500 Years Later, We Doth Protest Too Much!

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On October 31st 1517, 500 years ago yesterday, a German Monk named Martin Luther posted 95 complaints against the Church on the door of his local Cathedral.   For a few centuries before him the church in Western Europe had been in severe moral decline.  There were certainly many who remained faithful to the gospel but there was a general sense across Western Europe that Christianity as a whole had strayed too far from its roots.  Martin Luther’s 95 complaints began the process of reforming those wrongs.  Luther and his followers were very quickly labeled, “Protesters” or “Protestants” by their critics.  It was thought that all they did was protest.  However, they called themselves Reformers because they wanted to reform the church into something resembling its earliest roots.

When I teach classes about this time in history I always end up talking about one thing Luther had that nobody before him had, namely the Printing Press.  Before Luther, someone could write something in England and someone else would write the same things in Austria or Egypt and they never would have known about each other.  It took information a long time to circulate and because it traveled so slowly, it was easy for those in authority to stop the spread of ideas before they could take off.

Then came the printing press and suddenly all it took was a month for information to circle the continent of Europe.

As I explain to my classes, the Reformation did not begin when Luther nailed his 95 complaints to a wall.  It actually started when someone took the complaints down, ran them through a Printing Press and circulated them across Europe.  Luther was one of the very first historical figures to experience the odd sensation of going viral.  In no time at all he was both famous and infamous.  Within months his name was well known but he was also being accused for heresy and treason.

As people joined his cause and started a movement, Luther’s followers gained a popular nickname by their Roman Catholic countrymen.  They called them “Protesters” or “Protestants.”  It was thought that all they did was protest.  They protest so that they can protest so that they can protest some more.  Their critics cast them as ugly, violent protesters who were lazy and uneducated.

Some of them kind of earned it.  The first generation of Protestants were more violent and more vitriolic than we are today.  Some of those who read Martin Luther’s 95 theses responded in obscene ways and the German people ending up staging a brief but violent revolution against the Roman Catholic church.  Some of them went around burning down entire towns and doing all kinds of ugly things in Luther’s name.  Luther, of course, denounced all of it but when you start protesting you give the violent a means of exercising the violence that is within them.  Some people go around looking for any and every reason to do harm and Luther unfortunately gave them one.

Now I reside in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and our piece of this narrative is a little bit more insane.  Twenty years after Luther posted his complaints, a hormonal king named Henry VIII decided he was going to protest his wife and he asked the Pope for permission to divorce her.  The Pope refused so Henry protested the Pope and he left the church to start his own church.  Strangely, though, Henry could never quite figure out if he was Protestant or Catholic and this created an identity crisis in England that resulted in hundreds of years of civil unrest and war.

This century of church-inspired violence led the early American forefathers to stage their own kind of protest.  Along with taxation without representation and divinely endowed monarchies, they also protested having a state sanctioned church.  Tired of the Protestant Vs. Catholic Vs. Quaker wars that had defined England, our founding fathers decided to not establish a national church.  The phrase that one of them chose to describe it is “separation of church and state.”

But after 240 years many have noted that we haven’t separated churches from the state nearly as well as we have separated churches from each other.  By not having a state sanctioned church we have given anybody permission to do what Henry VIII did.  Any dissatisfied soul can start their own Protesting Reformation and start their own church, making up their own doctrine.

I know of at least three or four churches that have had a Protestant Reformation in the last six years.  In these churches a group of people got angry about something trivial.  They didn’t like the songs.  The pastor wasn’t Republican enough or Democrat enough.  The women’s ministry stopped doing the afternoon tea social.  The denomination wasn’t firm enough on “key” convictions.  So they went to their social media and posted 95 theses for all to see and then they took their cronies and like Henry VIII started their own church.

They have staged these coups using their own version of the printing press, the internet.  In fact, historians believe that the internet is the most significant invention since the printing press.  Some of you have perhaps heard the famous quote by Eric Schmidt who said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”

After the printing press it took a month for ideas to circulate the globe.  After the internet it takes mere seconds.  The internet has made posting complaints and protests on walls one of the most popular things you can do.  Social media has made us all Martin Luther. Or are we Henry VIII?

