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Death & Dying in Banished

7 Mar

In the year 20, the village of Tinsel had a famine. Robust supplies of onions, potatoes, and berries dwindled to nothing. Hunger spread and in just a season or two, dozens of villagers perished from starvation. The impact was immediate–overall health improved among survivors while happiness plummeted. Then a labor crisis emerged as the villagers could no longer sustain themselves. Tinsel was soon abandoned as everyone perished. Welcome to Banished.

Banished is a city simulation game that has taken the Steam gaming community by force. At $20 the game’s offers fans the kind of steep but rewarding challenge that recent a-list $60 titles such as SimCity failed to deliver upon. As NPR reporter Steve Mullis said, “Banished is like SimCity Without the City (but with Cholera).” Begin your village with a handful of people desperate for housing. Start a new game when your city has perished from fire, disease, labor crises, starvation, or simple mismanagement. In one game my blacksmith died and I failed to replace him quickly enough. Cue a tool shortage. Production plummeted; villagers died.

As a gamer, I must confess that Banished is both ridiculously enjoyable and terrifically frustrating. Even when your towns do succeed, there is a lack of end-game content to find new funny ways for them to fail. You can upgrade your houses from wood to stone, collect all the different produce seeds by trading, or push your population from 10 to over 1,000. These goals may take you dozens of hours, but at some point you’ll find yourself weary of your town and ready to begin again.

As a scholar, I also think that Banishes is ridiculously enjoyable and terrifically frustrating. Religion plays two roles in Banished. First, the presence of a church creates a congregation whose formation increases the happiness and therefore the efficiency of your workers. Assigning the church a priest directly equates religious observance with the kind of obedience whose purpose is social control. The church’s function is to manage sloppy, lazy peasants just enough so that they’re sloppy, productive peasants. It’s a minor but crucial shift for your game play, but it says little about the value of religion for the lives of Banished npcs.

The second way that religion operates in the game is by placing graveyards as a stop-gap for the happiness drop that can occur when village elders die of old age. A successful town has a mixture of younger and older villagers. Be successful enough and some of your town’s members may just live to be 80 or more and die of natural causes. (Oh to be so lucky as to avoid disease, falling trees, falling rocks, the dangers of childbirth, or any of a dozen other ways to perish!)

Graveyards provide comfort and solace to grieving villagers. This increases the stability of their happiness, which again helps preserve production and render your population more efficient. But are they necessary?

No. Both graveyards and churches are ultimately only equal to the effectiveness of the brew of the gods. A brewery–distilling fruit or wheat into alcohol–actually provides several functional advantages to both churches and graveyards. Game-play-wise graveyards are semi-permanent structures. They increase productivity and require no specific laborers to operate, but the land they sit upon has now become useless to increase your population, food supplies, or anything else. The AI mechanics of npc character does direct villagers to visit and congregation in graveyards, particularly upon the passing of an elder, but otherwise the land is pretty useless. Churches are similar. They boost production, do require a worker, and don’t offer much other benefit.

Brewers, on the other hand, are a way of consuming surplus food stocks and turning them into a tidy profit. The game’s trading mechanic over-values alcohol as a trade commodity. Not only will it make your own population happy (a happiness at least equal to churches or graveyards) but you can trade alcohol for warm coats, new crop seeds, tools, or even food. The graveyard is only a reasonable choice if you haven’t got extra convertible food, and there’s literally no reason to use a church.

Game designers–and Banished is made by just one really devoted guy–often use religion as a means to preserve order, maintain productivity, or otherwise offer stability to city simulators. As I noted about Civilization 5, religion often emerges as an abstraction to cover game mechanics. Even when it does appear, the religious content itself is often abstracted.

In Banished, religion is assumed to be Christianity–and with churches operated by priests that’s a safe bet–but there is also an underlying philosophy of death and dying that suggests the inextricable link between cultural memory of death and community health. Graveyards work because they offer relief for the grief that a villager’s passing causes. The vacuum of labor a death causes in a small community could become a morass, but Banished argues that the grief can be offset by giving dying structure. Graveyard are stabilizers just as churches are. And yet if one turns to drink they may escape this cycle entirely.

