Book Review: “Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church year at home (Holy Week & Easter)”

Doulos Resources recently released a series of short books outlining seasons of the Christian liturgical year. Guides for Advent & Christmas and Lent & Epiphany are currently available for purchase, and future editions will be released later this year. I just finished Holy Week & Easter, which is available for pre-order.

Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church Year at home (Holy Week & Easter) postures itself as a beginner’s guide to the (Western) liturgical year and traditions surrounding these seasons. Starting with a general introduction by editor Jessica Snell, the book is divided into two main chapters: “Holy Week” (written by Jennifer Snell) and “Easter” (written by Lindsay Marshall). In addition to outlining historical and global traditions as well as ways to involve children and community members in the season, the authors include Resources sections at the end of each chapter, listing various readings, music, and prayers related to Holy Week and Easter. These lists are a lovely taste of how these seasons have been celebrated over time, functioning both as a sort of educational survey of seasonal expression and as a suggestion for materials that can supplement the celebration of Holy Week and Easter in one’s church.

The authors highlight some important truths about Holy Week and Easter, as well as Christian tradition in general. Jennifer Snell, in her chapter on Holy Week, speaks of the need to slow our busy schedules in order to fully experience these seasons. In her introduction, Jessica Snell says that “Christians developed seasonal devotional practices that helped remind God’s people of God’s mercies,” affirming the importance of being mindful of these seasons’ significance to the Christian history and faith and how traditions and rituals aid such mindfulness. The authors rightly emphasize active participation in liturgical seasons, particularly within the context of one’s church. Jennifer Snell says it well in the quotation that sticks with me most: “No private devotion can substitute for the corporate journey to Easter in the company of your church.” Easter is more than a single Sunday service in the year; it is, as the authors continually point out, a season that is the focal point of the Church year, just as Christ’s resurrection is the focal point of the Christian faith.

I am by no means an expert on church history and tradition, but based on some research into topics I was less familiar with (and after running a few things by my seminarian husband), the book’s historicity seems to generally hold up (but again, I can’t make any truly authoritative statements in this regard). For other non-experts like myself, the book seems to be a good starting point for learning about various aspects of Western Christian tradition and a potentially good jumping-off point into conducting further research, if readers should desire to do so. The book’s success in this regard could have been even greater if the authors had included more citations of church history texts. It’s possible the authors (understandably) wanted to avoid an overly academic tone, but more prolific historical citations would have enhanced the authors’ credibility and provided additional historical resources for readers to explore. The Bibliography does include some historical works, but most are only directly referenced once or twice; even including a more comprehensive list of historical “Works Consulted,” or something similar, would have bolstered the book in this area.

I came away from the book feeling that the authors should have more clearly stated (even in the form of merely one or two sentences) that their focus is on Western Christian traditions and practices; while some Eastern church practices are mentioned briefly, the book primarily presents Holy Week, Easter, and the cycles of the church year through the lens of Western Christianity (that is, Roman Catholicism and denominations derived from it, such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Presbyterianism). This is implicit in the text, which, as one example, often references the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but readers who are unfamiliar with church history or any sort of liturgical tradition may not make that inference.

Unfortunately, the book contains some typographical errors; nothing egregious, but enough to be noticeable. For example, the title of a book cited, The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas J. Talley, is printed correctly on the Bibliography page but incorrectly when referenced in the text itself. Even the name of the book, as printed on the cover, does not match the book’s name as printed on the title page or front matter page: on the cover, it’s “living the Church Year at home,” while on the other pages it’s “celebrating the Church Year at home.”

Beyond these critiques, the book offers important insight into the history of celebrating the seasons of Holy Week and Easter, and it also provides inspiration for how and why Christians of all backgrounds should work to internalize and cultivate in their daily lives an active participation in the liturgical seasons.

Loving Your Enemies in Ender’s Game

Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. How can we love them if we don’t understand them, if we don’t take the time to know them? In the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Ender Wiggin unintentionally learns the best way to love one’s enemies, and he never forgets it. Though just a child deprived of a family’s love and friendship, Ender does what most adults can never do – he loves those that society tells him he’s supposed to hate.

Ender’s Game takes place in a distant future, when our world had been almost destroyed in two invasions by an alien race called the buggers. In the second invasion, the humans were able to force the buggers to retreat, though at great cost. They’ve had peace for about 70 years now but have been expecting another attack from the buggers. In preparation for this third invasion, the leaders of different countries created the International Fleet – an army that trains children to fight battles in zero gravity on a spaceship. All children on Earth are closely monitored to see if they are eligible for this Battle School. At age six, Ender, the youngest of three young geniuses, is chosen to leave his family and train to save his world, and the book details his life through training to the end of the war.

Ender always looks at life by thinking three steps ahead, even at age six. His brilliance flourishes in the Battle School, and he quickly advances, accomplishing many feats that children twice his age can’t do. This, of course, causes the other children to be jealous and Ender to feel isolated. The adults in command of the school keep Ender busy with training and mock battles, manipulating and controlling his life so that he has no close friends. They don’t want anything to distract him from his training, not even love, because he is their last hope to destroy the buggers. With the fate of the world on his little shoulders, Ender becomes the best commander the adults have ever seen – a quick thinker, a strategist, a hard worker, and, what they wanted most, a killer.

Ender, however, hates himself for this trait. He is terrified of becoming just like his brilliant but cruel older brother, Peter, who tormented him before Ender left for Battle School. He tries to be compassionate, but what he doesn’t realize is that this is exactly what sets him apart from Peter. Ender doesn’t want to hurt people. Several boys bully him at different points in the novel, but because Ender knows how the other boys think and what is motivating them, Ender defeats the bullies, strategically and systematically. Afterwards, though, he always feels guilty. Ender defeats his enemies because otherwise his enemies would have hurt or killed him; but at the moment that Ender defeats them, he loves them. He feels compassion for them. He understands how to love his enemies and doesn’t want to destroy them. He tells his sister, Valentine:

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…I destroy them” (page 238).

