Elsewhere, November 24, 2010 (Thanksgiving Edition)

Elsewhere: A collection of interesting links and articles that I’ve come across in the last week or so. Follow me on Twitter for more of the same.

How video games make us confront our humanity:

What is it about those few games that make us feel better, not worse, about ourselves for playing? Why do some games make us feel like the typical gamer stereotype while other games give us a feeling of actual fulfillment and even enlightenment? As any other medium demonstrates, there’s a difference between empty entertainment and artistic entertainment. Some books or movies leave us feeling empty, while others leave us feeling fulfilled.

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But what is it that games do when they cause us to turn inward? What is it about games in general that often causes us to respond in such extreme ways? One aspect of games is particularly interesting to me: they cause us to be acutely aware of the fact and nature of our humanity.

As human beings we are thoughtful, reactive, emotional, and flawed. Video games often remind us of how our human traits and flaws come in to play in both mundane and extraordinary situations. Because they provide a window into our reactions without the added baggage of actually happening to us, they affect us in ways that can surprise, delight, and even change us.

I’ve written about this experience a couple of times within the context of the Mass Effect series here and here.

The reason for bad Christian movies may lie with a non-sacramental theology:

I believe Nehring is missing an important explanation for the lower quality of evangelical films-our non-sacramental theology. American evangelicalism, for the most part, has rejected a sacramental understanding of creation. Unlike Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some other high-church traditions, evangelicalism is rooted in modernity and a literalist vision of the world. The bread is just bread. The wine is just wine (sorry, grape juice). A thing is what it is. We prefer our Bible teaching unambiguous and direct-didactic and expository, thank you very much. We prefer our gathering spaces to be bare and with minimal symbols. Our brand of theology tends not to feed or cultivate the imagination.

A sacramental theology, on the other hand, requires one to see on multiple layers at once. A thing may carry multiple meanings simultaneously. Symbols dominate space and teaching. Mystery is embraced, and the imagination encouraged.

Unlike evangelicals, there is no shortage of celebrated Roman Catholic filmmakers today. And many of the 20th century’s most respected novelists also come for Catholic backgrounds: Graham Green, Flannery O’Conner, Shusaku Endo, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Is it possible that creative story-telling, like the kind necessary to produce great films, is particularly difficult for evangelicals because our instinct is to come directly at a something? Where Michelangelo would sculpt the Pieta, John Calvin would prefer to preach a 12-point sermon on the death of Christ. Rather than create a fantasy world like Middle-Earth to speak about the dangers of industrialization, a task that requires imagination and comfort with ambiguity, we’d rather just create a film about the dangers of industrialization.

Allen Yeh argues that cultural theology is not simply relativism by another name:

Our inaugural World Christianity consultation went well this morning. I am the chair of the steering committee and I moderated the 3-hour session. We opened with Andy Peloquin (Western Seminary) talking about soteriology in China; then Ray Tallman (Golden Gate Baptist Seminary) presenting on contextualization in the Arab-Muslim world; followed by Ed Smither (Liberty University) discussing missions from Brazil; and ending with Bob Yarbrough (Covenant Seminary) lecturing on New Testament studies in Africa. We covered four major geographical areas with four solid papers, and it was as fine a kick-off celebration as I could have asked for, with quite a fair audience turnout. It was the final paper, Yarbrough’s, that prompted the “cultural theology” question. A man in the audience asked, “Why do we need to look at the New Testament from an African perspective? I mean, we don’t ask what the African perspective on gravity is, so why do we need to ask what the African perspective on Biblical theology is?”

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Basically, the presupposition behind this man’s question is that all “ethnic” theologies are cultural, while Western theology is “pure.” That’s why he made the comparison with gravity. It wasn’t in my place to respond to the man, but I would’ve made this analogy: people have different perspectives on me, don’t they? If you ask all my acquaintances, some will know me as a scholar, some will know me as a baseball fan, some will know me as a musician, and some will know me as a world traveler. Are all of them true of me? Definitely. Does anyone have the full picture of me? No—they will all emphasize one thing over another, or be missing certain pieces of my profile. In order to fully understand me, you would have to ask everyone that knows me, and then slowly the whole picture will come together. So it is with theology (which is the study of God). A European will say one thing, an Asian another, an African another, and a Latino yet another. Nobody has the full picture of God, and though every perspective might be true, each is incomplete in and of itself, and every cultural perspective is needed to fully understand this global God.

