Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Idea of a University - revisited (Books, Part 3)

I wrote a post on this book a couple years ago, but since I'm still doing this whole "books" thing, I figured I'd give it another shot. The complete list is at the bottom, as well as links to previous entries.

The Idea of a University is John Henry Newman's defense of the need for Universities--and not just any old Universities, but Catholic Universities.

He starts off pretty simply: "A University, I should lay down, by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge." College Mackenzie, realizing that something important was happening, underlined "universal knowledge" there. Good job, College Mackenzie! You recognized that he was setting up for something!

And College Mackenzie was not wrong, because on the very next page, it gets really real, really fast. He asks whether it is logically consistent for a University to exclude certain branches of knowledge--in this instance, Christian theology. He goes on to say that if a University does exclude Christian theology, then--
"One of two conclusions is inevitable - either, on the one hand, that the province of Religion is very barren of real knowledge, or, on the other hand, that in such a University one special and important branch of knowledge is omitted. I say, the advocate of such an institution must say this, or he must say that: he must own, either that little or nothing is known about the Supreme Being, or that his seat of learning calls itself what it is not... Such a compromise between religious parties, as is involved in the establishment of a University which makes no religious profession, implies that those parties severally consider - not indeed that their own respective opinions are trifles in a moral and practical point of view - of course not; but certainly as much as this, that they are not knowledge." (bolding mine)
And then comes the clincher, the knock-out punch, delivered on the second page after the introduction: "Did they in their hearts believe that their private views of religion, whatever they are, were absolutely and objectively true, it is inconceivable that they would so insult them as to consent to their omission in an Institution which is bound, from the nature of the case - from its very idea and name - to make a profession of all sorts of knowledge whatever." (bolding mine)

Later, he would go on to state the logical follow-up to this: "If the Catholic Faith is true, a University cannot exist externally to the Catholic pale, for it cannot teach Universal Knowledge if it does not teach Catholic theology."

If Christianity is true, and a University is where universal knowledge is taught, then a University literally cannot exist without Christian theology.

"Mere semantics!" you might object. "After all, we don't even get anything close to universal knowledge anymore! You majored in English - Writing, your one math class was "Nature of Math," whatever that means, and you don't remember a single thing from that one Biology class you had to take! You can't even remember what it was called!"

And you would be correct in objecting that, even if making it so personal was a little uncalled for. But the thing is, Newman's assertion has much broader implications than whether a "University" is, in fact, a University.

Christian Truth is Truth. It is not of a different nature than, say, mathematical Truth.  It is not less important or less true, and it is certainly not less teachable. And I know we can lose sight of that in this age of glorifying "Seekers" and "Questioners", who seek but have lost desire to find, who question but have no desire for answers. But Newman, Catholic Bad-Ass that he is, has an answer for that as well:

"The religious world, as it is styled, holds, generally speaking, that Religion consists, not in knowledge , but in feeling or sentiment. The old Catholic notion, which still lingers in the Established Church, was that Faith was an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge."

Boom. Did that just blow your freaking mind? It should. Feelings shift. Sentiment fades. A religious lifestyle built on feeling is shattered by a toothache, and one built on sentiment is destroyed by a change in circumstance. But Faith is an intellectual act, aiming towards real truth, and resulting in real knowledge.

There is no halfway point. Either it's not true, and shouldn't be taught at all, not even as "one possibility among many"...or it is true, and should be taught as the most important thing anyone can ever know.

John Henry Newman, everybody. This isn't a book that I'm going to say "Everyone should read," merely because many won't enjoy it as much as I did. But the ideas are true, and especially necessary in the world we find ourselves in today.

1: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

2: (Everything else by Chesterton: Manalive, Orthodoxy, The Ball and the Cross)

3: On the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria

4: The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country by Karl Barth

5: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

6: CS Lewis section (Space Trilogy, Chron. of Narnia, Abolition of Man, Till We Have Faces)

7: The book of Job

8: The book of Ecclesiastes

9: The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman

10: The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Who is this blog for?

