Computer games, Divine Liturgy, and imitating greatness

Posted in Christianity, Culture, Just for Fun by Alex L. on March 14, 2010

I grew up in the video game generation. The public discussion about video games for the past decade, I have noticed, has been about whether violent video games encourage violent behavior in real life – parents worrying about children growing bloodthirsty. More recently, some research has attracted attention that suggests that video games may develop logical thinking and hand-eye coordination. Xbox may not be so different from chess and baseball after all. But to me and perhaps others in my generation, video games mean a bit more than that.

If I were to be brutally honest, I would have to admit that my interest in history has a bit (or a lot) to do with me playing the computer game Civilization II as a young boy. Sure, my grandpa read to me – to my great delight – when I was even younger from a children’s book about how man made fire by rubbing sticks and crafted the first primitive tools. But that did not capture my imagination as much as building an empire while playing as the ancient Egyptians in Civilization II or amassing an armada of ships that terrorized the high seas while commanding the Spanish. I piloted an aircraft in the game Aces Over Europe (like my granpda, who flew in real planes in World War II) and won glory for my country as a skilled warrior. I was a hero, like my forebearers. Or, I practiced to become one.

Games are more than about shooting people and destroying things. They are even more than about cognitive and reflexive development. For a child, especially in America where communities lack other rituals for developing self-identity, such games allow you to imitate the greatness of your ancestors. In Plato’s terms, by imitating great deeds (such as defending one’s country as a fighter pilot in World War II) a child may take part in the Forms of Courage, Duty, and Camaraderie. In such a way, he fosters a sense of belonging and duty to his community.

Playing computer games, seen from this perspective, is not much different than taking part in the Divine Liturgy in church. The Liturgy is a play similar to ancient Greek drama: the congregation, an adaptation of the Greek chorus, re-enacts the story of Christ every Sunday and takes part as participants on the stage. After all, is not theater just a type of game, where the actors and audience suspend their sense of disbelief at their imitation of reality just as gamers do? For the sake of something greater, every person is willing to suspend their sense of disbelief.

These are just some cursory and perhaps simplistic observations. I thought I may post this because I have been thinking that this pull towards imitating greatness – either through games or theater or rituals – remains with people (or at least has with me) even into adulthood. I read about the Battle of Britain and I still want to strap into a virtual cockpit. I watch an episode of The Pacific on HBO and I feel the urge to play Call of Duty: World at War. I feel the lack of adventure in my life, and I play The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. Or I read literature, for it too is an escape (or transcendence) of reality.

We all played games when we were children, but we also all persist in other forms of imitation as adults. Why? And to what end? Maybe if we can answer these questions, we could clear up a lot of others about the purpose  in contemporary life of religion, art, and – not to forget – even video games.

Many history blogs

Posted in Bible, Blogs, History by Alex L. on February 24, 2010

When I started historyjournal.org, I thought there were relatively few people blogging about history. I’ve since learned that there are many such blogs on all kinds of topics. Below are two helpful lists of quality history blogs:

1. Cliopatria’s History Blogroll (Part 1 | Part 2)
2. Top 50 Biblical History Blogs

My current blogroll consists of PaleoJudaica.com (biblical history), Easily Distracted (history and academia), Cliopatria (general history), AHA Blog, and Pedablogue (an awesome blog about pedagogy).

“Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible” exhibit in Milwaukee

Posted in Ancient, Bible, Judaism, Museums by Alex L. on January 21, 2010

The caves of Qumran (Wikipedia)Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel has reviewed a new exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum called “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible”. The reviewer applauds the installation, which features objects from Qumran but also many general artifacts from biblical times.

Looking through the photo slide-show attached to the review, I perceive that the exhibit is laid out according to a new style of exhibit display. When I visited the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL a few years ago, I noticed that the museum had chosen a fresh approach to museum design. Instead of overwhelming the viewer with a plethora of artifacts and informational plaques, the museum recreated historical environments in each of its varying rooms. One room was Lincoln’s childhood cabin. Another was his funeral visitation room. Each display was artfully lit, engaging, and informative without being overwhelming.

From what I can tell, this style has caught on and the “Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible” exhibit appears to be equally refreshing. Perhaps it’s time for me to visit Wisconsin again.

Noah’s Ark in the Black Sea: an elegant, if flawed, theory

Posted in Ancient, Bible, Prehistory, Storytelling by Alex L. on June 13, 2009

Sometimes a theory about the past makes for such a good story that it is hard to let go of it, even when it proves to be false. When archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ancient Greek city of Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon from Homer’s Iliad, he found a beautiful gold funerary mask of a royal. Imagine, if the mask was of Agamemnon himself, to have a portrait – in gold! – of a hero from Homer’s epic story of the Trojan War, where previously only our imaginations colored those characters. Alas, when the mask was dated, it was pronounced a few generations off from Agamemnon, but how beautiful it would have been if it was his.