Death is inevitable and swift in Banished

Death is inevitable and swift in Banished

Reddit user HolyNoob’s Banished Village collapses

It’s always frustrating when video games get a hard wrap for being juvenile. After all, adults make them and adults play them. There’s obviously a set of rewards to their creation and operation that exceed their form (just as for comic books.) At a party recently my spouse joked that I sit around playing video games. She was sincerely frivolous in her comment, but the other person quickly agreed that video games were so much nonsense. I steered the conversation elsewhere. I do play games, but more often I work on one computer while listening to video game let’s plays in the background on another computer. Why? I simply don’t have the time, money, or expertise to play every game that hits the market. I do recognize, however, that nearly all gaming content engages the basic cultural values in which it was produced. Some do so explicitly (Assassin’s Creed, for instance), while others offer a commentary or critique on our own labor practices. Do you play Candy Crush all day? What kind of emotional rewards does that provide? Is there a way in which the addiction to gain another level might be analyzed religiously? Absolutely.

I think what really gets me about Banished is that the basic premise of the game–survive–is essential a religious premise. Like so many survival based city-simulators, the means to get from surviving to thriving inevitably relies upon some measure of culturally significant mechanics such as religion. For gamers these are often disguised as “happiness” or “order.” Games take the qualities that religion possesses and distill them into algorithmic components that can be operational in the gaming world. If that’s a shrine that restores health, that says something about the link the game makers see between religious structures and well-being. Otherwise, game players wouldn’t even think about visiting a shrine to heal. These associations are culturally induced by experience. The game designer of banished presumably knew several things about happiness. In looking for items that could be introduced into the game world, religion offered a concrete evocation of health and stability. Do churches increase happiness? There may be a study to say. Do game makers think churches increase happiness? Seems so. The evidence is right there in Banished that the game play works that way. (And it works similarly in a host of other city-simulator games.)

If you’re intrigued you can follow along with a Let’s Play or lay down $20 on Steam for a chance to find out what really happens when famine becomes a problem in your town. You don’t have to have a graveyard, but maybe it’ll make you and your villages feel better as you all starve to death because you expanded too quickly. Yup. It’s just that kind of world.


Angels and Belief

22 Oct

Some surveys estimate that nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in Angels. For comparison, that’s four times the number that believe that humans evolved without divine guidance. It’s really a staggering figure. It’s equal to the entirety of Americans whose congregations are evangelical Protestant, historically black, Mormon, mainline Protestant, and Catholic. It’s one of the few religious beliefs that truly appears to qualify as American. Of course, that number could be grossly exaggerated. Polling on this issue ranges from 55% to 77%. Even at 5 in 10, however, this is not a marginal belief.

The word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger. In the Hebrew Bible, one of the central verses is Daniel 12:1. Here it is in the New Living Translation:

Archangel Michael casts out the arrogant angel...

Archangel Michael casts out the arrogant angels. Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At that time Michael, the archangel who stands guard over your nation, will arise. Then there will be a time of anguish greater than any since nations first came into existence. But at that time every one of your people whose name is written in the book will be rescued.

The use of archangel here is unusual. Most translations keep the more exacting term “great prince.” What the NLT expresses, however, is the canonical understanding that Michael is the supernatural guardian of or advocate for the Jewish nation. Michael and Gabriel (also from the Book of Daniel) are among the only angels accepted by nearly all branches of Christianity and Judaism. (They do this in part because of Jude 1:9, which more directly calls Michael the mightiest of the angels.)

The problem with the legitimacy of a broader range of named angels is not only one of different canons, but also of interpretation of verses. The New Testament is particularly important for establishing hierarchy and structure for angels in a celestial court. The most important contributor to this evolution of popular (non-theological) understanding of angels is undoubtedly 17th century poet John Milton. Paradise Lost, Milton’s masterpiece, narrates the Fall of Man. It chronicles this through two intertwined stories: Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Satan’s leadership of a celestial rebellion against God.

Paradise Lost contains much that is biblical, but it is also, and fundamentally, a work of fiction. Milton’s expansion and elaboration on the nature of sin, redemption, and cosmic warfare were seminal for popular culture’s representation of Satan, the Fall, and angelic hosts.

