Friday, July 3, 2015

American Humanism

There's a new religion out there. Well, it's really an old one (humanism) with a new, American twist, and it's central doctrine just got summed up in the hollow ending of Arrow's third season. If I had to name this religion I'd call it American Humanism. But we'll get to that in a minute, cause where this started is important to understanding my viewpoint.

I used to watch the show Arrow, right up until the ending of season 3. Contrary to what a lot of people were saying about it I really liked the third season. Oliver was finding that he didn't necessarily want to be a mythological figure and that may be OK, until he bumped into Ras Al Ghul, a man who is a myth. For obvious reasons this didn't quite work out in Oliver Queen's favor, because a myth is true no matter what, that's the point of a myth. Don't fly too close to the sun or your wings will melt cause they're not real, make sure you change the sails on your ship or your father will kill himself, all power comes at a great personal cost and the hatred of others with power. And, in Arrow's world, the League of Assassins is an unstoppable force. Oliver tried to stop Ra's once and failed, because he is not the Arrow in the way that his opponent was Ra's. To Ra's there was no other man in him, he was the myth, the legend, and that made him unstoppable.  In true American fashion Oliver Queen decided that being Oliver Queen was good enough and took out Ra's single-handledly in the finale of the third season. It was an amazingly hollow end to an otherwise great season. Arrow hasn't stuck a landing since the first season finale, but for whatever reason this one really got my goat. So much build up to.... nothing.

So I called my friend Marty, who usually is kind enough to listen to me rant and rave about shows that he has absolutely no liking for (he hates American TV). But this time he had an insight to it. Now, Marty and I share a passion for mythological themes in shows and literature. It's our little geeky thing we talk about where we start going "ooh, did you see that?" Heck, he ran a beautiful Torchbearer game for Andy and I that just blew our socks right off.

Anyway. Erhem.

 I was telling Marty how the whole ending just felt off, and he said the magic words "Why, because he invented his own myth and somehow it worked? Yeah, I didn't think you'd like that." After the light bulbs in my head dimmed enough for me to sleep I did so, but here's the thing: myths aren't made up, they're inherited, passed down to the next holders who live it out and add their own selves to it. It's a corporate and individualistic experience because the interpretation of the myth is up to you. So long as you remain loyal to the myth your interpretation adds to what's passed on. It's one of the reasons why I love being an iconographer: I am part of something more than myself and yet my contribution matters, because it's then added to the whole.

Which is why American Humanism is so sick. It's the idea that you define your own mythology, you are the center of your own little world, and that the larger world has no place in defining it with you. Oh wait, what were those suicide numbers again, particularly for men, who have based their lives off of mythology since the world was young? Oh yeah, that's working really well. Isolating us from a whole is a really great idea.

And, before anyone goes "that's not true!" I ask you to look at our culture today. Actually look at it as an overarching pattern. What's been going on for awhile now? Well, the LBGT crowd's having a field day, pedophilia is slowly being accepted as just another sexual orientation, and then there's this whole "I feel like I should be disabled" thing going on, and that's before you start talking to "regular" people. If you, the reader, feel that whatever people do is fine so long as it doesn't hurt you or others then you espouse American Humanism. What right have you to mess with someone else's domain? Their life, their mythology, their religion is paramount. So long as no one challenges your own sovereignty it's all good. Right? Right!

I proclaim all of you gods.Go, spread the faith of yourself! No one's going to listen cause they have their mythology, and so therefore you'll do little good, but what does that matter? The telling's what's important, right?

Now, before anyone gets on their little "the individual's choice matters!" soapbox I'll stop you. Yes, the individual's choice matters, otherwise there's no point to a collective myth or anything else collective. But there must be a collective, humanity's too group based to not invent mythology and cults to enact it. That's popularly known as religion. But one thing's for sure: fighting for your own sense of identity ain't what's gonna work. And the ratings of the ending of that 3rd season certainly seem to back it up.

