Learning from Game of Thrones

[SPOILER ALERT: This post presupposes familiarity the sweep of the Game of Thrones TV series, with a focus on the final season. If you’re sensitive to having narrative spoiled for you and haven’t watched everything yet, don’t read.]

It would be hardly original of me to spend a post simply lamenting this last season of Game of Thrones, despite my desire to do so. Instead, I’m going to spend some time pointing out what I think are some lessons to be learnt by aspiring writers (in any medium) from the recent failures of the show.

To preface that though, I need to exhibit some due humility. The greatest lesson to be taken from the recent episodes is that good writing is difficult, no matter who you are. It is, as with so many things, far easier to criticize than to create. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, and the other writers who contributed throughout the show’s run, have managed to create for widespread public consumption. At this point, I have not. I feel it’s only appropriate to bear that in mind and take what I have to say with a pinch of salt as we continue (though ultimately, I hope that the weight of my arguments, rather than the status of the people involved, carries the day in this discussion).

Show Don’t Tell

It’s one of the commonly-touted pieces of advice given to writers. Don’t use boring exposition when you can just as easily let the audience get the necessary information from context or from being immersed in the setting and story. Don’t explain the inner thoughts of the characters when we can understand them just as well by how the characters act and speak.

This is especially true of visual media–which is why Industrial Lights & Magic and Weta Workshop have been able to do such wonderful things for defining setting in films and TV, why concept art is such an important aspect of designing for those media (and even for the written word)!

So, for me, Game of Thrones’ after-the-show talks with the showrunners pointed out a key problem. When you have to explain what you were trying to get at in an episode after the episode, you haven’t written the episode well enough to stand on its own. When you smugly assume that everyone got exactly what you’re talking about while watching, you’re adding insult to injury.

This is largely a result of rushing the storytelling. Without time enough to lay all of the necessary groundwork to explain events and occurrences within the show, you’re going to have to either let the audience create their own explanations or hand the explanations to them elsewhere. The lesson here: make sure you’re taking the right amount of time to show what you need to show so that you don’t have to tell later.

To be clear, this is a general rule, and general rules can always be broken in good writing–if done well and only when appropriate. It is possible to have key events happen “off stage” and describe them later or to play with the relation of key information in other ways, but these decisions must be made carefully and deliberately. My recommendation is to start with a “more is more” approach when writing and then employ a “less is more” approach when editing. It’s easier (I think) to lay it all out and refine by cutting out the dross than to realize your narrative isn’t complete and then struggle to fill in gaps–I’ve been there!

Here are some specific examples from Season 8 of this being an issue: the tactics employed at the Battle of Winterfell, Daenerys’ suddden change in the attack on King’s Landing. This lesson could just as easily be called “Timing is everything,” or “Don’t Rush” (the latter of which is probably the cause of most of Season 8’s mistakes).

Reversals of Expectations: There’s a right way and a wrong way.

The showrunners made a great deal out of “defying audience expectations” in Season 8. Defying audience expectations is a key technique in good narrative, but there’s more nuance to it than that. The technique, properly employed, has two parts: (1) give the audience a twist that they don’t see coming AND (2) set up the narrative so that, in retrospect, that twist feels somehow inevitable.

This is not a game of “gotcha!” Good writers do not play with twists and surprises simply because its something to do. Good writers use twists to increase tension, remind us that, like life itself, the unexpected (but often foreseeable) occurs in narrative, to create drama.

A good surprise must satisfy multiple demands in addition to the two basics mentioned above. The twist must follow the internal consistency of the setting–it should defy expectations of plot, but not of the personality and character of the actors or the rules (spoken or unspoken) of the setting itself. It must have sufficient groundwork laid in the story; without this the “twist” feels random and unmoored from the themes and scope of the rest of the narrative.

In “gritty” fiction, there will be times when bad fortune or ill luck interjects itself into the story, times when both readers and characters are left wondering “is there a meaning to all of this, or is everything that happens just random?” But those types of events only work when explained by coincidence and happenstance–they must truly be strokes of bad luck. When we’re talking about the choices made by characters, there must be believable motivation and a way for the character to justify the action–even if we don’t agree with the logic or morality of that justification.

The example that undoubtedly comes to mind here, as above, is Daenerys’ sudden decision to kill everyone in King’s Landing. There is some building-up of her story arc in the early narrative (following Martin) that Dany might not be the great savior everyone hopes that she will be. She is a harsh mistress to the Masters of the cities of Slaver’s Bay, willing to commit atrocities in the name of “justice.” But this moral ambiguity (strongly based in the character of historical figures in similar situations) is not the same as the desire for justice slipping into a desire for power and control to implement that justice. That story arc certainly works (it is the rationale behind Morgoth and especially Sauron in Tolkien’s world), but we need a solid background for such a morally-repugnant act as mass murder of innocents. We are given the groundwork for her eventual “fall” into a person willing to use harsh means to achieve her idealistic ends, but not for her to do what she did. This lack of laying the proper foundation for her sudden change leaves it feeling like, as some commenters put it, “a betrayal of her character.” This leads us to the next point.

Internal Consistency versus Authorial Fiat

For me, the greatest issue I took with Season 8, the thing that left such a bad taste in my mouth, was my belief that the showrunners decided what would happen and then shoehorned in all of the details to get them to those decisions. Euron’s sudden (and nonsensical) appearance before an undefended Targaryen fleet and ability to quickly slay a dragon compared with his powerlessness before one remaining dragon at King’s Landing is only one exemplar here. Having Arya kill the Night King (which had been “decided early on”) is another. And just about all of Episode 6.

One of the great joys of writing (in my mind, though I hear this with some frequency from other writers) is when a story takes on a life of its own. What you thought would happen in your story gets suddenly left behind because of the momentum the story has accrued, the logic of the setting, the narrative and the characters within it. We find ourselves mid-sentence, suddenly inspired (in as true a sense as that word can be used) with the thought, “That’s not what happens, this character would do X instead! Which means Y needs to change!” All of sudden, you’re going somewhere better than you were originally headed, somewhere truly rewarding to write and to for your audience to read or see.

This is the result of a dialectic that forms between the moving parts of the story. The narrative, the dramatic tensiveness of the story, the themes and motifs, the characters involved and the conditions established by the setting; the gestalt of these elements becomes something that lives and breathes, something greater than the mere sum of its parts.

Pigeonholing the plot forces it to become stilted, forced and (worst of all) didactic. Dead and mechanical. This is, in part, the difficulty with story “formulae.” There are narrative structures that provide a general framework for certain types of genres or stories, but following the formula with nothing else results in something unsatisfactory.

Here, though, my suspicion is that the problem was more a matter of fan-service and a slavish devotion to defying expectations than rote adherence to fantasy-story formulae.

One of the things that made the Song of Ice and Fire books, and the Game of Thrones TV show so popular, so gripping for the audience, was that it pulled more from medieval chronicle than fantasy yarn for its structure. The story is about the world and the group of characters as a whole in a way that is bigger than any of the constituent characters, that survives the misfortunate end of any one (or more) of them. This left no character safe, allowed for real surprises that contradicted expectations of narrative structure rather than expectations based on the internal logic of the harsh, unforgiving setting and culture(s) in which the story takes place. The internal logic, then, drives the defiance of expectations instead of resisting forced twists of expectations inserted into the plot by the author’s whim.

In fantasy in particular, internal consistency is the golden rule. In settings where magic is real, where dragons may soar in the skies and burn down the enemies of a proud queen, we are required to suspend disbelief. Of course. But we can manage that suspension of disbelief only when there is a reward for doing so and the obstacles that might prevent us are removed from our path. Magic is a wonder to behold in the truest sense, but it fizzles and dies when it appears that the magic in a setting does not follow certain rules or structure (even if we don’t fully understand those rules or that structure). If the magic is simply a convenient plot device that conforms like water to whatever shape the author needs or desires, then it fails to carry wonder or drama. Drama constitutes the ultimate reward for the suspension of disbelief–allow yourself to play in world with different rules from our own and the stories you find there will satisfy, amaze, entertain and tell us truths about our own world, even if it is very different. But without internal consistency, there can be little meaning. Without meaning, narrative is nonsense.

Season 8 lacked this internal consistency on many levels. From the small, like the much-discussed “teleportation” around Westeros, to the glaring, like battles being predetermined by plot rather than by the forces and characters that participated in them.

But the greatest issue I took with Season 8 in its (lack of) internal consistency was the ending. To me, the sudden appearance of the nobility of Westeros to decide, “Yay! Constitutional monarchy from now on!” seemed far too after-school special for me. For a story where peoples’ personalities, desires and miredness in a culture of vengeance and violence long proved the driving factor, you need far more of an internal story arc for a sudden commitment to peaceful resolution of issues to be believable. They would have to reject their entire culture to do so, rather than rationalizing how the culture is correct all along (what much more frequently happens in real life). I can see such a decision for Tyrion and for Jon. But for Sansa and Arya, I do not. And why Yara Greyjoy and the new Prince of Dorne wouldn’t likewise declare independence, I cannot say.

In short, I just don’t think that the narrative satisfactorily supports the actions taken by the ad-hoc council of Westerosi nobles in the final episode.

When a Narrative Fails Your Narrative

Why did putting Bran on the throne fall flat in the final episode? Tyrion gave an impassioned speech about how stories are what bind people together and create meaning (something with which I wholeheartedly agree as aspiring fantasy author and aspiring existential Christian theologian) and then made an argument about the power of Brandon’s story.

Wait, what? You lost me there. What was the power of Brandon’s story? Yes, it started strong, and he did do some amazing things–crossing north of the Wall, becoming the Three-Eyed Raven (whatever the hell that means), surviving his long fall from the tower at Winterfell. But, given his role in Season 8, I’m not sure that any of that mattered. He played relatively no role at the Battle of Winterfell (at least that we mortals could see), the narrative of his role as Three-Eyed Raven was left impotent and undeveloped at the end of the series, and of those with decision-making authority in Westeros, few had any direct experience with a Three-Eyed Raven, the White Walkers or the Battle of Winterfell. To them, the whole thing is just a made-up story by the North.

For narrative to be effective, we must be able to use it to find or create meaning. Bran’s story is too jumbled a mess without a climax or denouement for us to be able to piece much meaning out of it. In fact, we’re left wondering if it meant anything at all.

Since the idea to put him on the throne relies on the meaning of his story, the act of crowning him itself becomes meaningless; we can find no internally-consisted basis for supporting making him king (other than that he can’t father children) and no meta-narrative logic for the event either. This is exacerbated by the fact that Bran earlier tells us that he doesn’t consider himself to be Bran anymore. Without continuity of character, narrative loses meaning.

Thus, the finale fails because it relies on a sub-narrative that has failed. It is a common trope for fantasy fiction to use other stories (often legends) from the setting’s past to convey meanings and themes for the main narrative (Tolkien does this, Martin himself does, Rothfuss does as a major plot device in The Kingkiller Chronicles); writers looking to follow suit need to make sure that any “story-within-a-story” they use itself satisfies the necessities of good storytelling, or one is only heaping narrative failure upon narrative failure. The effect, I think, is exponential, not linear.