Wikipedia has a useful reference list of adaptations of and allusions to Paradise Lost. Some of these are well-known–the poems of William Blake, for instance–which others are far more oblique. One of my favorites is probably Neil Gaiman’s SandmanI have a soft spot for graphic novels and Gaiman. We’re getting away from angels here, but Sandman is about the lord of Dreams (i.e, Morpheus), his escape from imprisonment, and his rise to power. It’s dark horror filled with mythological references. It’s smartly written and beautifully illustrated. In short, it’s amazing and totally worth your time.

Back to angels. Let’s start with a basic overview of the films/tv we could use to talk about angels. This list is adapted from this post on beliefnet.  I probably get to choose ONE. That’s rough, since the impression you give about angels will vary so widely.

1. Angels in the Outfield (1994)

A light-hearted family film where angels inspire baseball players. It’s a shameless plug for the Angels baseball franchise. It took advantage of the 1990s revival of interest in angels to sell baseball tickets.

2. Touched by an Angel (1994-2003)

A soap opera approach to angels as personal guides to restoring individuals’ connection to God. Angels are delicate, helpful, and spiritual. They are the family you want fighting on your side.

3. Michael (1996)

A somewhat irreverent but ultimately redemptive look at angels. As the tag said, “He’s an angel… not a saint.” The angel is provocative–he makes things happen because he is so understanding of the world is so un-human.

4. City of Angels (1998)

This is an adaptation of a 1987 German film. An angel falls in love with a human and must decide whether to give up his wings. Angels here are more like psychopomps than protectors.

5. Dogma (1999)

Two fallen angels “help” a pregnant woman so they can return to heaven. It’s one of Kevin Smith’s best films. It’s gritty and ugly, but it weaves a fascinating mythological narrative with just enough biblical elements to not come untethered from Christianity. Angels here must play by the rules, but they are also willing to push the rules to the breaking point to achieve their own personal goals.

6. Angels in America (2003)

Tony Kushner’s play got a big screen adaptation. An angel tells an AIDS patient that he is a prophet with an important mission to save humanity. It’s a powerful piece that deals with some very serious issues. Angels are awesome and bliss-inducing. They are messengers above and beyond humanity.

7. Constantine (2005)

This adaptation of a comic book describes John Constantine‘s battle with the angel Gabriel, who has joined forces with Satan to try to get back to heaven. Confession: I love this movie. It has exorcisms, demons, angels, occult ritual elements, and a host of other juicy elements for analysis. It plays on the Paradise Lost themes as well as engages–very deliberately–with the issues of suicide, redemption, and the afterlife. 

So where does that leave me?

I can show the extreme commercialism of angels (#1), which does go along way to explaining the cultural crossover of Christian beliefs into New Age lifestyles. Angels became a part of the broader “spiritual” environment. Extracted from their Judeo-Christian roots, this meant that really the only thing that was left over was the imagery and the basic outline of their supernatural role.

I could show the mainstream use of angels as propoganda for getting folks to return to the pews (#2). Perhaps (#3) best exemplifies how humanity is idealized. Why would you not want to be an angel? Only humans can be truly redeemed. Michael (#4) shows both the good and bad sides of angels. It’s funny and, by the end, has a strong message about why the relationship between angels and humans matter.

The most biblical depiction of angels of all these items is, perhaps, Angels in America (#6). However, in this work, angels are primarily provocative. They get things moving, and then humans carry on afterward.

Constantine (film)

Constantine (2005) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And yet I’m most drawn to Dogma and Constantine. Perhaps this reveals a bit about the orientation of my popular culture preferences. That’s fine. And yet I think there’s every reason to think that the themes in these films would play best in a course on the supernatural.

First, both films directly involve fallen angels and their attempt to return to the celestial court. Regaining God’s favor is exceedingly difficult for angels. They do not have the bargain God struck with humans through Jesus. How can they get around this redemptive problem?

Second, angels are significant characters in these films. They are not incidental, nor are they simply plot devices. Dogma does this more than Constantine, but for a course on supernaturalism, Constantine has many additional elements that would be worthwhile. It also does not have a monster made out of excrement. Dogma might be perfect otherwise, but I hesitate to show the, pardon my language here, shit-monster in my classroom.

So, I think in the end I’d vote for Constantine. (And I will write a separate post about its many excellent religious themes.) If you have a comment on this, let me know! I’m getting pretty close to the full scope of the course here, so probably only one or two more items. Demons will be next, and then, maybe, superhumanity and magic, presented together as elements that provide an object for criticism by conservative religious movements.

