Capturing the Medieval in Fiction

(N.B.: In this post, I’m using the terms “medieval,” “Renaissance” and “Early Modern” more or less interchangeably for stylistic purposes and ease of writing. Scholars do not agree on the applicability of these terms, with some scholars favoring a “long Middle Ages” lasting into the 18th century, others starting to use the term “Early Modern” with the Italian Quattrocento, and others having more discrete epochs to which they ascribe the terms. I’m not messing with any of that, and I don’t think it will prevent you from getting my point.)

On the heels of my series about “What Writers (and Roleplayers) Should Know About Swordplay,” I thought I might write a little bit more generally about verisimilitude in fiction and RPGs set in a pseudo-medieval or -Renaissance milieu.

When it comes down to it, there are two ways you can write and run games in this sort of a setting, and I think we’ll see that, in gaming at least, the two camps are relatively simple to parse.

The first is the Renaissance Faire approach. It’s not how things were; it’s how we wish they were. This is a fantastic pastiche of history, a facade of the early modern propped up by set pieces that, if we look behind them, we realize are two-dimensional suggestions and not faithful recreations.

Don’t get me wrong, Renaissance Faires are fun. I try to go to the Texas Renaissance Festival every year; when I was in grad school, I’d skip out on a Friday to set up camp for the weekend and play board games with friends until the park opened Saturday morning.

But there’s also something deeply unsatisfying about the Renaissance Festival to me in a way I try to push down deep every time I go. It’s very much pretend-time, and while it has its own charms, it completely lacks the nuance and depth that fascinates me about the time period, that caused me, for a time, to study it professionally.

I’ll defer to Neil Gaiman for a quip that has always made me laugh, from The Sandman #73, when Hob Gadling (who was alive to see the Renaissance) says while visiting a Renaissance Festival: “Well, the first thing that’s wrong is there’s no shit. I mean, that’s the thing about the past that people forget. All the shit. Animal shit. People shit. Cow shit. Horse shit. You waded through the stuff…you should spray them all with shit when they come through the gates. No lice. No nits. No rotting face cancers. When was the last time you saw someone with a bloody great tumor hanging off their face?”

Why do I find the lack of those things so disappointing? It’s not that I’m a masochist (I don’t think). It’s that we’ve sanitized the human experience out of this period so that it seems patently false and superficial. No, I do not want to be sprayed with feces, I don’t want to pick up a colony of lice just for authenticity’s sake when I next attend the Faire (which starts in just over a week, I believe).

But when I want to imagine a world with close ties to the historical period, I want some authenticity to inform the setting, to play a part in the conflicts that develop, the small trials and tribulations. I want a setting that feels immersively real.

In the Renaissance, it was rude to show the underside of your hat to someone while you bowed; typically you would hold it close to your body to prevent anyone from seeing such a private place. Because the underside of your hat was probably nasty. Even if you didn’t have lice, sweat, body oils, and accumulated detritus made the interior of your headpiece rather unpleasant to consider.

These details remind us how different the human experience was for people back then. When air conditioning was no thing, long-term food storage precarious, famine only a bad harvest or a weather disaster away, people had different concerns than we might now. Human nature was the same, of course, and the same motivations (greed, fear, desire for comfort and safety, identity, conscience, piety, to name a few) drove people to behave as they did. But the world in which those motivations acted, and the results they produced under the circumstances, were often different in ways difficult for the modern mind to recapture.

Think about the offense you might take if someone living five-hundred years from now looked back on us and thought about the way we live as “quaint” or as some pastoral fantasy of a “less complicated” life.

Clearly D&D fits into this first camp. The narrative focuses on the fantastic over the mundane, which it is happy to gloss over. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that–I can imagine that most players would much rather focus on that aspect of their game than mundane minutiae.

The second camp hits closer to the feel I’d expect, but not through verisimilitude, necessarily. Games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, its modern cohort Zweihander, and those games that tend to fit into the position of “weird” fantasy; in the fiction world, think China Mieville’s New Crobuzon.

These settings are grittier, and WFRP in particular makes a greater point about the weirdness of the common folk of the Empire, the constant threat of disease, the unavoidable presence of untreated mental illness, superstition mixed with genuine piety, and a fear of the occult that a medieval or Renaissance person might well relate to. But these are generally treated as originating, at least to a great degree, from the fantastic elements of the setting–the actual existence of magic, the prevalence of monsters, the actions of very real beings whose provenance is disease and madness. In some sense, this is just putting flesh on the bones of beliefs and superstitions underlying medieval culture (to the extent that it is monolithic, which is to say not at all).

If the end “feel” of the setting is all that you’re after, then WFRP and its brethren and sistren come “close enough,” to capturing the early-modern vibe, I suppose.

For me, personally, though, the interaction between the mundane and the fantastic is a fertile ground for narrative and worldbuilding depth, one that most fantasy fiction and roleplaying games gloss over or make generic.

Let’s take the Thieves’ Guild for instance, a classic in fantasy settings and D&D in particular. The idea came about, in part at least, because of the historical existence of the “thieves’ cant” and “canting crews” (see 1698’s “New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew”). The cant was not a language, really, but a large body of slang used by those involved in illicit occupations to code their discussions from the body public and to identify who was “in” and who “out.” But this was not indicative of any large, institutionalized criminal enterprise; it was a grassroots and organically-developed aspect of criminal life by loose affiliation. This allows for a lot more nuance (although perhaps a lot more work for a GM as well) than a single or a few competing “Thieves’ Guilds.” Sure there were organized criminal operations as well, but none of these seem to have exercised exclusive dominion on the criminal underworld of a place.

I am fascinated by the minor but constant pains of the adventuring life. Having been a somewhat avid camper and backpacker, I have experience in the frustrations that can accompany short-term wilderness treks made more comfortable by modern materials and technology. Remove those pleasantries and extend the voyage and things become more difficult. Adventuring quickly seems to be much more like military life in war (or at least what I understand it to be like with no personal experience): boredom, drudgery and myriad minor obstacles to frustrate punctuated by bouts of extreme excitement, danger and fear. Have you ever considered that the days- weeks-long hike to that dungeon might be just as dissuasive (or deadly) to would-be adventurers than the monsters that live within it? How about the possibility that a noble desperate to find some relief from the gout might be just as likely to hire adventurers to search for a miracle cure as some old wizard seeking ancient artifacts?

That’s where the beauty of it comes together–when we get characters and situations that combine and blend mundane human concerns with the fantastic, we get settings and narratives that are far more complex, far more interesting, and far more believable than those that neglect such details.