What the Audience Wants and What the Audience Needs

Several of my friends who are avid fans of the show and the books, before the final episode, expressed their feelings about the uncertain ending in terms of “what they could live with.” This was often contrasted with both their hopes for what would happen and their expectations of what would happen.

There’s been much talk (even by myself) about the showrunners performing “fan-service” in this season, whether through the “plot armor” of certain characters or the tidy wrapping up of certain narratives.

The claim that the showrunners made plot choices in order to please the audience has set me thinking about these types of choices on several fronts. On the one hand, GoT rose to prominence in part directly because of G.R.R. Martin’s seeming refusal to do any “fan-service.” That communicates to me that there is a gulf between what readers want from a story and what they need to feel satisfied by the story.

We can all recognize that there are stories that don’t end happily, either in general or for our most-beloved characters, that nevertheless remain truly satisfying and meaningful narratives for us, ones that we return to time and again.

So, should giving the audience what they want (or, to be more accurate, what we think they want) be a consideration for the writer? There is no simple answer to this question. The idealistic writer (like myself, I suppose) might argue that crafting a good story–which is not the same as a story that gives the audience exactly what it wants–is more important than satisfying tastes. On the other hand, the publishing industry has much to say about finding the right “market” for a book, and knowing what kind of stories will or won’t sell. For the person who needs or wants to make a living as an author, playing to those needs may be a necessity. Even if income isn’t a concern, there’s still something to be said for what the audience organically finds meaningful as opposed to what the author seeks to impose as the meaning and value of the story.

I just want to point out this tension as something that the final season of Game of Thrones might help us think about, not something for which I have any answers, easy or otherwise. When the final books in the series are released (if that ever happens), maybe there will be some fertile ground for exploration of these ideas. Of course, the intent of the various creative minds on all sides of this collection of narratives may remain forever too opaque for us to glean any true understanding of the delicate relationship between author, craft and audience.

Conclusion

I, as many of you I suspect, was left profoundly unsatisfied with the ending of a story I’ve spent years being attached to by the final season of Game of Thrones, and my frustration is further stoked by the knowledge that the showrunners could have had more episodes to finish things the right way instead of rushing to a capricious and arbitrary ending.

That said, the failures of the season (not to mention the great successes of previous seasons) provide many lessons for we would-be authors.

What do you think?

 

Nootropics for Writers

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor; this post is not intended to be medical or nutritional advice. It is only a description of some of my own experiences. “Dietary supplements” like the ones discussed herein are insufficiently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or other agencies and there are no serious standards for the protection of consumers or for claims made by manufacturers. I highly recommend that you consult with medical professionals before making a decision to use any supplement, chemical or “herbal treatment.” Proceed at your own risk.

I don’t, as a rule, take drugs that are not prescribed for me or available over-the-counter for the short-term remedy of mild conditions. As I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I suffer from clinical depression due to a chemical imbalance in my brain. It is well controlled under my current pharmaceutical regimen, and I have no desire to threaten that careful balance. I have never used an illegal substance and have no desire to start. I don’t smoke.

That said, if you tell me there’s a way to make myself a more productive writer, you can bet I’m going to investigate. While I’m passionate about writing, my brain tends to work in short bursts rather than long slogs and I personally find that much-vaunted “flow state” elusive more often than not.

As a writer of speculative fiction (mostly fantasy but with an interest in science fiction as well), I happened to come across the idea of “nootropics” while doing research into ideas and theories about human enhancement.

As best I can tell, there is a subculture evolving, partially an overlap with the more general “maker” and “biohacker” subcultures, devoted to the use of nootropics. You will find myriad sites and forums where advocates compare their personal “stacks.”

It starts with something we are all experientially aware of: some substances seem to have positive cognitive effects when administered in proper (and safe) doses. Caffeine is the most common and widely used of these substances, it seems, and it is in fact a part of most nootropic “stacks.”

The lists of nootropics is relatively long, ranging from things like gingko biloba to hardcore prescription-strength drugs like modafinil–a military-grade amphetamine alternative. Some of the substances touted for nootropic qualities act individually, while others supposedly provide greater effects when combined with other nootropics.

Most of those experimenting with nootropics (and I think it’s still safe to say that all nootropic usage is experimental at present given the lack of strong scientific support for usage or for most of the substances put forward) develop a “stack.” The “stack” consists of a collection of nootropics to be taken together, in hopes of maximizing effect.

For those who would rather not compile information and develop a stack for themselves, there are several commercially-available stacks such as Qualia.

Because I am not recommending that anyone use these substances, I’m not going to detail the particular ones I used to develop a stack for myself to see if there was anything to this whole idea.

But I will report my experiences. Over a handful of trials of the same stack (spread out over time–none of the substances in my stack, with the exception perhaps of caffeine are supposed to be addictive, but I’m trying to stay on the side of caution), I have experienced greater focus and even what I’d call “flow state.”

I would describe the most immediate effect I experienced as increased focus combined with maintained situational awareness. This is an odd sensation, but not unpleasant. While writing after using nootropics, I did experience increased word counts (as a measure of productivity) and longer periods over which I could sit and focus on writing, which is different from my typical experiences. So, yes, I did experience what I would call noticeable improvement in cognitive function, particularly for the purpose of writing productivity.

HOWEVER, I have a number of reservations as well. First, I cannot be sure that what I experienced is anything more than a placebo effect. My evaluation is, after all, entirely subjective. Further, I cannot be sure that nootropics were the direct cause of the increased productivity–I’ve been simultaneously and very consciously working on developing my writing focus and discipline. In an age of constant-partial attention, I’m not unconvinced that my difficulties writing for long periods of time or focusing for extended writing sessions are a matter of bad habits rather than chemical brain-states. Along with this, I have to question whether there are better–non chemically-dependent–measures for the achievement of the same effect. Is it possible that meditation, mindfulness exercises, actual exercise and other means could be used to do the same thing? I don’t know for sure, but I have a suspicion that the answer is “yes.” After all, the brain is a highly sophisticated organ, one which we do not understand nearly as well as we’d like to think in this information age. I think it’s probable, likely even, that there are natural ways of tapping into the body’s and brain’s natural ability to increase focus and creativity that do not rely upon the introduction of foreign substances to them.

So, if the question begged by this post is “do nootropics help writers to write?” then the definitive answer I can give is “maybe.” While I did experience some effects in productivity (going from writing about 1500 words in a sitting to writing 2500), I can’t be sure of causation in any logical or scientific way. And I can report that there are times when I naturally match the productivity I experienced without the need for a collection of horsepill-sized supplements. Further, there is no good information on the long-term effects of nootropics, and that alone should be concerning.

Given my lack of medical background, I’m not qualified to make a recommendation about the use of nootropics. Even though I personally experienced perceived cognitive enhancement through their use, I’d highly recommend that other strategies–development of habits, regular exercise, a routine where writing occurs at the time you naturally feel most creative and focused, careful curation of the writing space to be inspiring and free from distraction, etc.–be implemented before even considering nootropics as an aid to the writer’s craft.

When it comes down to it, we all want something for nothing. We writers all want some panacea, some magic trick that makes us brilliant authors without having to face difficulties. Combine that with the myth of the suffering artist, that we must either be crazy or despairing to be creative, and its easy to see why nootropics might be an enticing idea for the aspiring writer.

But the struggle with the craft, the wrestling with turning images, thoughts, ideas and emotions into words of power on a page, therein lies the true magic of the craft. For that, there are no shortcuts, no miracle drugs, no ways but the hard way. And at the end of the day, isn’t that one of the reasons we feel so driven to do it?

Temptation

This post is something of a confession; prepare yourself. It’s nothing so tantalizing as a comment about the temptation of drugs or sex; it’s about another insidious temptation with which society often plies us. Lately, I’m feeling its pull more strongly, it seems.

That temptation is the one of comparison. You know the one. It’s the one that gnaws at your soul a little, whispers doubts in the back of your mind, every time you open up a social media platform. You see people living their “best lives” and–even though you consciously know that 99% of what you see posted is manufactured and exaggerated, conveniently glossing over those problems, dilemmas, failures and weaknesses that everyone has and no one really wants to share–you still wonder, “Am I not doing as well as everyone else?” “Am I just not as good?”

I’m no exception, and lately I’m thinking about this much more than I’d like to. Part of it is a function of age: I’m thirty-five, fast closing in on thirty-six. But I can’t really lay the blame on that, because it’s just another measure I’m using for comparison.

I, like many people from upper-middle-class suburban backgrounds, was raised on a steady regimen of the importance of achievement. Explicitly or not, I was taught to weigh value based on achievements reached, things accomplished. To add to that, I fell into the belief (though I can’t, admittedly, say that anyone drilled it into me) that real achievers achieve things early and often.

This was an easy thing to satisfy when I was younger and in school. I maintained consistently high grades, took all of the advanced placement classes available to me and entered my first semester of college with forty-seven hours of credit already under my belt. I spent the next decade or so earning degrees, tangible (kind-of) certifications of achievement.

Now I’m much farther removed from academia, and I’ve become much more responsible for intrinsically maintaining my sense of self-worth.

And therein lies the battle. I have very consciously chosen certain ideals and values to live by, ideals and values inspired by my faith and my idealism, ideals and values about which I am convicted and passionate.

Sometimes, those values are counter-cultural. A significant point of my personality is the value I place on my independence. Combined with my moral compass, that’s very much influenced my career path as a lawyer. Those choices are not without consequences. One of my wisest friends once said, “you’re only as free as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.” Fulfilling that statement is truly living without fear, and it’s something that has resonated with me ever since I first heard it.

So–most of the time–I’m perfectly content with the career choices I’ve made. I work in a small firm with two partners who are like family, I have great independence in how I do my work and for whom I work. This has given me a lifestyle balance that truly fits with who I am, and I often tell people that I wouldn’t be happy lawyering if I was working for someone else.

But it also means that there are consequences. Balancing my broader life goals against my career and placing my moral values first when working mean that I sometimes turn down work that might be lucrative or that I perform my work in ways that place income as a secondary concern. I don’t take on new clients when I don’t believe that I can achieve anything for them; I don’t bill my clients for every little thing; and I don’t charge the exorbitant fees I sometimes see other attorneys charging.

I feel those choices every time I look at my bank account. Don’t get me wrong, I make a decent living and my practice grows with each passing year–it turns out that being honest and capable actually is a good business model! I’m happy to accept the consequences of those choices; I’ve found in the past few years that I need far fewer material things to be happy than I thought I did, and I have mostly disdain for the pursuit of wealth, power and status.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was scrolling through Facebook over the weekend and happened across a post by a couple I went to law school with and felt a pang of jealousy. Here’s the strangest part: my jealousy was about the background of the picture, about their kitchen. I’ll be very excited to see K’s reaction when she reads this, because she knows me well and knows how little stock I typically put in the size and fanciness of a person’s home.

Of course, my feelings weren’t really about the kitchen. They were the result of the doubting my own adequacy in light of the financial success this couple presumably enjoys. These feelings were really about me asking myself if I’m really good enough, according to a standard I don’t believe in and actually reject!

