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Friday, February 29, 2008

Thank you, Story Teller's Guild, SUNY Oswego

This is a bit over due but last weekend I was able to attend a pre-conference in Oswego, New York at SUNY campus hosted by the Storyteller's Guild student association there. Every spring this guild hists a massive game and anime convention and this was an opportunity to try things out before hand. I was able to play test a pick up game of "Pulp in the Cup", using the "Ghost in the Shell" TV franchise as the setting. Much to my delight, we had a group that was a great group of role-players and we had a very satisfying experience that seemed to work well. This is helping me with my "Play-By-Facebook" Pulp in a Cup campaign.

For the con though, I will be running an adventure that combines the HackMaster with Gygax's "Oriental Adventures" and set in the Tokugawa Period of Japan. It will be a case of Kurosawa meets "Ninja Scroll" (with a little Phillip K. Dick (?) because - er, because- because I can't help myself).

I just want to bear witness that the Storyteller's Guild is an extremely well run and responsible organization and to say thanks for providing a great environment in which to game.

What would Achilles do?

Preparing to teach my intro to philosophy course again, I was impressed in a fresh way with what Socrates was trying to say in behalf of his reasons for doing philosophical inquiry in such life threatening circumstances in his Apology. I have been exploring this in several ways, including making it the centerpiece of a role-playing campaign I'm refereeing on my Facebook page.

In order to explain to the Athenian court the rational for his risky behavior, he holds up the example of Achilles, the great Greek hero of the Trojan War, recounted in Homer's Iliad. Achilles mother, a prophetess warns Achilles that if he kills Hector he himself will also die. But Achilles decides that not killing Hector would be to dishonor his friend who was killed by Hector, and that it would be far worse to live on with dishonor than to die with honor. He kills Hector and is killed himself.

The important point to get from Achilles example for Socrates is that he thinks that Achilles decision is rational, and that what makes it so is that the outcome of death is inevitably uncertain. Socrates had previously explained that his mission from the Oracle at Delphi was to disclose to all who held a pretentious faith in their own wisdom that in fact they were not wise at all through testing their "wisdom" through questioning. Now Socrates argues that one of the ways people claim to be wise when they are not is in thinking that they know what death is when they really don't. It seems clear that what most people think that death is the cessation of human existence, but this is what is in fact not known. Death might mean continued life somewhere and somewhen else, for all we can tell. if it does, then the things we do in this life may have consequences in the next and an act of dishonor in this life may mean moral retribution in the next, while acts of honor in this life might be recognized in the next.

Given that we don't know, it is more reasonable to live honorably even if it means death, since the value of what we miss out on if we act as if death is not the end and are wrong pales in comparison to the value of what we miss out on if sacrifice honor to live longer believing that death is the end and turn out to be wrong. In other words, it is rational to choose death before dishonor in the same way that taking Pascal's Wager is rational. Following Achilles example then, Socrates says that it is rational for him to go on questioning men and improving their souls even if they threaten his life, than to passively neglect their well being in order to escape death and that Socrates will serve God rather than man.

We can be persuaded that this reasoning is right even while disagreeing that what Achilles did was in fact honorable. That depends on how Homer describes the case, whether is Achilles pursuing his own vendetta of whether Achilles is acting properly as a court of necessity and not taking the matter personally. But it is reasonable to see life as a probation of character rather than try to hold on to it no matter what, given the uncertainty of death's outcome. And this is a bit of common grace exhibited in the thought of Socrates.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why would a good God allow ideology?

Much to my great delight, I went to the theatre since prayer meeting was canceled and lo, it was showing "Persepolis", a film I thought would never be shown around these parts. "Persepolis" is an animated feature from France based on an autobiographical graphic novel by a young woman, Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Tehran during the last tears of the Shaw and reign of the Khomeinists. I give it five stars out of five.