Ender’s greatest quality, the thing that makes him different from all the other children, is not his ability to wipe out his enemy completely but his ability to learn about and understand people, even his enemies. He’s the only one who takes the time to understand them, to know their past and the reasons for their actions. And it’s only when he understands his enemies that he loves them and wants to live at peace. There are two ways to destroy an enemy. One is to defeat through harm. The other way is by turning him into a friend. Ender does not want to destroy his enemies; he would rather befriend them and love them.

Not only does Ender love his human enemies, but he even learns to love the alien enemies, those who almost destroyed his world. Though not instructed to by any adults, Ender spends hours and hours trying to understand the buggers, how they think, why they attacked Earth, and how they live. When he does finally understand them, he doesn’t want to destroy them; he wants to live in peace with them. The adults want him to defeat the buggers and completely wipe them out, but Ender wants to forgive them and be friends. The one person who is able to defeat the buggers is the only human who loves the buggers. I don’t know what the movie version of Ender’s Game teaches, but if there’s one thing you learn from the book, though there is much to learn from it, I hope you learn how to better love those you’re “supposed” to hate.

A Review of Brett McCracken’s “Gray Matters”

Brett McCracken, probably best known for his previous book Hipster Christianity, has penned a careful, nuanced, deliberative text with Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty. I’ll confess that I haven’t read his previous book, but I’ve kept abreast of his online work for the last year or two, over at Mere Orthodoxy and, most recently, when he wrote the best response to the millennial business a few weeks back. His posts are always contemplative, moving at a pace that reminds us to slow down and think, rather than jump to conclusions brashly. I’ve appreciated his work, so I was excited to dig into the new book.

Gray Matters is divided into four sections: food, music, film, and alcohol. Each is fairly well self-contained, which I suspect will lend itself to long-term usability: if you were teaching a class on culture, or more specifically on film or music, you could easily assign the appropriate section as an introduction to how Christians ought to interact with that set of cultural artifacts.

Each section is carefully worked out, with the latter three including a brief history of Christianity’s relationship towards the subject matter. The topics are all appropriately given weight; you sense with each word that it truly matters what we eat, listen to, watch, and drink. The gravitas that the book recommends we see in every day life can be staggering, but is ultimately convincing (as well as convicting).

Throughout the book, there are small ‘interludes’. These are usually only a couple of pages in length, but they serve to augment the main topics of the chapter. Some include personal anecdotes intended to remind the reader that not only is this stuff important, but it will be memorable. Others ask questions that rest just outside the scope of the book: swearing in music, for instance, gets a brief nod. These interludes are interesting, and definitely worth reading on a first run, but wouldn’t take my attention on a second read-through of the text proper.

If you’ve ever been told you shouldn’t watch a certain movie, or listen to a certain album, or drink a certain (fermented) beverage, just because you are a Christian, this book is for you. There’s really no plainer way to say it. Many of us grew up in homes that were strict on many of these fronts (I remember my first ‘secular’ album, and now I find myself writing about guys like Kanye West). That isn’t to say that we aren’t right to step away from certain things. In fact, this is probably the strongest point in the book: many young evangelicals have opted to land so firmly in the camp of ‘liberty’ that they’ve strayed into a license to do all things. They drink, smoke, watch R-rated movies, and listen to the vilest rap and death-metal music they can find. The temptation is to take “all things permissible” and ignore “but not all things are beneficial.” Gray Matters holds a healthy middle ground: as the subtitle suggests, there is a middle ground here. There are some films we simply ought not watch, and some that perhaps I shouldn’t watch, even if it has no negative (and possibly even a positive) effect on you.

My only real complaint about the book, which some might find initially off-putting, is a leaning towards pretension throughout the text. While this comes with the territory for film critics (or music critics, or food critics, etc.), it can feel a little frustrating at times. This was especially true during the food chapters of the book. To be fair to the author, there are qualifiers. He explicitly states that while we should be cultivating our love for food in healthy, moral, and uniquely Christian ways, we should never find ourselves judging those who still drive through whatever local fast food establishment is convenient for them. But the aside, as genuine as it was, came late enough that the first section will take a thorough re-read to wash that taste (pun intended) out of my mouth.

That complaint, though real, is relatively minor: I really did love this book. I appreciate anyone who pushes us to slow down and carefully consider the choices we make daily. You’d do well to read this one.

Very Christian Questions from Tragedy: Job and Tennyson

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book here. There’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

The Sunday School teachers paint the biblical Job in pastels and pretty words. Felt-board employed, snack-time pending, they tell us how that pious, righteous Job suffered and never lost his faith in God. He never blamed God. Undeniable pain and grief did not shake his trust in the Lord. From those days of plastic armor and hand-painted Noah’s Arks, he is evoked as an example of a patient, holy man.

Then, you read Job for yourself.

And, who doesn’t feel a little uncomfortable on that first post-Sunday School reading? After the build-up we receive as Sunday scholars, we can find ourselves ill-prepared for Job’s cries like, “Why have the times escaped the Lord’s notice? Why have the ungodly stepped over the boundary, snatching away the flock with the shepherd?” (24:1-2). I suspect that, without the build-up, we would be more inclined to admire the amount of faithfulness he has. But, it is a raw, galvanized, painful state of faith. His faith is the kind that pours out questions and wants real answers the same way a wound pours out blood and wants – not a bandage – but healing.

Yet, Job scandalized teenage me. He broke my nicely polished category of righteous suffering. Of course, that’s only because he was a better sufferer than I knew how to be. The teachers who told me that Job patiently, silently suffered did not understand the importance of questions in a broken world that begs for answers. Job suffers vocally, with question marks.