And think about how much such concerns add to your worldbuilding? Where is the average wizard going to find the most lucrative (and consistent) employment–in throwing fireballs around and calling down comets or in helping to make sure the crop yield is good, healing common disease, and dispelling some of the more vexing aspects of daily life? Is a “remove lice” spell or a “bathe” spell more valuable than a magic missile in an economic sense? How about that “unseen servant” when it’s time to make camp after ten hours of walking or riding?

On a related note, how would disparate access to magical services reinforce class distinctions and divisions?

Don’t be fooled by the fact that games tending towards “80’s realism” more often incorporate these considerations (or at least facsimiles of them)–mechanics are not necessary to bring this depth to your game. It comes out in the descriptions of places and things, the motivations and behaviors of characters, and the narrative details. You can incorporate these ideas into mechanics if you’re so inclined–Torchbearer at least incorporates fatigue and hunger (among other items) into constant and legitimate concerns for adventurers (in a relatively simple way as well), and even judicious application of fatigue levels in D&D can do the trick without further rules changes.

There are plenty of books on societal structures and the operations of certain medieval institutions (especially the manor house in feudalism) written especially for roleplayers (but equally helpful to writers of fiction if you ignore the offered mechanics and focus on the information provided). Expeditious Retreat Press’s Magical Medieval Europe has long been a staple on this front, as are Lisa Steele’s Fief and Town and, more recently Philip McGregor’s Orbis Mundi 2 (probably my favorite of these).

But there aren’t as many (any?) books I’ve found specifically for roleplaying gamers and writers about medieval/Renaissance culture and habit. Yes, you can read Machiavelli’s The Prince for one (embittered) man’s political theory, Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier for idealized elite behavior, and mine Shakespeare’s (and Marlowe and Jonson, etc.) works for glimpses of behavior–though you’ll likely need to read a bunch of scholarly resources to decode these as well! These are all worthwhile things to do.

I’ve found a couple of books and resources that I believe are excellent primers on aspects of early-modern culture that can be very advantageous to the writer or GM. Note that they range from the scholarly to the popular (and perhaps over simplified). They are:

  • Ruth Goodman’s How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England
  • Most Great Courses on the Medieval and Renaissance periods
  • Edward Muir’s Mad Blood Stirring: Violence and Vendetta in Friuli During the Renaissance
  • Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guides
  • The London Medieval Murder Map
  • Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval… Series
  • Gamini Salgado’s Elizabethan Underworld

And for the truly weird:

  • Darren Oldridge’s Strange Histories
  • Carlo Ginzberg’s The Cheese and the Worms
  • John Waller’s The Dancing Plague
  • Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons
  • Brian Levack’s The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe
  • Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (one of my very favorites)

Bonus Round – Quick Facts

Sugar
Despite the Greco-Romans being aware of sugar, it wasn’t much of a thing in the early middle ages in Europe. The Crusades and contact with the near east reintroduced sugar in small quantities to the continent, but its use was long limited to medicinal purposes over gustatory ones (see sugar packing of wounds, known to the ancients, for an example, but also usage for stomachache, etc.). It wasn’t until the 15th Century “settlement” (read: colonization) of the Madeira and Canary islands that sugar began to enter European culture in a big way–and this was further accelerated by the “discovery” of the “New World.”

Cotton
Linen and wool were the dominant textiles for universal use, with rarer things (velvet, ermine, silk, etc.) available to the nobility. Some cotton was occasionally used in medieval Europe, but it was rare enough that John Mandeville describes it as deriving from a “wool-growing tree” and some artwork depicts vegetative lamb-plant hybrids (something Hob Gadling also refers to in Sandman #73).

Cotton is native to Egypt and Africa, but like sugar, it didn’t enter broad circulation in European culture until the cultivation of cotton in the “New World.”

Fruits and Vegetables
Depending on how historical(ly based) your setting is, you might want to check on what kinds of fruits and vegetables (or animals, for that matter) were unknown before the “discovery” of the “New World”–tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, avocadoes, maize and a good deal more.

Conclusion
As I’ve said before, all of this information is a guide–not a set of constraints (unless you’re writing historical fiction).

Think of all of these details as a complex web of joined points; if you pull one point, it’s going to have ripple effects on other points in the web. That doesn’t mean don’t do it, but it does mean you should exercise some caution and forethought in how you pull, lest you pull so hard that the lines between snap. That’s your verisimilitude you just destroyed.

At the same time, though, these sorts of details are opportunities, opportunities to efficiently convey ideas about the nature and feel of the world in which you’re writing or gaming. Don’t lose out on those opportunities!

What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part VI: Reading Recommendations and Conclusions

Reading Recommendations:
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, Sydney Anglo
Records of the Medieval Sword, Ewart Oakeshott
The Art of Sword Combat: A 1568 German Treatise on Swordsmanship, Translation                      of Jaochim Meyer by Jeffrey Forgeng
The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: Royal Armouries MS I.33, another Jeffrey                              Forgeng translation
Sigmund Ringeck’s Knightly Art of the Longword, David Lindholm and Peter Svard
Master of Defense: The Works of George Silver, by Paul Wagner
How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots,                   Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves and Braggarts, by Ruth Goodman (the chapter               on violence has some great social context about swashbuckling, the rest of the                     book is also great fun)

Film: Believe it or not, Star Wars, Episode III, has some of the best swordplay in film (the move where Anakin cuts off Dooku’s hands looks like it could have come straight out of a fight manual), though it should be noted that the Germanic longsword style is probably not the best way to employ a weapon that only needs to touch its target to cause serious wounds–a more subtle system would probably be warranted.

The film, The Duellists, with Harvey Keitel and David Carradine, has some pretty good moments as well. Although well outside our period, the TV show Black Flag has some decent swordplay in it, and a generally excellent depiction of the tactics and combat techniques of early 18th-century pirates. Unfortunately, I can think of more cringeworthy examples of swordplay in film than good ones.

RPGs: If you want an RPG that realistically treats medieval/Renaissance combat in all its glory and detail, then you need to look at The Riddle of Steel by Jake Norwood and Driftwood Studios (now out-of-print and the publishing company defunct, I believe). Norwood in addition so other applicable background experience, was (may still be) a (very talented) member of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. I got to spar with him once, more than a decade-and-a-half ago at this point, and found him to be both a fierce fencer and a gracious person.