As the deadline for my book comes closer and closer, I've been thinking a lot about what to put in the little "About the Author" bit. I only get 75 words, and so far, I have taken up about 20 of those words: "Mackenzie Mulligan is a graduate of Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute, and he blogs at Evangelical Outpost."

I've been tempted to add several more words to that: "and at his personal blog, Imperfect Reflections." But I don't think I'm going to do that.

Is it cowardice? Is it because I'm ashamed of what I'm written? Not really. At least, I don't think so. I've spoken harshly about Calvinism, and I hold to that still. I've spoken still more harshly about the no-doubt-soon-to-be-forgotten controversy over Christian rap, and while my feelings have mellowed somewhat, the post is still mostly accurate. These two issues are the ones that I feel are most likely to alienate any potential fans, and I'm not ashamed of them one bit.

However, I don't know if it would be the wisest move to advertise them, either. My good friend the Lady Steph once told me that she was being very careful about what she put in her blog, in case she pursued a career in which her blog would come up. I scoffed at the time, but now I understand. It's not a matter of shame: it's a matter of prudence, and picking your battles (neither of which are my strong suits). 

The style is unrefined, and occasionally unpolished (and no, I don't think those are the same thing). The content is occasionally inflammatory, and sometimes needlessly so (for which I am ashamed). Sometimes I write posts in coffee shops and go all nuts with random references to board games and Emery songs (which is weird, because I didn't actually have coffee at the time...the change of venue was apparently enough to spark the creativity). 

The point is, this blog is read mostly by people who know me, and it's written with that in mind. While the occasional post will be read more often by other people, the vast majority of posts get a handful of views. Most of my readers who know me read this blog precisely because they know me. Evangelical Outpost is different. The posts there are "relevant." They're polished, they're (mostly) refined, they're carefully calculated. Which is all well and's just not what I do here

This isn't the blog of "Mackenzie Mulligan, Published Author." This is the blog of "Mackenzie Mulligan, Robe Enthusiast/Cat Lover/Gamer."  It might become the blog of "Mackenzie Mulligan, Published Author" one day. Maybe it will become that because enough people have found this blog through EO (what giddy thoughts I'm thinking today!), at which point I hope I'll be able to keep everything that's good and fun about my writing, and refine it further. In fact, I've already taken one small step. My blog was referenced in another blog about C.S. Lewis quotes that aren't really C.S. Lewis quotes, as "a blog by a person who goes by Mackman." I realized then that, at the very least, I should probably have my actual name at the bottom of my posts. So there's that.

But until then, this blog is for me to write about things on my mind, and for my friends and family: the people who see it on facebook and read it because I'm the one who wrote it. If that doesn't describe you, and you're reading this anyway, then my wildest dreams have come true (well, not "wildest" necessarily, but still pretty wild). If, several months from now, you stumble upon this because you read Simon, Who is Called Peter, let me know! That would be pretty cool.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sanitization and "Christian" video games

Earlier today, I stumbled upon the kickstarter page for The Call of Abraham, a "Judeo-Christian Video Game" that markets itself as "Moral & Fun." Right near the top of the page is a quote that apparently sums up their mission: "I'm excited to see how [the game] will be able to stimulate greater interest in the Bible in today's youth."

Let's take a look at this game. First off, it claims to be an "exciting, top-quality video game that follows stories directly from the Bible." It will have "top-notch graphics" and "the action-packed storylines will keep players engaged."

But there's more! This game will include "Hundreds of characters,  ancient cities, and hours of engaging sub-plots." And in addition to "build[ing] their character and fac[ing] intriguing challenges," players "will also have the opportunity to enrich their knowledge of the history and cultures surrounding Abraham’s famous journey."