When Job has asked his questions, God comes in cloud and lightning and tells him: “I will question you, and you shall answer Me.” (38:3). Over the next few chapters, God asks a series of questions designed to point out the limits of Job’s knowledge and the extent of His own. Job responds humbly, and God calls Job righteous and blesses him.

The questions of the suffering are questions that cut the sufferer further open. They lay bare the inside. They are questions that change the person who asks them.

Questions are the heart of honest suffering. I’ll end with the only thing here worth remembering: a beautiful piece by Tennyson called In Memoriam A.H.H, in which the poet slowly grieves the death of Tennyson’s friend and would-be brother-in-law. My favorite lines comes in Stanza 96. They illustrate the type of questioning Job exercised, as well: the questions which must be asked.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length

To find a stronger faith his own.

Review: “The End of Our Exploring” by Matthew Lee Anderson

Full disclosure: I had a hand in this book. Well, a few fingertips. Matt is a friend, and I helped with this project some six months ago.

Matthew Lee Anderson’s second book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith, is a book that is all at once pensive and provocative, thoughtful and incisive, meandering and direct. In his exploration of questioning itself, Anderson takes us on a journey that feels familiar; after all, we have all spent time questioning. Some have made lifestyles out of it (the movement in Christianity that emphasizes “doubt” and “questions” as a modus operandi), others have assumed that questions make our faith weak (“If you doubt God, God will doubt you!”), but few have (recently) taken questions as a careful combination of movement and destination. Regardless of the place of questions in your life, Anderson asserts that questions are worth facing; I’m inclined to agree with him.

There are a lot of strong chapters in the text. I’ll highlight two of them here before getting into my critique, but I’ll save you time if you’re the sort who doesn’t read entire reviews: I recommend the whole book. And now, on to the best chapter.

My favorite section in the entire text is the discussion on Adam and Eve that takes place in chapter 2. This chapter may be a bit too exploratory for the tastes of some (how can you really be talking about what was going through Eve’s mind?), but I think the exploration is exactly right for this sort of project. The serpent comes to Eve and asks a question, carefully reframing the world in such a way that Eve is immediately at a disadvantage. In Anderson’s words: “The serpent’s question leads to death because it originates in a false picture of the world.” [p.38] The entire discussion is illuminating; somehow in all the times I’ve considered the story of Adam and Eve, I’ve never spent time working through what it means that the serpent asked a question, rather than something else. But the helpfulness of the discussion goes further: by actively considering the weight of a question that changed the world, we are simultaneously reminded both of the power of questions and our own responsibility to question well.

The other chapter I’ll highlight is the chapter on friendship. If that seems like an odd topic for a book on questioning, the rationale is pretty straightforward: questioning is often a way that we disagree, or at least how we explore whether or not we disagree, and so Anderson works through what it means to be friends with someone that you disagree with strongly. When describing a good friend of his, Anderson writes: “My respect for him is nearly boundless–which is why I do him the courtesy of disagreeing with him in the most vigorous way possible when necessary.” [p. 144] While he keeps in mind that friends must have something in common, Anderson also argues that the friction in our friendships–that is, the disagreement–can lead us both to better places; inquiry means learning about the world and about each other.

I don’t have many critiques to offer–I genuinely believe this is a worthwhile read–but I’ll offer a few. The first is that, depending on your education, you may find that a lot of this book is familiar. Anderson and I were similarly educated, so I found many of his insights well stated but not particularly novel. The chapters I highlighted above are exceptions–as is the chapter on intellectual empathy–but the point remains. The second critique is the organization of the book. While some chapters tie together relatively clearly (the chapter on communities is followed by the chapter on friendship), most feel as if they could fit at almost any point in the book. This is useful for teaching (if you were to use the book for this), since you can assign chapters at will, but it made each chapter feel isolated. Perhaps the book didn’t need more full-length cohesion (outside of the broad topic), but it was a noticeable issue, at least for me.

The book is well written (if you know Anderson’s work, you won’t expect anything less), and is fairly accessible, even as it leans toward an academic tone. The text refuses to linger too long, spending just the right amount of time in each chapter. In that sense, the pacing is excellent. I never wanted Anderson to “get to the point,” nor did I wish to skip ahead. If you’re looking to question questioning, there’s no question about this: The End of Our Exploring is where you should look.

And if there’s a time to buy this book, it is now. Not only is it new, but you can even send an electronic copy of the book to a friend. For more details on how that works, check out this page. In short, though, if you buy a book, you can tell Moody (the publisher) to send a copy to whoever you’d like. Pretty sweet.

Of Games and God: An Interview with Kevin Schut

What follows is an interview with Kevin Schut. He’s a delightful fellow, and he happens to have written a book about video games. It’s called Of Games and God, and you should probably read it. There’s a lot to digest in the book, and the interview below is no different. Enjoy. Much thanks to Kevin and Baker Publishing Group for their participation.

Wow. A book on Christians playing video games. When I first heard about the title, I assumed you’d be firmly in the “pro-gaming” camp. And while you’re definitely a self-described gamer, you’ve got a lot of cautions about the industry, and Christian engagement with games. Have you been met with many who simply won’t read the book, because they believe you’re just an apologist for silly entertainment?

Hmm.  No, I can’t think of any reactions where people outright and vocally refuse to read the book.  I’m sure there are people like that, and they simply won’t make a fuss and just not read it.  I’ve had at least a couple of online commenters that I can remember basically arguing that I’m not hard enough on video games, but they’re not complaining about the “silly entertainment” thing—they’re upset about their perception of filth and/or degradation in the medium.  This is the thing: everyone knows how big video games are today, so even people who don’t play much are unlikely to dismiss games as nothing worth thinking about.  I guess more to your question, though, I’ve been happily surprised that most people reading the book seem to go in with an open mind.  I’ve not had many angry comments about how pro-game I am, and none about me being anti-game—even though if I’m truly balanced, I should be upsetting a few gamers too.

