Blog Archives

And now for something completely different: Robert E. Lee

I recently did an interview with CSPAN on my small book on Robert E. Lee, and I thought I might share it:

http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/RobertELee

To be honest, I haven’t watched it–I hate watching myself on TV–so I’m just taking other people at their words that I didn’t make a fool of myself.  :)

So, for once, we have no elves, dwarves, or Jedi.  No Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, or Lucas.  Just something on a real person from actual history, a person who was much more human than many people like to think.

If the book intrigues you, it will be out on April 30.  Here is the link to order on Amazon.com.

Best Regards,
Brian

Message in Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics

Hello everyone! Yesterday was the release day for the final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy, which means that it’s quite possible that most of the people liable to really care about this topic are off actually playing the game (I would be too if it weren’t for school. Spring break can’t come soon enough). Last week  (in this post) I started into my analysis of Popbioethics.com’s audaciously-titled article “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation”, and today I will be focusing on the second major point of the argument: the message of Mass Effect, and what it tells us about the Science Fiction genre.

The Message: We Don’t Matter

Essentially, the general message that Munkittrick points to in the Mass Effect universe is that “human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things”. We are one of many, and unlike the universes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Ender’s Game, and a great deal of other science fiction worlds, humanity has a very minor role. This is not something that tv and movies can usually do, Munkittrick explains, because they have to have appeal for their human audience. This is an important point because it explains the importance of the setting to the message (his first point to his second) and how each piece builds on the last, but I’ll get to that in a moment. According to the article, the world of Mass Effect is colored by its message in three major ways:

  • Humans are petulant: Humans may be the new kid on the block, but they tend to walk around like they own the place. They react with insolence to the authorities already in place (ones that have been there hundreds of years before humans even understood what space was), and many do not accept being treated  as second-class, even though there are many other races that are even further back in line. This somewhat justifies the feelings of the other races, and helps to put the humans’ struggle for significance in perspective.
  • The lowering of humankind makes it harder to be xenophobic: Since humans are not the most important species in the galaxy, the player is given a sense of kinship with many of the other races that are in the same boat. Many characters of other races are much more identifiable because they are similarly ‘inferior’, so that instead of focusing on what makes alien characters different, the player focuses on what makes them ‘human’. This also ensures that no matter Shepherd’s gender, race, or sexual orientation, the player is subjected to the same prejudices, based on species alone.
  • The undermining of human pride opens the door to new discussions: When the player is not focused on how great humanity is, examining the greatness of other beings does not threaten the perceived balance of power. In many other science fiction universes, beings more powerful and capable than humans are seen as a threat, or at least arrogant and supremacist, and the default reaction is mistrust. In the world of Mass Effect, humans are not at the top, and so the king-of-the-hill reaction is gone, letting the player see genuinely superior beings more clearly. Characters such as cyborgs, artificial life, and genetically engineered super beings (all of which are represented in the main cast in some way) are actually relatable, instead of being threatening.

These parts add up to a whole that works to change the player’s perspective, working with the setting to frame the philosophy of the world (which I will get to next week). It deconstructs the player’s preconceived notions about the importance of humanity and opens up the realm of discussion to themes beyond the basic space-faring hero story. But, does this all add up to something so unique that it can be called the “most important science fiction universe of our generation”?

Chinks in the Armor (if we can still say that)

Mass Effect 3 femshep female shepherd

Ok, seriously, I need to get this game. C'mon, Spring break!

While I certainly agree with Munkittrick that the way that Mass Effect’s world frames humans in an non-human world creates an effective equalizer, I don’t think it’s as drastically different from most other worlds as he seems to. Certainly, worlds that focus entirely on the human race’s actions and importance will tend to maintain an “us against them” mentality that can make it difficult to relate to non-human characters, but even if the world of Mass Effect isn’t too keen on humans taking over, they’re doing it anyway. While it may come off as insolence, the humans of Mass Effect really are hot stuff.

New as they are, humans have in only a few generations gone from isolation in their far-off system of Sol to jockeying for Galactic governmental authority. Shepherd himself is human, and has become a new symbol for human progress, becoming the first human Spectre, a sort of intergalactic secret agent with far-reaching authority and political clout. Not only that, but even taking into account the myriad ways the plot can turn depending on the choices of the player, humanity still plays extremely pivotal roles in the fate of the galaxy. Speaking in literary terms, Shepherd (and by extension, the human race), is the Hero from the Outside, the Beowolf of Mass Effect, coming in to change the status quo and place things back in the hands of mortals.