The Riddle of Steel has a very cool system for combat that focuses on character skill but also accounts for various advantages and disadvantages in weapon selection. It’s been more influential on my own thoughts on game design for other reasons (its Spiritual Attributes are a really cool idea), but as a younger gamer, I loved the combat system, running games set in Avar Narn and the Warhammer Fantasy setting (the latter of which was a particularly good marriage of rules and setting). Now, I prefer more streamlined rules, with my knowledge of fighting techniques influencing narration more than mechanics.

There are two sucessor systems to TROS that I’m aware of: Blade of the Iron Throne, which ports the rules into a more sword & sorcery system, and Song of Swords, which I believe just published after the wait following its successful kickstarter. I haven’t checked it out yet.

Another gamer and member of the historical martial arts community built a large rules mod for the 3.5 Edition of D&D called Codex Martialis, that brings a lot of the ideas from TROS into approximated usage with the d20 system. I haven’t gone back to look at how much work it would take to port this over to the Fifth Edition (likely a rewrite of the Fighter class at a minimum), but it might be worth investigating if you or your players don’t want to leave D&D but want to find some ways to put the ideas in this series into mechanics. I personally think that d100 systems like Mythras probably provide the best middleground, but I’m personally not a huge fan of d100 systems either (picky me!). though Mythras may be my favorite of them.

Some Thoughts About Swordplay in RPGs
Following on my recommendation of The Riddle of Steel and its successors, I want to share some personal thoughts on using knowledge about swordplay in RPGs. Given my preference for simple and quick-moving RPG systems (at present I’m even thinking of laying the complexity of my in-progress Avar Narn RPG system aside for a customization of Fate to the setting), I actually don’t think that much needs to be done mechanically in an RPG to capture realistic swordplay.

That is not to say that nothing should be done. The bare minimum, as GM or player, is to get a grasp of swordplay (and hand-to-hand combat in general) so that you can describe your combats well–make them exciting and interesting with realistic detail and flow that helps to hold the attention of the players.

If you want to do more than that, then you’re talking about making some assumptions about theme and setting. A realistic treatment of swordplay means genuinely dangerous combats that don’t typically last very long. Not every fight will end in death and large-scale dismemberment, though. Here’s a thought to drive that home: it takes about 8 pounds of force to pull an ear off. How many people really want to keep fighting when someone just ripped their ear off? Probably not the majority.

Permanent/lingering wounds and a real possibility of character death will achieve this, but give rise to additional necessary considerations. You need to do one (or more) of three things: (1) give players access to improved healing (and perhaps resurrection) through the setting, (2) ensure that there are mechanical “meta” mechanics for preventing character death (hero points, Edge, whatever you’d like to call it and/or (3) get their buy-in about character death and setting lethality before play begins.

There are, I believe, some important mechanical considerations to a game with realistic combat. I really believe that a bell curve system of task resolution is best, because predictability of outcome will be a huge benefit to players and characters when they must choose whether or not to fight. A bell curve maintains the possibility that an inexperienced person will get lucky and kill a skilled combatant, but it also means that a skilled combatant fighting an untrained person will usually result in a beatdown. This, I think is realistic. I believe that a dice pool system is potentially serviceable, as you get diminishing returns as difficulty decreases (the more important part of the bell curve), but the mechanic with a Gaussian distribution will be better in the end.

If you want to take things further, damage inflicted in combat derives more from the skill of the attacker than the weapon used–in the right hands and the right situation, a dagger may be deadlier than a sword or polearm. Weapons, then, should likely give some advantage on attack tests when they would reasonably offer the combatant advantage over his foe rather than setting the range of damage he does.

Shields should be treated as weapons, not armor, because that’s what they are. Yes, they are weapons better suited to deflecting enemy blows, but they may still be used to push, bash and strike with both the shield face and the edges of the shield. A buckler, in essence, is an armored fist.

Combined with all of the above, fighting ability should probably be skill-based and not level-based. That’s debatable, of course, since levels arguably represent the experience and veterancy of a character, but surviving fights long enough is not the sole determiner of whether a character will “git gud.”

As you can see, all of this militates against D&D for the system to use if you want to run games with realistic combats–or much realism at all, I’d argue. A game where a character can survive a direct hit from a fireball or lightning strike just doesn’t lend itself to verisimilitude. I’d reiterate that that does not make D&D bad/wrong; it’s just a very different approach to RPGs than a gritty and realistic system and the availability of a variety of approaches to our games is a wonderful thing.

I will warn, from my own experience, however, that attempting to modify the D&D system into something that effectively captures some verisimilitude in its combat requires such sweeping changes to both mechanics and assumptions of the system as to be an exercise in futility. That way lies madness.

I’d also say that gritty and deadly doesn’t necessarily mean the “low fantasy” genre, though I see in both literature and games a strong correlation between the two. I would not describe my own setting, Avar Narn, as low magic, but I would certainly argue that it’s gritty.

Conclusion
My argument here is not for the primacy of historically-based realism in fiction and fantasy roleplaying–these media are far too broad to allow such an oversimplification and there are many competing goals in our fictional pursuits over verisimilitude. I do intend to argue, though, that an understanding of the historical basis is a benefit to anyone who devotes the time to it, because that understanding gives you power to manipulate the feel, genre and themes of your setting intentionally rather than wondering in blind.

The less realistic the combat, the more legendary (in the literary sense) and mythopoeic a story or game will feel, and that’s an opportunity to exploit just as the opposite is.

I hope that this series has given you something to mull over, some new opportunities to explore and consider as you create settings and mechanics for your own fiction or games. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

After-Action Report: TAC 2019

This year’s conference was a whirlwind. K got commissioned as a deacon this past Tuesday night in what was a beautiful ceremony with a great sermon by the Bishop. I can’t say how proud of her I am; I just don’t have words for it. That’s something, as this blog is itself proof of my usual verbosity.

Amidst all the doom and gloom surrounding the United Methodist Church of late, I left the conference with more hope than I had upon arrival. It’s a voting year for 2020’s General Conference, so nothing that happened at the 2019 Called Special Session of the General Conference is really set in stone yet. Palpable tension settled upon the conference from the beginning, thickening as we approached the clergy voting session Tuesday morning.

Despite extensive technical issues with the voting system, issues which seemed not to affect the voting results but simply to drag out the process, the clergy muddled through in their first voting session to astounding results.

The Texas Annual Conference had nine spots for delegates to General Conference, an additional nine spots for delegates to our Jurisdictional Conference, and spots for four alternates–this each for clergy and for laity, voted on separately.