Ghosts & American Religion

16 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s thematic concern for a course proposal on the supernatural. Unlike mystical pregnancies, ghosts have a less discrete origin in religious materials. Whether you call them phantoms, spooks, hauntings, or specters, this genre of apparitions are the spirits of the dead. Let’s take a look at where we could start:

Deuteronomy 18:9-12’s prohibition on spiritism and sorcery:

(9) When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. (10) There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer (11) or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, (12) for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD.

English: Henry Fuseli - Hamlet and his father'...

English: Henry Fuseli – Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard, 38 × 49,5 cm) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It stands to reason that Spirits should have been taboo in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And yet by the Renaissance, the infusion of hermetic and other metaphysical practices revived the interest in necromancy and spiritism. Sure, I’m skipping a vast swathe of history here, but I’m not a medievalist and this course is designed to highlight contemporary American popular cultural expressions of the supernatural. Anyway, after the Renaissance, the willingness to re-consider spirits may have indirectly helped produce what is perhaps the most famous ghost in all of fiction: Hamlet’s Father.

Here’s what Hamlet says when he encounters the Ghost in Act 1, Scene 4:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee “Hamlet,”
“King,” “Father,” “royal Dane.” O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulcher,
Wherein we saw thee quietly interred,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous and we fools of nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?

It’s great stuff. Hamlet’s speech raises more than a few issues, too. Are apparitions from heaven or hell? How do ghosts circumvent death? Are all things that run contrary to nature hideous? Is our unfinished business in life our duty to resolve in death? [Ghost (1990) famously takes this final question as its raison d’être.] Of course, Hamlet is not centrally about the ghost of Hamlet’s father. It does create an interesting trope–the living as surrogates for the dead. This trope is replayed almost yearly through Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Why does Marley’s ghost haunt Scrooge? Because Scrooge can avoid the regrets Marley’s miserliness created. Scrooge is both literally and figuratively haunted by Marley’s Ghost.

A Christmas Carol remains a profoundly British work, even if contemporary re-tellings like A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey were produced for American audiences. Dickens’ original 1843 capitalized on the growing interest in Spiritualism before the famous Fox sisters appeared in 1848. Before that moment, mesmerism was the rage. This is the era not only of Joseph Smith and the birth of Mormonism, but also Andrew Jackson Davis who relied on the work of Anton Mesmer and Emmanuel Swedenborg to popularize his ideas on animal magnetism and a host of other metaphysical principles. [Catherine Albanese is currently working on editing AJD’s journals–get excited!]

So here’s the rub. If I’ve got a course on supernatural themes in modern America, so far I’ve got an ancient Jewish prohibition on spiritism and two very famous English fictional ghost stories. I haven’t even mentioned high literature’s favorite ghost story, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw! It’s not even clear James gets to count as American since he spent over half his life in England and became a British subject shortly before his death in 1915. Better choices? Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar puts his finger right on the button of the perceived dangers of spiritism and mesmerism (possession). Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of best known American supernatural fictions. (And the current remake on FOX isn’t awful). Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables was inspired and infused with the literal ghosts of the Salem Witchcraft trials.

So these are the type of primary source materials we can begin with. They are fiction, sure, but they are also projections of American attitudes about Ghosts in the 19th century. That all of these authors worked during the rise of Spiritualism is no coincidence.

The real question, the one I’d hope to get students to explore in this course unit, is what is the context for contemporary ghost stories? Think of it like this: Poe wouldn’t have written about mesmerism if it hadn’t been consuming American culture in the 1840s. If we pick a selection of modern ghost films, say Poltergeist (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Ghost (1990), and The Sixth Sense (1999), what do they say about America today? Do we think of ghosts in the same way? Why not? How do we explain the difference? [With a slightly different selection of films it would be easy to go the “ghost in the machine” route to ask how technology has become a conduit for supernatural entities.]