The Printing Press started the Protestant movement.  The internet has completed it.  But some of us are wondering if all this has made us Protestants the very thing we have been protesting.  Many of us in fact have begun to ask ourselves, “Doth we protest too much?”

I’ll be honest when I look at our modern day Protestant movement I don’t see much of the gospel.  Instead I think that our protests have made us the very opposite of that which we claim to protest.

By protesting we have rejected Christian charity for secular hatred.

We have also rejected the peace of Christ for the wars of the principalities and powers.

We have rejected the unifying power of the cross for the divisive rhetoric of useless doctrines.

We have rejected the justification that comes from God for the self-righteousness that comes from thinking I am right all the time.

We have rejected Scripture’s repeated and clarion call to “be quiet,” “be still,” (Psalm 46:10) “be quick to listen, slow to speak,” (James 1:18) and to “live quiet lives among the pagans.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

In sum, we have rejected the Spirit’s quiet wisdom and guidance to chart our own noisy path to destruction.

The Protestants doth protest too much and after 500 years I think maybe it’s time to end the protestant part of our movement.  It is time for us to stop protesting and stop complaining.  It’s time for us to shut our big mouths and stop our quick fingers from typing.  After 500 years it’s time to do what Scripture commands, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”  (James 1:19).

As Protestants we doth protest too much.

But We Doth Reform Too Little!

But Martin Luther’s followers called themselves by another name, that is Reformers.  The title “reformer” signified a hope that both drove their protests but was much deeper than protest.  The word “Reformer” hinted at the deep and abiding conviction that the church and the world could be better.  They would tell you that they were not just protesting to protest.  Their goal was not a never ending protest but they protested because they believed that all of us could do better.  More than that, we could be better.  We could work harder and think longer and study the scriptures more diligently.  They believed that we could love the poor and that we didn’t need to tolerate systems in government or church that oppressed them.

They started the Protestant Reformation not because they were self-conceited but because they were hopeful for a better world and a better church.  Not all of them were angry just to be angry.  They were angry because they believed in a better world and in a heavenly kingdom that was and is still coming.

By the way, their hope was rooted in the Scriptures.  They believed in the kind of church that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 12-15.  They believed that we could have a church which is for all people, not just for the rich and powerful.  They believed in a church which welcomed outsiders free of charge instead of making them buy indulgences to be among the in-crowd.  They believed in a church devoid of arrogance and pride but instead built on the humble love of God given to us through the Holy Spirit.  They believed in a church which is not led by hypocrites who tell the everyday people to do something while they do the opposite in private.  They believed there could be a clergy class defined by the fruits of the spirit instead of their opposite.

They were not just hoping to protest those things.  They were hoping to reform them.  And we have now spent 500 years working towards those goals.

In sum, we do protest too much but after 500 years we have not reformed nearly as much.

We need to stop the protests but keep up the reformations.

For us every Sunday is reformation Sunday.  Every Sunday we gather around the Scriptures and the table and ask God to reform us.  Every month our board meets and we do reformation meetings.  We talk about how to continue reforming our local congregation so that it can better resemble the love of Christ to this sinful world.  Every bible study we use the Scriptures to hold each other accountable to the Reformation process.  Every time I meet with someone over coffee or breakfast or dinner, I am hopeful for a Reformation.

In conclusion, over the last summer God gave me a wonderful verse.  I was revisiting Philippians and I was enlivened by Paul’s admission:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

After 500 year, us protesting reformers have not laid hold of that for which we are laid hold of.  We have not attained to the perfection to which we were called.  But for 500 years now we have pressed on and I hope for 500 more years we will continue to press on toward the goal.

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For The Joy of It: Video Games Pt. 4

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I like Batman.  I do.  He is the only superhero without any super powers which makes him more “super” in my book, despite what the nay-sayers say.  Plus Batman is far more 3 dimensional of a character than any other super hero.  He is a protagonist that struggles to find the limits of his own power and morality.  Christopher Nolan brought much of this to light in his brilliant Dark Knight Trilogy, but the Arkham games, which were released during the same time, perfected the character.