I don’t want a house like theirs. I don’t want the type of life consequences that are attached to such a choice (which is not intended to be a judgment of their choices, simply a statement that that is not the path for me). But it doesn’t matter who you are, that temptation will reach its ugly tendrils into each of us at some point, if not regularly.

When it comes down to it, though, career achievement is the place where the temptation of comparison to others is easiest for me to bear. I’m very proud of how I conduct my business and uphold my values; that I try to practice the Christian ideals I so often discuss on this site. Again, that’s not intended to be a judgment on others, just a matter of trying to keep my own hypocrisy to a minimum.

The two other temptations I frequently feel to compare with others hit closer to home. The first of these is about parenthood; the second: my writing.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time, or perused it in depth, or who know me personally, know that K and I plan to foster to adopt, and that we’re again waiting for a placement of kids. That’s difficult enough as it is, but we’re quickly approaching a time where it seems that we’re the only ones without children. One of my partners at the law firm has two; the other is expecting his first this Fall. My (younger) sister is pregnant with her first (and I am very happy about this and excited for her!) and I’ve got several siblings and cousins–many of whom are younger than me–who already have children as well.

I know better than to think of having children as a matter of achievement, really I do. But the fact that I have to write that here is revelatory in and of itself, is it not? And I know that K and I are not the only ones to deal with such comparisons with others–not by a long shot.

For me, my writing is where this temptation cuts deepest. If I can discern any sort of divine calling for myself, it lies in writing fiction and theology. If there is a personal pursuit about which I am truly passionate,  it is in writing. If there is a single most-powerful, non-divine source of my sense of self-worth, it is in my writing.

I’ll make a true confession by way of example, so get ready for some vulnerability on my part: This past weekend Rachel Held Evans died. She was an outspoken writer for progressive Christian values and, even in her short life, accomplished much in service of Christian faith and demonstrating to the unchurched (and perhaps millennials in particular) a Christianity that rejects fundamentalism, embraces the Gospel truth of love and reminds us that Christ calls us to pursue an agenda of social justice that does not rely on identity politics, a rejection of immigrants, or fear. (Here is one article with some information if you’re not familiar with her).

To my shame, I have to admit that, in addition to the sincere sorrow I feel at her passing, I was awash in a sense of unreasonable jealousy. She was only a little older than me and already had five published books! Obviously, my feelings of inadequacy have nothing to do with her; they’re really about me questioning myself, worrying that maybe I just don’t have what it takes.

I told myself that I’d get my first major work published before I turned 40. As that time slips ever closer, I find myself often looking up other author’s ages when they were first published. I can say that I understand that their life isn’t mine, nor should it be. I can write that I know that the value of a writing originates in the writing itself, not how old the author was at the time of creation.

And that knowledge, I think, is where the truth will out. Particularly in my theology, I talk about the importance and beauty of ambiguity. I also admit the difficulty we naturally have with the ambiguous. And let this post be evidence that I don’t stand above that difficulty; I’m not free from that struggle.

There are no easy ways to judge the value of a writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Style is so highly varied and individual, the myriad ways in which a story might be told so dependent upon the consciousness in control of the tale, that there can be no single measuring stick. And yet, we humans like to have some certainty, even if that certainty is artificial and illusory.  For me, I can find some tangible standard of measure by looking at age at time of publication as a meaningful comparison (though I know in my heart it is not).

Again, the craziest part about falling into self-doubt by making such comparisons is that I intellectually do not value them! In my fiction, I follow after Joss Whedon: “I’d rather make a show that 100 people need to see than one 1,000 people want to see.” At this point in my writing, I’m not sure that I can do either, yet, but the point is that I’m more interested in deep connections with a smaller group of people than broadly appealing in a commercially-viable way. The same goes for my theology–I’d rather write something that resonates deeply and inspires just a few people to legitimate faith, that gives even a single person permission to practice Christianity in a way that isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” than to establish some great presence in the history of theology.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not even sure that I’m interested in traditional publication avenues right now. I’d love to be able to make a living writing, to devote all of my time to it, but not at the cost of having to cater to publishers or what will be successful on the current literary market to do it. My self-comparisons with published authors, though, makes me wonder if all of this idealism is simply cover for the fear of failing. “Know thyself,” the oracle says. “I’m trying!” I complain in response.

Ultimately, the temptation to compare ourselves comes from a positive place–we want to be meaningful, to be creators of meaning and to live lives where others can easily recognize meaning. That is a natural and divine thing. It’s where we let society tell us that meaning must look a certain way that we go wrong, where we try to make someone else’s meaning our own that we lose ourselves. Perhaps that is what Jesus means when he warns us about the temptation of the world, what Paul is alluding to when he warns us not to be “conformed to this world.”

What I do know is that I am passion about writing, and in particular I’m passionate about writing speculative fiction and easily-accessible theology. I’m working on the discipline to match that passion, and with every passing day I’m probably coming to understand the art and craft of writing just a little bit better–no that anyone truly ever masters it. Those things need no comparisons to be true, to be inspiring, to be fulfilling. So why look beyond them? As with so many things, easier to know what to do than to actually do it.

How do you cope with such temptations? Having read the blogs of some of my dear readers, I know that there is insight out there, meaningful stories to share. If you’ve got one, comment, or post a link to a post on your blog, or send me a message!

Post Script: Maybe in talking about my struggles writing, it would be useful to give a short update on where that writing stands:
(1) Children of God: This is the tentative title of my first theological book. I’ve had finished about 75% of a first-draft for several years now, but it needs a rewrite from the beginning and I need set aside the time to do that.
(2) Wilderlands: This is the first Avar Narn novel I’ve seriously set to working on. The first draft is about 40%-50% complete. I’m starting to feel an itch to return to the story; I’m not sure whether I’ll do that soon or wait until NaNoWriMo this year (which is how it started). It needs to be finished and then needs some significant rewrites in the portion already written.
(3) Unnamed Story of Indeterminate Length: This is an almost-noir-style story set in Avar Narn and what I’ve been working on most recently. I had envisioned it as a short-story, but it’s already swelled to 16,000 words and I’m not finished. I’ll be sending to some volunteers for review and advice on whether it should be left as a novella, cut down significantly, or expanded into a novel. I’ve got several other “short stories” in mind with the same major character, so this could end up being a novella set, a collection of short stories, or a novel series. I’ve also got an unfinished novella-length story with the same character I may return to while this one is under review. If you’d like to be a reader, send me a message.
(4) Other Avar Narn Short Stories: I’ve got several other short story ideas I’m toying around with, but I’m trying not to add too many other projects before I make substantial progress on the above.
(5) Avar Narn RPG: I have a list of games to spend some time with and potentially steal from for the rules here, but I’m mostly waiting to get some more fiction written to elaborate the setting before continuing seriously here. I’m occasionally working on additional worldbuilding and text that could fit in an RPG manual.
(6) The Blog: Of course, more blog posts to come.

 

What Jesus’ Fulfillment of Prophecies Tells us about Biblical Literalism

As my dear readers have come to understand, one of my biggest assertions in my theology is against any purely literal or uncomplicated reading of the Biblical text. In this post, I want to demonstrate how a number of interpretations of Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophetic scripture requires the insertion of metaphor and a rejection of purely literal reading.

This is, of course, not to say that there aren’t parts of the Bible that are intended to be taken literally. There are. But determining which scriptures those are is not a matter of blind acceptance; it is a matter of using all the analytical tools God has given us to separate the wheat from the dross. That extremely complex and difficult task is a discussion for another time (and a long one at that). For now, I just want to look at how certain prophecies generally (but not universally) accepted by Christians as applying to Jesus require us to leave behind the literal meaning of the text or, more commonly, to allow one of Chesterton’s “furious paradoxes” in seeing both an immediate (more literal)  prophecy and one (more metaphorical) that looks toward fulfillment in Jesus.

Let’s start with Isaiah 7:13-17. Verse fourteen is often translated “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” It’s rather easy to see how this might be applied–retrospectively–to be a prophecy of Jesus. But that requires ignoring the context. The word often translated as “virgin” does not necessarily mean “virgin;” it could also fairly be translated to indicate a “newly married woman” or a “young woman (of marriageable age).”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary I happen to have at hand at the moment of writing states that calling the (soon-to-be-born-in-Isaiah) child “Immanuel” should not be equated with a claim that the child so-named is God in human form as we believe Jesus would later be. Instead, the commentary argues that the prophecy simply means that the coming of the king of Assyria would occur before a child to be born to a woman present at the time the prophecy is uttered reaches the “age of accountability” (held by Jewish custom to be 13 but not explicitly named in the Bible).

Indeed, Ahaz calls upon Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (against Isaiah’s warnings) for assistance; Tiglath-Pileser captures Galilea and later Samaria for himself. Jerusalem itself is besieged by Sennecharib in 701 BCE (though Hezekiah is king at this time).

So, on a literal reading of the prophecy, we should only apply it to 8th Century Israel and Judah, not to the coming of Christ seven centuries later. But the metaphor still seems so clear as to be unavoidable. That’s the problem with well-constructed prophecy, isn’t it? It seems in retrospect so easy to find a successful prediction and yet we like to think of that link as inevitable. Which makes it suspicious and susceptible to reasonable questioning, as the human predilection for inserting patterns into chaos is well documented.

Much ink has been spilt on the topic of the Christianization of Old Testament scriptures like this one, and I’ll defer to the scholars on that discussion. For this post, I’ll limit the topic to the fact that, right or wrong, to see Isaiah 7:13-17 as a prediction of the Messiah requires us to leave the literal text behind. I don’t at all believe that that is wrong, but I do think we need to acknowledge what we’re doing when we make that argument.

Likewise, Isaiah 9:1-7 (From verse 6):

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary again warns: “Christians have used some aspects of the passage to help them understand the significance of Christ, but the passage as a whole does not directly apply to Christ and the NT does not so apply it.”

While conceding that “Verse 7 does express what Christ will yet do,” the commentary goes on to describe how the passage represents an imminent deliverance from Assyria of the Israelite people by Yahweh.

Again, it is easy to see, looking back from the Gospels, how readily this passage might be applied to Jesus as the Messiah, but that is an ex post facto interpolation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that God didn’t intend for Isaiah’s prophecy to have both an immediate meaning and a cosmic one–I think that’s a fair interpretation for the Christian to make. But, in doing so, we must maintain the honest position that neither Isaiah 7 and 9 do not prove the coming of Christ through Old Testament prophecies.

Rather, we ought to formulate the statement as something like: “As a believer in Jesus as the Son of God and in the Gospel message, I believe that the God, speaking through the prophets in the Old Testament, gave the Israelites double-pronged prophecies that had immediate and literal importance to the hearers while also containing a metaphorical cosmic prediction of God’s action through Jesus Christ, though the prophets and hearers of the time would not have considered or looked for this second, metaphorical meaning.”

Again, the specifics of our interpretation of these passages are not the point of my thoughts here. We’re instead focusing on the need to resort to metaphor and non-literal thinking to make the popular Christian interpretation of these scriptures the least bit functional.