And also, for all you guys reading this who are going "I don't do this, I am my own person!" I'd like you to remember the last time you had something very precious and dear to you like football, gaming, a spouse, etc, insulted, and remember feeling indignant not just because they were insulted but you were insulted because you identified them with you. That feeling? You expanded your sense of self to a greater whole. That's myth. That's religion. And you have proven my point. You can't not be part of a whole, which is why American Humanism is so dangerous. You are not an autonomous individual, but an individual inside of a larger collective that you can either benefit or hurt. You matter and so do "they". As a matter of fact, you are, to a certain extent, "they". And their well-being impacts you as much your well-being impacts them.

Ain't it glorious?

A note: Yes, I know what I've been writing about is called moral relativism philosophically speaking. I have taken that philosophy and re-phrased it into properly religious terms, thus legitimizing it. Just as certain philosophies are a natural outgrowth of  some religions, moral relativism comes directly out of American Humanism. Except that the people practicing it generally aren't aware they're practicing it, but that's half the point, isn't it?

I mean, how it could be religion (such a patently trite thing!) if it isn't universally true?

A further note: I wrote this about a month ago and just happened to schedule it for July 3rd, didn't notice for two weeks, and then chuckled when I did notice. Well, with the advent of the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage I feel that my point has been illustrated better than I ever could attempt. The fact that this post will be appearing July 3rd is a deep knife twist now. If anyone even attempts to tell me on this blog that my religious freedom will not be impeded I will kindly ask you to drink your American Humanist beverage far away from this blog. Thank you.

Friday, June 26, 2015

On Environment and the Troubles that the Church is Having

Last week I put up a post about the Byzantine rite and what it was like in the ideal, what we all needed to strive for. I went and re-read the post, and realized that my point really wasn't communicated. So I'm going to try again.

The Church has one goal, and only one: salvation of the human race by being wrapped up into the mystery of the Holy Trinity. There is nothing else more important, for if we all know the Trinity then paradise would happen. That is the most important goal of the Church, to bring paradise to earth and help earth ascend to paradise.  We have lost sight of that as a Church. Instead we think of the Church as a place to teach right doctrine, to have charity outreach, and to make sure our families continue in their viewpoints, unchanged. Nothing could be further from the truth, because those things I just listed (and so many more!) are just symptoms of the central reality, which is the the face of God. If we can give people access to God then all would change.We have Christ, we must show Him to the world and convince the world that receiving Him is the only way.

But how do we do this? By beauty. You cannot argue people into it, except by assuring them that the beauty they see is real and to help them get the courage to take the plunge into the darkness of God. But you must help them experience that beauty first. Not everyone is a Scott Hahn, who can walk into Mass and realize that it's the book of Revelation enacted. No, you must be able to show them how beautiful and awesome God is. That beauty and awesomeness is called the Liturgy, which is so special that it must happen in it's own house, called a church.  The church shows what heaven is like, in signs and symbols, since none can go to heaven yet. The Liturgy is the place where Heaven and Earth literally meet and time stops even as it keeps going.

Now, that's all well and good, but humans are not overly mental creatures. We can't just make up essences in our minds or see the face of God peaking through reality or all the angels and demons fighting over us while the saints intercede to get us home. We are not built like that. So, in order to help us get to a point where we can see the face of God imprinted in creation we need to actually design a liturgy and a church that help us focus on this truth. Nothing else is more important.

The first requirement of a liturgy is that it be born of the mystics. Only the people who can see the face of God peaking into our world can actually design something to help us do the same. It's a design that requires as much care as mathematics and an intuition that only the deepest artist could feel. They must be together and whole. Only a mystic could do that.

The second requirement of a liturgy is that it must emphasize the nearness and otherness of God simultaneously. The transcendent God comes and exchanges Himself for meager bread and wine. There's an awesomeness and an intimacy to that action that cannot be understated. You cannot  emphasize the nearness of God because then you lose fear of Him and you cannot emphasize the majesty of God without forgetting that He is like a lover in His closeness.

The third requirement is that scripture be used as the primary inspiration and source. God's words are the easiest way to get into contact with God Himself. Become one with God in words and you will become one with God in mind as well.