I’ve had some fascinating discussions about this very topic with friends who are missionaries in Japan. As Christianity fades in the U.S. and grows in other parts of the world, such as China, this issue is only going to become more important.

My friend Eric’s daughter was born three months early; this is his prayer:

A pious saint might stand over the trembling, fragile form of his too-small daughter and sagely nod, noting that your ways are beyond searching out. But I do not believe you are a God for pious saints, but for broken human beings desperate for mending in every way. I do not know your plans, I do not know the future, but I do know who You are.

You are the great Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit. Father, I beseech you to have mercy on your tiny child. Jesus, I beg you to consider the youngest of your sisters. Spirit, I groan with desires I cannot twist through my lips, and I pray that you might intercede with me for my little girl.

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You are Yeshua, God with us. You came not in heavenly majesty but with labor pains and afterbirth. You sympathize with us in our weakness, and her hand is the size of my fingernail. You show mercy to the least of these, and she struggles to move her mouth. To work salvation you took on frail flesh and bone, and I can see her lungs laboring beneath stretched skin.

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I do not presume to approach you as one worthy of your ear. I have no more to offer you than does my premature baby. I approach instead in the name of Jesus, to whom both I and this covenant child belong. In your mercy shown us on behalf of Christ, watch over her. She is my child; she is Yours as well.

This whole situation, including the prayer above, makes me fairly emotional. Both of my sons were born early, though not so early as Eric’s daughter, and I prayed something similar over both of them in the NICU.

Dorian Lynskey writes about how ‘80s synth-pop has found favor once again:

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of synthpop’s annus mirabilis, which saw the release of OMD’s Architecture & Morality, Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell, Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Japan’s Tin Drum, the Human League’s Dare and Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement. Hailing from different parts of the country, the bands constituted less a scene than a shared sensibility: synthesisers before guitars, outlandish ideas before rock’n'roll cliches. The future of pop glittered with possibility.

But by the second half of the 80s, most of synthpop’s first wave, Depeche Mode aside, had faltered. For the next decade or so, they either split up or toiled in reduced circumstances, occasionally sipping from the poisoned chalice of the 80s nostalgia circuit.

Now, at last, they are enjoying a full-scale rehabilitation. OMD are resurgent, Heaven 17 are touring Penthouse and Pavement, and the Human League are about to release Credo, their first album in a decade.

Guy Kawasaki opted for a Facebook fan page instead of a website to promote his new book, and here’s why:

...the bottom line is that if you’re small business owner who is busy, impatient, cheap, picky and realistic (shallowness is optional) and want to ride a tsunami rather than roll your own sand castle, then it’s time to consider a Facebook fan page instead of a free-standing website. Kawabunga!

The Onion strikes again: “Pop Culture Expert Surprisingly Not Ashamed Of Self”:

According to reports, 29-year-old online commentator Caroline Shelham is somehow not completely ashamed of her own well-established identity as a “pop culture expert.”

Shelham, who spends 10 hours every day consuming news updates on various entertainers and then commenting on their activities on an entertainment website, has reportedly shown no signs of humiliation or self-hatred over the way she spends the bulk of her time, and is also apparently not disgusted by the fact that this is actually what she does with her life.

“Basically, I like to look at what’s going on in pop culture and comment on it with a sort of fresh, wry voice,” said Shelham, who by all accounts still possesses the ability to look at herself in the mirror every morning. “I try to find things that I think are really lame and vacuous and then just tear them apart.”

“I guess I see my role as being like an arbiter of what sucks and what doesn’t in the world of show biz,” added Shelham, seemingly under the sad impression that her work or existence has a meaningful use to society or the human race. “Somebody’s got to do it.”