Some more examples:

Isaiah 52-53: Like Isaiah 7 and 9, there is a very strong metaphorical relationship between this text and the life of Jesus Christ. But we must also conveniently overlook some inconsistencies between the description of the “suffering servant” and Jesus or again assume that this text had both a more immediate interpretation and more metaphorical applicability to Jesus.

Psalm 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.” This cannot be a literal reference to Jesus if you are a Trinitarian Christian, as such an interpretation would result in the heresy of “adoptionism.”

Zechariah 12:10: The passage about “the one they have pierced” and those that follow certainly seem to have correspondence with the Crucifixion–you might have read this passage during Good Friday services. As I have above, I’m not asserting that this passage doesn’t have anything to do with the Gospels. However, if we look at the first verses of Chapter 12, I think we have to consider that this passage is not literally referring to Jesus’ on the Cross and that our (probably correct) temptation to read that relationship relies on a metaphorical relationship.

As I’ve tried to indicate in the preceding paragraphs, I’m going to accept the applicability of the Old Testament passages cited above to Jesus. There are many more examples to be given, but I’m going to try to keep this post short(ish).

To accept that we should assign Christian meaning to those OT scriptures and maintain some semblance of logic and intellectual honesty, we must acknowledge that metaphor is sometimes required in the “proper” interpretation of the scriptures.

If we do that, we cannot hold both that these passages point to the Messiah and that the Bible should only be read literally and without layers of indirect meaning and complex interpretation. Interesting, n’est pas?

Holy Week

(An opening note: I’ve started writing this post, veered off onto various tangents–later deleted–and then restarted several times. Being “stuck” on a post of this nature, or having to repeatedly reset my thoughts, is atypical of my experience in the time I’ve been running this blog. The thoughts that follow should probably be treated as musings, as me thinking to myself on paper as you observe, rather than the sort of pointed and organized theological assertions I tend to make. This may be–and I hope that it is–a result of what theological understanding I have being overwhelmed by the reality and the mystery of the Holy Week. I also hope that you find something of value to ruminate upon, meditate upon, or at least mull over during the coming Easter weekend.)

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’re probably already familiar with Dr. John (Jack) A. Beck. He is a scholar of Biblical geography and was our guide during our two weeks in Israel last year. If you want to (re-)read about that, my journal of my experiences along the way starts here.

Sunday night, Jack came to our church to preach in the morning for Palm Sunday and to give a lecture about what the geography of Jesus’ route into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday tells us about the Gospel text. As expected, it was an eye-opening lecture. I’ll include a short summary, but I’d invite you to take the time to watch it here. Then consider watching some of Dr. Beck’s other work or buying some of his books.

I’m going to unabashedly ride on Dr. Beck’s coattails here, thinking about the Holy Week in light of the picture he paints of the thoughtful fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy involved in Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

TL;DW

If you don’t have time or inclination to watch Dr. Beck’s lecture, here’s the short of it: the choices Jesus makes in approaching Israel from the east, through the Judean wilderness, entering Bethpage on a donkey (procured after he’s already walked up the Mount of Olives rather than before) and proceeding from Bethpage to the Gihon Spring are all conscious fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

The response of the (probably mostly Galilean) crowds to throw down their cloaks and wave palm branches was an explicit recognition of Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of those prophecies.

Enacting Prophecy
If your first response to the argument Dr. Beck makes is to have some doubt about the Messiah because he actively orchestrated the fulfillment of the prophecies, you’re not alone.

I had written a rather long response to this issue, but I’ve cut it from this post in the interest of focus. Maybe it will pop up in a post of its own sometime in the future, but for now, I’m going to settle with saying this:

Jesus taking measures to enact the Old Testament prophecies in his entrance to Jerusalem is just another of his claims to be the Messiah. When you look at it this way, it’s not very different from any other time he claims that he is the Messiah. You’re still left with the choice of whether to believe he is or is not, and we are ultimately given enough on which to base a strong conviction of the answer without being able to definitively and unequivocally prove it to anyone–in no small part due to the fact that none of us were personally there to witness. It’s a matter of faith for a reason.

I’m proceeding in this post based upon the importance of Jesus consciously choosing to fulfill the prophecies about which Jack Beck speaks in his lecture.

A Point of No Return

I don’t know to what extent the human aspect of Jesus had access to divine foresight; that is certainly a part of the mystery that Jesus was wholly human and wholly divine. But it wouldn’t take divine foresight to see what was likely to follow if Jesus made the claim to be the Messiah by so publicly fulfilling the messianic and prophetic expectations of the Jews gathered in and around Jerusalem for Passover.

The Biblical text tells us that he expected what followed–he predicts his impending death three times before he actually makes his grand entrance into Jerusalem according to the Gospels.

The Pharisees and religious authorities commonly asked Jesus the authority by which he spoke and did what he did. They were already looking for a way to be rid of this thorn in their side. The same goes for the political authorities (who sometimes were also religious authorities). Jesus’s declaration to be the Messiah create an alternative to their authority in maintaining control over the Jewish people. Look at history–those in authority are often willing to kill for far less.

So there’s every indication that Jesus knew what his entrance into Jerusalem in the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies would cause to happen. Certainly, once the palm fronds came out, it would have been clear that there was no going back.

A Declaration of War
As Jack Beck points out in his lecture, the palm fronds procured by the bystanders witnessing Jesus’ arrival into the city have historical roots. This is a reference to the Book of Maccabees, wherein the Jews retake Jerusalem from the Seleucids, celebrating their victory with palm fronds. The crowd’s use of the vegetation shows us several important things.

First, they were familiar enough with messianic prophecy from the Old Testament to recognize the claim that Jesus was making when he entered Bethpage on a donkey. Second, they expected their Messiah to bring them military revolution in which they would retake Jerusalem from the foreign powers who once again dominated it. Third, they expected this victory to be achieved solely (or at least almost solely) by God’s action through the messiah.

You might ask why I make the third argument. It’s simple, really. The Galileans gathered for Passover who witnessed Jesus coming into the city gathered palm fronds, not weapons. We know of the existence in the decades after Jesus’ death of violent dissidents who would eventually be instigators of the Jewish Revolt (the Sicarii or Zealots), but there’s not evidence of their existence before the procuratorship of Felix in the 50’s A.D. (from Josephus). Neverthless, we’re not told of a rash of violence, an uprising by the Jews or a widespread suppression by the Romans in response to Palm Sunday (and the Gospels seem to indicate a noticeable lack thereof–see the section on Pilate below). The use of the palm fronds also indicates timing–the Jews participating here are acting as if the victory is already won (if we stretch the metaphor to Maccabees to near-direct analogy).

We’re told in Mark that the priests began to look for a way to kill Jesus not upon his Passover entrance into the city, but upon his “attack” on the moneychangers at the Temple. This doesn’t seem exactly right to me. If the “rustic” Galileans understood the message Jesus was sending on Palm Sunday sufficiently to behave as they did, surely the educated priests took note as well.

And if all of them understood this, certainly the disciples did, too. When they were told that they should go fetch a donkey in Bethpage for Jesus to ride, they must have understood that this was it–Jesus’ big declaration of his Messiahhood.

We don’t really get any indication about how the disciples felt about all of this. We know that Jesus had told them three times to expect his impending death upon the entrance to Jerusalem and we know that fear later overtakes Peter and the other disciples upon Jesus’ arrest. But we’re not told about how they feel upon the entry to Jerusalem, knowing that Jesus’ action in fulfillment of the prophecies means that something big is about to happen.

This, ultimately, I think, is fitting. As I’ve argued in other posts, Erich Auerbach argues in Mimesis that the “Biblical style” of narrative forces us to engage with the text, to think about it in various contexts, to really wrestle with the ambiguous possibilities. This instance is a perfect example.

If words described the feelings of the disciples upon the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, we would quickly read those words and move on, taking them for granted. Feelings may be described, yes, but they’re at their most powerful when experienced. The gap in knowledge here forces us to insert our own humanity into the text to understand the humanity of the disciples in that moment–to try to feel what they felt.

Imagine how torn you would have been. You’ve been traveling with a man who claims to be the Messiah for several years. You have heard him teach amazing things and bring the Gospel of hope to a broken world. You have seen him do the miraculous, proving that he is truly “God with us,” both in those wondrous events and in the mundane ways in which he speaks and lives.

And now, all of the hopes and doubts you’ve developed in those years rush together in a maelstrom of emotion. The liberation Jesus has promised is finally at hand! The people outside of Jerusalem are recognizing Jesus as the Messiah! But Jesus has told you that this means the end for his physical time on earth. And, understanding the revolutionary tone that has arisen when the palm fronds came out, you know there’s about to be trouble. Is Jesus going to overthrow Roman occupation? Is he going to be killed by the Romans? Is the Day of Judgment at hand? Is Jesus really who he says he is? This combination of excitement and fear must have been swirling about in the minds of the twelve (and Jesus’ other followers).

Perhaps this thought grasps me because all Christians have some experience of this moment, I think. When they are deciding whether to believe in Jesus, they are at the precipice of fear, doubt and hope–between conviction that the Gospel promises are true and the hopelessness of deciding that Jesus was only a deluded man who made outrageous claims and died for nothing. And, I think it’s fair to say, that experience is not just a one-time thing in the life of the Christian. Until the Second Coming, we are all (metaphorically) in this middle place at the beginning of Holy Week–in possession of some evidence that Jesus is who he says he is but yet without the undeniable proof that the Gospel is Truth. Faith, especially when reasonable, is a difficult thing, and I empathize.

Pontius Pilate
Jack’s talk also has me thinking about Pontius Pilate’s position in the Passion. When the palm fronds came out on Jesus’ entrance to the city, surely someone informed Pilate what that symbolized. We know (and Jack shows this in his talk) that later Roman coins would mock the defeat of the first-century Jewish revolts by showing palm trees next to Roman soldiers or the goddess Nike, so we know that, at some point, the Romans understood the symbolism. I think it’s reasonable to believe that Pilate understood it at the time.

At this point in Roman history, and given Pilate’s position in Judea, I think that his primary concern would have been over physical and political revolt against Roman occupation. I don’t think he would have much cared about an internal religious dispute in Judaism if it didn’t affect Roman rule.

This certainly seems to play out in the Gospels, where the synoptics indicate that Pilate finds no reason to put Jesus to death beyond the urging of the Jewish priests. There, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews,” Jesus replies with some variation of “You have said so.” (emphasis mine, of course). If you’ve been left wondering about this exchange and why Pilate accepts that answer, I think Jack’s analysis of the entrance into Jerusalem helps fill in the gaps.

When those welcoming Jesus waved palm fronds, this would have been cause for some alarm among Roman leadership–the symbolism certainly seemed a prelude to revolt. But when the days followed with no revolt, or even the intimation of preparations for a revolt, I think the Romans would have lost concern quickly. Jesus’ actions with the moneychangers in the Temple would likely have reinforced Pilate’s idea (assuming he heard about this event) that the dispute of Jesus indicated an internal religious struggle with little bearing outside the Jewish community.