Another elegant theory of our past is the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. In 1996, geologists from Columbia University William Ryan and Walter Pitman postulated that a massive flood from the Mediterranean Ocean through the narrow Bosporus strait created the Black Sea as we know it today. Over seven thousand years ago, they said, water burst through the strait and rushed into the Black Sea with force 400 times that of Niagara Falls. Many communities living around the sea were wiped out and the stories told of this catastrophe later became the Great Flood myths in the Hebrew book of Genesis, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and other ancient narratives. Finding an archaeological counterpart to the story of Noah’s ark is a tantalizing idea. The famous oceanographer Robert Ballard (who discovered the RMS Titanic on the ocean floor) even led an expedition to the Black Sea to test the Black Sea deluge hypothesis.

Unfortunately, the theory, in light of new evidence, seems to be false. In such a case, one would chuck it from memory, if the idea was not so artful. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review comments (according to an uncited quote on Wikipedia) that “if you want to see the Black Sea flood in Noah’s flood, who’s to say no?” I disagree with Mr. Shanks: one should not believe in faulty scientific theories. But the debunking of the Black Sea deluge hypothesis is nevertheless a buzzkill to the imagination.

Tension between Philosophical Law and Hebrew Law

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Greek, Judaism by Alex L. on May 28, 2009

One of the greatest challenges for Judaism and Christianity has been to reconcile the law of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures with the moral law described by Greek philosophers. Writers of every generation from the Hellenistic Age to our own have sought to understand their Jewish tradition in light of philosophical reason, because they had come to believe that both are true. This task has always been a difficult one, because, fundamentally, I think the Philosophical Law and the Hebrew Law work in different ways.

The philosophical law, is more familiar to modern people. Through reason, as described by Plato and Aristotle, man can deduce the best way to live his life. Living the best life is the highest happiness, therefore the promise of the philosophical law is human happiness. The philosophical law seeks universal application – how to order one’s actions, emotions, conversations, work, and beliefs by reason to achieve the best possible life for ourselves and others. The philosophical law has often been called the Moral Law. The Hebrew law, though, functions in a different way.

The Hebrew law, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the law of an ancient community, the Jews. Its regulations are very contextual to that age – rules regarding livestock, slaves, barbaric punishment, and the like. Moreover, the law is delivered by God as a tyrant (in a classical sense of the word, as someone whose actions and decrees are a law to themselves and obey no higher standard). The Mosaic law is not subject to reason like the philosophical law. The promise of the Hebrew law is not happiness, but solely faithfulness to the one who designed it, God. The function of the Hebrew law, in the context of Christianity (this is the only context I can knowledgeably speak for), is to teach people how to be merciful. The Mosaic law is designed to trip us up – we are meant to never live up to it (unlike, again, the philosophical law, which is always practical). Proof of this is that Christ himself was cursed by the Mosaic law by doing a profane thing when he was hung on a tree (the cross). The purpose of the Mosaic law, then, is this: if everyone, even Jesus Christ, is guilty under this law, and if God has mercy on all people anyway, then every individual must forgive others their trespasses of the law as he himself is forgiven of his. The Hebrew law teaches us about repentance and mercy.

The difference between the philosophical (moral) law and the Hebrew law can be summarized as this: the best life according to the former is happiness by way of reason, while the best life according to the latter is godliness by way of obedience. But what if godly obedience does not seem reasonable? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law” and that anyone who teaches others to disobey any commandment at all will be condemned. But, in our Christian communities, we have let many letters of the Mosaic law pass away as society has progressed. Reason, it seems, has trumped obedience to God.

I’m not by any means advocating a return to following the Mosaic law. Perhaps this conflict between the moral law and the Hebrew law is much adieu about nothing. Perhaps there is no problem with being both a philosopher and Christian, though the Bible itself makes bold claims about the standard of lawful obedience. In any case, understanding the purpose and function of the philosophical law as opposed to the Biblical law can clarify one’s goals and beliefs to help one lead a better life.

Daily Bible readings: Paul as the gatekeeper for the Good Shepherd

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Judaism by Alex L. on May 21, 2009

I often follow the daily readings of the Orthodox Church in America and think about how the passages selected each day relate to each other. Sometimes the connection is clear and sometimes a common lesson is hard to discern or seems to not even exist.