One thing I want to solve is the problem letting the genre of demonic spirits spill over too much into the discussion of ghosts. The Exorcist, The Conjuring, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose also deal with spirits. Yet these films rely on expressly Christian theological frameworks to explain the operation of demonic spirits. It is the lack of clear religious boundaries that makes so many Ghost films feel simultaneously spiritual but not religious. Ghosts operating independently appear culturally and religiously diffuse. They are empty signifiers waiting for interpretation. This is a clue on the context for many modern Ghost stories–the broad influence of New Age and Metaphysical beliefs–but it also suggests something about Ghosts as a trope. They function as lenses for particular kinds of questions about the relationship between life and death. This is not the same as the struggle between God and Satan (in which demons are employed to show the fragility and power of humanity). It’s a fine line, but one that I hope to find better ways to articulate in the future.

Come back soon for more thematic elements. Angels and Demons should be next!

Every Page is Spiritual Warfare (part 2)

10 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s discussion, which started with an annotated selection from Francis Frangipane’s The Three Battlegrounds.

In my work, I tend to focus on the construction of cosmic-level strongholds as the basis for confrontation between public/secular imaginaries and private/religious ones. They are fundamentally world founding because they structure perceptions of truth and reality. They are orientating, and this jives with a diverse selection of classic definitions of religions including those provided by Durkheim, Feuerbach, Frazer, Otto, Marx, and Geertz. How far do the rabbit hole of definitions do we want to go? Depends on how fractured you’re willing to be in applying definitions to a part of what spiritual warriors are up to.

Religion Stencil

Religion Stencil (Photo credit: murdelta)

One of the reasons I continue to study spiritual warfare texts is that I believe they suggest an inadequacy of most definitions. While I have a lot to say on this issue (I hope I’ll have room for it in my first book), let me give a quick run-through here. My religious subjects appear to be defining not just one but two worlds–the secular and the religious. For them, only one world has a legitimate Truth claim. The secular world’s claim to be reality (or a more objective version of a reality that we all share) is not merely fraudulent. Nor is it some kind of objective container for competing religious perspectives. For my subjects, the religious world is the only world and the secular world’s view of things is utter heresy or apostasy.

Analytically, the crutch of the issue lays with J. Z. Smith, however. While I see my subjects claiming that the religious world has not just primacy but exclusivity, do I affirm their beliefs? I can confirm they feel that way most of the time. But like Smith’s ritual agents reenacting the bear-killing ritual in “Bare Facts of Ritual,” we can’t be sure spiritual warriors aren’t simply performing the world the way they wish it would be.

As they say to young scholars, fake it till you make it! If that is the case, then how are my subjects behaving differently than their “secular” counterparts? If, as a scholar, I deny their ontological claims, then I will likely struggle to convey not only the conviction of their beliefs, but also the consequences of those beliefs. In religious studies, we’re pretty cautious about these. At the very least we want to give our subjects the benefit of the doubt. More often, we give them full range of expression without direct judgment.

In anthropology, which more religionists should study, this is the perennial problem of emic/etic or insider/outsider perspectives. Anthropologists carefully delineate the boundary between the local perspective of subjects and the global perspective of scholars. (I should note that some excellent work on this has been done by Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them.) In ethnographic studies, this makes a lot of sense (and is all the more fascinating when it breaks down, as in Mama Lola).

Though I may include more ethnographic elements in future iterations of my project, my present work is historical and rooted in published texts. There’s much less room to separate emic and etic when you rely on 20 year old spiritual warfare manuals. The format of my sources discourages this division. I can only take my sources seriously if I see them as documents that attempt to be coherent, serious participants in the worlds they describe. They could be winking, but if they are, I don’t have the resources to say so.

Could I just take a side and say what I think? Sure. I’m not categorically unwilling to do this. I’m just unconvinced it is appropriate or helpful. If I have to step outside of my subjects’ perspective and in so doing dispute the very core of their beliefs, then what have I gained? Shouldn’t my theory tolerate equally my potential dissent and my subjects’ affirmations? In short, shouldn’t religious theories explain how religion actively produces and shapes its secular counterpart?

I suppose this means I’m saying that religion is not just about religion. That’s probably a good thing. Our discipline routinely gets criticized for its failure to define its object of study sufficiently without self-reference. (Woe unto you if you begin by saying that religious studies is the study of religion!)