When Pilate questions Jesus, who responds without an assertion to rulership or right thereof, without threat of uprising or violence, without opposition to the power of Rome, I think that would have sealed the matter for the Roman. We’re told in Luke that Pilate tries to pass off Jesus to Herod. This would have been a shrewd political move, I think–it allows Pilate to claim that he’s made some effort to allow the Jews reasonable autonomy and to distance himself from the whole affair (which he seems to understand that no good can come of). Unfortunately (for Pilate), it doesn’t work; Herod passes the buck right back to the Roman governor.

John gives us even more information–here Jesus responds directly to Pilate’s key concern, saying “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” This statement gives Pilate an explanation to why no uprising manifested after Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, as well as giving some assurance that there’s no threat to Roman rule from the “Jesus dilemma.”

Pilate’s ultimate decision to crucify Jesus at the behest of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin (after his attempt to escape the situation by pitting Jesus against Barrabas) is characterized as a further political calculation. Jesus has already told him that Jesus’ followers hold beliefs that make a present uprising against Rome unlikely because they see nothing to be gained from such a worldly revolt. On the other hand, the magnates of Jewish society in Jerusalem have worked themselves into a froth over Jesus’ presence and claims–not doing something about Jesus likely would cause unrest. For the practitioner of realpolitik, the choice is a simple one.

Thus, we’re again given ambiguity, this time in the person of Pontius Pilate. In John, we’re given the image of an almost nihilistic powermonger (“What is truth?” he asks in response to Jesus’ claim to have brought the Truth to Earth). In the synoptics, we get the characterization of a man who bears no ill-will to Jesus but who is subject to sociopolitical forces beyond even his control. One invites derision; the other sympathy.  Some early Christians must have agreed, as apocryphal texts make some attempts to rehabilitate the image of Pilate.

JudasBetrayer or Loyal Follower?
I cannot remember where, but somewhere in my reading I’ve picked up on the interesting argument that Judas’ actions seem to indicate that his “betrayal” of Jesus was a matter of following instructions rather than truly betraying Jesus. To preface, I want to say that I have not done enough research to evaluate the credibility or weight of evidence in this argument; I present it here as nothing more than intriguing supposition. The argument goes something like this:

Iscariot should be taken to indicate relationship to the Sicarii (rather than the more commonly-accepted “from Kerioth”). As noted above, Josephus indicates the first appearance of the Sicarii in the 50’s A.D., so this is a somewhat problematic move, but one I’m not entirely willing to completely brush aside if we are focused on narrative meaning rather than historicity. In a similar vein, it has been argued that the use of the Pharisees in the Gospels reflects more on the time of the writing of the Gospels (when the Pharisees had become dominant after the fall of the Temple) rather than as an indicator of their position at Jesus’ time, when the Sadducees had greater power. If that assertion is true, and if a similar move is being made by the Gospel-writers here to use the idea of the later-formed Sicarii to make anachronistic–but effective–commentary about the relationship of those in favor of temporal, violent revolt with the way offered by Christ, then it is feasible (if unlikely), that Judas’ name as given in the Gospels was meant to tie him to the idea of violent revolt.

Accepting this as true for the sake of argument (as the line of thinking I’m describing does), the argument then proceeds to draw an analogy between Judas hanging himself in the account of Matthew with the loyal soldier committing suicide to die along with his beloved leader.

These ideas are then used to retroactively argue that Judas had been instructed by Jesus to give his location to the priests (something that the Gospels give no indication of) and that Jesus selected Judas because Jesus knew Judas would see the task through.

This idea came back to me as I thought about the argument that Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem–or at least the response thereto–could be viewed as a declaration of war. But the argument that Judas had some allegiance to those elements of Jewish society in favor of violent revolt against the Romans could just as easily cut the other way–we could imagine that he would be in high spirits as the palm fronds waved in remembrance of the Maccabean victory and all that it symbolized but that, when no uprising manifested and he began to understand that Jesus’ revolution and kingdom were not temporal, he became disillusioned and betrayed his master.

To be clear, there a number of elements of the Gospels that actively undercut the idea of Judas as “loyal servant” in the “betrayal” of Jesus. John disparages Judas’ nature as the disciples’ treasurer and Luke says that “the devil made him do it.” At the end of the day, there must remain some uncertainty about whether Judas was a scapegoat added to Jesus’ passion. I think he serves that function for us regardless of historicity or authorial intent–by focusing on demonizing Judas’ behavior toward Jesus, we can conveniently turn our thoughts away from scrutinizing our own failures in our walk. Even more, demonizing Judas ignores much of what Jesus had to say about forgiveness.

We don’t need some convoluted argument about Judas’ intent to reach that conclusion, even if petty greed seems an poor motivation for Judas’ actions as is commonly put forth.

I’d also note that the “grave betrayal” is that Judas told the priests where to find Jesus–but there’s no indication that Jesus was hiding and there’s every indication he expected to be arrested as part of those things which needed to happen.

Gethsemene
That brings us to the Garden of Gethsemene. This short scene in the Gospels carries so much meaning with it! I am especially moved by Chesterton’s description of the action between the Father and Son in Gethsemene as “God tempting God.” This accentuates the idea that, through Jesus, God has come to Earth to suffer everything man has suffered (and worse) in a demonstration of God’s justice; that it is human to not want to sacrifice, but divine to do so anyway; to give us some glimpse of the perichoresis of the Trinity.

In light of Jack’s analysis of the import of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, this scene in Gethsemene takes on new meaning for me. Jesus has already set in motion the claim and events that will lead to his crucifixion, and only after doing so does he ask for the “cup to be removed” from him. Jesus is asking for the miraculous and divine intervention of the Father, I think, not simply for some other way for things to work out.

To see even Jesus in this position carries great comfort to me, for some reason. I understand that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and that I am (only) fully human, but I nevertheless find this acknowledgement of human emotion to be another of God’s kindnesses. Here there is a permission to feel without guilt while Jesus’ example simultaneously calls us to the righteous path in spite of those feelings.

Conclusion
If you happen to be Catholic, I invite you to submit the task of reading all of these thoughts to your priest as an acceptable form of penance if future need arises. If you are of a Protestant persuasion, then consider the fact you’ve survived all the way through as a further demonstration of God’s inexhaustible grace.

Either way, I thank you for giving me the time to ramble as I have, and I wish you a Happy Easter filled with the profundity and comfort of the reality of God’s work for us through Jesus Christ. He is Risen, indeed!

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part VII: Initiation, Metamagic, Magical Traditions, Mentor Spirits

While I’m on a roll, so to speak, another piece of the Shadowrun “puzzle” for my Cortex Prime hack. This time: initiation and metamagic, magical traditions and mentor spirits.

A General Note
In many ways, this rules hack makes the Cortex system more complex than it is intended to be, but I believe that this is required to capture as much of the nuance of the Shadowrun setting as possible. Additionally, it may be that I am pushing core Cortex ideas (SFX and Assets in particular) to or past their limits–this will be evaluated (and rules ultimately rejected or revised) when I get to playtest the completed material. In the meantime, most of the complication is in character design rather than in gameplay, and it’s my expectation and intent that this ruleset remain magnitudes less complex than the actual Shadowrun rules.

When all of the posts in this series are completed (meaning that I’ve completed the ruleset as a whole), I’ll post a PDF containing all of the rules to the blog so that readers can use, playtest and comment on the hack to help me improve it.

Initiation
Initiation is the process of being awakened to the higher mysteries of magic–to the extent that they do not remain forever mysterious. It is a strange hybrid of study and the revelation of truths which may only be experienced, never told. With initiation into the greater magical cosmos comes increased power in everyday spell-slinging.

The simple way to handle Initiation is to use it as a Signature Asset as described below:

Signature Asset: Initiation: By paying an Edge Point (see the Limit below), the character may add the Initiation die to a dice pool to resolve a magical task, even if a different Signature Asset is already in the pool (this is what differentiates Initiation from other Signature Assets and balances against the Ordeal requirement below).

Limit: Edge Point: Adding the Initiation die to a roll requires the expenditure of an Edge Point.

Limit: SFX: Initiation may only be used in ways permitted by metamagical SFX purchased by the character.

Limit: Ordeal: The initiate must complete an Ordeal (see below) for each step of the Intiation die to acquire that step. (One Ordeal per new step, not one Ordeal per step of new die).

Depending upon the type of game you’re running, you may or may not want to allow the purchase of the Initiation Signature Asset at Character Creation.

Metamagic
Metamagic represents the “superpowers” of magical ability. It is best represented as SFX for the Initiation Asset. I recommend allowing one SFX to be chosen for each die step of the Initiation die and allowing additional SFX to be purchased as normal. Here are the metamagical examples I’ve come up with:

Centering: Add your Initiation Die to a dice pool for a magical task that includes the Drain limit and step up the Effect Die assigned to Drain by one step.

Fixation: Add your Initiation Die to the dice pool to create an alchemical asset. The asset lasts for the entire session rather than the next scene.

Masking: Add your Initiation Die to the dice pool opposing an assensing test on you. You may force the opponent to reroll a single die in his pool.

Quickening: When you cast a spell to create an asset, you may pay an Edge Point for that asset to remain for the remainder of the Session without having to dedicate any resources to maintaining the asset.

Anchoring: You may cast a spell and anchor it to an astral construct overlaying a place or object. Make note of the dice pool’s result and the effect die, and define a triggering event for the spell. The spell remains dormant until triggered or until the end of the session.

Apotropaic Magic: When you assign your Magic die to defend a character from Magic, you may also add your Initiation Die. If the defense test result exceeds the caster’s test result by at least five points, the caster suffers the effect of the spell at the Effect Die chosen from his dice pool.

Geomancy: You may manipulate background mana and nearby mana lines to create Assets or Complications (adding your Initiation Die to the test) that apply to all magic tasks made during that scene and which can only be dispelled by another initiate with the Geomancy metamagic.

Necromancy: You may use ritual magic (adding your Initiation Die to the dice pool) to gain information from dead bodies, blood, and the residual mana in dead things.

Psychometry: You may assense objects (adding your Initiation Die to the dice pool) to gain information about the history of the object and/or its past owners.

Divination: You may use ritual magic (adding your Initiation Die to the dice pool) to gain glimpses of the future. You may ask the GM to answer one question for each step of the Effect Die from a successful task. Answers should be reasonably vague and subject to interpretation.

Channeling: Add your Initiation Die to the pool and gain a reroll on one die for rolls to invoke spirits (see Shadowrun rules; this requires an invoking magical tradition).

Exorcism: Add you Initiation Die to the pool and gain a reroll on one die for roles to banish spirits.

Cleansing: Add your Initiation Die to tasks to cleanse the astral pollution of a place, and step up your Effect Die by one step.

Sensing: Add your Initiation Die to astral perception tasks and step up your Effect Die by one step.

Notes on Metamagic
Those familiar with the Shadowrun setting will note that I haven’t included all of the metamagics described in the Shadowrun books. This is either because I feel that a particular metamagic doesn’t work well under Cortex rules or that one metamagic SFX described above covers multiple metamagics in the core Shadowrun rules (for example, Masking covers both Flexible Signature and Masking).