At the end of voting (clergy voting had to be continued yesterday morning because of the time it took to fight with the electronic balloting system), the clergy had elected progressive/compatibilist delegates for all but two of the alternates, who were from the Confessing Movement/WCA slate. I’m told with some frequency that the Texas Annual Conference is the most conservative conference of the UMC in the U.S., so this was quite a surprising sea change from our last elections (in 2015). I’m not prepared to say that this represents a majority of clergy favoring full-inclusion, as I don’t know that. I do have confidence that this represents a majority of clergy that want to keep the church together, to be in fellowship in our disagreement with one another on theological issues. I can also soundly say that these elections constituted a firm rejection of the Traditional Plan’s passage at the 2019 GC.

A quick note on the word “compatibilist”: it is used within this context (and I believe within the UMC as a whole at present) to mean someone who supports maintaining the unity of the Church despite our theological differences. There are compatibilists on both sides of both the sexuality issue and the issues of theology and scriptural interpretation that underlie that more visible issue.

The laity elections, on the other hand, went exactly the opposite. You will recall, I imagine, that I ran as a lay candidate for the 2020 General Conference this year. As both a staunch progressive and a staunch compatibilist, I had the honor of being part of the “That We May Be One” slate of candidates. Despite having about 45-percent of the lay votes, we were soundly defeated by the traditionalist/Confessing/WCA contingent, electing only two alternates among the 22 total spots for GC and JC. I was not among those elected.

As much of a beating as the election itself felt, the numbers still give me hope. If the lay delegates of the Texas Annual Conference are still forty-five percent on the side of keeping the Church together and finding a way forward in unity, and if we are in fact the most conservative of the U.S. Annual Conferences, I think we’re in for a very interesting delegation to 2020 GC.

Voting this year also pointed out to me a great problem with the Book of Discipline structure of the UMC.

Under the current rules, each delegate gets to vote a number of times equal to the open spots being voted for. So, if we’re voting for 9 GC delegates, each voting member of the conference (again, separated between laity and clergy) gets nine votes.

But each vote must be for a different candidate. To be elected, a candidate needs 50% of the votes cast during that ballot. So, if a group controls 50% of the votes, they will, minor anomalies aside, control all of the delegates elected. This is exactly what happened in our voting this year.

The solution is simple: we go to corporate-style voting. Under corporate voting, each delegate would get nine votes if there are nine spots. But these votes could be allocated between candidates however the voter wishes. So, a voter could give all nine votes to the same candidate. This would ensure that a minority group could get some representation to GC while also maintaining the ability of a majority group to have the majority of the spots. In other words, the results of the election would be a more representative slice of the annual conference the elected delegates are supposed to represent.

Except that they’re not. Delegates are expected to “vote their conscience” at the General Conference and are not actually given any duty to represent those who elected them. On the one hand, this makes sense, as we’re (sometimes) talking about sensitive theological and moral questions. But the practical reality is that it means we’ve essentially taken the worst parts of the American-style democracy on which the UMC governance is based to form our electoral system and the expectations of the delegates to our legislative body.

There’s no fixing this right now. Elections are happened, these rules would have to be changed by the General Conference, and the 2020 GC already has enough on its plate. But this is something to consider for the future of the UMC if we are (as I continue to hope we will be able to) able to keep it together or the successor denominations if we are not.

During the evening session of laity voting, I had a somewhat contentious conversation with an older, conservative lay delegate. I tried to be civil–but did not succeed as well as I should have. Nevertheless, I want to bring up a few points we discussed in case they are common to others or some of my readers encounter them in the future.

The first argument that this man made were that “sociology” (he meant “social issues” rather than the soft science discipline) and theology should be kept separate, as they are separate things.

I could not disagree more. In the immediate, issues of social justice, the treatment of others, who we marry and ordain, and how we view our morality (if we are going to rely on the argument that morality is absolute and comes from God) all soundly fit within the realm of theology. More broadly, if our goal is truly to follow Christ and to “become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect,” everything is theology. I’ll probably write a full post to treat that issue.

But we cannot separate our politics or our social beliefs from our faith. That’s a careful line to walk for me, because I both believe that my faith should guide my politics and that there ought to be a separation of religion and government. This also merits a full post (or a book!) to treat fully. For now, suffice to say that I do not believe that we compartmentalize our social or political and spiritual beliefs when they are contradictory. In my opinion, the conservative Evangelical right as a political force in this country is emblematic of what happens when we do compartmentalize.

The second argument–really a statement of belief–that the man made was that the sexuality issue is “destroying our church.” I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I’m sure that this man and I have very different ideas about the why and how. More important, the principal factor that guides us should be, “what is God calling us to,” not “will this change the institution to which I am accustomed.” I realize that this argument could be used to suggest that the UMC should split, but I believe that we are called to unity in addition to social justice and must attempt as best we can to walk that line.

As I mentioned above, the clergy voting seems an indication of a desire to walk that line. The laity voting, not so much. We would do well to continue to ask ourselves, “Are we destroying the Church?” I don’t know that there’s a right answer to that question, and it’s the one that must inevitably follow that I care about most: “Whatever we’re doing, are we doing it out of an earnest desire to follow after Jesus and live out the Gospels for a world in desperate need of the Good News, or are we pushing our own agendas, propping up our own senses of identity, reshaping our Christianity to fit our preconceived notions, or adapting those notions in light of our faith?” There are no easy answers here, nor should there be.

 

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?

 

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.

 

Eulogy

(This is the first post of seventeen for my “200 for 200” goal; get your friends to follow!)

I went back and forth about whether to put this up on the blog; in some ways it seems such a private thing for friends and family. But, at the end of the day, I figured that my grandmother, though she wouldn’t have done it for herself, deserves to be praised to anyone who will listen. So, I’ve decided to post the short eulogy I read at my grandmother’s funeral this past Saturday. Here goes:

My grandmother, Barbara Bass, is one of the greatest rebels I’ve ever known. We live in a world that tells that success is based on power. There was never any doubt in my mind that she was the matriarch of the family, but I cannot remember a single time she demonstrated a sense of entitlement to that position. Given the stereotype of the Southern matriarch, that could only be a matter of impressive will or genuine humility. Both are commendable. Instead, she influenced by reason and example, governed by gentle guidance, demonstrated strength by quiet confidence.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on money. I never saw my grandmother lavish herself with expensive things. Instead, she lived a life of satisfaction in sufficiency, seeing through the empty grandeur of material things. As a result, she and my grandfather have been generous with their hard-earned wealth, sharing freely with others—especially us grandchildren—what they have.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on career achievement. Coming along in a world dominated by men, my grandmother earned great success as both student and educator. With my grandfather, she ran successful businesses in dollhouses and in antiques. She mastered the Ebay market—buying and selling—and while Grandpa played the stocks, she played other commodities, like art. But it was never about cold profit; for her, it was about the thrill of the find, participation in a community of people who appreciate art and culture. Most important, no matter how easily that success came to her, it was never her primary aspiration—her family always came first.