The original game, Arkham Asylum, was meant to be a low budget affair with mild sales.  However, brilliant game play along with incredible boss fights, an excellent original story penned by the comic book scribe Paul Dini, and an open map format with gadgets that resemble the Zelda franchise all launched the game to a 92% rating by Metacritic and a Guiness Record for “Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game of Modern Times.” (You can read a bit more on the wikipedia page.)

I bought it for a few dollars at Wal-Mart and fell in love with it almost immediately, well.  .  .after I spent an hour dialing down all the graphics so my lousy laptop would run it.  To my (not) surprise, a sequel called Arkham City had all ready been released so I bought it for a few bucks.

Arkham City is just good fun.  It has the right amount of everything.  The story is thought provoking and passes all the tests I have spoken about in the other posts.  The game play is delightful and opens the player up in those conscious and subconscious ways to the struggles of good and evil.  The puzzles are complex and intricate and take a good amount of time and creative thinking to solve.  And the ending asks all the right questions without leaving the player with any easy answers (you can tell I am big on that.)

However, the game also introduced me to the online video game marketplace called Steam where you can pick up old and new games for a fraction of what they are worth.  However, Steam also tracks your game play statistics including achievements earned, the percentage of the game you have beaten, special things you have unlocked and how many hours you have spent playing the game.

It is that last statistic that annoys me completely.  It has been around since the Super Nintendo days.  Almost every game tells you on their opening screen how many hours a player has logged on a save file.  I don’t know why the developers included it.  I personally think they are being arrogant and bragging to you about how much time you have wasted.  It is akin to the victory lap you sometimes see after Track races.

But the number always unsettles me, especially for Arkham City.  I won’t tell you what it is but let’s just say when it passed 100, I gave the game up for several months.  100 hours is 4 days.  I have spent more than 4 days of my life being Batman.  And the more I think about that number, the harder it is to justify it.

I have never, nor will ever, add up all the hours on all my save files on all the games I have ever played.  Sometimes I think that God might know that number and will probably share it with me in eternity.  You can blame that on my Evangelical Protestant upbringing, that despite emphasizing grace, seemed to care a lot about silly things like hours logged playing video games.  Still I wonder what my response will be if God ever gives me that number.  Will I try to justify it?  Will I be ashamed?  Will I ask for more time to beat that one final mega boss?  I have no idea.

What benefits and what consequences have come about in those hours?  There was probably a great deal of both but still 4 days is a long time and it reminds me that simple enjoyment of great art can turn into a dark obsession.

So I want to end this blog series by addressing some practical concerns when it comes to video games.

1) Time: To repeat what I said in the first post, there should be a line drawn concerning how much time one spends on a game.  My own rule is that a game needs to tell me to stop playing it, which means the game has to end.  There are a lot of open ended games out there and those seem to be the most dangerous when it comes to addictions.  Despite your policies, every person should have a limit and it should a rule formed in conversation with mentors, family members and friends.

2) Money: Not much needs to be said here except that in all things work with a budget.  When I discover a game I want to play I will regularly look at my finances and say, “I will not buy this game for more than this amount of money” and then watch sales until I can find it.  This means there are some games I haven’t played because they never dropped below my set amount.

3) Quality of Games:  Like every other artistic medium there are video games that are just a waste of time and money.  Although all engagement is risk, if you are going to spend 100 hours on something, it probably shouldn’t be trash, even if it is addicting trash.

4) Video Games At Church:  I have known several church groups that fellowshipped while playing Mario Kart or Halo or Wii Sports.  Those times are just as fun as playing cards or board games.  However, like any movie, song or TV show, I think church leaders should be mindful of both their members (are any of them addicted?) and of the games they choose to play.  This brings me to number 5.  .  .