When it comes down to it, this is the kind of guy I am: I am inclined to believe there’s at least some truth to most points of view.  I know a lot of gamers who want to basically say that any time a non-gamer attacks video games that the those critics are just talking out of ignorance.  Sometimes that’s true (and I hope I make that clear in my book), but I think often outsiders get unique views of things that insiders miss.  So I take the critiques seriously, even as I continue to play video games myself.  And to be honest, there’s lots to be upset about.  I’m hardly alone in saying many games are sexist, overly bloody, and poorly constructed by an exploitative industry.  But there’s also lots to be excited about, which is why I continue to love gaming.

 

You talk a little about religion in video games, often citing Dragon Age (which, I’m beginning to gather, is among your favorite games). What about games that explicitly have some religious message, like Assassin’s Creed 2, where the final ‘boss’ of the game is a boxing match with the Pope, or The Binding of Isaac, which centers around a character thrown into a basement by his ‘Christian’ mother, because God told her to?

I’ve not played through the AC series (more on this below)—I’ve watched a good chunk of it and skimmed a few synopses, so I’m speaking out of partial knowledge, which is a dangerous thing.  I have played The Binding of Isaac and watched cinematics of the endings (I’m not skilled enough to get there myself, unfortunately!), but I played it too late for it to end up in the book, sadly.  My perception of the AC series is that it takes the religion-is-social-power-masked-as-heavenly-power line that I describe in the book.  It seems to me that many of the antagonists and powers in both the first and second game wear the trappings of religion, but simply use their supposed beliefs as justifications to engage in highly cynical power plays.  I’d be interested to hear how my perceptions are wrong about that, although learning that the player engages in fisticuffs with His Holiness (I didn’t know that!) certainly suggests I’m not far off.  Such games are not so unusual.  I’d argue it’s part of the bias of games—it’s easier to deal with conflict and manifestations of physical power than it is to deal with mystery, grace, holiness and peace.  But in so doing, such video games really only tackle part of what religions really are.

Isaac is a different sort of beast, in my mind.  Because its narrative and fictional world are so spare and suggestive rather than smooth and coherent (a la the Uncharted-style narrative games) it’s hard to summarize what it’s all about and what it’s saying.  It has a large degree of interpretive flexibility—you can easily understand it in a lot of different ways.  It is definitely all about shocking sensibilities.  It gets into the realm of the grotesque and it really questions certain aspects of religious experience.  Dung, and fetid animals and rot and twisted signs of childhood innocence are everywhere.  And they’re framed with a story of insane devotion to tele-evangelism and an apparent voice from heaven.  But what, exactly, does that all mean?  The ultimate conclusion of the story suggests that the game isn’t exactly critiquing religion but is instead critiquing what people do with religion (just as Monty Python’s The Life of Brian isn’t a critique of Jesus—it’s a critique of Christians).  I don’t know what to make of it, honestly.  But what I can say is that that game has suggested to me the possibility of different ways of grappling with religion than games traditionally have done, and that, at least, is a positive thing.

 

That’s a good take on Isaac. I hadn’t considered it (and, honestly, put the game down after 30 or 45 minutes) that way. Maybe I’ll go back and give it another go. Have you played any games that deal with real-world religions (as opposed to one invented for the game) that deserve a shout-out?

Not really, no.  The most common appearance of religions in the games I play are in strategy games like Civilization and Europa Universalis.  And for reasons I outline in the book, I’m not entirely comfortable giving them praise in that regard.  I think they are noble tries, but a strategic simulation of culture at a very high level can only really simulate what I see as the least important aspects of religion.  There are stories like AC that have real religions in them.  But I can’t think of any that I really like.  There are probably a bunch I should be playing.  If anyone has a favorite, I’d love to hear from them, so I can add it to my repertoire.

I should note that there are lots of games that do very interesting stuff with ethical and moral choices.  Many of the big narrative RPGs let players make decisions that are very interesting and challenging in terms of deciding what is right and wrong.  I find it interesting that something like that is well done, but religion—which so often informs decisions about right and wrong—is pretty weak in most video games.

 

As I read your text, I found there were few games I hadn’t played (mostly the oldest among the games you referenced). Occasionally I found myself wishing you’d bring up other games (Minecraft for a discussion of play, though you do bring it up eventually; Heavy Rain for your discussion of the relationship between film and gaming; Bulletstorm for your chapter on gratuitous violence; Mass Effect for a discussion of narratives in games). A book of this scope is necessarily limited, so I wanted to ask this: what games do you really wish you could have talked about? Are there any favorite games of yours that either didn’t find a space, or the space they found was smaller than you’d have liked?

Ha!   I love how you try to provide me an easy out here: there are all these great games you don’t mention, but you probably didn’t have space for them, right?  Well, the shameful truth comes out here: I haven’t played any of those games.  (Well, that’s not strictly true.  I played Minecraft version 0.32 for a while when I first heard of the game, and I’ve been planning to play it for real this summer.)  The reason is this: the world of video games is huge.  And it’s substantially unlike researching, say, movies or TV in terms of the amount of time involved.  It’s true I could play a substantially fair amount of, say, 5 or 6 puzzle games in the time that it takes me to watch Argo.  But a lot of the games I’m talking about really require the equivalent of dozens of movies to really appreciate them.  On top of that, my natural inclination is to be a completionist—I have a hard time leaving a game before I’ve played all the way through the main campaign.  And (another confession) I’m a pretty slow game player.  I know people who can finish a game of Civilization successfully in 30-40 hours, but it sometimes takes me about twice that.  It took me north of 120 hours to finish Fallout 3.  I got about 35 hours into Skyrim and had to move on, and I’m guessing I’ve only seen about 15-20% of the world.  And because I have courses to grade, lectures to prep, administration to do, church to attend, a family to live with, and so on, I usually do this all after everyone goes to bed, which means that if I want to get more than 5 hours of sleep, I get about 7-10 hours a week of play time.  Phew!  I’m glad to get that off my chest.

