was saying, and file it away into their neat little theological cabinet, never to be seen again. But when He taught in parables, they were genuinely puzzled. They realized that they didn't understand what was being said. And maybe, just maybe, they would look into Jesus and His words until they did, joining His followers in the process.

As if to confirm this, Jesus in verses 16-17 celebrates that the disciples do have eyes that see and ears that hear, and then proceeds to explain the parable to them in plain speech. To those who do listen, God speaks plainly, but to those who don't, He speaks in riddles, not to enhance their spiritual disorientation but to bring it to their attention.

I'm not sure whether this is exactly what Jesus originally meant or if I'm reading my own situation and experiences too much into the text. The dullness I just described is how I approached Christianity for much of my teenage years. But I am positive that His words here apply even to Christians in our spiritual dullness. And how much more to unbelievers today! It's just as important that people understand the gospel as that they hear it. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from Jesus' use of parables—but that is for another time.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Scot McKnight on Threshold Evangelism

I just stumbled on this post on Scot McKnight's blog that perfectly expresses a qualm I've had about how we often carry out evangelism which I've tried to express a few times before. It's hard for me to quote just part of his outline (instead of the whole thing), but he defines "threshold evangelism" as the attempt to "to get people near the threshold to cross the threshold: Identify the “target” and create liminality and strive for decisions." In other words, it's the kind of Christian evangelism that places a great emphasis on securing "decisions for Christ", counting these as souls won for the Kingdom. Great effort is put into getting people to make that all-important decision, such as a host of attractive environmental factors (his point 1.2) or packaging the gospel into the sleekest, simplest, most "relevant" form possible.

He lists eight damning (no pun intended) problems with this approach, though:
  1. Message says nothing about what happens beyond threshold.
  2. Emphasis is “decision” (accepting, believing) not the fullness of the NT: repentance, belief, baptism, confession.
  3. Gravity is on “in vs. out” and threshold is “in” line.
  4. Theology is almost exclusively salvation, with little theology, Christology, Story, Bible, church.
  5. Process has been Two-Stages: decision then discipleship.
  6. Core is information (self and salvation) and affirmation.
  7. Church has become a “salvation” culture instead of a “gospel” or “kingdom” or “Jesus” culture.
  8. Effect is low: 20-25% of those who “respond” become serious followers of Jesus. Which both cheapens the message about Jesus and waters down the commitment level of Christians in the church.
To summarize a bit, threshold evangelism tends to be very propositional (focused on knowing and intellectually accepting information), creates a division between salvation (which is heavily emphasized) and the rest of Christian faith and theology (which is less emphasized, as a sort of dessert to the main course of salvation), and is ultimately ineffective at producing serious followers of Jesus. Indeed, it is more concerned with clearly defining the boundary between Christian and non-Christian (translation: what is the least one has to do to "get into" Christianity) than with the center of the Christian set, that is, Christ Himself. We look at ourselves and each other to figure out whether we belong rather than to the One we're supposed to belong to.

Of course many evangelical leaders that I've heard and read recognize these problems, but we usuall;y attempt to clean them up while still holding to a core of threshold evangelism. Maybe because we have trouble imagining how evangelism could be different, maybe because laying aside our concern for "decisions for Christ" is unthinkable, maybe because we inhabit a subculture where any perceived sign of less-than-zeal for the gospel is rebuked.

McKnight finishes by illustratively contrasting the two approaches:
Bounded set [threshold] evangelism asks: Have you accepted Jesus into your heart, been baptized?
Centered set gospeling asks: Who do you think Jesus is?
What is the point of the former questions without the last one?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2013 Year-End Steam Games

And now for something completely different: a rundown of the games I got for cheap this Steam holiday sale. I suppose this would have made more sense right after I got them and they were still on sale...they'll probably get discounted again.

Sid Meier's Civilization V: Brave New World (2013)

I've realized I'm a big fan of games that offer you lots of choices—think of it as room to innovate and play more creatively. Few games embody this ideal better than the latest iteration of Sid Meier's turn-based masterpiece, Civilization. I highly recommend the base game and the first expansion God and Kings; Brave New World offers less dystopia than the names suggests, but a similar expansion and improvement of the game's features to G&K.

As the above screenshot shows, there are new playable civilizations, further adding to the near-comprehensive selection Civ V offers. In my first game I tried playing as Poland, which gets beefed-up cavalry (Winged Hussars!) and a free social policy at the start of each new era (Solidarity!). Also pictured is Venice, which cannot build new cities but can turn city-states (like La Venta and my former ally Panama City) into puppets. Other selections I didn't try include Assyria (which plunders other civilizations' technologies), Brazil (which focuses on its golden ages/Carnivals), and the formerly-missing series long-timers the Zulu.