Ordeals
A character must complete an ordeal each time he or she raises her Initiation Die. Ordeals may be selected from the following, which I have placed into groups based on their general type.

Task Ordeals
Task Ordeals require the magician to complete a…task. The task may be roleplayed through, but it may be negotiated and described by the Gamemaster and the Player without playing through all aspects of the task. Regardless of which method is selected, the GM and Player should agree to change one of the Character’s Aspects based on how the experience affected the Character. Task Ordeals include metamagical quests, asceticism (which includes living as a Hermit as the ordeal) and the accomplishment of special deeds.

Limit Ordeals
As the name implies, these Ordeals involve taking on an additional Limit to the Initiation Asset. This includes both geas and oath Ordeals. Define the geas or oath and create a Shutdown Limit for the Initiation Die that occurs when the geas or oath is violated and that persists until the character can complete a recovery action involving atonement for the infraction.

Creation Ordeals
A creation Ordeal involves the completion of scholarly or artistic work. There must be a handmade original (or originals), each of which constitutes a material link to the creator (treat as an Asset for a possessor to take magical action against the creator or a permission for remote magic). This also creates a Limit on the Initiation Die: if the originals are all destroyed, step down the Initiation Die until new originals may be created.

Sacrifice Ordeals
Sacrifice Ordeals involve intentional maiming in pursuit of magical power. The character must take on a new d4 (or step up) Complication representing lasting physical injury that cannot be healed.

Familiar Ordeals
TBD.

Magical Traditions
A magic-using character will be required to take an Aspect declaring the type of magic-user that the character is and the tradition that the character follows (hermeticism, shamanism, Christian theurgy, Buddhist magic, chaos magic, Kabbalism, etc.). Quite simply, this definition should be used to determine what kind of spirits the character can summon (by reference to the Shadowrun material, and assuming that the character’s magic-using type may summon spirits), but it can also be used to add some mechanical nuance. For each tradition, choose two Approaches. For one, step up the Aspect die when the character uses that Approach. For the other, step down the Aspect die when the character uses the Approach.For instance, a hermetic character might apply their Aspect as an Advantage to rolls using the Deliberate Approach, but as a Consequence to rolls using the Dynamic Approach, whereas shamans might do the opposite. You can use the Shadowrun material to come up with patterns of use for the other traditions.

Mentor Spirits
Mentor spirits should be considered Signature Assets with the following nuances:
Core SFX: Spend an Edge Point to add the Mentor Spirit die to a magical task.
Defined SFX: Create an SFX for the Asset based on the bonuses provided by the spirit under the normal Shadowrun rules. See the Cortex “Core SFX” for this.
Behavior SFX: Gain an Edge Point by behaving in a (reckless or non-beneficial) way in line with the personality of the Mentor Spirit.
Core Limit: Shutdown the Mentor Spirit Asset to gain an Edge Point. The character must spend time communing with the Mentor Spirit to reactivate the Asset.

 

 

 

Cortex Plus/Prime Small Unit Combat, Part II: Streamlined Engagement Rules for Firefights

These rules are intended to streamline combat engagements that occur outside of CQB ranges (see the separate CQB rules for quickly handling those types of fights). While designed with modern combat in mind, the rules should prove easily useful with near-future and sci-fi based combat as well, though I have my doubts about using them for historical or fantasy combat without some extensive modification.

The rules seek to streamline combat in several ways. First, they group units of “normal” enemy combatants (those we might call “mooks” and which the Cortex Prime book calls “mobs”) into groups while keeping more important enemies separate. Second, they abstract combat to avoid becoming mired in the details of how many feet a combatant can move in a single turn or worrying about specific facing.

Note that these rules have been created under some genre expectations. Particularly, that the characters are especially potent combatants, able to cut through normal soldiers like a hot knife through butter and tough to kill. The tone of the rules creates a high-action sort of vibe rather than a terribly realistic one, though the “grit” factor may be modified by the number and types of opposition encountered at once, as well as the advantages and tactics used by enemy combatants. If deadlier and more realistic mid-range engagements are desired, I recommend using normal 1 to 1 combat rules. The CQB rules given separately should work well with either this approach or the standard one.

Where these rules seem incomplete, refer to the CQB rules to fill in the gaps. If you still have questions or want to share the results of playtesting, let me know so I can address any issues and make these rules better for you!

Differences From CQB Rules
If you’ve read my CQB combat rules, which are designed to be used in conjunction with these rules, you’ll notice some differences. In many ways, these rules “zoom out” from the CQB rules, adding (a little bit of) complexity and nuance. Where the CQB rules group both the Player Characters and their NPC opponents, these rules only group opponents and allow the characters to act individually.

A Note About Cortex Prime
The Cortex Prime rules include instructions for creating and using “mobs” and “ganging up”. The squad-based rules in both this and the previous CQB rules are essentially an expansion of this idea with slightly more granularity.

Initiative
To keep things simple, initiative will pass back and forth between the players and the GM with one activation per character or unit until one side has run out of activations, at which point any remaining activations may be used if available to any other participating group. On the players’ turn, they may choose which character activates, but no character can activate more than once in a turn. Likewise, the GM may activate the characters and units under his control in any order, but none may activate more than once in a turn.

Which side has the initiative should be decided by the situation—typically the attacking force will act first. When there is a meeting engagement (neither side was expecting the other), an attempted ambush, or other unusual situation, each side should nominate a character (or unit) to roll for their side—the roll will be Approach+Analysis+Tactics Specialization (if any)+Assets, Circumstances, Etc.(if using the set-up described in the CQB Rules; otherwise modify as necessary), with the winner choosing which side goes first.

Zones
Zones and Distance: The combat space should be separated out into zones. Zones will be used to calculate range penalties, so use this idea as a general guideline for how zones are placed. Generally speaking, firing at combatants in one’s own Zone takes place at CQB range, those enemies in adjacent zones are at mid-range, and those more than one zone away are at Long Range. Of course, narrative trumps hard-and-fast rules, so adjust as necessary.

Distance Penalties: When firing at targets at mid-range, add a d8 to the target’s dice pool. Add a d10 for targets at long range.

Cover and Concealment: The use of cover and/or concealment is important under these rules. As such, each zone should be given a “Cover Rating.” The Cover Rating represents the highest effect die that can be used (or rather, the cap if a higher die is assigned to the effect die on a roll) when creating an advantage (usually called “In Cover.”). The zone’s Cover Rating is an abstraction of the distance between pieces of cover, the size of cover, the general density of cover, and whether the zone’s cover is actually cover (something that will stop bullets) or is generally concealment (something that makes it harder to aim at a target but that does not stop projectiles fired at the target).

Cover Penalties: It is assumed that all combatants are using cover. However, the best use of cover requires skill and understanding. Add the lesser of a character’s Direct Action rating (or a unit’s lowest quality rating) or the assigned Cover Rating to pools to resist attacks.

Flanking: “Flanking” any enemy is maneuvering so as to be able to attack the enemy from the side. In small-unit firefights such as those depicted by these rules, “flanking” means achieving a position of attack from which the target does not gain the benefit of cover. An actor (individual or unit), may take an action to flank an enemy; treat this as an attack on the Cover Advantage that persists until either the target or the attacker moves.

Movement Between Zones: Handle movement by determining how many actions it would take to move from one zone to another. No need for specific measurements.

Basic Enemy Combatants
Quality Rating: The Quality Rating, expressed as a die, represents the general effectiveness of a troop type, a combination of skill and training, morale, equipment and command structure.

Grouping Combatants: Basic combatants should be put in groups of one to five; the grouped combatants act as a single entity using the Quality Rating of each combatant in the group to constitute the dice pool used for any action (in line with the “mobs” rule in Cortex Prime).

Specialists: Specialists are, as the name suggests, specially trained soldiers with specific capabilities. In game terms, Specialists count as SFX for a group of combatants, giving the group options for the expenditure of Edge Points to undertake special tasks or modify normal tasks undertaken by the group. The expenditure of an Edge Point is required to use Specialist. A group of combatants may have a number of Specialists equal to the number of troops it contains. Examples of Specialists:

Flamethrower: The acting unit must be in the same Zone as the target. The GM spends an Edge Point when the unit attacks to declare that the Flamethrower specialist is deploying the flamethrower. If the attack causes damage, the target takes an On Fire condition equal to the effect die of the attack. At the end of each turn in which the affected character has not extinguished the condition, the character takes damage according to the effect die of the condition. An affected character may attempt to put the fire out in the same manner as overcoming any other situational condition placed upon him.

Grenadier: When the unit attacks, the GM spends one or more Edge Points to declare that the Grenadier is using his or her equipment. For each Edge Point spent, the GM may do one of the following: (1) add another die equal to the Quality Rating of the Grenadier to the attack pool or (2) add another target (in the same zone as any other target) to the attack. Separate Effect Dice must be assigned to each target.

Medic: At any time, the GM may spend an Edge Point to declare that the Medic is activating to resuscitate a fallen combatant. The difficulty of the test to resuscitate a combatant is equal to 3d8; if the Medic succeeds with an Effect Die equal to or exceeding the Quality Die of the fallen combatant, that combatant is returned to his or her unit. Note that this action does not use the unit’s turn.

Drone Operator: Drones come in many forms, from remotely-operated turrets to flying surveillance or explosive-delivery devices. When the GM spends an Edge Point to activate the Drone Operator’s Specialty, she may choose one of the following:

Turret: add a new, standalone combatant with a pool of 3d6 to the fight. The turret may only take the attack or suppressing fire actions, acts separately from the unit that created it, and resists attacks at its dice pool.

Surveillance Drone: While this drone is operational, remove the Drone Operator’s die from the unit dice pool. The drone resists damage with a pool of 3d6. It may move one zone per turn and no target in that zone benefits from advantages representing concealment or cover while the drone is present in the drone.

Because the Drone Operator has limited resources in the field, the cost of deploying a drone (in Edge Points) doubles with each successive drone (1, 2, 4, etc.).

Marksman: When a unit containing a Marksman attacks and the GM uses an Edge Point, the target does not get to add his Armor Asset (if any) to the pool opposing the attack.

Machine Gunner: The GM may spend one or more Edge Points to place a Suppressed condition (disadvantage) equal to the Specialist’s Quality Die on one target for each Edge Point spent. Remove the Specialist’s Quality Die from the unit’s dice pool for as long as the condition remains in effect.

Note about Specialists: If you want to add some complexity and variation to your basic troops, you might consider giving them a separate Specialist die for various Specialists, using that die instead of the Specialist’s Quality Die in pools using the Specialist.

Attack and Defense:

The attack dice pool is formed as with any conflict under Cortex Prime rules—attacking characters will add an Approach, the Direct Action Role, and any Specializations, Assets, or Advantages to the pool, while the defenders will add their approach, Direct Action Role, Cover, Range and any Specializations, Assets, or Advantages. Units will use the dice pool formed from their combined Quality Dice.

When attacking a unit, the attacker may assign more than one Effect Die to take out multiple members of the unit in one attack, but only one Effect Die that would cause injury but not take a member of the unit out of action may be assigned.