The fourth requirement is that all hymns not scriptural must be written by saints, people who have seen the face of God and have written down what they said to Him when they saw Him. To be with God you must know what to say to Him and the saints know how to do that.

The fifth requirement of liturgy is that the passing of time and the timelessness of eternity must be remembered. Remember who the saint is of the day while outside of time, because both are valid and true.

The sixth requirement of liturgy is that the people must be able to edit it as time goes along. Liturgies usually gain complexity over the centuries and develop meanings of their own, separate from the meaning intended by the original liturgist.

A liturgy must happen in a church. The church is a building which helps the minds of the faithful enter into the mystery of eternity by putting their bodies into something as close to paradise as possible. Churches have their own criterion as well.

A church must be other. It must communicate that Someone is here, Someone who cannot be transcribed or controlled while assuring one that this Other is to be trusted. A church must also communicate who this Other is: the Holy Trinity revealed in the Incarnation of Christ. It must show His message and that it is most important this message be received. A church's ambiance must have an identity in and of itself. It cannot feel like a school, or a hospital, or a gas station, or even your own bedroom. It must be complete in and of itself.  It must have it's own interior logic, dictated by the mystical experiences of the liturgy that it houses. The liturgy must be the ultimate authority on what goes into a church. And, like the liturgy, the church's initial designs must be done by mystics, people who can see God peaking in through creation a bit more easily.

Without liturgy we cannot accomplish our mission as a church and, as a church ,we have lost sight of what is most important. We cannot change the world, only God can. Our job is only to get out of the way and allow God to act. Liturgy is how we do that.

Friday, June 19, 2015

How to Save the Church Part 2: East (Byzantine)

The Christian East has a full and rich liturgical history. Originally starting with the Liturgies of Saint James, Brother of the Lord, and Saint Mark, both were adapted into the Liturgies of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Basil. The Estern liturgical hours are of similar origin, being combined from the cathedral (emphasizing hymns) and monastic (emphasizing scriptures and psalms) traditions. The Byzantine tradition brings about prayer by repetition of memorized words while appealing to the senses with icons to create an environment conducive to prayer.

Notice something "missing"? There are no pews. Hang onto that, cause we'll get back to it.
Byzantine churches are to be covered in icons. From the walls to the ceiling, the faithful are given a lot to look at. On the ceiling  is Christ Pantocrator (Ruler), with His closed gospel book which means that all is decided, even if you don't know it. This is what must be on the ceiling of all Eastern Churches, if you're going to have an image there (which you should!).

In the sanctuary, beyond the iconostasis, is the Playtera (More Spacious than the Heavens) icon, which hangs right behind and above the tabernacle. It's usually the only icon you can see through the iconostasis, and it's almost always the first thing you see when you enter an Eastern Church. Mary's and Christ's arms are wide to receive you.

The iconostasis is a wooden screen that blocks off the sanctuary from the nave. It has icons on the outside and represents the veil between heaven and earth, showing just enough for us to know that where we're going is good, but not too much so we have something to be surprised at when we get there. There must always be an icon of Christ on the right and an icon of Mary on the left. In the center are what's called the royal doors, which only the priest can enter through (or the deacon if he has the gospel or communion). On those doors is the Annunciation. The two side doors (known as deacon doors) usually have St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, two of the Church's first martyrs, although you can put angels or even St. Dismas and the tools of the crucifixion on there normally. But it's not a totally hard and fast rule. The point is to have something that reminds you of going between earth and heaven. Finally Saint John the Baptist or Saint Nicholas and the patron of the church are on the last two spots that are usually available. This can be adapted as needed.

All the dots in the floor plan are icon stands. These have icons for the people's veneration and are spots for everyone to congregate around but there is no requirement that they do so. Which is why there are no pews. It's assumed by the layout that, as the people sing the hymns that they've memorized, that they are going to the icons (be they on the walls or stands or ceiling) and praying there. The church is open and you are not bound to stay in one place and, in fact, you really can't. The deacon's got bells on his censer, and when he moves through the congregation the people move out of his way. When processions happen everyone moves away so the procession can go through the church. Yes, benches are on the sides of the church, but they're for the infirm, pregnant, and old. And if you're sitting there and not in one of those three categories it's just a sign of laziness.