The real reason I tell you and your readers about all that is to make it clear that I can’t keep up with everything important, and that’s why I tried to write my book so that it wasn’t about specific games, and more about general principles and issues that could apply to lots of games and hopefully will still be worth reading a few years from now.  A better place for discussions of the here-and-now is the Internet, because it can stay current.  I love that sort of stuff—I love it that within weeks of Bioshock Infinite of coming out we get Jordan Ekeroth’s article on Kotaku: “In Defense Of Religion In BioShock Infinite” (this is going to sound weird, but I haven’t read it yet because I don’t want to get spoilers—as soon as I’m done the game, however, that article’s on the top of my reading list).  But I can’t keep up-to-date like that in the book—as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have time to play enough games, and the writing and publication process takes too long.  My hope is that readers look at my use of Dragon Age: Origins (all over the book, because I played it right before writing) or really ancient games like the original Sid Meier’s Pirates and say, “Hey! You could make the same point with game X.”  If so, I’ve succeeded.  I recognize that you can’t generalize everything, and that adding new games would add new nuances, so on that level, I’m sorry I didn’t get in more.  I’ve heard Heavy Rain and Alan Wake are both fantastic narrative games, and I really want to play them because I’m sure they’d give me new insights, but I haven’t yet.

Of course, I’m not expecting every gamer to like and/or understand this limitation.  One of the things I’ve found is that gamers tend to be very tribe-ish.  If you’re a Madden fanatic, video games means what others would call “sports video games.”  I can’t tell you how many gamers I’ve met who are absolutely shocked that I’ve never played any version of a Zelda game, because that’s really 40% of their childhood.  And while I’m into indie and art games, I’m quite certain I’ve not played nearly enough to please the true avant-garde gamers (I don’t even know which titles I’ve missed that I should be playing!).  None of those people are wrong about my limitations as a gamer: I’ve got some real gaps.  But we all have our favorites, and we’re all going to have gaps, and we’re going to most notice the gaps of others in the games and genres we like to play.  Honestly, as much as I sometimes feel guilty about not covering enough different stuff, in the end, I really like that localized, tribal passion.  It makes for vibrant communities and great discussions.  I think all together, our conversations cover a lot more ground than any one book can do.

You are right, by the way, that I didn’t fit in everything I like, although most titles I like a lot make at least a cameo.  Where I wanted to put more in but didn’t was all the games I played growing up.  I know you note the book covers titles that are old, but you wouldn’t believe how many ancient games I didn’t mention!  I don’t know if I even mentioned the old Sierra Quest for Glory series that I poured months or years into in the late 80s and early 90s. Masters of Orion (currently updated by games like Galactic Civilizations) was big for me and I don’t believe I touched on it.  I poured quite a few hours into text-based adventure games (the one I remember is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and a lot of time into cracked (illegal—but I didn’t get that at the time) Commodore 64 Epyx titles Winter Games and Summer Games.  But the odd thing about games is because they build on previous titles so much, that just about anything worth saying about those titles is also true of newer games.  So I only threw in a few to indicate that there’s a historical trajectory to just about every game we see today.

 

I assume a fair number of people who read this book will be concerned parents or youth pastors. People who don’t necessarily game, but who are interested in making decisions about the medium. Do you think it is necessary for these people to play at least a game or two, rather than just watching others play? Additionally, do you have any recommendations for games that are accessible, that “show off” the benefits of the medium, or else would be good for someone interested in exploring video games as an outsider?

That’s a great question.  My personal belief is that it’s hard to have a really deep understanding or engagement of something that I haven’t experienced myself.  That’s not to say that I’d have nothing valuable to say about, say, paragliding, after only observing it (rather than doing it).  I just wouldn’t have the authority to say anything about the experience for certain.  I also think it’s much easier for people to actually listen to an outsider who has at least tried the in-group’s activity before talking about it.  Many gamers tend to ignore the pronouncements of non-gamers, whether that’s fair or not (and I think this kind of behavior extends to all kinds other groups; I think many Christians don’t really care what a Muslim has to say about the Christian faith).  So yeah, I think it’s  a good idea to play just a little bit, so you know what all the fuss is about.  You gain empathy, insight, and a small measure of credibility.

That having been said, nobody should expect a non-gamer to become a high-end gamer.  Occasionally this happens, but it’s pretty rare.  It’s like reading, writing and all kinds of other acquired skills: it takes time to become a very good player of video games, and the later in life you start, the harder it is.  And it’s not really necessary.  We can’t be all things for all people, so all non-gamers need is a bit of familiarity and an open enough mind to trust experienced gamers who are willing to explain gaming experience.

I think if you want to get started on games that are fun to play with other people, you still can’t beat some of the simple Wii games, like Wii Sports.  They require zero skill, Wiis are just about everywhere (although they’re starting to get boxed up now), and they’re light fun.  If you’re just a tiny bit more coordinated, MarioKart Wii is even better for that sort of thing.  If you want to see what nonviolent beauty looks like in a simple video game, you can’t go wrong with Flower or Journey (except that, for the time being, you need a PS3 to play them).  There are billions of good puzzle games and most supposed non-gamers have, in fact, played some casual puzzle games.  For range of experience, I might introduce them to Circadia or something like Amazing Alex.  I also think Tiny Wings is a great choice to convince people that video games don’t have to be violent or disturbing.  Those are the easy ones.  There are categories of games, however, that are harder to find good recommendations for people who don’t play a lot of games.   If you want to experience a shooter, I’m kind of at a loss, as I’m terrible at those sorts of things.  I liked Battlefield 1942, but I really haven’t played much since then.  Actually, I think I’d tell most noobs to avoid shooters, because you don’t get much mercy in them—at least online.  I’d love to hear others’ suggestions.  RPGs are also a bit of a tough category, because they typically ask for a lot of investment, and it’s hard to find good non-violent ones.  Again, suggestions would be nice.  Strategy and simulation games are also often a bit daunting for outsiders, although I think the SimCity series is pretty friendly to non-gamers—assuming EA has, in fact, worked out all the kinks!  If people want to experience online multiplayer, have some tolerance for violence and racy portraits, and are willing to learn, League of Legends is about as easy to get into as it gets—but it’s still hard, so I’d only recommend that to certain kinds of people.