Humans may be perceived as being inferior, but they are far from actually being insignificant. This comes to a general rub of the article that motivated me to tackle it in the first place. In many ways, science fiction is about determining mankind’s place in the universe. Even in non-spacefaring stories, the world frames human limits in ways that identify the metaphysical position of the writer. Munkittrick commits something of a literary sin by reading into the world of Mass Effect an exclusively material, even secular humanist perspective that marginalizes mankind’s importance and necessarily downplays the audiences’ high notions of human grandeur. However, the world itself still assumes human significance, or else they could not be the agents of change and action in the story.

This is one of the reasons I believe Munkittrick is wrong about his assumptions. While Mass Effect’s message does allow for an interesting background for discussion, the discussions are not new, and can be (and have been) handled just as effectively in other stories. The medium (videogames) does not make Mass Effect meaningfully better at handling these themes, and neither does the message that Munkittrick says Mass Effect portrays make it the genre-definer that he claims in his title.

Does the conclusion of Munkittrick’s argument (as cumulative as it is) prove his claim? Next week I’ll take a look at the Philosophy of Mass Effect, and Popbioethics.com’s final arguments about its significance to the Science Fiction genre. Until then, you can still get the free demo for Mass Effect 3 here to play around with!

“IN IT BUT NOT OF IT”: CHRISTIAN VIRTUE IN A CORRUPT WORLD

This is a talk I gave to the SE District Conference of the Evangelical Free Church of America in Gainesville, FL, Feb. 23, 2012.   I think it has relevance for all of us who write–or read–literature (or any other art form) in today’s world.

“IN IT BUT NOT OF IT”:

MAINTAININIG CHRISTIAN VIRTUE IN A CORRUPT WORLD

I would like to speak today on a difficult and controversial topic: the Christian and Entertainment.  At the risk of not being entertaining, I would ask you to entertain in your minds the even more basic issue which is logically prior:  The Christian and his relationship to the world in which he is called to live and to which he is called to minister, a world that throws a lot more at us than just “entertainment.”  How do we maintain Christian virtue in a corrupt and corrupting world, one which is dangerous to us but which we must know and touch in order to reach?  I want to look at three passages which are foundational to any biblical view of these issues, make some simple observations about their teaching, and then try to draw some general conclusions from them.

I.  IN BUT NOT OF (John 17:14-15).

”I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  I do not ask thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.”

This passage is where we get the formula “in the world but not of it.”  I have three observations about this passage: what is forbidden in it, what is often attempted in response to it instead, and what is actually commanded by it.

What is forbidden are, by implication, two approaches to the world:  identification with it and isolation from it. We are to be “not of” the world (hence identification), but Jesus does not want us removed from it (hence isolation).  Now, there is a sense in which we do identify with the world.  We identify with it in its need and in its suffering, as our Lord modeled for us when he accepted a Baptism for the remission of sins which he did not personally need.  But we do not find our identity in the world, we do not allow it to define us, and we do not allow ourselves to be forced into its mold (Rom. 12:1).  In that sense, we identify not with the world but with Christ.  He defines us, he transforms us, and we find our identity in him.

Unfortunately, the easiest way to avoid identification with the world is to try to withdraw from it as much as possible, that is, to practice isolation from the world.  We create our own little Christian ghetto and withdraw within its borders so we will not be corrupted.  We Evangelicals think our Fundamentalist forebears had a problem with this, but we don’t.  I wonder if we have just made our response more subtle?   We write our own music and books and create our own TV, most of which somehow turn out to be strangely cheap imitations of what the world is doing but without the grosser forms of immorality.  But this is a false approach, and Christ makes it clear he does not mean us to take it, both by his prayer here and by his example, hanging out with publicans and sinners and scandalizing the religious conservatives of his day.

Somehow we must be “in” and “not of” at the same time.  But that is difficult.  What we often attempt is the much easier task of taking one of the two prepositions in isolation from the other.  It requires no effort at all to be “in” the world; the path of least resistance will suffice to accomplish that most efficiently.  And, while it requires more effort, it is also possible to be “not of” the world.  Here we create our (partially) insulated parallel universe, with borders guarded by ever-increasing lists of Rules.  “We don’t cuss, drink, smoke or chew, / and we don’t go with girls that do.”  But we can pursue either of these prepositions in the flesh.  We do not have in ourselves either the wisdom or the strength to be “in” and “not of” at the same time.  That requires the wisdom and the power of God; that requires discernment and dying to self.  And so, of course, it is not to be thought of by half-hearted Christians; and so it is seldom seen.