The daily readings for today are from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John. The first reading describes Paul’s mission to some of the Gentile cities (Acts 14:20-27), the second one presents Jesus Christ claiming to be the Good Shepherd and the gate to God’s kingdom (John 9:39-10:9), and the third reading shows Paul defending himself before King Agrippa and describing his credentials in Judaism and conversion to Christianity (Acts 26:1-5, 12-20). What is the connection between the readings? I think the compilers of the lectionary are drawing attention to the relationship between the Apostle Paul and the teaching of Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ” ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.’ ” If in this allegory Jesus is the Good Shepherd who enters through the gate to the human community, then the Book of Acts suggests that Paul is the gatekeeper. After describing Paul’s mission in Gentile lands, the author of Acts states that “[Paul] had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles”.

Though he is the gatekeeper, Acts also describes Paul’s credentials in Judaism, how he “belonged to the strictest sect of [Judaism] and lived as a Pharisee”. Thus the daily readings establish both the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ as trustworthy teachers who approach the human community through the front gate of old Judaism. While Jesus is the Good Shepherd of God’s people, Paul is the gatekeeper that opens the door for the Gentiles to receive this teaching.

Holy Week commentaries: Sunday

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on May 8, 2009

From my journal, the last segment of the Holy Week commentaries:

“PASCHA. Slept late into the morning. Went to Agape Vespers, the last service of Holy Week. How interesting: the gospel reading, the very last Scripture in the Holy Week services, ends with Thomas doubting Christ’s resurrection (John 20:19-25). But the following verses about Jesus showing himself to Thomas are not read! [. . .] There is no closure, interestingly. But I don’t know what that means. [Actually, as my friend Jesse has pointed out, the readings on the next day, Bright Monday, pick up where the ones on Pascha leave off. Nevertheless, it’s still odd that the Holy Week readings ‘end with a whimper’ with the doubting Thomas passage].”

Holy Week commentaries: Saturday

Posted in Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on May 8, 2009

From my journal:

“Went to the Pascha midnight service. The joy of the holiday, I think, was not mimicked in our congregational celebration [. . .]:

‘Before the symbolic ark, David, God’s forefather, did leap and dance. Let us, therefore, the holy people, seeing the fulfillment of those symbols, rejoice with divine rejoicing; for Christ the Almighty is risen’ (719).

“The Paschal Orthos service, during the Paschal Canon, refutes the point I mentioned yesterday and describes why Sunday is now the day of rest for Christians:

‘The Paschal Feast was called Pascha from the Jewish name; for Christ by his Passion and Resurrection translated us from the curse of Adam and the bondage of Satan to the ancient liberty and bliss. As for the day of the week, which is called in Hebrew, the first day, being dedicated to our Lord for his glorification and magnification, it is called in Greek, Kyriake, or the Lord’s Day. The Disciples transferred to it the dignity of the sabbath after the Law of the Old Testament, and prescribed that it be a holiday and a day of rest’ (724).

“I wonder about the source documenting the ‘transfer’. The readings of the Paschal Divine Liturgy are interesting because they suggest that Christ has become known to us. The Epistle is of the beginning of the book of Acts, which begins the story of the work of the Holy Spirit after Christ’s resurrection was revealed to his disciples. The Gospel reading is from the beginning of the Gospel of John, which is the gospel book that reveals Christ’s nature from the first chapter of the book. Finally, I admired the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom for conveying God’s love and mercy to all people, regardless of their faults [. . .]:

‘Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; the calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry! Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness. Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free’ (787).

“And so we feasted after the service and came home late, in the early dawn.”

Holy Week commentaries: Friday

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 30, 2009

“Church services of Burial Vespers and Lamentations. I missed the Royal Hours services but read them later. I was struck by how many types there are in the Bible of the silver that Jesus was sold for: the silver paid to Joseph’s brothers for selling him into slavery, the warning of Zachariah (Zach 11:10-13), the prophecy of Jeremiah (quoted somewhere in Matt 27:1-56), and of course in the gospel stories themselves. A part of the Third Hour service nicely parallels the quote about Judas I copied yesterday:

‘When thou wast led to the Cross, O Lord, thou didst say, “For what act do ye wish, O Jews, to crucify me? Is it because I have strengthened your cripples? Is it because I raised your dead as from the sleep, healed the woman of her issue of blood, and showed mercy upon the Canaanitish woman? For what act, O ye Jews, desire ye my death?” But ye shall behold him who ye pierced, O law-transgressors, and know that he is Christ’ (501).

“In case we think that Judas and the Jews are to blame for the shedding of the innocent blood of Jesus instead of ourselves, the following Epistle reading (Rom 5:6-10) reminds us otherwise:

‘Brethren, while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (503).