Part of the challenge of existing definitions is that they often self-exclude religion’s products as pieces of the equation. That’s surely our field’s history of Protestant belief-bias. Only recently have we been able to fully marshal our energies to acknowledge and study material products. Even Durkheim dissed the totems and churingas in the end. But today we still haven’t fully wrestled with the production of non-belief, non-material things. The secular world is one of these types of products. And as unlikely as it may seem to some, it’s a dynamic, shifting product that spiritual warriors are working actively to change in their favor. (I suppose saying that the secular world exists beyond belief is fairly positivist of me, but remember that I’m describing the religious world created by my religious subjects’ projection of secular worlds from their religious one.)

You can think of it as a world-view if you like, but I tend to avoid that world because of its strongly negative connotations in my source material. Instead I call it an imaginary, a way of imagining the world that shapes our ability to act. (And yes, I borrow this from Charles Taylor, the scourge of contemporary high theory.) It is the basis for believing an action is appropriate and likely to succeed, and it includes the whole body of elements that exist to support those actions. For spiritual warriors, it means not simply the theological arguments for the validity of warfare, but also the spiritual gifts used in battle, the paradigm to interpret secular foes, and, paradoxically, the secular society that legally supports their rights to fight for their supremacy of their version of reality.

If you think that fits an existing definition of religion, then be sure to post a comment below. I’d love to hear from you! Agree or disagree, just let me know you made it this far with me.

Every Page is Spiritual Warfare (part 1)

9 Oct

The Three BattlegroundsHere’s an experiment for you. Grab a primary source, open it up to a random page, and then try to explain what you see. To the right you’ll see the page I’ll be talking about today. It’s page 47 of the revised edition of Francis Frangipane‘s The Three Battlegrounds: An In-depth View of the Three Arenas of Spiritual Warfare: The Mind, The Church and the Heavenly Places (Cedar Rapids, IA: Arrow, 2006 [1989])

This is from a chapter on “The Battleground of the Mind.” Frangipane makes a psycho-cultural case for the role of perception to create negative spiritual conditions for Christians. These mental strongholds are presented as obstacles to the truth of Jesus Christ. Experience can erode faith. Abraham is an exemplar of faith’s triumph over experience. After 25 years trying to have a child, Abraham and Sarah finally conceived. Experience had been a poor teacher. The mind wants to validate its subjective perspective, but the life of faith requires believers to “Let God be found true” (Romans 3:4).

After banishing subjective experience, Frangipane then tackles interdenominational disunity. If faith is finding the truth of the mind of God, then ecumenism reveals the heart of God. Work together in a spirit of brotherly love and compassion. Don’t throw the first stone. Love your brother. And so on.

In the end, this book is on my shelf because of the argument it makes in its final third: The war in the heavenly places is really a war over reality. It’s a model of spiritual warfare that pits “the Word of God” against “the illusions of this present age.” Frangipane casts aside subjectivity, using the ideal objectivity of God’s mind and the purity of God’s heart as a contrast to whatever society creates as its subjective reality. When I put it like that, it’s a profoundly Durkheimian sentiment. Society imagines, agrees upon, and then enforces its own reality.

This underscores not only humanity’s power but the risks Frangipane sees in the decadent world humanity has produced. While I want to say we live in a world of our own making, I must instead say we perceive the world we believe we have created. I’m not being needlessly semantic. In this scheme, Satan is the deceiver who has seduced humanity into anti-God realities. Securing the strongholds of the mind and church are preparatory work. Like the classic western movie, believers must be that stranger that rides into town, sees with clarity the truth of right and wrong, and saves the day. It is business as usual versus the radical breakdown of the status quo. There can be no compromise, no partial solutions. It’s all or nothing. As I like to remind myself, it’s not called cosmic-level warfare for nothing.

Check back tomorrow for part 2!

Reaper of Souls — Religion in Diablo 3’s Expansion

2 Oct

As I suggested in an earlier post on the rising religious elements of a-list video game releases, the Reaper of Souls expansion for Diablo 3 is likely to be thorougly saturated with religious content. Today I want to walk through two of ways that will happen: Narrative and Gameplay.

1. Narrative:

Diablo 3 has a rich backstory (supplemented by comics and novels). Humanity lives in a world called Sanctuary between the High Heavens and the Underworld. It was supposed to be a neutral place, but demons use Sanctuary as a staging ground to invade the High Heavens to defeat God’s angels. Diablo, the Lord of Terror, concocts scheme after scheme to rule the three realms. Inevitably, your task is to defeat him.