Ex. The player-character member of a special operations team has gotten the drop on a fireteam of enemy grunts. The player character wins the conflict test and has d8 and 2d6 left over which might be assigned as Effect Dice. The grunts are well-trained, with a Quality Die of d8. The attacked may put one enemy combatant out of action with the D8 and may assign the d6 as an injury to a member of the unit (which counts as a Consequence/Disadvantage; see the CQB Rules). The attacked cannot also assign the second d6 because there is already an injury assigned to the unit.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part VI: Magic, Foci and Alchemy

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve worked on this series. Yes, my writing work is unpredictable and jumps from topic to topic. The curse of the creative “free spirit” with too many interests, I guess (though I’m usually quick to say that “be interested in everything” was the best advice I ever got). All of that aside, I’m getting back to working on some Cortex hacks of various types to flex my RPG mechanics muscles again. I hope you find the work useful.

Foci
Foci are a big deal in Shadowrun, in many ways the magician’s equivalent of the street samurai packing the Panther Assault Cannon. Modeling them in Cortex is, on the one hand, relatively simple–each Focus is a Signature Asset. On the other hand, Shadowrun uses multiple types of foci and there are some specific attributes of foci in the world of Shadowrun that ought to be mechanically addressed as well.

The creation of foci is best handled in the same way as the acquisition of any Signature Asset: the player pays the requisite cost and a narrative explanation of how the Asset was acquired is given. There’s no need to go through complex creation rules.

Attributes of All Foci:

Limit: A focus may only be used by a character with the magical ability and the ability to take the specific types of actions to which the focus applies.

Limit: Binding: Until a character pays the cost to add a focus as a Signature Asset (whether at character creation or through advancement), a Focus is not bound to the character and cannot be used.

Limit: Active/Inactive: Foci must be powered by magic to be useful. When not powered, foci are inactive and can essentially be ignored altogether. When active, the following rules are in effect. Activation and the rules described below should be considered Limits on a Focus asset..

Astral Beacon: an active focus gives off a lot of astral energy, allowing others with the astral perception/astral projection abilities a benefit in finding, analyzing and targeting a magician with an active focus. When using astral perception to find or to gather information about a target with an active focus, add the focus to the actor’s dice pool as an advantage. A magician using Psychometry or other spells and abilities to analyze the astral signature of a place after the fact may, if the GM determines that the rating of the focus, its past use and the time elapsed since the use is reasonable under the circumstances, be added to the acting magician’s dice pool as an advantage.

Link: Because a focus must be bound to its user, it provides both a material link to the owner regardless of activity and a method for targeting its owner astrally when active. A magician in physical possession of another magician’s focus, or astrally viewing an active focus, may add that die to a dice pool to create an advantage for the purposes of targeting the focus’ owner with magic.

Specific Foci:

Alchemical Foci:
 Alchemical foci add their Rating to Alchemy tests.

Disenchanting Foci: These add to tests to disenchant artifacts, foci and other magical objects.

Spell Foci:
A spell focus adds its rating to Sorcery actions that match the category of spell and type of action to which the focus is attuned.
Limit: Category: A spell focus must describe one of the five categories of spells (Combat, Detection, Illusion, Healing and Manipulation) and may only be applied to Sorcery tests involving the category to which it is attuned.
Limit: Task: A spell focus must also describe one of the following magical tasks: Counterspelling, Ritual Spellcasting, Spellcasting. The focus may only be applied to Sorcery tests involving that task.

Sustaining Foci:
A sustaining focus allows a Magician to sustain a spell effect equal to or below its Rating without the Magician actively maintaining the spell. The spell may be cast at any time and “saved” into the focus to be used whenever the focus is activated.
Limit: Power: To add the stored spell effect to a dice pool, the focus must be activated and the Magician must pay an Edge point to use the effect for that Scene.
Limit: Counterspelling: Counterspelling may be used to reduce or obviate the spell effect maintained by the sustaining focus. To restore the functionality of a effect that has been partially or fully dispelled, the magician must cast the spell to be maintained anew.

Spirit Foci:
A spirit focus adds its rating to Conjuration tests of the task and category of spirit to which the focus is attuned.
Limit: Category: The focus must have a specific type of spirit (fire elemental, spirit of man, etc.) to which it is attuned. It may only be used for interactions with that type of spirit.
Limit: Task: The focus must be attuned to one of the following tasks: Summoning, Banishing, or Binding and may only be used for that type of task.

Weapon Focus:
A weapon focus adds its Rating to close combat tests in the physical or astral planes and allows its user to damage creatures and spirits normally immune to physical damage.

Alchemy:
Alchemy allows a character to store a spell for a one-time use later. This is simply handled: The character makes a test to cast the spell, but using Alchemy instead of Sorcery. The character resolves the test, including Drain, and pays one Edge to store the effect for later (the player should describe the form the alchemical device takes for narrative purposes).

Activation of the alchemical spell may require a test. If the alchemical device stores an attack effect, its rating should be added to an appropriate attack pool for close combat or a thrown weapon.

A spell that causes damage has an instant use. A spell that creates some other effect lasts for a Scene or until dispelled.

EDIT: You might be wondering why some of the classic foci (the Power Focus, for one) has no description here. Those foci that I haven’t listed are temporarily left out until I find a way to include them that satisfies me. As it stands, the Power Focus is just too powerful to add in–without the insane detail of creation cost inherent to the actual Shadowrun rules, I need to find some mechanisms within Cortex Prime that would allow some modicum of balance compared to the other, far more limited, foci.

TBRI

I spent last Friday and Saturday attending a simulcast of the “Empowered to Connect” conference put on by the Karyn Purvis Institute of Childhood Development at TCU. The simulcast at our home church was put on by Cultivating Families, a non-profit that is dear to my heart. I hope that you’ll check them out and consider donating.

Dr. Purvis was the creator of a parenting approach called “Trust-based Relational Intervention,” commonly known as “TBRI.” TBRI relies on an understanding of childhood brain development, particularly for those children with capital-T Trauma in their backgrounds, to inform a parenting style that is focused on developing and maintaining attachment between parent and child, helping the child literally rewire the physical changes in the brain related to past trauma so that they can get out of “survival mode” and begin to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors, and teach/enforce positive strategies for all manner of social interactions.

There are a few things I particularly like about TBRI. First, it is very much in line with my idea of parenting through calling a child to increased empathy and understanding of the consequences of actions for others rather than shame- and guilt-based judgment and punishment (see my post called “Toward a Positive Morality.”) Second, which likely makes sense given my first point, TBRI matches closely with what I believe to be good Christian theology–it focuses on building relationships and solving problems rather than punishment and guilt. Third, there is a strong emphasis for caregivers to “do the work” to understand the things that drive them crazy or make them respond emotionally rather than thoughtfully; to sort out our own baggage. Without doing so, we fall victim to the same behaviors we’re trying to help the kiddos work through and beyond. K and I have had several conversations over the weekend of “Oh! That’s probably why I always get angry when X happens, or why I always do X when Y. Now that I’ve named it, we can try to work on it.” Most of the people who’ve been through TBRI training (DePelchin, our foster licensing agency, uses it thoroughly in their own training) report similar experiences.

There’s an example of that process that’s been on the blog for quite some time, in fact. One that arose out of my own reflection about my behavior with our first foster kids (see the post called “Just Give Her the Damn Goldfish!” An amusing anecdote–some anonymous and benevolent person left an industrial-size box of Goldfish in K’s office with mine and our daughter’s names on it after that article was published. I remain grateful and always smile when I think of that!

While it may have been designed for children from hard places and their caregivers, TBRI just makes good sense. It advocates a system for relationships that extends grace to others and encourages introspection to improve one’s own relationships as well as providing proven techniques for conflict de-escalation and for building trust while negotiating interpersonal needs. K and I have tried to implement the techniques with each other, and I think it’s improved out relationship. At the very least, it’s helped us demonstrate to each other our mutual desire to grow closer and to work on the issues that arise between us in a positive, grace-filled and loving way.

I like to joke that I also use TBRI techniques with some of my legal clients, but it’s also true. The techniques I’ve learnt through TBRI training have helped me to help clients understand their motivations, more effectively evaluate their options regarding any particular matter and look to solutions rather than the tit-for-tat that is often common in our interpersonal conflict, legal or not.

TBRI is not a light switch that, once flipped on, completely changes everything. It takes practice to implement, continual self-evaluation and creative problem-solving, and the ability to ask for grace, forgiveness, and a “re-do” when you make your own mistakes. But every time I attend some training on TBRI, I ask myself what it would look like if everyone used it, and I think to myself that the Kingdom of Heaven would be just a little bit closer to Earth if we did.

Since we’re on the topic of raising children, fostering and adopting (or at least in that section of the blog), it seems that an update is in order. K and I have reopened for a placement and have been waiting since late February for the call that will change everything again. At any moment, we could be returning to parenthood again and this section of the blog will become much more lively. I can’t wait.

Rethinking Tolkien

One of the things that’s been keeping me from posting on the blog lately is that I’ve been teaching a Sunday school class on Christianity in Tolkien for the past several weeks and my research and writing time has been in part devoted to preparing worthwhile material for that (I’ve also been slowly working on an Avar Narn short story or novella which you’ll see in the future, but that’s for another time).

I wanted to share some of my thoughts and realizations in preparing for teaching the class here. The late revelation of some of these ideas is a bit shameful to me–I’ve long had all of the evidence needed to come to these conclusions and yet somehow failed to do so until recently. I’m trying to keep that thought humbling and not humiliating; we’ll see how it goes.

In particular, I had long held Tolkien to be an exemplum of that easy trope of “epic” fantasy–evil and good painted in black and white without gray. My more recent (and mature) study of his works has revealed his writings to be anything but. Instead, they are indicative of the nuance of good and temptation within man’s soul, with many permutations of the characters falling momentarily to evil ways only to recover themselves (Boromir, for instance) and with lasting temptation that claws at even the sturdiest of souls (Frodo and Sam). The variegated grays in his works have dashed my thought of my love for gritty fantasy as somehow an evolution from or response to Tolkien. Stylistically, perhaps, but not in philosophical approach or theme.

The first four lessons I’ve taught centered on the following topics: the Silmarillion’s creation story and idea of “Fall” (and–a topic very dear to me as aspiring theologian/fantasy author–“subcreation”), Tom Bombadil as unfallen Adam and the One Ring as Sin, Gandalf’s resurrection narrative, and Tolkien’s Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Much (much) ink has been spilled on the first two topics and I cannot claim much thought there as my own, so I’ll focus on the latter two. If you’re interested in reading more about the first two ideas, I’d recommend Ralph Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien. As a second admission, I think the class had intended for me to follow that book a little more closely in my teaching, but I’ve taken them down the rabbit-holes of my own interests instead. Such a rebel, I am.