“We who are saved by God are not to number ourselves with the ‘good man’ who would not crucify Christ, but with Judas and the Jews. On the other hand, a frank plea is addressed to those who swear by the laws in the Torah and are among God’s chosen tribe:

‘Do not err, O Jews; for it is he who saved you in the sea and nourished you in the wilderness. He is the Life, the Light, and the Peace of the world’ (512).

“Jumping back to the motif of betraying the innocent God, a quote from the Ninth Hour:

‘When the lawless nailed thee upon the Cross, O Lord of glory, thou didst cry unto them, “Wherein have I angered you? And who before me delivered you from sorrow? And now wherewith do ye reward me? Instead of goodness, evil; for the pillar of fire, ye nailed me on the Cross; for the clouds, ye dug me a grave; instead of water, ye gave me vinegar to drink. I will henceforth call the Gentiles, and they shall glorify me with the Father and the Holy Spirit’ (525).

“I am still confused about the Christian notion of judgment as expressed in Heb 10:19-31: if the law is designed to trip us up and show us that we are sinners, how are we then expected to ‘sin no more’ even after hearing the law of Christ [A study of God’s recurring mercy towards Israel in the Bible – forgiveness being the cornerstone of love – went a long way to helping diffuse this earlier confusion of mine]?

“On to the Burial Vespers service. Here ends the paralleling of the Exodus and Job stories that began in the Orthos services earlier in the week. God shows himself to be a friend of Moses and restores Job’s lost fortune twofold. Both remained faithful to God in their tribulations (cf. entry on [Monday]). The gospel story told during this service strangely cycled through passages from the different gospels. We stayed at church for only half of the Lamentations service. I was intrigued to discover that Eve, Mary, and the Church are intertwined symbols:

‘Thou didst come from a Virgin who knew no travail. Thy side, O my Creator, was pierced with a spear, by which thou didst accomplish the re-creation of Eve, having thyself become Adam. Supernaturally thou didst fall into a sleep that renewed nature, raising life from sleep and corruption; for thou art Almighty’ (586).

“Christ’s days in the tomb are likened to the Sabbath (588-89) – a good argument why the Sabbath should be observed on Saturday rather than on Sunday!? [An argument flatly refuted later on in the Paschal Orthos service on Sunday, p. 724]. The three stases of lamentations are unlike anything I have heard in any other church service: I felt uncomfortable and out of place hearing them sung at church. I do not know why. Jumping back to the motif of Christ addressing his accusers, here is one more beautiful passage:

‘Oh, how the assembly of the law-transgressors condemned to death the King of creation, not being ashamed nor abased by his benevolences, of which he had assured them formerly, calling them to their remembrance, saying, “My people, what have I done to thee? Have I not showered Judaism with wonders? Have I not raised the dead by only a word? Have I not healed every sickness and every weakness? With what, then, hast thou rewarded me? For healing, thou hast inflicted wounds upon me; and for raising the dead, thou dost cause me, the benevolent, to die suspended upon a Tree as an evil-doer; the Giver of the Law, as a law-transgressor; and the King of all, as one who is condemned.” Wherefore, O long-suffering Lord, glory to thee’ (545).

Holy Week commentaries: Thursday

Posted in Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 28, 2009

This post has been very late in coming (Holy Week – and Bright Week which follows – have passed), but I decided to complete the series anyway. Here it is, from my journal of last year:

“I missed the service of the Twelve Passion Gospels but read it anyway in the service book. The Vesperal Liturgy readings followed the story of Moses and Job, emphasizing their steadfastness with the Lord and the Lord’s faithfulness to them. The gospel readings describe the betrayal of Jesus. The service of the Twelve Passion Gospels is fittingly named: the gospel readings are about the Passion. I remembered a few passages from the service:

‘What caused thee, O Judas, to betray the Saviour? Did he set thee aside from the Disciples? Did he deny thee the gift of healing? Did he eat with the others and send thee away from the table? Did he wash the feet of the rest and then pass thee by? How much goodness hast thou forgotten? Yea, thine unpraiseworthy mind hath been exposed. But his incalculable long-suffering which is beyond all measure and his great mercies are proclaimed with praise’ (435-436).

“That passage emphasizes how ungratefulness is a betrayal of God, while the following text delves into the biblical imagery of the tree:

‘Because of a tree, Adam was estranged from paradise; and the thief because of the Tree of the Cross abode in paradise; for the former in tasting, disobeyed the Commandment of the Creator; but the latter, who was crucified with thee, confessed, admitting to thee that thou art a hidden God. Wherefore, O Saviour, remember him and us in thy kingdom’ (452).”