[Highlight for an interesting Spoiler about Diablo 3: In Diablo 3, Diablo is female.]

In the expansion, Diablo has been cast down from the High Heavens, but the vessel that enabled his rise to power, the black soulstone, has been stolen by Malthael, the former Archangel of Wisdom turned Angel of Death. Here’s the trailer to see that bit of plot in classic Blizzard animation:

I’ve written about Grim Reapers before, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say when the game is released sometime in late winter or early spring of 2014.

2. Gameplay

One of the most discussed pieces of the Reaper of Souls expansion is the new character class that players will have access to: the Crusader. Fans of the series will recall that Diablo 2 had a Paladin class. Here’s the extensive background on that character from the Diablo 2 wiki:

During the mid-twelfth century, after the Church of Zakarum had gained prominence in the East, the Church decreed that the visions of Akarat would be spread throughout the known world in order to redeem the masses. Thus, the Church selected a group of its most charismatic and devoted priests and sent them on a mission to proselytize the people of the West.

Unfortunately, the Church had not prepared these men for the rigors of travel nor the hazards of the world. The priests who survived their missions recounted tales of harsh weather, inadequate supplies, attacks from bandits and even encounters with horrible monsters. To ensure the success of future missions, the Church set about training holy warriors, Paladins, to accompany and safeguard their missionaries. In practice, these “Protectors of the Word” proved to be more successful at converting the native peoples than the Priests that they were assigned to defend. Impressing the locals with daring deeds, powerful weapons, and martial prowess was far more convincing than the condemnations of a soft-spoken monk. However, once the Word had been spread to every major city of the West, the “Protectors of the Word” faded from public view.

Some decades later, Paladins were again called into service. During the height of the Time of Troubles, the Church commenced a second campaign of conversion. This time, however, the inconvincible were deemed evil. The Zakarum Inquisition spread through the lands like a tempest, laying waste to all suspected of demonic possession or corruption. Leading this crusade was a new generation of Paladins, known as the “Hand of Zakarum.” These cavaliers of righteousness swept through the lands, expunging the taint of demonic contamination wherever they found it.

In the midst of this bloody crusade, a rebellion arose within the ranks of the Paladins of Zakarum. The rebels condemned the methods of the Inquisition, proclaiming that the new Order of Paladins should protect the innocent, and that the evil corruption was rooted in their forebear’s failure. They resolved to fight the true source of corruption, the Three Prime Evils – Diablo, Baal and Mephisto. And so, these rebellious Paladins left their Zakarum brethren and ventured west.

Got it? Paladins are holy warriors devoted to fighting corruption on the lam from the corrupt inquisition. The crusader class in Diablo 3 looks like it will be cut from this exact mold. In the game your character will build up religious “conviction” to spend dispelling demons and the undead with holy damage. The current characters operate similarly, with Demon Hunters collecting Rage, Barbarians generating Fury, and Monks building Spirit. (The Wizard and Witch Doctor classes are both spellcasters and build up mana to fuel their spells.)

As an action role playing game (ARPG), Diablo 3‘s gameplay doesn’t radically change from class to class. A player’s style in combat might differ based on character, but all players equip the same number of skills, use roughly the same kind of armor, and defeat demons with similar weapons. For experienced gamers, there are very significant differences, but for casual observers, the gameplay across classes is pretty standardized. See monster, kill monster. (The game developers received a flood of complaints on this and related issues that boiled down to a lack of character customization.)

What will makes the gameplay different as a crusader will probably not be subtle to casual gamers who play the game for the first or second time with that class. Diablo 3 is a game where players complete the entire game on easy difficult levels before completing the game many more times on harder difficulty settings. For dedicated players, however, the cumulative effect of dozens or even hundreds of hours of gameplay will be significant. And yes, it is pretty easy to complete the story 30 times or more, especially if you create characters in each of the 5 classes.