Yet that is precisely what is commanded:  not isolated prepositions in the flesh, but the integration of the two prepositions in the Spirit.  But how can we do that?  A good question: it leads us to the next verse.

II.  WHATEVER IS TRUE (Phil. 4:8)

”Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence, and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.”

My observation about this verse is a question:  What kind of command is it? Answer:  it is a positive command.  It is about what we are positively supposed to dwell on.  But what interests me is the fact that in our application of it we have almost universally turned it into a negative command, about what we are not supposed to read, watch, or listen to:  “Oh, this is impure, so I’d better stay away from it!”  Why have we managed to be so inattentive to what the Text actually says?  We do it because the negative approach is easier.  It is easier to boycott all movies (or all movies of a certain rating) than to use discernment; it is easier to swear off of “secular” music or “rock” than to listen critically to what the world is actually saying through these media, understand with empathy the cries of its lost voices, but then choose the good, and dwell on that.

I repeat:  this verse says not one word about what we cannot read, watch, or listen to.  It says not a single word about what we must turn a blind eye to, pretend isn’t there, or be ignorant of.  It says a lot about what we should nourish and feed our minds on.  Contrary to the T-shirt, Nietzsche isn’t peachy; he is actually very preachy, and what he is preaching is straight from the Pit.  But he has been very influential and he is important, and even in his evil he can teach us some things.  Therefore I was not disobeying this passage when I read him, even though he is rightly described by none of the adjectives (except possibly “excellent,” in the sense of “outstanding”) that the verse recommends.  But that is not the kind of thing I feed my mind on constantly.  On the other hand, I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings twice in 1968, the year I discovered it, and have read it annually since.  That is what the verse is talking about!

I am not saying that there is nothing that is so raw, so evil, so corrupting that we should not expose ourselves to it.  There is unfortunately plenty of material out there of which these things are true, including but not limited to pornography. What I am pointing out is that our main strategy for dealing with these problems is too often negative, while the Bible’s is positive.  And I am pointing out that understanding this truth makes Phil. 4:8 the answer to the dilemma raised by Jesus’ words in John 17.  How do we live “in” the world without becoming “of” it?  Do not focus primarily on what you can not read, watch, or listen to.  Do not use ignorance as the path to safety!   Rather, really feed your mind on what is Good, True, and Beautiful, and then it will respond rightly to the rest.

III.  HANDLE, TASTE, TOUCH?  (Col. 2:20-23)

”If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’  . . . . These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

It is not just that the negative approach is less valuable than the positive one I have recommended (and Paul commanded).  The Apostle says here that the negative approach is of no value at all!  Why?  Because you can abstain not only from Rock but also from Country (all those “cheatin’ songs”!)–hey, Mozart and Wagner were supposed to be immoral people, so we’d better abstain from Classical too—and what about all those divorces?–better add Contemporary Christian to the list.  You can abstain from everything except the Psalms in the original Hebrew sung to Gregorian Chant, and still be proud, envious, wrathful, slothful, greedy, gluttonous, and lustful.  The absence of the Evil (or even of the Questionable) simply does not equate to the presence of the Good (or of Virtue).  A negative photograph of the “world” is not necessarily a positive portrait of Jesus.

O.K., so what does work?  What is of value?  Phil. 4:8.  The cornerstone of our approach to being in the world but not of it, i.e., to maintaining Christian virtue in a corrupt world, should not be all the things we do not read, watch, or listen to.  It should be a mind really fed on and nurtured by the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, as we find them in Scripture and in the best of the Christian and classical traditions.  You cannot keep the “impure” out of your mind.  But you can keep the fresh, pure mountain spring water of Scripture and the rest that is good flowing strongly through it, so that the impure is constantly being washed away.  And that is the only way to keep it pure.