I like films like this because they challenge my perspective on things in a way that makes me want to listen. Another example of this, although a completely different style and situation, was "Tales from the Hood". The film recounts the author's experiences as a young and precocious child growing up in a Communist family that posed itself as an enemy of the state before the fall of the Shah, and as a teenager during the reign of the Isalmic fundamentalists, including the war with Iraq. We learn from her parents about the provenance of the Shah's father, how he was foolish and would have instituted a democracy but was told by Britain that a democracy would not work with such a populace and that he should be an emperor instead. This led to an autocracy where political dissenters are imprisoned and tortured, including Ms. Satrapi's very beloved uncle, who recieved training in Marxism-Leninism in Russia. When the Shah fell, the prisoners are released and the family is reunited and delighted -- until the new regime recaptures the uncle and has him executed. At this point, Ms. Satrapi who started out in life ambitious to be God's next prophet, dismisses God from her life. Satrapi's family and friends begin to lead a cryptic life to avoid the regulators who patrol the streets to make sure Islamic dress and behavior codes are maintained while Satrapi is being indoctrinated at school/

When Saddam attacks and begins to war with Iran for years, Satrapi's parents send her to Vienna to school. She experiences life for once without mullahs and without war and violence. However, what she does find in Europe is prejudice, anarchists, and nihilism. Youth in Europe are immersed in ideologies that are as bleak as the ones she left behind. We see a humorous and Thurber-esque account of her trials with love and pot. But ultimately she suffers from terrible guilt at the thought that while she is enjoying life in Europe her family is still suffereng the pains of the war. However, she gets kicked out of her last house and winds up stranded and starving in Vienna, finally asking to come home and be with her family again.

At this point the war with Iraq is over, but her family tells her that if anything things are much worse. As a young woman, she goes through a terrible struggle looking for direction and wondering how to make sense of what has been happening to her. She goes to a psychiatrist who listenes to her in Freudian detachment and then prescribes a lot of medicine --"Depression is curable". The medicine only leaves her doped up and during one of those experiences she re-connects with God (with Karl Marx cheering her on from the side). As a result she is able to pull herself together and go back to college to study art. (Now think, of the ironies attached to studying art in a fundamentalist controlled university). After this are several other events, confronting the authorities at school, a failed marriage, and so on, but in the end the situation deteriorates enough, both circumstantially and interiorly, where her family sends her again to France, forbidding her to return to Iran.

In spite of the tragic circumstances the film is infused with the good humor of the author which shines in several different places with great comic sensibility that fits well with the original medium. We are reminded that these are comics and it is an interesting medium to tell a story such as this. The film reminded me of "Maus". It was also a delight to see such geeky tropes, indicating that the geek sensibility is transnational. The film has references to Godzilla, Terminator, Iron Maiden, and so on. As separated as we are from one another by religion and politics, here was at least one note we could connect on. Of course, this is because it is a coming of age story.

But what is being accomplished is far more important. By telling her story, the author makes it clear that not all Iranians are what they are often represented to be in the media, that there are people who will respond when seriously treated as rational people. Some Iranians are ready for a modern state that recognizes human rights. On the other hand, where the Iranians are modern, they are modernistic, embracing theory as the basis for life and allowing life to operate willy nilly where theory does not apply. Where our heroine is most lost is in dealing with the frontiers of permissiveness without much to help her in dealing with relationships. This is what leads to starvation, in a world were she remains isolated and alone.

Of course, it seems understandable given her situation. The tragic aspect of the film is that she in every phase of her life is that she seems surrounded by bleak ideologies either Marxian or anarchistic on one side or Islamism reduced to a politcal ideological machine on the other. A religion of liberation or a Western constitution of liberty are approaches not available to her given the West's collusion in rise of the Shah, the support for both sides of the Iraq war, the western interest in oil, and the training of the torturers by he CIA. Whatever one could have hope another country might learn from our history as been eclipsed by the western policy of supporting authoritarian governments as a hedge against the spread of Communism. The movie illustrates how the conduct of such governments left few without any recourse except to turn to communism.

The movie also illustrates how the hedonism of the Iranians contrasted with the hedonism of the European youth. Given the repressive regime, engaging in parties and illegal wine consumption was not mere fun but a protest of the regime, a demonstration of liberties denied. But in Europe, this is not necessary. This also applies to the feminism one sees lifted up in the movie which clearly must be seen first and foremost as a version of equity feminism. By going against the obvious double standard in which clothing prescriptions were only applied to women, while men were allowed to were normal western clothing, the characters are challenging a specific distortion of sex.