I’m not sure that list does it justice, though.  It’s a very practical question and one worth thinking about, so I’d encourage other gamers to make suggestions in the comments.

 

Because we’re talking about gaming, I’ve got to ask: what are you playing now? What are you most looking forward to, on the gaming horizon?

I just finished end-of-the-semester grading, which is always the most stressful time of year for me.  When I’m really wigged out, I retreat to comfortingly familiar games to keep me awake during those marking sessions that go to 3 or 4 am.  This almost always means Civilization; I just finished a campaign as the Carthaginians, and won via the diplomacy victory.  Now I’m trying to rapid-fire cover a whole bunch of titles that have piled up on my computer.  I played Atom Zombie Smasher for a couple of nights, then finally tried World of Goo (something I’ve been meaning to do for years), I’ve been playing Word Realms (my first Kickstarter title that has actually come to maturation), and just last night got in my first session of League of Legends in a couple of months (and only the second session I’ve done since hanging it up in January 2012).  I’ve got a busy summer lined up.  I just bought the re-imagined Tomb Raider, and plan to play AntichamberMinecraftDear EstherMonacoSpec Ops: The Line, and I might get to a few other small titles I’ve got kicking around like Stacking and Might & Magic: Heroes VI (if Ubisoft ever gets around to making it playable again).  But first up—and I’m quite excited about this—is Bioshock Infinite, which I now have budget and time for.  You’ll notice, by the way, that I frequently don’t play games right as they come out.  Often, it’s hard to schedule the newest and shiniest stuff.  But as a scholar, I also operate on a different time scale than reviewers and bloggers and online writers—I can still sometimes turn a two or three year old game into a publication, although I like to be more current than that if I can be.

By the way, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of my favorites from the last few months.  10,000,000 (I played on iOS) is one of the best puzzler/RPG games I’ve ever played, and it had the very weird effect of causing a very temporary (and very strong) obsession that was absolutely finished when I completed the game after about 6-10 hours of play.  Best type of game, in that sense.  I love Orcs Must Die 2 (loved the first too), and very much enjoyed The Unfinished Swan, which I reviewed back in January.

 

My final question is this: any parting thoughts? Anything you really wish people would ask you, but we always manage to avoid?

I’m not sure how much I want to add—I’ve already been plenty verbose by internet standards.  :)  I do want to say thanks for the opportunity to talk about the book from a different angle.  I really value the opportunity to have a conversation, since I really mean for the book to be about that.  It’s not that I don’t have opinions, but my real passion is for the Christian community to learn how engage video games in a healthy way, and that’s not going to happen without many voices speaking about games.  So I love the opportunity to move beyond the book.  Video games are such an important medium, and they have expressive potential that’s different from books and movies and radio and television and comic books.  Christians need to do more than just learn to live with video games—I think we have a calling to make them well, play them well and think about them well, because that’s part of what God made us for.

“Of Games and God”: A Review

Note: Tomorrow, we’ll be posting an interview with the author of Of Games and God, Kevin Schut. Don’t miss it. In the meantime, here’s the review.

It’s no secret around here that I’m a fan of playing video games. I heard there was a book out there that was attempting to reconcile Christianity with playing video games. I’m not actually sure ‘reconcile’ is the right word; I’ll steal from the cover, then: Of Games and God is A Christian Exploration of Video Games.

Which, of course, I’m interested in. And I think you should be too.

Christians haven’t done too well interacting with film. We (by-and-large, though not exclusively) wrote film off, early on, and so we’ve taken a long time to get to a point where we’re creating interesting, beneficial, and even beautiful films. It’d be a shame if we retreated from video games without carefully deciding if they were worth retreating from. For my money, and for Kevin Schut’s, they aren’t worth giving up, just yet.

I’ll get to what I loved about the book in a moment, but I’ll start with what frustrated me. The book is very much an introduction; gamers will most likely be bored with some of the chapters (“How to Understand a Video Game,” for instance). While these cursory and introductory chapters could be helpful—I could give this book to my Mom, and she’d follow it without a problem, even though she’s far from a gamer; I could probably give this to my Grandmother, too—they’ll simply be boring or too simplistic for much of the audience. Likewise, the book skips across the surface more often than it settles into the river; while Schut covers the majority of what you’d like to see covered, question-wise, he does so rather quickly. Each chapter ranges from roughly 15-30 pages, while each of them could easily be a book on their own.

These frustrations are probably necessary evils, for a book of this kind. If parents are going to read it, particularly parents who have never played one of those newfangled television games, then you’re going to have to actually introduce the material in a straightforward manner. Additionally, not much has been written on this topic for the Christian market, just yet. Schut’s breaking ground, and the topsoil is still a little rough. So he can’t dig just yet, unfortunately, but hopefully future books will.

And now for the good, which is certainly in greater supply.

For all the surface-skipping the book does, it lands on all of the important topics. We see a discussion of religion, ethics, violence, addiction, social living, and even the rise of educational uses for video games. Answers aren’t forthcoming, at least not definitively. You’ll find explorations more than you will conclusions: the book concerns itself with presenting information for both sides, making tentative arguments, but it primarily wants to introduce the reader to each issue that we could think about when we consider playing games.