CONCLUSION:

I often ask my Composition students to write an essay on “Why I came to Toccoa Falls College.”  It’s slightly less boring than “What I did on my Summer Vacation,” and besides, I want to know.  Over the years the results have been very consistent. The one answer that I get more than all other answers combined is, “To escape the evil influence of the secular university.”  This has always troubled me, and in preparing for this message I realized more clearly why.  It is a negative answer, not a positive one.  We came to a Christian college to hide.  Why hasn’t anybody ever given the answer I’m looking for: “Because Toccoa Falls is the West Point for Christian Soldiers.”  If there is anyone reading this who has that mentality and who is considering college, I want you in my classes next Fall!  So I want you to understand:  If you came to a Christian college, or to a Christian day school, or to your church to hide in the Christian ghetto, this is not the mentality of Conquerors for Christ, but of people who are defeated already before they ever enter the battle.  Christians are not called to be afraid of the world or ignorant of it; they are called to be different from it.

Understanding this, Milton asked, “What wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil?  He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer what is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.”  And he therefore concludes, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies forth to face her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

What shall we say, then?  Feed your mind on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, as we find them in Scripture and in the best of the Christian and classical traditions, and then it will respond properly to the rest.  Develop uncloistered virtue: positive, discerning, unafraid.  Then we may say with Bunyan’s Pilgrim, “Apollyon, beware what you do; for I am in the King’s highway, the way of holiness; therefore take heed to thyself.”  And the gates of Hell will not prevail against us.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of NE Georgia.  An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America, he has spent many years in pastoral ministry and several summers training local pastors in Uganda and Kenya for Church Planting International.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice, 2008), Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).  His website is http://doulomen.tripod.com.

Medium and Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics

Hello everyone! Last week I mentioned that I would be responding to this article today, but instead of trying to wrangle everything into one huge (unreadably long) post, I’m going to go ahead and make this a multi-parter.

The article in question makes a rather audacious statement right in its title:

Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of our Generation

As a science fiction fan and literature buff, I bristled upon reading this. I, like many 18-25 males in my demographic, love video games. I have talked about the merits of video games as a medium and lessons we can learn about storytelling and writing from them on multiple occasions. However, this title seems to be placing Mass Effect up next to works like 1984, Ender’s Game, Dune, Neuromancer, and other universally acclaimed science fiction literature, and then exults it higher than all of them at once. I saw this article pop up on tech websites, gaming news sites, and various other places, and each time the title caught my eye.

So, I read the article, thinking to myself “Maybe it’s not as bad as I think.” Fortunately, it wasn’t. The article does not go as far off the deep end as I feared, however, it struck me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding represented in the text, a misunderstanding that could lead many people to expect from games like Mass Effect something they are unequiped to produce. So, in this mini-series, I will break down each point and explain why Mass Effect, while a very impressive start, falls short of the genre-defining masterpiece that Kyle Munkittrick claims it to be.

The Medium: Strengths and Weaknesses Abound

Reading is often a solitary experience. It’s easy to become so immersed in the world of the story that you can’t see anything else. Characters engage us with their personalities, strengths, and flaws. Settings overwhelm us with sensations not our own, and stories fill our imaginations with questions that keep us hunched over our books way into the early hours.

In many ways, video games can offer a similar experience. There are just as many “good games” as there are “good books”, ones deep enough and meaningful enough to merit the attention and time invested in them. There are, however, many differences in how one consumes both forms of media. One of the strengths of video games is that they are interactive, and often very dynamic, rather than static and linear as books are.

Munkittrick’s argument for why Mass Effect is so important to the science fiction genre begins with a discussion of such differences, focusing on three main advantages of video games as a medium: setting, casting, and emotional involvement. Here is a breakdown of Munkittrick’s main points:

  • Setting: The scale of Mass Effect’s game world allows it to contain a huge diversity of races and species, allowing it to sidestep a common problem of science fiction: the over abundance of supposedly minority humans. This creates a proper sense of humanity’s smallness, and allows the world the feel as big as it needs to.
  • Casting: The diversity of the world is reflected in the diversity of important characters, who can be any combination of male and female, alien and human that the player chooses. The main character is also completely customizeable, allowing the player to choose gender, ethnicity, facial structure, and even sexuality. This combination of factors allows the game to cover a wide variety of themes that would otherwise be impossible, and makes the characters deeply immersive and meaningful.
  • Emotional Involvement: Decisions made by the player during the course of the game have far-reaching, story-altering consequences that follow him through the entire overarching storyline spanning three games. These decisions are usually made with little information through emotion-based dialog options that allow the player to express his desired tone. All of these options for interaction directly with the story increases the immersion of the player in the game, and creates an effective channel for the game’s themes and setting.