Consider this: When you play solo in the game, you can get a computer-controlled follower to aid you. Most players choose the Templar because of a particular bonus he provides. Over the course of your journey, he talks to you. If you spend too long in town shopping, he will say he’s bored. If you spot a powerful monster, he’ll shout one of three catch phrases: “By all that is Holy! Do you see that enemy over there?”; “A mighty adversary is before us”; and “There! A worthy foe.” After you defeat the monster? He’ll say one of four catch phrases. The most notorious is “That was a worthy foe. Glorious.” After hours and hours of defeating elite monsters, most players are sick of these phrases, but they also know them by heart. The same repetition will cause the crusader’s religious bent to become normative for players.

If you’re itching to see what the crusader looks like, you can watch this gameplay trailer from Blizzcon:

Urban Bells — The Sound of Religion in the City

1 Oct

In my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, an argument over church bells saw tourism pitted against religious practice and religious history. As the Boston Globe reported this past February, guests of the Hotel Providence complained that Grace Episcopal Church‘s quarterly bell ringing from 8am-9pm made their visits unbearable. The church agreed to reduce its bell ringing to twice an hour, but bells continue to ring out the start of the day bright and early every day at 8am.


A little background: Grace Episcopal Church is the church I grew up in. I attended roughly from the time I was 7 until I left for college at 18. As a member of the boy’s choir, I spent more time in the church than nearly any of its parishioners. We practiced twice a week and arrived early on Sundays to rehearse before the service. The choirmaster from the article, Mark Johnson, was my choirmaster then, too. It’s funny how some things don’t change much. There is also no mistaking his personality in this quote:

“In my mind it’s a huge sacrifice,” said Mark Johnson, ­organist and choirmaster at the church for more than 20 years. “It’s an extremely generous gesture, one which I have objected to very strenuously.”

More background: When I was in high school, I was one of a select group of choristers to be allowed to ring the bells. As you can see in the video, ringing the bells consists of pushing handles down–hard. You really needed to put all of your weight into it. And woe unto you if you made a mistake. Your mistakes would be ringing for miles across the city, echoing in the alleys and parks of scenic downtown Providence.

English: Grace Church, Westminster Street, Pro...

Grace Church, Westminster Street, Providence, Rhode Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the intersection of urban living and historical religious practice are holdovers like bell chimes. In the era before affordable time-keeping, church bells measured the day for workers. The sound of bells ringing will, for me, forever be the sound of urbanity. Today it blends together with honks and the mechanic hum of buses and cars, but these sounds carry shallowly. By design a bell is made to be heard.

Beyond the historical reality–“the bells were here first”– and the legal precedent that preserves the ringing of church bells, there are larger questions the Globe insufficiently explores. What expectations do tourists have that are unmet by the reality of the city? How is it that they come to the city and expect it to be a quiet interlude? Would you expect subway cars to cease running in New York City? The trains to quit blowing their whistles in Chicago or Boston? How does one come so unprepared for the sound of cities? If you lived in an apartment complex and this was a leaf blower outside of your window, would you have been similarly incensed?

I suspect, but I could easily be wrong, that one of the major hurdles here is that today the bell ringing is seen as little more than “religious noise.” This is not an instance of past and present. This is a battle between the secular and religious. The bells are offensive because, lacking any secular purpose today, they are left with little but religious meaning.

In counties that have battled with the Islamic call to prayer, noise pollution, and other zoning excuses have been put forward as reasons to prevent the adhān from reaching its audience. Much like the church bells, the sunrise call must be especially galling to those who would like to sleep in.

Sound can be orientation just as easily as geography. If we have lost the chronological orientation of church bells, then they may still serve to orient urbanites to the intermingling of religious and secular in the city.

After all, Grace Church, like many other urban religious churches, lies in a developed residential zone. The skyscrapers, apartment complexes, hotels, lofts, malls, warehouses, and other buildings that surround it are built on the ruins of old homes. The combination of development and the investment in the religious structure left the church as a last oasis of a formerly integrated city. Now that the city is attempting to return to a mixed development zone (with businesses and residences across the downtown), they’re rediscovering what was left there. It’s probably inevitable that such clashes are occurring. In fact, I’m surprised there haven’t been more (despite the links below).

I suppose that in cities where residents never fled the urban center, these problems were addressed decades ago. That leaves the terms of negotiation up to folks like my choirmaster and the Pastor. The parishioners live in the suburbs–or at least they did when I attended. Thankfully, it seems like a reasonable compromise was made that preserved the historical elements of the practice as well as good relations between  the church and its new neighbors.