Roger Ebert’s entry about his religious upbringing, and eventual departure from the faith, is one of my favorites of his:

It was my mother who decided I would be a priest. I heard this beginning early in my childhood. It was the greatest vocation one could hope for in life. There was no greater glory for a mother than to “give her son to the church.” I speculated that my mother had given me birth with the specific hope of passing me on to the church.

Smashing Magazine provides some really helpful tips for designing websites with content management systems in mind:

On the web it is never a good idea to assume you know how tall something will be — as even where you have control of the content, text resizing can blow your assumed heights right out of the water and cause overlaps or text running off background images.

When designing for a CMS, you have the additional issue of more or less text being added to an area that you envisaged. If creating the initial designs in Photoshop or similar, consider how each box and the surrounding content will react to a greater or lesser amount of content. If providing PSD files to someone else to build, ensure that any background images on these boxes are provided with instructions on what happens if the box is taller. For example do we show more background or matt onto a flat color?

Grid type layouts of boxes can be a particular problem in this situation. A common design might have several boxes with header areas. They look lovely and neat in the PSD comp with regular lengths of lorem ipsum. However, once the content editors have added content, we find that some headings are on one line, some on two and the boxes are wildly differing heights leaving the neat grid looking rather messy. Considering this at the design phase may have dictated a different layout here.

Highly recommended. The tips mentioned in this article are ones that I employ with every design I do, which makes for far fewer headaches.

Christianity Today explores why more folks in their 20s and 30s are leaving the Church now than in previous generations:

In my interviews, I was struck by the diversity of the stories—one can hardly lump them together and chalk up all departures to “youthful rebellion.” Yet there were commonalities. Many de-conversions were precipitated by what happened inside rather than outside the church. Even those who adopted materialist worldviews or voguish spiritualities traced their departures back to what happened in church.

What pushed them out? Again, the reasons for departing in each case were unique, but I realized that most leavers had been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith. When sociologist Christian Smith and his fellow researchers examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers, they found most teens practicing a religion best called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are “good, nice, and fair.” Its central goal is to help believers “be happy and feel good about oneself.”

Where did teenagers learn this faith? Unfortunately, it’s one taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches. It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups. When this na•ve and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away.

Katie Roiphe asks “If we try to engineer perfect children, will they grow up to be unbearable?”

...for most of us, this perfect, safe, perpetually educational environment is unobtainable; an ineffable dream we can browse through in Dwell, or some other beautiful magazine, with the starkly perfect Oeuf toddler bed, the spotless nursery. Most of us do not raise our children amidst a sea of lovely and instructive wooden toys and soft cushiony rubber floors and healthy organic snacks, but the ideal exists and exerts its dubious influence.

This fantasy of control begins long before the child is born, though every now and then a sane bulletin lands amidst our fashionable perfectionism, a real-world corrective to our over-arching anxieties. I remember reading with some astonishment, while I was pregnant, a quiet, unsensational article about how one study showed that crack babies turned out to be doing as well as non-crack babies. Here we are feeling guilty about goat’s cheese on a salad, or three sips of wine, and all the while these ladies, lighting crack pipes, are producing intelligent and healthy offspring. While it’s true that no one seemed to be wholeheartedly recommending that pregnant women everywhere take up crack for relaxation, the fundamental irony does appear to illustrate a basic point: which is that children, even in utero, are infinitely more adaptable and hardy and mysterious than we imagine.

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One of the more troubling aspects of our new ethos of control is that it contains a vision of right-minded child rearing that is in its own enlightened way as exclusive and conformist as anything in the 1950s. Anyone who does not control their children’s environment according to current fashions and science, who, say, bribes their child with M&Ms or feeds their baby non-organic milk or has a party that lasts until 2 a.m., is behaving in a wild and reckless manner that somehow challenges the status quo. The less trivial problem is this: The rigorous ideal of the perfect environment doesn’t allow for true difference, for the child raised by a grandparent, or a single mother, or divorced parents; its vision is definitely of two parents taking turns carrying the designer baby sling. Mandatory 24-hour improvement and enrichment, have, in other words, their oppressive side.

Just for the record, we are the type of parents who are not above bribing our son with M&Ms.