And how exciting will that be? "We’re actually following stories directly from the Bible with game play that you will respect. Of course, there is violence in the Bible, but even when the main character must kill a rabid wolf attacking Abraham’s sheep, or run into battle, there is always a just cause and you are only able to engage in activities that are honorable.  And on occasions where there is a better alternative to violence, you are rewarded for finding and choosing it."

I know that this game is coming from people who want to accomplish something good and meaningful. I know that their hearts are in the right place. But there are a ton of problems with this, and most of them boil down to the fact that video games are fundamentally different from any other kind of media. As it is, I don't ever see a game made with this mindset being successful. 

"Not ever?" you might ask. No. Not ever. Not the kind of game these people want to make.

I mean, first there's the fact that achieving top-notch graphics is going to be literally impossible with the resources these people have access to. Then there's the fact that in terms of gameplay, their game appears to be inferior in every way to most comparable secular games (in fact, they would have been much more successful simply making a mod of  Skyrim).

When you look at the elements of a game--graphics, gameplay, and story--they're only competitive with their secular counterparts in one of those areas. And even then, even in the area of story, I think they're crippling themselves.

See, they want a "Christian" game. They want a game that's pure, that promotes Christian values, where "you are only able to engage in activities that are honorable." They want a game that will not imitate the dangerous and vulgar world.

In essence, they want a game that is sanitary. And that's a problem when you're making something that requires interactivity as the core feature of the product.

GK Chesterton says that "to a Christian, existence is a story, which may end up in any way." He goes on to clarify:
In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn't. ...
All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads...The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that? that is the only thing to think about, if you enjoy thinking. The æons are easy enough to think about, any one can think about them. The instant is really awful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology dealt much with hell. It is full of danger like a boy's book: it is at an immortal crisis. There is a great deal of real similarity between popular fiction and the religion of the western people. If you say that popular fiction is vulgar and tawdry, you only say what the dreary and well-informed say also about the images in the Catholic churches. Life (according to the faith) is very like a serial story in a magazine: life ends with the promise (or menace) "to be continued in our next." Also, with a noble vulgarity, life imitates the serial and leaves off at the exciting moment. For death is distinctly an exciting moment.
But the point is that a story is exciting because it has in it so strong an element of will, of what theology calls free-will. You cannot finish a sum how you like. But you can finish a story how you like. When somebody discovered the Differential Calculus there was only one Differential Calculus he could discover. But when Shakespeare killed Romeo he might have married him to Juliet's old nurse if he had felt inclined. And Christendom has excelled in the narrative romance exactly because it has insisted on the theological free-will.
Free will. The "eatability" of the hero. The cross-roads. To Chesterton, that is what sets Christianity apart, and that is also a huge part of what makes a good game (at least, a game of the scope that Abraham is aspiring to). And that's just what Abraham is going to lack.

If you want a form of media that only allows people to make "honorable" choices, make something else. Make a movie, make a cartoon, make a comic strip. Make something that isn't built on dynamic interaction. It's still not going to be very good, but it's not going to be as bad.

But if you want to make a video game of that scope, of that scale--if you want a game where you can truly experience the human stories told in the Bible--then you have to give the player free will. 

Last thought, to give you a better idea of where I'm coming from.

 Just last week, I finished my play-through of Dishonored. It's a game where you play as the former bodyguard of the Empress: You're framed for her murder, you break out of prison, and you spend the rest of the game trying to rescue her daughter and put the daughter on the throne.

You need to advance through cities and palaces, finding the people who framed you and killing or otherwise eliminating them. In between you and them are guards--lots and lots of guards, who are doing the best they can to protect their leaders from the evil, traitorous bodyguard who killed their Empress.

You can do what I did, and remain hidden whenever possible. Take the guards out with sleep darts, choke them out from behind, and remove them from the picture without killing them: After all, they're relatively innocent. And at the end, when you allow the new Empress to take her throne, you pave the way to a new golden age. You showed her that there was a way to do what had to be done, without losing yourself.