Consider, for example, the chapter on violence. While many (both parents and gamers) might want a clear conclusion (the former may want a good reason to ban the games; the latter may want justification for playing them), Schut sticks to presenting both sides. The conclusions he does decide to offer, however, I think are relatively spot-on. Let’s stick with analyzing content based on the context it appears in, much like many of us have when analyzing film. Perhaps it isn’t always wrong to have a little violence (is Bugs Bunny really so deplorable?), but that doesn’t mean all violence is acceptable.

Perhaps the most useful chapter, at least for those who aren’t convinced we should even be playing video games, is his chapter on fantasy and escapism. In the latter half of the chapter, Schut recounts arguments from both Lewis and Tolkien on the nature of fantasy, and the benefits of world-building as an exercise of our creative nature. Schut takes the argument and expands it to all interactions with fantasy. Oddly, this is something both Lewis and Tolkien would have likely disagreed with (as they both had a distaste for non-print media), and Schut acknowledges this. But the strength is in the form: if creating and reading about and imagining fantasy worlds can actually be good for your soul, it isn’t much of a stretch, if you have to stretch at all, to arrive at the conclusion that playing some video games can actually be good for you. I’m thrilled that the positive argument was made, rather than the more common negative argument (that is, “Well, it’s just like other forms of entertainment, so it isn’t bad for you, necessarily”).

All in all, I’m quite glad this book exists. I’m happy with it, despite its few shortcomings. And for many readers, those shortcomings will actually be clear positives. I can safely recommend it to anyone interested in learning about this relatively new medium, regardless of your involvement with video games. Even hardcore gamers will find fresh perspective, even if you need to skip the second chapter.

A physical copy of this book was provided by  Baker Publishing Group on condition of a review. There was no requirement for the content of the review.

An Interview With Lars Walker

trollEditor’s note: See our review of  Troll Valley by Lars Walker here.

EO: Hi Lars, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for us.  I’d like to ask a couple questions about Troll Valley first, then about Christian Fantasy in general.  

First, is Troll Valley based on a true story?

LW: Troll Valley is a sort of valentine to the town and church where I grew up, and to my grandparents’ generation. I use places and cultural elements I knew, and I’ve worked in some elements of my family history, but the people and events are fictional.

EO: Where did the idea for Troll Valley come from? What were your inspirations? How did the story take shape?

LW: The first time I read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” in high school, it occurred to me how strange (and frightening) it would be to have a real fairy godmother. The character of Miss Margit in this story grew from that. Also, I’d always wanted to write a story about a big house in my home town (actually pictured on the book cover), so I installed my fictional family in it. And one day, years ago, I saw a young boy with a crippled arm in an ice cream store. I began to wonder what it would be like to be him. That crystalized the character of Chris.

EO: What was your hope for Troll Valley, in terms of its impact on the reader?

LW: This is the most personal book I ever wrote. It’s an attempt to explain the kind of pietism I grew up with to people unfamiliar with it, and to do a gentle critique as well. It’s also a kind of microcosm of the development of Progressivism out of Evangelicalism during the early 20th Century. I guess a lot of the purpose is just to teach some history.

EO: Do you intentionally try to inject your stories with gritty realism to make them cooler and more appealing, or is it something more than that?

LW: Gritty realism isn’t any thing I think about as such. I always try to just tell the truth about life. I’m not big on easy answers, and I never answer all the questions in a story. Nobody’s going to believe the answers you offer if they know you’re lying to them about the way the world is.

EO: I usually would not recommend “Christian fiction” to my non-Christian friends, but I love to recommend your books. Do you intend them to be a kind of evangelistic tool?

LW: Certainly I want to spread the gospel through my fiction, but not by preaching (though I do preach sometimes; I try to do it in an oblique or disarming manner). Again, Job One is telling the truth (even in a fantasy). If you believe your message, telling the truth will extend to telling the truth about the big questions.

EO: The one thing I’d like to know most: Do you think the Norse gods and other mythical creatures were real in some sense, whether demonic powers or something else?

LW: I have no idea. Perhaps one of the reasons I can write fantasy comfortably is that the supernatural generally keeps its distance from my life. I believe that unexplainable things happen (they certainly happened in Bible times, at least), but they don’t happen much around me. In my books, the heathen gods are usually portrayed as either demons or some kind of elemental spirit, and magic is mostly discovered to be some kind of illusion.

EO: Do you think mythology and fantasy are ever incompatible with Christianity? Is there any fantasy that a Christian shouldn’t read or write?

LW: This falls under the “do not give offense” principle from Romans 14. People misunderstand this. It doesn’t mean “Give no offense to people who think they know everything and like to judge others.” It means “Don’t do anything that will cause someone with a weakness or a bad habit to fall back into old sinful patterns of behavior.” Some people can handle all kinds of fantasy; other people ought to stay away from some (or all) of them. I don’t generally advise my own books for young teens, for instance. Outside Christian fantasy, I haven’t read widely enough to make an educated statement, but I believe there are some fantasy books, comics, movies, etc. that are so rooted in the demonic that Christians ought to avoid them. An exception might be made for people doing criticism for the purpose of cautioning others.

EO: Thanks very much!

Find out more about Lars, his upcoming books and other projects at LarsWalker.com.

Troll Valley: The Fairy Tale Grandma Never Told You

Editor’s note: See our interview with Lars Walker here.

Troll Valley is not your grandmother’s fairy tale, though it might be your great-great-great-grandmother’s fairy tale.  From the official synopsis:

Chris Anderson has everything. He’s the son of the richest family in town. He lives in a beautiful, loving home. He even has a fairy godmother. Chris Anderson also has nothing. He was born with a deformed arm, and when he gets angry he sees visions that terrify him. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, in a nation wrestling with faith and science, tradition and change, Chris will be forced to confront his own nature, and learn the meanings of freedom, love, and the grace of God.