Now, I know a bunch of Eastern Christians (Catholic and Orthodox alike) will be reading this and going "We don't do that! Our congregation doesn't sing! And we have pews!" I'm well aware, and that's what makes me sad. The Byzantine tradition uses the senses to invite  the christian to pray and if that's limited by putting said christian in a coffin-I mean, pew (eh, coffin really is a better word)- then how on earth can people be invited to pray? If you'r not singing the music then how can you burn it into your soul, melody and all? Don't say "I'll manage", because it's clearly not working for the vast majority of people. Church numbers keep dropping, a sign that something isn't going right and, provided that the people are taught what prayer is and are inspired to do so, the very design of the church will do half the work. Besides, I'm sure a nice Protestant parish will benefit from the nice pews if sold to them and the Eastern church can make a little money from the sale.

You can't have a rite that emphasizes the body's participation, block out movement by throwing people into coffins, and then expect everything to go well. Nor can you make an easily memorizable liturgy and then only have the choir singing and expect people to care. It just won't work.

Now, these aren't the only problems liturgically with the Eastern Rites. Matins is a mess that needs direction. Married priests are necessary. But getting rid of the pews and getting everyone to sing again's a really good start. All while educating the people on the importance of prayer. Because nothing else will save our Church than God's direct intervention.

Friday, June 12, 2015

How to Save the Church, Part 1: Introduction

Over on my Facebook I've been posting all sorts of smart-alecky links about how the Church's bad liturgical hijinks are killing it. I mean, why go to Church if it doesn't mean anything more than a crappy concert? Lots of people commented going "Hell yeah! Authentic liturgical tradition will save us!"

And that's when one of my priest friends commented, bringing his usual common sense. Even where liturgical traditions are more intact the numbers are down. Why? What's going on in our world? Why isn't there a cure-all for the lack of religion in America? I'm partially tempted to be a smart-ass and say "Christ is the cure", drop the mic, and walk out, but that really doesn't help, does it?

I'm a firm believer that liturgical tradition is a huge part of what will get us back on track as a Catholic and Orthodox Church. In fact, I believe it's our only real shot to bringing us to Christ; the liturgical experience is the best place to encounter Christ in a group setting, allowing the individual to experience Christ as a corporate body. East and West have both developed techniques to get us there, we just need to use them. The whole point is to allow everyone to pray individually and, once they've found the Kingdom of God within, to allow them to realize that the Kingdom of God is without as well. But this means everyone in the congregation needs to know how to pray in the first place. And, since we aren't teaching the mystical truths of Christianity for fear of offending people, nothing is going to work, because no one is being renewed from within, which then means that nothing can happen outside.

If there's anything we should be teaching right now, it's how to pray. Both East and West have differing ways of praying that I'll get into in the next few posts. We'll start with the East, since that's what I know best, comment on the Western way of doing things, and then do a sum up post at the end. But, for now, the only thing that needs to be said is that the only thing that matters is prayer. Everything else is a distraction.

But what's the point of talking about prayer if we don't have some definition?

Prayer is the lifting of one' self to God. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing is more important than being in God's presence however one can. But there are ways to be with God that are more effective than others, and that's what Tradition has handed down to us: how to best be with God.

Prayer has three elements: physical, mental, and spiritual. These elements are co-existent, like rings in a tree or layers in  an onion. All three of these layers must be there, otherwise prayer is difficult if not impossible.

The physical element of prayer deals with gestures, space, and images. Gestures include standing, the default stance of prayer, kneeling ,which shows deep respect in the West and profound sorrow in the East, sitting, which means to listen and be instructed, and bowing, which is a sign of respect. All these are meant to help focus the mind on the action of prayer.