In most of these cases, the so-called advantages of video games (and thus Mass Effect) over traditional mediums are either matched by equally important traits of the novel, or are in fact disadvantages that serve to make Mass Effect less effective in telling its story.

In the case of its setting, while the impressive diversity of characters in Mass Effect may be important to later points in the article (I’ll get to that next week), there is little that could not be pulled off in a book as well. You do not have an actual crowd of diverse aliens and humans to show that there is diversity in your story world. Subtle cues and control of information can paint such a picture without spoiling the imagination’s own rendering.

mass effect on stack of books neuromancer ender's game perelandra

Does it truly stand above the rest?

Characters, whether in supporting roles or as the main character himself, must have a story for them to feel real. The supporting characters in Mass Effect have wonderfully written, deep stories full of motivations, strengths, and weaknesses that would make them equally appealing in a novel. However, the main character, Shepherd (the player sets the first name, but not the last so that other characters have something to call him by), is nothing but an empty shell, a puppet that dances to the jerky hands of the player.

The customization only serves as a filter to the experience of the world, as there is no difference what Shepherd looks like, and little difference if it is male or female, or even homosexual. In the end, these customizations boil down to a mere basket of variables for the game to warp itself around, and do not meaningfully add to Shepherd’s sense of realness. In this case, the more traditional model of a novel’s protagonist would likely perform better.

Finally, the emotional involvement of the player is stiffled by the vague nature of the dialog system. When making choices about what Shepherd will say during a conversation, the player is made to choose based on a very short description of three different tones (angry, charming, sarcastic, etc.). In reality, the player really has no idea what words will come out of his character’s mouth, and will often be pulled out of the experience by unexpected results. Simply put, Shepherd has no real character because too much of him is so variable. Even as the player is discovering new things about the side characters and reveling in their interesting stories, he does not feel any real connection with his own character. This is a far cry from the sort of immersive characters possible in a novel, and it is important to note that the characters that feel most real in Mass Effect are the ones who are stable and defined.

Many of these points are addressed more fully in the article’s next section: message, which explains the reason why these aspects are important to Munkittrick’s assertion that Mass Effect is the most important universe of this generation. Want to try out the latest installment of Mass Effect yourself? There’s a free demo available through Electronic Arts’ Origin Network! Just follow this link, and you can catch a glimpse of this game first hand. Until next week, what do you think it takes for a book, movie, video game, or whatever, to be considered “the most important of this generation”? Let me know in the comments below!

When Was King Arthur in Scotland?

I went hillwalking not many days ago up to Arthur’s Seat above the city of Edinburgh.  The 251 meter high dormant volcano is situated in the middle of Holyrood Park and is probably my favorite place in Edinburgh so far.

I’m sure part of it is the name.  I spent two years researching and writing a 130 page monstrosity of a thesis on the subject of King Arthur, particularly involving his Celtic and Anglo-Saxon influences.  I have come to enjoy the Arthurian legends almost as much as I love old Celtic myths.

Almost there... but not really

The funny thing about Arthur is that no one can really agree on whether he was real or not.  The historians will go deeply into the discussion of potential “Arthur” figures and claim that he is either a conglomerate of many men, perhaps a Roman soldier, or no one at all.  That’s historically speaking. A literary person like me will wax eloquent on the fact that Arthur transcends historical reality and has become a sort of overshadowing presence in the minds of authors, poets, songwriters, and cultures as a whole throughout the centuries, so whether he was a living, breathing man (or three men, as the case may be) at any point becomes irrelevant.  And then the rest of the populace watches Monty Python and the vast number of Arthur films, shrugs, and enjoys the entertainment that has sprung from his widespread fame.

I could imagine King Arthur standing here, looking all royal and awesome, surveying his kingdom...

For a king who doesn’t seem to have really made a huge impact historically, though, he does seem to show up in the most unlikely of places.  I can visit a country that really has very little to do with Arthur, historically or literarally, and find a very splendid hill, rising up above a great city, named for the king. Obviously there is some dispute over whether or not the hill is really, truly originally named for Arthur or if it is derived from something else (killjoys).  But the fact remains that Arthur just keeps showing up.  It bears some consideration.  Perhaps another walk up that hill will do the trick.

And that is my very brief thought for the day.