In a world that tells us so many lies about what matters and what doesn’t, my grandmother’s life was once of continued defiance. You see, she followed the truth of Jesus Christ like few other people I know. In knowing Christ, she knew that the most fundamental and meaningful thing there is in this or any other existence is love. Not only did she know that, but she did what even fewer people still do: she lived it. I am sure that hers is a mind an inner life far too complex, diverse and, frankly, well-developed to be summarized in a short speech. But there’s not one memory I have of her that is not imbued with the sense of the love she has for others, her compassion and caring for those around her.

My wife, Kate, would agree. When I was preparing these words, she shared with me her best memory of my Grandmother. Granny was the first person in my family to tell Kate that they loved her—and this before we were married or even engaged. From that point on, Kate felt part of the family. And she was. That welcoming and loving spirit is the thing that has, I’m sure touched all of us the most in knowing my grandmother.

In this day and age, the kind of life that Barbara Mitchell Bass led, of building others up instead of bringing them down, of creating relationships instead of pushing them away, of sacrificing for others instead of putting oneself first, of lifting up ideas and ideals that are beautiful, is itself a rebellion against those falsehoods that daily endeavor to lead us away from what is real and good and true. She managed that kind of revolutionary behavior without belittling or denigrating any other person, by positive example instead of negative argument.

It is natural for us to mourn her loss, for our lives have all been brightened by her presence in them and now, for a time, we will be diminished for the lack of it. But we should also celebrate, for there should be no doubt that my grandmother has now come face to face with our Creator, and she has heard those coveted words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” She has entered into the abundant and eternal life promised to all of us. When each of us goes to join her there, I am sure that she will be there waiting with that welcoming spirit we all remember her by, ready to remind us that we are loved.

42

Maybe Douglas Adams was right when he wrote that “42” was the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Personally, I lost interest in the “everything is meaningless and isn’t that funny?” game about four books in, but after this weekend, maybe I have a newfound respect for the author.

My dad has been invested in Kairos Prison Ministry for a few years now. About a year ago he told me that he’d be leading one of the Kairos weekends in November 2018 and asked if I’d participate. I said I would and mostly forgot about it until trainings began a few months ago.

If you’re not aware, Kairos International is ministry that equips Christians to carry out “Kairos Weekends” in prisons across the world. For us, that meant about four hours inside on this past Thursday, about twelve hours inside each on Friday and Saturday, and about eight hours inside yesterday. It is an intensive program first and foremost designed to communicate the love of Jesus Christ to inmates through the actions of the faithful who volunteer with the program.

Thursday night is largely an introduction. A lot of the volunteers had been involved in Kairos for years, but for those of us who had never been, we did not know what to expect. It was my first time to set foot inside a prison.

And, of course, for the inmates involved, they have no idea what to expect when the weekend starts. Our Kairos Weekend was the third to be held at the Jester 3 unit here in Fort Bend County. Jester 3 is a relatively laid-back prison (as far as they go); inmates are sent to Jester 3 primarily either because they have medical issues or because they are taking college courses through the programs offered at the site.

Most of the men have been incarcerated in other prisons within Texas, many of them much harder on the inmates than Jester 3–not only because of the Correctional Officers (COs) but because of gang activity, drugs, and violence within the prison itself. I heard some stories from the men about their previous experiences that made me feel like Piper in the first episodes of Orange is the New Black.

And Jester 3 is not without its fights, rivalries, disputes, and dangers for the men inside–not to mention the shame and guilt, rejection, isolation and worthlessness felt by those who are incarcerated no matter the location.

So, on Thursday night, it’s understandable that many of the men came in with their “shields up.” Because of their backgrounds and their experiences in the system, they’re used to viewing all (or nearly all) relationships as transactional–everybody’s out to get something for themselves in every association with another person, and nothing’s ever offered for free. It was plain on some of the faces that there were those who did not want to attend, and I later heard from a few of “my guys” that they almost didn’t come at all.

My understanding is that Jester 3 houses somewhere between 1200 and 1400 prisoners. Only 42 were selected to come to our Kairos Weekend after submitting applications (though there were a few who had applications anonymously submitted on their behalf!). Of those eighty-something men who had participated in the previous Kairos Weekends, about fourteen of them served their brothers in the latest weekend, bringing out food and drinks, working with outside volunteers on logistics, and generally making sure everything went smoothly.

Most of the men had heard something about Kairos before the weekend started, but like so many things that are deeply significant in our lives, those who had come before couldn’t explain what they’d been through–it had to be experienced. Accordingly, what most of the men knew about the program was that it was something to do and that the food was good (it was, and it offered the inmates food from the free world that they rarely or never had access to in the commissary or the chow line). There were fresh fruits and vegetables–a rare delicacy in prison–over 1000 cookies (I don’t want to think about how many I ate in those four days), and meat that wasn’t pork. The guys put ranch dressing on everything. As it turns out, the commissary used to sell it, but when the system switched to a cheaper (and not very tasty brand) the inmates stopped buying, so the commissary stopped carrying it altogether.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that part of our preparation (in addition to the four training days) was the writing of a letter to each participant. For efficiency, we wrote the bodies of the letters in advance. Friday night after the program we went home and added personal details and messages to eight of the forty-two (the six guys who were in our “family” for the weekend and the two for who we were personal greeters and hosts), addressed and signed all of them, and put them into envelopes. We couldn’t do this until Friday night because the roster is subject to change up to that point (not to mention that the names given to us on the prison’s official roster are not always how the men want to be called).

In prison, mail call is a big deal. It is tangible evidence that the outside world hasn’t forgotten you, that there are still people who care about you and who are willing to have a relationship with you after you have been labeled “criminal.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The weekend itself is a collection of talks and meditations, followed by discussion time, fellowship at meals, and singing of hymns (often with silly hand motions or dances: flapping of arms and “flying” around the room for “I’ll Fly Away,” and a number of moves for that painful classic, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh”).