5) Multi-player Games:  If I wanted to extend this series into next week I would talk about multi-player gaming and the way it both benefits and detracts from true community.  Instead I will limit myself to this paragraph by stating that if you are playing games with a group, care should be taken about the subconscious nudges of the game.  Does this game really add to group identity, increase cooperation and love among its members?  Or does it increase hostility and divisions?  These concerns go for the greater culture of online video gaming.  What cultures are cropping up around these games?  Are these cultures true, noble, right?  Or do they increase hostility?  I know I avoid playing with people I don’t know because I have heard the “F” word used in hostile ways too many times.

6)  Christians in the Video Game Industry: As with any other industry, I think the world and the church can only be helped by Christians being employed by video game manufacturers.  With that said, some companies only seem to make games that are grotesquely violent or focus on paranormal activity to a fault.  As a Christian I would pray long and hard about joining such companies.  However, I think a Godly influence from within would be great for even such companies, so long as the Christian employee is well defended with the armor of God and willing to quit if the Lord so leads.

I want to close on a more devotional thought.  I think God calls us to be a people of enjoyment.  I think ultimately Philippians 4:8, which calls us to dwell on things that are true, noble, right, etc., is ultimately about enjoyment.  As Christ followers we are a people who delight in all good gifts whether those gifts come to us in sunrises or on our televisions.  So before we critique a game’s message or a game’s truthfulness or a game’s aesthetic qualities, we should set out to have some fun while dwelling upon the things in the game that open us up to further enjoyment of the world.

In Arkham City, after a confrontation with one of the villains, Batman looks at the villain and says, “You seem stressed.  What is really going?”  That line is incredibly impacting.  Here is one of Batman’s arch nemesis’, a villain who had moments ago tried to kill him (and had succeeded in giving me a “game over” message about twenty times). And yet Batman looks the villain in the face and with compassion engages him as a friend, “You seem stressed.”

That is a true, noble, right, loving moment and it is one of many in that great game.  To not enjoy that gift would be shameful.

Until Jesus returns, thanks for reading these unnecessarily long posts.  I hope they inspired you to love and see you all next week.

Prescribing our Described Worlds: Video Games Pt. 2

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The year was 1997 (or was it 1998?).  I was hanging out at my friend Ben’s house.  The Nintendo 64 had been released and his parents bought him one.  I would never think about asking my parents to pay $200 for a video game system, let alone the additional $30-$50 for games.

But I had $100 of my own money and because of the N64, the Super Nintendo’s price was reduced to my range.  I bought one and played the 2 games that came with it.  But Ben had had a Super Nintendo for a decade and 30 games to go with it, 30 games he would soon just give to me because they were worthless now that he had the next best thing.

That particular afternoon in 1998 (or 1997) I snatched one of his games called “Final Fantasy 3.”  I asked him if we could play it and he immediately dismissed it as “too complicated” and “single player.”

I insisted, being offended by the “too complicated” part and so we put it in and watched the credits roll.

It was the 3rd Final Fantasy to be released in the USA but there were 5 Japanese games before it so the numbering was later changed to reflect the Japanese games.

What followed has been a decades long infatuation with quite possibly the greatest video game ever made.  The graphics were gorgeous.  The music was overwhelmingly beautiful.  The plot was intriguing.  The characters were fully formed and moving.  And the game play did not consist of bouncing on enemies or punching or shooting them.  For awhile I played through the game once a year.  Now I go back to it every other year or so and I am always moved by its brilliance.

Yesterday I presupposed that video games are artistic expressions.  I know a few who disagree with me but, mostly because of Final Fantasy 3 (or 6 as it would later be correctly numbered), I hold to the claim.  With that claim I argue that video games should be subjected to the same critique and engagement as the other arts.  That is why I dismissed some of the more ridiculous claims that Christians have made against art.

Today I want to talk about two wider criticisms and apply those to video games.

The first is what I called “prescriptive criticism.”  These are the critics who judge art based off of the world that is supposedly prescribed.  I would include most “Christian” critics in this category.  These critics are always focusing on “what’s the message?”  And if the critic agrees with the message then they deem the artwork “good.”  If the critic disagrees they label it “bad.”