Or you can take another approach. You can wade through rivers of blood on your way to the masterminds, indiscriminately killing the guilty and innocent alike. And as you proceed, the city will deteriorate. People will shrink from you in fear, they will attack you out of horror, and at the end, you will have shown the young Empress that people aren't to be trusted, and that the only way to rule was through fear.

Freedom and consequences. Good and evil. Dishonored puts you there, at the crossroads, and says, "Choose." And that's what makes it a good game. But more importantly, that's a much closer approximation to the reality contained in the Bible than what Abraham is going to achieve. And that's why even if Abraham is released, it's going to be a failure as a game, suitable only as a vaguely  interactive way of exploring the ancient Biblical world (a worthy goal, but one that could be accomplished with much less trouble).

EDIT: I want to clarify something. I do not want to be Chesterton's "uncandid candid friend; the man who says, 'I am sorry to say we are ruined,' and is not sorry at all." I don't take a "gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things." Nothing would please me more than this game succeeding. Nothing would please me more than to find that these guys were able to produce a game that is legitimately good in its own right, and Biblically relevant. That would be so cool. But I just don't see it happening: Not from the info on their Kickstarter.

EDIT: After failing to raise even 20% ($20,000) of their goal on Kickstarter, they renewed the project on Indiegogo. The advantage of Indiegogo is that even if you don't make your funding goal, you still get what money you've raised (unlike Kickstarter). And to date, after a full week of funding, they've received $825.

If anyone affiliated with the game ever reads this, listen: don't blame this failure on "the world" or "the culture." It's not that "the world is opposing you," or that "the culture just isn't ready for a Christian video game of this scale." It's that your game looks like a bad game, and your pitch is awful. Your game just isn't competitive with mainstream games. You've either got to seriously step up your game, or completely shift the type of game that you're making.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"A person who is [BLANK]"

If you only have time to read one blog post right now, don't read this one here: Read this one over at BadCatholic. This one down below is only for if you time to read two blog posts.

 I remember when Anna told me that in the medical field, you don't say "disabled people" anymore. You don't say "a lame person" or "a paralyzed person." You say "a person who is disabled."

Do you see the difference? One makes the disability the primary attribute of the person: In fact, it reduces the person to the disability.

The other expression, though, establishes the person as a person, then describes the disability as one attribute of that person. Because a person who is disabled is far, far more than their disability, and they should be treated as such (and spoken about as such).

Which brings me to my actual topic:

Pope Francis is now infamous for this quote:

"A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

Liberals love it because they think it demonstrates that the Pope is "tolerant" (by which they mean, that he is on his way to openly approving of homosexuality). And many conservatives hate it, or at the very least are troubled by it. What's he really saying here? Why didn't he just answer the question clearly? What is he hiding???

Did the Pope "dodge the question"? Maybe. But it seems to me that he was doing something far more genuine. Instead of answering the question at hand--the answer to which has been the same for roughly 2,000 years--he answered a far more important question: 

"Do you believe that homosexuals are less than people?"

Because that's the question that the man was really asking. When you ask the freaking Pope of the freaking Catholic Church a question about basic Catholic teaching, you already know what the answer to that question is. What matters is how that question is answered, and what other questions are answered along the way.

And those other questions--the questions left unasked--are important, because very few other sins have such potential to dehumanize people. Hence the pope's insistence that "we must always consider the person." He wasn't changing Catholic doctrine, or "hinting" at changing it, or gearing up to change it...he was affirming it (and affirming what should be non-Catholic doctrine as well). Check this out:

"The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a "heterosexual" or a "homosexual" and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life."

That's the doctrine that Pope Francis was affirming, and that's the doctrine we need to be affirming more today as a Church. People are people, and we sin in reducing them (consciously or unconsciously) to something less.

And for all you Duck Dynasty fans out there, we also sin by speaking thoughtlessly and by refusing to season our words with grace.