As I alluded to above, there are six men from the inside in every family, along with one clergyperson (if possible) and two lay volunteers. The talks are intended to guide each participant into asking questions to develop an understanding of self, that God is love and that they are all worthy to be forgiven of their pasts and to be called God’s children, and to equip them to develop spiritually and to build a community on the inside that centers around living in love and following Christ. It’s a lot to pass on in a weekend, even if it is a longish and intense one. And that’s what the volunteers are there for: to demonstrate God’s love for them.

At first, it’s a confusing and disorienting thing to be confronted with. One of my guys kept telling me that he just couldn’t believe that someone (especially young-ish like myself) would take the time from the things I could be doing to come inside and spend time with them. They had to let their guard down to accept that kind of acceptance and treatment–its nothing short of miraculous to watch.

We ask them to share about themselves and to open up, but there are certain things we don’t ask–why they’re in, how long they’re in for, and the like. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t matter. Not once did I really find myself wondering why any one of the guys had been incarcerated. That kind of willingness to be accepting was strange to me when I experienced it, even when I always considered myself a pretty accepting person in theory.

I notice that I’m putting a lot of words on the screen and probably not saying too much. I’m certainly not conveying the depth and profundity of the experience and the extent to which I myself have been changed by the experience. I left the experience yesterday with sadness that it was over, and the feeling that I’d become brothers with the men at my table over the weekend. We plan to write one another and I hope to be able to visit them.

I was told before the weekend that I’d get more out of it than I put into it. That certainly proved to be true. As my writings likely suggest, I’m typically a cynical, sarcastic and skeptical person in many things. My experiences inside a prison with men who had been waiting to be able to let their guard down, who wanted to have faith in God and that love was the answer to the lives they’d been living (which, if we’re honest with ourselves, could be a life any of us could have been born into or could stumble into on our own), and who had courage to do things that were existentially frightening to them (like forgiving people against whom they had long held grudges), refreshed my faith in humanity and my faith that God can redeem and refine any person no matter who they are. I was put face-to-face with the reality that all people have real value, that people can change and that our existence was created in such a way that the selfless love demonstrated by Jesus Christ is the most joyous state of being there is. In the free world, those opportunities for our hearts to be “strangely warmed” (as John Wesley put it) often seem few and far between. This weekend, that feeling set in early Friday morning and still hasn’t worn off. I see clearly why my father is so passionate about this ministry.

It didn’t hurt that the volunteers who came in with me (most of whom are my father’s age) provided both examples of men of faith and stories about how God had worked in their lives.

If you have the opportunity to participate in Kairos (whether the original version of the program for incarerated men or Kairos Outside for the female family members and loved ones of incarcerated men), I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Thinking About Kavanaugh

Since I’ve been asked to post some of my thoughts about American politics by a reader, it seems only right to reward the kind of feedback and responsiveness I’d love to see more of from readers as quickly as possible.

So, here you go, yet more commentary on the Kavanaugh nomination (though the first from me).

To begin, I am disappointed in the behavior of both major parties in our country. There have always been “winner-take-all” politicians in the world, but zero-sum, no-holds-barred, win-at-all-costs politics is now the status quo. Somehow along the way, we’ve lost the rigorous dedication to civil discourse, the ability to compromise and collaborate, and a focus on the common good over pandering to a limited electorate. This is true of persons on both parties.

I watched Senator McCain’s funeral with great sorrow. Not only did the event carry with it a sense of Shakespearean drama (I couldn’t help but think of Mark Antony’s funereal speech in Julius Ceasar, though both motivation and results differed in our reality–thankfully), but it really did seem that we’ve lost one of the last noble politicians–those who could vehemently stand for an ideology without demonizing or marginalizing anyone who disagrees. There’s some amount of revisionist idolization in there to be sure, but in his death McCain managed to become a momentary symbol of that more general loss.

I am afraid that both the Democrats and the Republicans have handled Kavanaugh’s nomination in such a way that it cannot but be polarized and polarizing. Worse still, suspicion of political motivations to the actions of both sides now guarantee that the results of the FBI investigation conducted this week will be automatically discounted by those whose opinion is not supported by the investigation’s findings. The Democrats will say that the investigation was too limited and too short if they don’t like the results, and the Republicans will call conspiracy if they don’t.

And that brings us to my real thoughts on Kavanaugh specifically. I watched a good portion, but not all, of both Dr. Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s. But what I want to say in this post is not about the truth of the allegations against him. In fact, here’s what I have to say about the truth of the allegations: I don’t know. Based on what I’ve seen, I find no reason to believe a motivation in the three accusers other than sincere belief in the allegations made against Judge Kavanaugh. I found Dr. Ford’s demeanor fully credible. I don’t see that Ford, Swetnick and Ramirez have anything to gain by publically accusing Kavanaugh, but they do have much to lose.

In all honesty, I just don’t feel qualified to give anything other than my humblest of opinions as to the truth of the matter. So, putting that aside, let’s turn to the issues I do feel I can comment on.

Let me start with some comments as a lawyer to clear up misconceptions I hear frequently in discussions about the hearings and confirmation.

This is not a legal proceeding; it is a political one. Legal standards like “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “a proponderence of evidence” or “burden of proof” are not the proper standards to refer to in the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. No one is considering criminal prosecution here, so let’s stop pretending like criminal standards matter.

The only standard that matters is “do we believe that this candidate will carry out the duties of a Supreme Court justice competently, faithfully, impartially and to the highest degree that the people of the United States deserve?”

In other words, the proceedings are not ultimately about Kavanaugh answering to the Judicial Committee, the Senate, the President or the Congress as a whole. They are about those bodies doing everything that they can to ensure that the candidate confirmed is accountable to the American people. Many of us–especially the politicians–have lost sight of that.

Additionally, let us not treat Kavanaugh as if he’s entitled to be confirmed. This is not a matter of “once the president nominates him, the burden shifts to someone else to affirmatively disqualify him.” The first concern in such a matter must never be the specific candidate, but the good of the citizenry. That should mean a neutral playing field.

So, when other people lament Kavanaugh’s treatment by the press, the Democratic members of the Judicial Committee, or anyone else, I can only partially agree. I can only agree to the extent that everyone deserves to be treated with civility and respect. I cannot agree to the extent that some deservedness of preferential treatement is assumed in such comments.

No one is entitled to be a Supreme Court justice. Personally, I’m a bit suspicious of anyone who makes it their avowed ambition to be one–I think that cuts against the expectations of neutrality in interpretation of the law, humility and selflessness that should be expected of such a person.