The sea of abstractions that Satrapi is constantly swimming in offers no hope and she finds herself facing the dilemma of choosing the bleak ideology of an imminent engineered theoretically perspicuous deity like the state, or face absolute nihilism. But the way that she ultimately escapes this false dilemma and becomes post-ideological is rediscovering and re-appreciating her family and in particular her grandmother. The movie is to be held up as providing one of the few pieces of cinema that illustrates a properly functioning family. Her parents have a solid committed relationship and display their love for their daughter through their infinite patience with her. Her father encourages her to think and to be independent while her mother guides and encourages her. Her uncle fascinates her with his adventures and deeply impresses her with his suffering for a principle. But her grandmother turns out to be her best counselor, not so much by appealing to this or that prescription (at least not in this movie) but encouraging in every with her humor, her proactive attitude toward life (she puts jasmine leaves in her bra to make a nice smell -- I won't say where she puts her breasts), and her guidance. She encourages Satrapi to have integrity, scolds her for delighting in cleverness when she should be thinking about the other person, applauds her for her courageous displays, and tells her not bear a grudge or seek personal vengeance. In other words it is in these vague features that prove to be more effective for her and sustain her. In a way, this story is about her grandmother. It ends when we find out the day she left Iran for France was the last day she saw her alive.

It is also noteworthy that God is always pictured as a large grandfatherly old man who teaches and guides, even when He is being dismissed by her and even when He returns in her dreams. We cannot but project into our transitional representations of God the images we have of our own parents. So in Satrapi's picture God is the grandfather who loves and guides, just like her own parents and relatives and even when he is mad at Him for the death of her uncle. God pleads with the free will defense, "But these are the acts of men". She can't but see Him as good when she accuses Him of evil. This and the fact that God never really quite goes away is impressive.

It is a real challenge to think of this person being is such empty circumstances precise at the same time (the 80's) when it really felt like morning in America for guys like me. For Iran, is was pitch black in what seems to me like a tomb. it was amazing to see how the human spirit can still find touches of wonder and humor is such situations but that is all the more reason to see such people set free from them. The big question at the end of the movie for me is whether she had found or ever will find true freedom from the inside out. Even though free from the repressive regime in Iran, was she free in being open to other possibilities than what her world made available to her.

William F. Buckley R.I.P.

This has been a rough week.

The debt I owe Bill Buckley to my personal development goes beyond even the debt I owe Larry that I cannot express it, even though I have nothing like the closeness with Buckley's world as many who are now posting at NRO this week. So I will let them express my mourning for as well as with me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I Hope I'll See You in Heaven

When I was in college the second time, my friends and I considered ourselves members of the "3L decade", mostly because of our experiences the first time we went to college, but especially because we were all Christians in our teens when we were impacted by the still fresh evangelical MOVEMENT still going on at the time. We read books by Francis Schaeffer, CS Lewis, Os Guiness, John Stott, James Packer, and Martin Lloyd-Jones, and we listened to music by Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, the Darrell Mansfield Band, and the group Daniel Amos. The helped shape our first steps in seeing Christianity not as a peripheral religious activity and to see it instead as a world and life view that informed every area of life. Such was our version of young idealism.

"3L" was our alternative to the 3M of the previous decade -- Marx, Mao, and Marcuse. "3L" stood for L'abri, Lausanne, and Larry Norman. The first was an alternative style mission run by Francis Schaeffer, pastor-thinker for post 60's students which he started with his family in Switzerland and now exists in many places through out the world. The second stood for the first evangelical international missions conference that renewed proclamation centered missions in contrast to the shrinking role of proclamation in what had become of the mainline missions movement, and which still continues today. And the third . . .

Well, the third was the father of Christian alternative music, the guy who asked the question, "Why should the Devil have all the good music?" He was our Bob Dylan (until Bob Dylan became our Bob Dylan for awhile -- thanks in part to Larry). Larry was the first to try to establish a distinctive Christian Rock on a distinctively Christian Record label, and he helped to put together a distinguished array of talented and faithful Christian performers as well as encouraging many others.

Larry Norman had been suffering from severe health conditions. On Feb. 25, they finally caught up to him and he passed away. Even though I didn't wind up agreeing with all of Larry's stuff all the time, I whole heartedly agreed and agree with his effort to that Christian distinctiveness in arts (including popular arts) does not mean exclusiveness to arts within the church. I, in my roleplaying, try to live up to Larry in his music.

Please pray for the Normans.

Hasta La Vista, Larry.