But the main improvements Brave New World makes are three new mechanics. First, caravans and cargo ships can now be built and used to create trade routes, either within your civilization (to give a city a boost to food or production) or internationally (to share in riches, science, religion, and more). I ended up really appreciating this mechanics, which could have needlessly complicated the game but was instead well done (and quite helpful). Just protect your trade routes from pillaging barbarians or enemy civs.

Second, the cultural victory has been revamped. No longer does it merely involve making a (invariably small) cultural powerhouse civilization and then coasting to a utopian victory in isolation from the res of the world. The cultural victory is now achieved through tourism: collecting great works (either created by great artists, musicians, and writers or dug up by archaeologists) draws other civs' attention to your culture. Once your cumulative tourism output to each other civilization exceeds their own culture, you achieve cultural superiority and win. Granted, this seems a bit unrealistic since at least in my experience America wins other cultures over more with its  TV shows, internet phenomena, and decadent lifestyle more than with its fine arts, but it is still a much more exciting way to win.

Finally, the United Nations has been expanded into the World Congress, which begins once someone develops the printing press and discovers every other civilization. It does eventually hold votes for world leader to allow the diplomatic victory, but before this players can vote on a variety of resolutions like passing a tax on standing armies, embargoing a troublesome civilization, banning nuclear weapons, and much more. Influence with city-states gives more votes just as it did with the diplomatic victory, and overall it gives a very interesting and well-executed way to interact with your neighbors.

The cultural policy system has also been revamped now that it no longer controls the diplomatic victory, with two new policy trees (aesthetics and exploration) added and the three systems corresponding to forms of twentieth-century government have been split off into a larger and more interesting ideology system. Overall Brave New World is a richly rewarding series of additions to Civilization V that don't really take anything away. Definitely worth a look for Civ V players.

SimCity 4 (2003)

I also found a game from ten years earlier that similarly risks overwhelming players with options. For those who similarly missed out on it, SimCity 4, like its predecessors, puts you in the shoes of the mayor of a city of sims, which you are responsible for developing. It's a very detailed city simulation; you are responsible for zoning, electricity, traffic management, fiscal management, education, health, and the pollution your disgusting smelting plants put out, among others.

After getting to a fairly large city of 50,000 Sims, I can personally attest to how brilliantly addictive this game is even ten years later. After you get the hang of it (the tutorials help somewhat), it manages to always give you plenty to do without truly overwhelming you. Your advisers alert you to urgent needs your city faces (like a heavily congested road, imminent power outage, or health crisis) with convenient pop-up messages, and you get a wealth of charts and map overlays to help you plan your next development.

For my first real city, I set a goal of keeping a balanced budget and trying to free myself from cars and dirty energy as much as possible. I created a city with bustling residential, commercial, and industrial sectors, added blocks of offices and manufacturing plants, watched as my Sims got wealthier and wealthier, and finally quit as I was building my subway system and saving for a solar power plant because I realized it was 8:00 and I hadn't eaten dinner. Highly recommend this game.

Sequence (2011)

My roommate introduced me to this title which I can only describe as a rhythm RPG. You collect items, level up, and fight monsters, but the core battle system is heavily inspired by DDR. You hit arrows to the beat of some fairly nice (though out-of-place) techno songs to block enemy attacks, cast spells, and regenerate mana. This is the core of the gameplay and it is quite fun and fast-paced; if you have a XBox 360 Guitar hero controller like me, you can even plug it in and use it to play (sorry, I don't think you can use a DDR pad, nor would you want to). A typical battle consists of rapidly queuing up and casting attack and defense spells, blocking as many enemy attacks as you can between spells, and regenerating mana when you get a chance, all of which necessitate rapidly switching between the three different note boards. Unfortunately, this is pretty much all the game consists of and it's set in the context of a bit of a tedious grindfest; it feels a bit more like a proof of concept than a fully-featured game. Still worth it for the right price.

Divekick (2013)

Do you, like me,find fighting games bewildering and difficult to learn? Then look no further than Divekick, the two-button fighter game in which the only move is divekicking and all hits are KOs! Fight in a variey of exotic places with increasingly zany characters! No, seriously, besides being a parody of fighting games, Divekick is also a surprisingly good game, though the polar opposite of the aforementioned games that offer tons of options. Each character has his/her own dive height and kick angle, with some having the ability to adjust their attack style mid-battle. It's especially rewarding in versus mode, where the challenge of kicking the opponent without getting kicked yourself leads to some crazy twitch battles and mind games.

Fallout: New Vegas

...I'm going to hold off on this one until I have more time (and have played Fallout 3, which i also have on Steam).