I also want to clarify comments about defamation. It is long established law in our country that those who are candidates for public office (or who hold such office) are under most circumstances barred from making claims of defamation. This is a function of the First Amendment right to question or criticize the operations of government and a check on the government itself by ensuring that the nation may freely debate the character and actions of its leaders. Those who run for office (for the most part) give up the right to complain about what people say about them.

On the other hand, I also believe that a respect for the democratic process must be placed above the result of any particular nomination. I do not agree with many (perhaps most) of Kavanaugh’s political ideas or jurisprudential philosophy. I do fear that his presence on the Court could threaten a reversal of long-established rights in this country, such as Roe v. Wade. But that is not a reason in and of itself to take the position any price should be paid to keep him off of the  Court.

Our nation was designed with checks and balances in mind, and there are ways to counter judicial results we don’t like–at both the state and federal levels, statutes are passed with some frequency because the legislature does not want to keep the legal result reached by a court. While the conditions under which such legistlative override are sometimes complex, we should not be mistaken for believing that any one decision within our government is an irreversible loss to anyone who doesn’t like the result.

I am willing to concede that I do not know whether Kavanaugh committed the acts of which he’s been accused, though I did find Dr. Ford’s testimony highly credible. What disqualifies Kavanaugh in my opinion (and I’m far from the first person to say this) was his own testimony on the same day.

Kavanaugh’s vitriolic description of hit-jobs, conspiracies and an intense hatred of Democrats showed a man who lacks judicial temperament. What we need in this country–across the board–are people who are willing to reserve judgment, consider the possibilities, have humility in the limitations of their knowledge and admit that they do the best that they can under the circumstances. Kavanaugh revealed himself to be a man more than willing to be partisan and to politicize judgments that should be made from a more even-keeled position. His extreme distrust of Democrats indicates a prejudice I find he would be unlikely to set aside simply because he puts on his robe and takes a seat in our highest court. For me, that’s the end of the analysis. There are other candidates, plenty whom the conservatives can get behind, who are otherwise qualified to hold the position (whether or not I agree with their views).

Now I’m going to share some thoughts on the matter as a Christian and lay theologian. As a Christian, I believe that people can change–it’s a fundamental part of our faith. Had Kavanaugh said from the get-go that he behaved irresponsibly as a kid, but that he’s grown past that, I would have had profound respect for that. Had he done that, I think I would have to give much more thought to the seriousness of the allegations against him to determine whether I personally thought him fit for the office.

But he didn’t. Instead, he tried to downplay and mischaracterize his youthful indiscretions for his personal gain. Again, the truth of the allegations against him aside, such dishonesty and dodginess is unacceptable from a person who wants to sit in an institution where the pursuit of truth and fairness is paramount. As most of the late-night hosts have remarked, his disingenuous explanations of commonly-known slang terms was deserving of ridicule. In this time of Russian bots, “fake news” and “alternative facts,” I believe that one role a Christian must play in current politics is to stand for truth and against disinformation and purposeful deception or propaganda–even (and especially) when we don’t like what that truth is.

I am disturbed by the sense of personal entitlement that Judge Kavanaugh displayed in the hearing. The general thrust of his argument was, “I’ve played by the rules of the country’s elites, so it would be unfair to deny me this position.” He responded to questions about his drinking by saying that he worked hard as a student, checked off the boxes of privilege for those with the resources and connections to attend Ivy League universities, that his position as a varsity sportsman and talented student somehow entitled him to behave however he wanted outside of those pursuits. His response to Democratic questions were not those of a person humbly submitting to vetting before potentially being given a high honor, but of a defiant man daring to challenge others to explain why he shouldn’t be given that honor.

Privileged entitlement is one of the biggest social issues in modern culture, I think. It is inextricably involved with racism, sexism, anti-immigration discrimination, the wealth divide and most of the other hot-button issues of the day. Kavanaugh’s nomination and the accusations against him, I think, have generated so much traction because these events seem so emblematic of the issues of privilege and entitlement in our country.

I am suspicious that, for some but certainly not all, an unacknowledged sense of entitlement is part of the opposition to full inclusion within the Christian faith.

I am extremely troubled by Trump, Jr.’s comments that he fears for male children more than female children in light of today’s #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh hearings. Frankly, I’m pretty tired of the privileged trying to make themselves out to be victims. It’s not a good look. But take my indignation with a grain of salt–I am after all a white Christian heterosexual male who was born into an upper-middle-class family.

Nevertheless, I do not think that we’ve yet made sufficient progress in the rights of women that it’s time to start having conversations about how we protect men in the relatively few situations where they are falsely accused.

All of this begs the question as to what I think Christians should be doing to help in today’s environment. I have some particular things to say based on my own theological understanding of our faith, but let’s save that for some other post. For now, let’s focus on some things that I think most (hopefully all) Christians can agree upon.

First, let’s stand for truth. Let’s stop absorbing our preferred news source, assuming that everything they’ve said is exactly the way it is, and making assumptions about the facts without doing much to confirm them (as best we can). Let’s hold those who blatantly disregard the truth responsible for such behavior.

Second, let’s practice some humility. It is possible to stand for strong convictions while admitting that one is not so special as to be absolutely, unequivocally sure of the truth. In light of that, let us treat each other with respect. We can disagree without hating those who disagree with us. We can protest without hating the people who stand for what we’re protesting. Sometimes, often perhaps, that’s not easy. But that’s why we must practice.

Third, let’s actually listen to one another. This necessarily flows from the second point. I will admit that one is likely to encounter some people whose beliefs are entirely unfounded and unmoored from reality at some point along the way. I will also admit that it is a waste of time to engage with some people, because they will not be reasonable enough to engage in real conversation. But I don’t think that those people constitute the majority, and you still have to listen to everyone to know who is who.

Fourth, let’s try to walk the line. What line is that, you ask? The line between understanding that the truth and what people believe are both important, though they’re not necessarily the same thing. When I advise clients as an attorney, I often tell them that they need to treat the beliefs of the other side as true. Not because those beliefs are true, but because those beliefs are nevertheless realities that must be negotiated in order to achieve a desired result.

For the Christian in political discourse, this approach is important both pragmatically and morally. First, we cannot love one another well without trying to understand where other people are coming from, whether we agree with their perception or not. Even in our strife, even in politics, we must endeavor to act with love toward one another. Practically, you’re never going to convince anyone of anything by telling them that the way that they feel is flat-out wrong and should never be considered.