Gandalf’s Resurrection as Odin Christianized

It is tempting and popular to view Gandalf’s resurrection after his fight with the Balrog (told when he re-encounters Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn in Fangorn Forest) as a thinly-guised Christian story of death and resurrection. But Tolkien was adamant about disliking easy allegory when incorporating Christian Truth into his stories (it might be fair to say that he does this despite his own protestations, but his letters indicate a conscious attempt not to). The preface of the Silmarillion (actually a letter of Tolkien’s) says as much.

And we know that mythical Odin provided great inspiration for the character of Gandalf, both in his nature as wise instigator and magician and in his very appearance with the worn grey clothes of the wanderer and the pointy hat now inseparable from the idea of a wizard. To look for some other relationship back to Odin in Tolkien’s resurrection story seems a ready move to make.

Let me summarize the myth I want to refer to in particular: Odin’s discovery of the runes. For excerpts from the original texts describing this legend, click here, and spend some time on the Word and Silence Blog while you’re at it. And now my summary:

In his quest for knowledge, Odin decided that a sacrifice was necessary, so he pierced himself with a spear and hung himself from the branches of Yggdrasil overlooking the fathomless watery depths below. For nine days he hung suspended there, without food or drink or comfort, waiting for revelation to come. Finally, on the ninth day, he began to discern shapes in the water beneath him, the runes. These runes are both indicative of the power of written word (perhaps that must fundamental and far-reaching of technologies) and the representations of a powerful system of magic for which Odin would be remembered and revered.

We know in Norse culture that human sacrifices were made to Odin (known as blót, though this term is more expansive than the particular instance here). These humans were sacrificed by being pierced by a spear or hung from a tree, or both–almost certainly related to this legend of Odin. In some way, this makes Odin’s time on the tree a sacrifice to himself in the search for knowledge and transcendence, a self-driven (perhaps selfish) ascension.

It is this, I think, to which Tolkien obliquely refers in Gandalf’s narrative. Gandalf returns full of new knowledge and insight (he spends several pages detailing the plans and failings of the Fellowship’s major adversaries) but having forgotten much about himself (such as that he “used to be called” Gandalf). That he has become Gandalf the White (as he says, “Saruman as he should have been”) is about as plain an indication of ascension as possible.

But it’s important to note the differences between Gandalf and Odin. Gandalf’s fight is an external one, very in line with the “northern heroic spirit” we’ll discuss shortly. Despite this, Gandalf sacrifices himself for the Fellowship, not for his own ascension and aggrandizement. That ascension is the unexpected reward–and responsibility–given by Eru Iluvatar, the supreme God of Arda (the cosmos of Middle-Earth). It is in the nature of his sacrifice that we see Christianity creep into the Odin story–“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Yet, while Gandalf has ascended in some way, we cannot forget the fact that he has been resurrected with purpose–because his task “is not yet finished.” His ascension carries with it responsibility, not entitlement to reverence and worship.

This goodness and Christian virtue gives Gandalf the White the right to supplant Saruman as the head of the Istari, for Saruman has chosen the pursuit of power over the role of protector and counselor to which he was intended. After his return from the Abyss, Gandalf tells us as much, that Saruman’s pursuit of power has made him foolish, that his hope of seizing the ring and gaining advantage over Sauron has been lost (though he does not yet know it), and that his massed armies, though still formidable to Men and Elves, have revealed him as an enemy of Sauron rather than an ally.

In comparing Gandalf to Saruman, we are led to ponder Matthew 16: 25-26: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Two lines, Gandalf in the first, Saruman in the second.

So, by focusing Gandalf’s actions (and the “reward” that follows) outside of himself, takes the mythic construct of sacrifice that results in ascension exemplified by Odin on the tree and “purifies” it, taking those things that are good an virtuous even in the Norse story and, through the addition of love of others, refining the unvirtuous parts into something Christian and Good.

We see this general strategy throughout The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien’s other works) in his general fusion of Anglo-Saxon virtue with Christian virtue.

The “Heroic Northern Spirit”

We don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxon religion as we’d like. We know it has strong connections with the Old Norse religion, but we have a paucity of evidence about were the variations and boundaries lie. Much of the Anglo-Saxon literature available to us was written by Christians, so it’s difficult to know the extent to which the “heathenry” of those texts as Christianized in the retelling. This is something medievalists and Anglo-Saxon scholars–Tolkien included–have long debated.

We do have more evidence of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, generally speaking. I’m going to point to a few examples with that we know Tolkien was intimately familiar with.

The first is an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Battle of Maldon,” based on an historical event. In that poem, the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth is tasked with fending of a warband of invading Danes (a common occurrence at the time). Byrhtnoth encounters the Danes camped on a sort of island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland. By positioning his force at the mouth of the causeway onto proper land, he can force the Danes to fight only a few at a time against a much greater number and score an easy victory.

But Byrhtnoth will have none of that. There is no glory, no honor, in a slaughter. So, despite the risk–or rather, because of the risk–Byrthnoth pulls his troops back, giving the Vikings space to cross the causeway and deploy a full shieldwall formation in a pitched battle–one the Anglo-Saxons lose badly. Byrthnoth was killed.

Tolkien viewed the poem, which he believed to be written by a Christian scholar, to be a commentary and criticism of Byrhtnoth’s pride rather than a tale about the Anglo-Saxon’s courage. He penned a work of historical fiction of his own in response, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorthhelm’s Son.” Scholar Mary R. Bowman interprets this as Tolkien’s attempt to refine the “impure alloy” of the “northern heroic spirit” by refocusing the courage (read: “reckless pursuit of glory”) reflected in that ideology into a bravery expressed for the good of others (like Gandalf’s tale).

And then there’s the granddaddy of Anglo-Saxon literature: Beowulf. If you’re not familiar, you should read it as soon as possible. At least get the Cliff’s Notes or look up the summary on Wikipedia.

If you didn’t know, Tolkien (as scholar) wrote what is arguably still the most influential piece of criticism about Beowulf, his lecture and essay entitled, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In that text, Tolkien argues (among other things), that the monsters are indispensable from the story and that they should not be disregarded to try to read the text as one of mythologically-enhanced history. It should be read as literature. He goes on to argue that the author was likely a Christian familiar with the older story who had penned the text to Christianize it. In that way, we see a morality story develop between the “northern heroic spirit” of the young Beowulf, who ventures to save Hrothgar’s people to build up his own glory, and the old King Beowulf, who lays down his life to protect his subjects when a thief rouses the anger of a sleeping dragon by stealing a cup from his hoard (anyone see a resemblance there?).

For Tolkien, that “northern heroic spirit” (at its best) is about defiance to the forces of chaos, even in the face of inevitable defeat. There are numerous places in The Lord of the Rings where we see a similar function–the Christianization of the virtue of the “northern heroic spirit.” I’ll point out only a few.

The most obvious to come to mind is Boromir. His speech before attempting to take the Ring from Frodo drips with the “northern heroic spirit” as he proposes overthrowing Sauron by force. While Tolkien’s work accepts that sometimes violence is necessary, its just use is always a stalling or defensive tactic to make space for sacrifice to occur, and Tolkien is clear that the threat of Sauron and the Ring can never be defeated by the exercise of power and violence. Even were Sauron defeated in such a way, he would only be replaced as a Dark Lord by the usurper.

And, of course, Boromir’s imagining of the overthrow of Sauron puts himself at the head of the army, where he may win glory and renown for himself. Contrast him with Faramir, who has a much more reasoned (and humble) approach to the resistance of Sauron.

After the “northern heroic spirit” momentarily possesses Boromir and drives him to his immorality, he recovers, immediately repents, and redeems himself from his infractions in the most poetic way possible–through the redeemed “northern heroic spirit” itself. He fights and dies to protect the Hobbits as they are attacked; we are told he slays at least twenty orcs in the fight. He wins the renown and glory he so desired, but only by laying down his life for others.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep provides a set of related examples. The whole action by the remnants of the Fellowship at Helm’s Deep (the Hornburg, really), courses with defiance in the face of overwhelming odds as the Uruk-Hai (and, if memory serves, their Dunlending companions) prepare to destroy all resistance. But we also have three very specific instances as well.

First, the competition between Gimli and Legolas as they taunt one another with their killcount. They spur one another to greater acts of heroism in the face of the enemy (heroism because they are fighting to protect the innocent). It is especially interesting to me that when Legolas inquires after Gimli when they are separated, he says it’s so that he can tell the dwarf he’s no up to thirty kills. His very affection for the dwarf is masked under the expression of the northern heroic spirit. We might digress here onto the topic of toxic masculinity in the northern heroic spirit, but I’ll save that ball for someone else to unravel.

Second, Aragorn’s defiance of the Uruk-hai from the walls of the Hornburg as he goes to see the dawn of the third day. That exchange is well worth the short read. Perhaps as code for modern society’s version of the “northern heroic spirit,” “the balls on that one, let me tell ya’.”

Third, Theoden’s speech to inspire the men to ride out against their attackers rather than to wait and hide, even though sallying forth means almost certain death. He says that he will die fighting, not of old age. The Norse/Germanic spirit is strong in those words.

That final act of defiance, riding out on horse from the Hornburg, brings us to a third important point.

Eucatastrophe

In his “Letter 89”, Tolkien says, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”

He further elaborates on “eucatastrophe” in On Fairy Stories:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

The idea of eucatastrophe in Tolkien is a fascinating subject, one that Wood’s book spends time on and that is elsewhere much discussed. It is, in some sense, deus ex machina in both micro- and macrocosm.

But what truly fascinates me is the interplay between the northern heroic spirit and eucatastrophe.

The eucatastrophe that concludes the Battle of Helm’s Deep is Gandalf’s arrival with the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Given Gandalf’s nature as one of the Istari, his recent resurrection and ascension, this, I think, equates directly to medieval stories of a military force’s unlikely salvation coming when a host of angels descends upon the battlefield against their enemies. It is this divine intervention that saves the day for the Rohirrim and for Aragorn.

But pull the camera or the Eye of Sauron back just a little bit to the bigger picture. Yes, the final salvation comes from the divine and is completely out of the hands of the mortals (and Elves) fighting in the battle. But without their grim determination and defiance, their northern heroic spirits, would there have been space for the eucatastrophe at all?

And this, I think, is an existential masterstroke in Tolkien’s Christianization of the “northern heroic spirit.” The willingness to resist, to fight despite the odds, for the good of others creates the setting for divine intervention. Though God (in this existence or in God’s guise as Eru Iluvatar in Middle-Earth) does not need to rely on created beings to intervene and save the day, God finds usefulness and purpose in drawing mortal beings into participation in the grand narrative of the resistance to and defiance of Evil. To borrow Tolkien’s term, we have an example of “subcreation.”

We then have a combination of free will and divine determination in the argument, the same existential outlook I’ve argued for in my own theological writing.

Perhaps this is the best answer to that perennial question: Why don’t the Great Eagles just carry someone to Mt. Doom to drop the Ring in? Because, as much as Tolkien resists the idea, the story is allegorical, and God doesn’t seem to work that way. God has created in such a way that we must be tried and tested, that we must learn the value of sacrifice firsthand. This is our experience in the “real world,” and it’s similar to the experience of the Fellowship–enough so that Frodo and Gandalf briefly talk theodicy at the very beginning of the trilogy!