Space has to do with making a holy space to pray in. In the East this is called an icon corner and it's where you go to pray. You set up a small table and on it put a Bible and anything else you use to pray, like rosaries and prayer books. Make sure it faces East, for this is the direction that Christ is said to come again and has been the way to pray since the Early Church. Having a physical space and a specific direction to pray helps with the focus as well.

And finally we deal with images. According to the 7th Ecumenical Council it's heretical to not have images. They're emblematic of our Christian faith, as Christ, being the image of the unseen Father, became a man seeable for all. So it's a very Christian thing to have images, it's incarnational. And, practically speaking, it's very useful for prayer. The Fathers talk the necessity of a clear mind for prayer to happen and images like icons and statues allow one to have images outside one's mind to focus on, crucial for us image-based humans.

The mental element of prayer consists of what your mind is doing while you're praying. Most of it consists of focusing on the words you're saying and nothing else. That means excluding all mental images, thoughts, and feelings to the best of your ability. This is extremely hard to do,  and not all mental stuff should be blocked out, depending on the subject matter. Sometimes you don't have the strength to focus that hard and that's OK, that's when your prayer becomes "God, I'm tired, but I want to talk to you anyway. You are everything to me, even when I can't focus on You." It's also very important to keep your mind sharp and free of anything impure. Yes, I mean things like porn and fornication. Those things distract from God, which is why the Church frowns on them. Also? Put good stuff in your brain. Read, a lot. Or, if you're going to watch TV, make sure it's actually good stories that help you hope, that inspire you. Keep your brain food good and your ability to pray will also increase.

Finally there's the spiritual element of prayer. This is where God comes to you and all is a beautiful silence. This is not due to any effort on your part, it is specifically God coming to you and filling you with peace. The first two elements make you more receptive to God so that you may receive Him, but everything else can line up just right and God may still not make Himself present to you. If He doesn't come to you that's OK, it may not be time yet. There may be things that you haven't resolved that God doesn't want to bring up prematurely. Or maybe there's another reason far beyond any human to comprehend. Whatever it is, don't be troubled. God is near, even if you can't sense Him.

All these things need to be laid down because I'll be referring to the three elements through the next two posts, which deal with the Eastern and Western approaches to prayer. Just, as we go through all these approaches and thoughts, don't forget the most important thing: to be with God.

Eastern post next week!

(Also, in case I didn't make it apparent, I'll be concentrating on the liturgical expressions of the two sides of the Church. There's so many private devotions I could never possibly do them justice.)

Friday, June 5, 2015

On THAT Scene

I don't watch the show Game of Thrones. I tried to, to see what all the hubbub was about, and promptly stopped when I realized that it was just an excuse to show boobs and butt on TV. I then read two of the books (A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings) and found myself enjoying those far more. I had started on the third book and then I got distracted. But I never quite forgot those two books and have always wondered when I was going to get back into the series. So it interested me that the TV show was going to go into new territory. I mean, it makes sense. It would be boring to reproduce the book exactly, so why not go in a different direction?

That's when the internet exploded with fan rage over Sansa Stark's rape. Oh, the moral outrage! Matt Walsh blogged. And, to a degree, the guy's right. The show is pornography, plain and simple. If you're watching it you really can't make a claim otherwise, good story or not. But there was that curious part of me, that morbid need to know what the hell everyone else was going on about. So I watched the scene. Now, I was expecting something "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" level of scar-inducing, please kill me now so I don't remember this, sexual predation. I thought I was going to have to turn this sucker off, given my own history.



Talk about much ado over nothing. Sound and fury, and that's it. There have not only been worse rape scenes in the history of film, but this is a Song of Ice and Fire. It's a story about how our civilization is built on the blood and suffering of innocent people and that any claims we make to nobility in our civilization is a joke, as so many people abuse these rules for selfish reasons one almost wishes there was no pretense at all.  So, does the rape scene fit? Absolutely. Is it actually a moderately tame scene? Um, yeah, not sure what the fuss is about. Considering all the other stuff is in the show and the books this fits perfectly.  Don't like that? Don't read or watch.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Consumerism, the Nerd, and Myself

Thanks for the chuckle, Fanboys Online!