In the case of Christian music, critics don’t pay attention to the melody, the beat, the vocals, or the instruments.  They narrow in on the lyrics and ask, “Does this song mention Jesus enough times?”  “Does this song portray God as able to fix all our problems?”  “Does this song’s God like 6 day creationism?”  “Do these lyrics quote the Bible?”

The problem with such a view is that not all art is prescriptive.  Some art just wants to describe the world as it is and let us figure out where to go from there.  Christians seldom know what to do with that art so they tell the art what its prescriptive message was and then dismiss it as being erroneous.  This is why all the “Christian” art, especially that which is loved by Christian radio and Christian publishers tends to be prescriptive.  They are all sermons in the form of a novel, song, movie or video game.  This has led to some horrible artworks produced and made popular by otherwise well meaning Christians.  In turn many cultural critics have written off the entirety of Christianity as being “close minded.”

So a counter movement has sprung up that I roughly identify with Christian Hipsters.  These are the descriptive critics.  They don’t ask, “Do I agree?” but instead “is this true?”  By this they mean, “Does this movie, song, video game accurately represent reality as it is?”  With that question some justify watching all manner of profanity, arguing, “The world is a profane place and we shouldn’t ignore it.”  I would agree but it is still hard for me to believe that watching pornography is a way to acknowledge pornography exists.  The same goes for graphic violence.

The real problem with descriptive critics is that they seem to deny that good art can be prescriptive.  Some of the best novels and paintings and even video games have prescribed a better world for us and asked us to strive towards it.  Others have shown us a worse world and begged us not to go there.  Here I think of utopias (like Star Trek) and dystopias (like the Walking Dead).

So I think a better way to critique art is to dig past the conscious questions of “do I consciously agree?” or “do I consciously verify that this is true?” to our subconscious participation in the piece.

On a deep level, what is happening to us as we engage the art?  Are we opened up or closed off to our neighbors and their realities?  Are we filled with hope or despair?  Do we become better at problem solving and critical thinking or do we suddenly start thinking a gun is the answer to all of life’s solutions? Are we made angry and is that anger justified and focused on the evils of the world or is it just that type of abstract anger that is angry for no reason?  And in the case of Zuma Blitz, why am I forgetting to blink?

Tomorrow I will talk about games that fail the above test but let’s go back to Final Fantasy 6.  At first glance FF6 fails the prescriptive test because it doesn’t mention Jesus and it seems to suggest that magic and brute strength are the way to solve the world’s problems.  To add to its “evils” it never quotes Scripture *cough* shameful *cough*.

The greatest moment of the game was when the world was decimated into a wasteland by the antagonist. Walking through this village after the disaster was chilling.

It also fails the descriptive test because we do not live in a world where magicians are running around setting things on fire.  There was never (nor will ever be) a great war of the Magi that decimated the planet.  And every time we get into a confrontation we can’t mystically summon magical Espers to appear and help us out.  More than that, there are not three statues somewhere out there that need to be perfectly aligned or else the world will go bonanzas.

However, there is a prevailing belief that the world all ready has gone bonanzas because our harmony has been misaligned.  There are many who believe we are all ready living in a post apocalyptic world.  And as you go through the game, you find that it is not the brute strength or the magic powers that end the ruin and save the day and bring about harmony.  It is the characters (14 of them!) learning how to love.

With a full 14 characters this was the best cast any of the Final Fantasies would have.

The protagonist, a woman named Terra (top left corner), regains her powers when she falls in love with a group of orphans.  Locke, the thief, comes into his own when he finally grieves and moves on from the death of his fiance.  Edgar, the Prince, fights for the love of his people.  Celes repents of being an Empire General and learns to love her adopted grandfather who works himself to death building a raft for her salvation.  Throughout the game all 14 characters learn to love and in so doing find the power to realign the world and defeat evil.

Beyond that surface, dare I say “conscious” message, the music, the visual art, the dialog, even the game play, all come together to fill the player with a subconscious peace, harmony, hope, encouragement and love that help us survive our dystopias.  This subconscious nudge towards all the virtues is out of this world but, at the same time, firmly grounds us in the realities in which we live.

That and the game is just too much fun.

See you all tomorrow where we visit the opposite end of the spectrum.