In my judgment, much of the current anti-immigration sentiment is based out of fear of loss–loss of culture, loss of status or income, loss of the “way things used to be.” I may not think that the fear of those kinds of loss are based in fact or are proper responses to immigration, but that doesn’t change the fact that many who feel that anti-immigration sentiment are scared, and if you can’t help them manage that fear (or at least acknowledge it), you’re not going to be able to reach a relationship with them where you can honestly talk about why they might (by their faith, for instance) be called to change those views.

In summary, the best way for us to influence how our politicians behave is to model that behavior ourselves so that we are not hypocrites when we demand the same sort of behavior from them. This, I think, is a moral imperative of the Christian. Happily, I think it coincides with our civic duties.

A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.

 

 

 

Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

In Matthew 5:28, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”

That’s a tough statement, especially given the following advice that if a body part is causing us to sin we ought to cut it off.

But let’s take a step back and think about this on a level deeper than the surface–and the shock that goes along with it. I’m a firm believer that many times when Jesus says something that seems very condemning, what he’s doing is simply laying out for us how the world works and what the natural consequences of a thing are. For instance, when Jesus tells us that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24, he’s not saying “God condemns rich people for being rich and no one should be.” Rather, I think, he’s saying, “The money and power that go along with wealth–and the accompanying desire to hold onto that money and power–make it very difficult to focus on what is good and true and righteous, because the love of power is seductive and addictive. Be wary that such things do not make you see the world in the wrong way, but keep focused on the way that I have told you to see the world.”

Likewise, in Matthew 5:28, while Jesus does say something that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, reminds us all of our sins, I think that his purpose is less about shaming us and more about telling us about the very nature of sin.

And that’s why this post is titled, “Is sin phenomonal or existential?” If you’ve read many of my other posts, you already know where I fall on this issue, but I’d like to develop the idea a bit more specifically.

When I ask if sin is phenomenal, what I mean to ask is whether sin is a matter of discrete and observable actions, specific behaviors violative of what is righteous. When I ask if sin is existential, I’m asking if, rather than being a matter of specific and easily-identifiable behaviors, sin is a condition or state of being.

The real answer, of course, is that it’s both of these things at once. What the question(s) really seek to answer is whether it is particular actions that lead to a particular state of sin or whether particular actions are the result of a state of being. Again, the best argument is likely that there’s a dialectic between these two things–bad acts make it easier to choose bad acts in the future, deepening a state of sinfulness, but without some existentially sinful condition, there would never be any sinful action, so the influence of one on the other must be mutually reinforcing. So, what should we focus on as primary when dealing with and discussing sin–actions or a state of being.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus appears to be arguing against the legalism of the Old Testament law (here making specific allusion to the Ten Commandments) and instead showing us that sinfulness is a matter of mindset, perspective (compared to the objective, I mean to intimate no relativistic thought here), paradigm.

There are two quotations I prefer (and have used on the blog before) to encapsulate this idea, which is central and fundamental to existential thought. Having been a professional student and scholar of the Renaissance and early modern periods, both quotations are derived from that most elevated and rarified literary era.

First, some John Milton, from Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Second, Shakespeare: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Following existential thought in general, and Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) in particular, we argue that humans, as a matter of course and necessity, make meaning in the world. We do this by relating things to one another in their existential aspects and phenomena, creating those relationships through storytelling. The “secular” existentialists see this as the fundamental cause of “existential angst”–we fail to detect any inherent and objective meaning in the things which we observe and with which we interact. But the Christian existentialist takes this farther, first positing that there is ultimate and objective meaning that comes from God, though we may detect such only through divine revelation; and, second, marvelling at the great opportunity, pleasure, power and responsibility we have been given in co-creating with God by establishing meaning through our own narratives, big and small. This process, as a fundamental aspect of man’s existence, is clear from the beginning of Creation–is not Adam creating meaning and relationships by naming the creatures of the Earth?

Upon recognition of this divinely-granted human power, we must immediately recognize the source of sin–the creation of meanings and relationships that are not in line with God’s plan and intentions. Put bluntly, seeing and thinking about the world in the wrong way.

And this is what Jesus warns about in Matthew 5:28–it’s not sin only when you take action to commit adultery; if you have created a mental concept of existence that sees women merely as objects of your lust, that permits infidelity and betrayal for the most fleeting of passions, you’re doing it wrong and you’re already in a state of sinfulness. It’s not enough to refrain from the comission of the action; you must change the way you think about and see the world and how all the things in it relate to one another.

When we compare this concept to other moral teachings of Jesus, we find great support for it. Jesus usually seems to be less concerned about specific actions and more concerned with the ideologies, social structures, theologies and existential states that lead to those actions: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we think about sin existentially, sin becomes about relationships, results and intents, not arbitrary restrictions. This comports perfectly with the Greatest Commandments.

Just as the plain language of Jesus’s words make clear, this is a higher standard of morality than avoiding the consummation of unrighteous intents; it is war on unrighteous intent itself. And it makes perfect sense; if you fall into the trap of lusting after people in your mind, that objectification likely affects more than just the questions of adultery and fidelity. In many ways, such thought is about a reduction of the humanity of a person into a personification of of desire and temptation, an indulgence of the self by the self that only needs the other person as a tool of that self-indulgence. Once we’ve stripped such a person of their humanity, however small a slice we may cut away at a time, we will treat them differently, and not in a better way, though the injury to the person may be so subtle as to go generally unnoticed without deep introspection or close observation.

But to focus on just how fallen the idea that sin is existential and caused by our own ordering of our idea of Creation makes us is to miss the point. The strong implication, as Milton shows us, is that just as unrighteous narrative and mental/idealist/idealogical relationships make us sinful, righteous ones bring us closer to God. Every time we shift our conception of the world closer to God’s intention for those relationships as demonstrated in Jesus, we are both personally participating in the Kingdom of God and, as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.

In simpler terms, Jesus is implicating here that we create our own reality. Again, not in some relativistic way, because God’s intention for Creation establishes objective truth, but in the way we personally interact with the world and believe it to be. We have been given an astounding power of sub-creation inherent to our free will, but we are also called to use that power to seek righteousness, to become, as Jesus later calls us to become in the Sermon on the Mount: Perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

The scope of the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of warnings and prohibitions; it is a call to participate in the infinite joy of existence as a child of God by seeking to create the kinds of narratives and mental conceptions that God would have us create.