I'm the sorta guy whose money comes flowing from his wallet lest it catch fire. Don't let me walk into a comic book shop, cause I'll empty that sucker if left to my own devices. "I only need $50 to eat this month, right?" Give me an income and watch what most of it goes to, just go ahead, watch! Now, I never really payed this much attention, even with my parents warning me that this was all a bad idea. I mean, what did they know? Their finances weren't mine! I do what I want!

Boy, did I get a rude wake-up call in marriage.

Enter my wife, Maria, who has a tighter wallet than Scrooge MacDuck (Love you honey! Don't kill me when you read this!). She was always somewhat amused by my spending habits, until my money became our money. It's not even that she hates it when I get stuff, but apparently you need a hell of a lot more than 50 bucks to eat in a month. And then there's other things... like baby clothes. And diapers. Y'know, small stuff. So my budget's shrunk a little bit.

The funny thing is that being on a more limited budget's forced me to sit out on the vast majority of releases. And it sorta occurred to me: how many of those games did I actually need? It's not like I have the time, especially now that we've got a son. Furthermore, why the heck do I need new games? A classic game, like any other classic, can be returned to, over and over again, and something new is added to your experience, because you're different and bring something new. I mean, how many times have I played Warrior Within? And loved it each and every time, flaws and all? Or Twilight Princess? Let's face it, great games are rare (and usually bear the mark Nintendo on them, but that's just me) but well worth it. And that usually means your library's pretty small to begin with.

The same can definitely be said of my table-top collection. I got what I really want: Burning Wheel and it's children games, 13th Age, and Fantasy Flight's Star Wars. Each scratches a distinctive itch that I've always had. Could I collect more? Yeah, and I will. Collecting's fun. But with those games I mentioned I have enough ideas that I like to keep me going for decades. I could probably play just those TTRPGs for the rest of my life and never run out of things to do with them. So why buy more?

Why indeed?

I mean, I could blame the culture. This ridiculous schizophrenic culture that can be so offensive and so endearing at the same time. It's really easy to do, most of my fellow Christians have done so. The problem is this: I am a part of the culture. The world. The universe. I am the problem. So what am I going to do about it? At the ripe young age of 27 I'm not sure. I'm still young and there's still much time before I face judgment for my aiding, fighting, or healing this madness we call "modern society".

At the moment the only real answer I have is that if something truly moves me I'll try and support the people who moved me so by buying it. And to make sure I really know the difference between shock and awe and an actual reaction.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Star Wars House Rules

Last week I wrote a review about Edge of the Empire. While I praised the game's dice mechanic I wasn't so gung-ho about it's other systems. These are the little tweaks that my group and I have made to the far.

Ditch the Obligation Rolls... at first. I love the concept of not knowing how the session is going to go. Yes, I'm one of those GMs. So the idea of rolling to see who's getting the spotlight this session appeals to me. But all stories need the set-up, where arcs are introduced. And I like getting that sorta thing outta the way. So my solution? Just have everyone go, one at a time, right out the gate. After everyone's Obligation's been introduced and played once then you can start rolling randomly to see what happens, because then you've got a base to build the randomness on. 

Destiny Points. Ugh. The idea's a good one, they just don't work! The player spends a Destiny point to upgrade a dice, and what's the GM going to do? Upgrade a dice right back. Nothing happens to the point totals and it all stay static. That's boring. To make things more dynamic my group and I have made the following modifications.
  1. Take the 1 Point per Roll Limit Off. This allows you to spend multiple points to get one big effect, if you really need to. Or for the GM to just bring on the pain when the arc calls for it.
  2. Points No Longer Immediately Switch Over. Instead they shift at the end of a scene, at the GM's discretion. So you actually have to watch what happens with your points, because if the players spend them all and the GM doesn't spend any the next scene is going to be painful. Essentially it turns the Destiny Points into an actual resource that the players watch very carefully as opposed to something they spend cause they know they'll get it back almost immediately. 
That's all we have the for the moment, but I'm really wanting to work on something to fix the XP issues I have with the game. More when I discover it!