If that sounds like a bold vision for a simple and relatively short work of fiction, it is.  But Lars Walker pulls off what few authors can. Especially for an essentially Christian story.  Most of what occupies the Christian Fiction shelf of your local bookstore is sappy, awkward, or just poorly written (like the screenplay of some shmaltzy Hallmark Channel movie).  The “Christian Fiction” of Lars Walker is anything but that. His series of novels about the conversion of the Vikings in the 11th-century is dark, gritty, and often bloody. Troll Valley is a bit tamer (which makes sense, given the lack of Vikings), but it packs the same deep emotional punch. You will be instantly drawn in, and you won’t want to stop until the story’s resolution.

Part of that is due to Walker’s writing ability. He spends a good chunk of the first third of the book describing life and work on a farm in Minnesota, including extended passages just describing food, without ever losing the reader’s interest. Walker also has the fascinating ability to be witty, even humorous, while dealing with the darker aspects of life and the human condition.

And then of course there’s the fairy part of the tale. As in his previous novels, Walker grounds the fantastic elements of the story in such solid realism that he can suddenly blindside you with the supernatural without ever pulling you out of the story or inviting your disbelief. Walker also draws his fantasy from ages past, especially the Norse traditions, rather than the post-Andrew Lang and post-Disney fairy tales that most modern folk now think of. Early in the story, Christian’s fairy godmother (yes, fairy godmother) tells him the tale of “Snow White Rose Red” (a retelling of Snow White, of course), which is as hilarious as it is twisted. Not even Santa Claus is safe from Walker, whose true nature as a powerful Norse spirit is revealed. Finally, the book’s primary antagonists are a group of tiny bearded creatures in red hats (called “red caps”). While that description doesn’t sound particularly frightening, I’m sure, Walker manages to create several intensely menacing scenes with these odd characters (ruining my childhood at the same time).

Near the end of the novel, a character stands up in front of his church and delivers what amounts to a mini sermon on the relationship of faith and works, the Law and the Gospel. In any other work of Christian fiction, this sort of thing would be forced and awkward, quite literally preachy. Not so in Troll Valley. Not only did Walker fully earn this moment, but executed it perfectly. For a Christian reader, it was a powerful and satisfying moment.

At this point you might be asking, “How can a book filled with fairy godmothers and evil little Norse spirits also have powerfully Biblical and evangelical themes?”  Excellent question!

Here’s your answer.

A Review of “Cold Case Christianity”

Upon finishing Cold-Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace, my thoughts traveled back through the literary journey I had just taken and I was surprised at what a wonderful feeling that re-tracing left in my mind. But let me back up. When I was given a copy of Cold-Case Christianity, it came highly recommended. It had a forward by notable Christian apologist Lee Strobel, and praise written by Rick Warren scrawled across its back. Now call me a contrarian, but when something sits in a particular camp and is recommended by people in that camp, I’m not very wowed. Of course Christians say a Christian author’s book is really great; I mean, look what happens when Nokia ridiculously reviews its own phone. Is anyone surprised by that review? Needless to say, I went into the book a bit off-put.

Despite my hesitancies, J. Warner Wallace lays out guidelines for the book which prove to be very thoughtful. He is “careful not to jump to supernatural explanations” about things which are satisfactorily explained by natural phenomena (30). Despite his caution, Wallace is out to “encourage [his] skeptical friends to reexamine their natural presuppositions,” while still being “careful to respect the claims of naturalists when they are evidentially supported” (30). And true to his word, Wallace will spend the rest of the book respectfully walking the fine line between ascribing things to the supernatural and allowing for scientific (or “naturalist,” to use his term) theories to explain events.

The 261-page book follows an extremely simple format: the book is broken down into two major sections for a total of 14 chapters plus a post script. Having spent 30 some odd years as a homicide detective, Mr. Wallace is full of intriguing stories which are both interesting and educational. He not only peppers the book with these stories but places one roughly at the beginning of each chapter, using the story as a springboard with which to talk about the particular focus of that chapter.

Wallace is quick to explain his terms, show how they are relevant, and then use them to make his point about a particular area of apologetics. The book could easily function as an apologetics primer; a casual or young Christian would find the various points discussed helpful and educational. The book touches on all different types of apologetic devices—notable arguments such as the cosmological argument make an appearance—and Wallace does a fine job of breaking them down into their component parts and explaining them, all after grounding the larger idea in a tangible example from a previous homicide case.

Now the material inside of Mr. Wallace’s book is, by its very nature, controversial. In this review I seek not to defend the validity of the material, I recommend you get the book, read it, think about it, and come to conclusions on your own. Now as to the question of whether you should pick up this work or not, I’d answer yes only if one of the following were true:

1)  You’re a new believer and want to learn the basic tenets of apologetics.

2)  You get the general gist of apologetics but would like to better learn how to debate and discuss your faith.

3)  You were on the fence about becoming a believer and wanted more concrete evidence that the worldview you were buying into had grounding.

Cold-Case Christianity does contain a slight negative that limits its appeal. While the book covers all sorts of philosophical defenses of Christianity, it spends very little time on each one. The cosmological argument, for example, is introduced, Wallace says a few things about it, and then he moves on. The book serves more as an introduction and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it makes this more of a basic piece of literature on apologetics, one that would need to be complemented by more in-depth looks at some of the various apologetic tools. That being said, the book is a great place to begin a deeper look into the whys behind the Christian faith, a broad survey of the evidence.

A review copy for Cold Case Christianity was provided by J. Warner Wallace in exchange for a review. There were no requirements for the content of the review.