Stuff and Metastuff

One thing I’ve realized in the recent move up to San Francisco is that I have a lot of Stuff. I don’t think I’d have noticed if moving into an empty apartment–all my Stuff only filled 2 cars–but since I’m moving temporarily into a room that’s already furnished and decorated, all my stuff is basically Extra Stuff that I’m struggling to fit anywhere.

My books don’t fit on the shelves, my clothes don’t fit on the racks, my guitars don’t fit in the corner, and finding somewhere appropriate to display my special beer glass collection is a hopeless luxury.

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I’m Dreaming of a Blog Christmas

Happy Christmas Eve!

At this time of year, the blog is usually full of ruminations on the birth of Christ (like this entry) or self-pity wallowings (like this rather plaintive entry or this poem from last year). But right now I have neither the time nor energy to be deeply profound nor (believe it or not) deeply self-centered.

So I thought I’d share, as rather paltry gifts, a few links to things I’ve loved recently; you may find them interesting!

First, for anyone who like me has been completely annoyed by (what I am calling) the “Dawkins Meme” of recent months, I want to give this article–a review of Dawkins’ new book by Terry Eagleton (who’s not, I don’t think, a Christian). The problem with Dawkins is not that he’s wrong–if we were to quantify beliefs, I’d probably agree with more of his than your average fundamentalist Christian–though certainly some basic ones differ. The problem is, as Eagleton says, his unwillingness to see surfacely-nuanced differences in “religious” systems that actually have huge under-the-hood ramifications.

Second, to all and sundry, I want to gift two podcasts done by St Paul’s Theological Centre in London, which happen to be interviews with NT Wright. The first podcast is on gnosticism, and the second podcast is on, among other things, “apocalypse”. I would go so far as to make the second one mandatory listening for any thoughtful Christian; it’s that good.

I have to admit, of course, that I’m drinking the NT Wright Kool-Aid at the moment. I’ve been reading his Christian Origins and the Question of God series, and am almost done with the second (long) volume, on Jesus. It’s been one of the most groundbreaking works I’ve read in a while. Last year I read some Kierkegaard and reflected that he had done more than anyone to re-affirm my love of Scripture as something worth remaining conversant with. Now, I’d say the same thing about NT Wright; I feel that I’ve been given a whole new (and better) way of reading the gospels (and much of the Old Testament). It seems as though I was dealing with something two-dimensional, and now the text has sprung to life amidst a vibrant and colorful context. My exegeses of almost every parable and saying of Jesus have been subtly, if not fundamentally, alered, and many things now just make sense that were opaque before.

This isn’t to say that Wright is correct on all his points (though as a novice in historical studies it’s hard for me to launch a critique), but rather that the overall story he is weaving answers, it seems, more questions than any other view I’ve come across. It has the result, of course, of turning much conventional “Christian” (particularly western fundamentalist) wisdom on its head–a result I’m amenable to in any case. So, if you are a Christian who cares about the content of your beliefs and whether or not they make sense, read these books.

Third and finally, I have a gift for lovers of language learning. I recently discovered that the iTunes music store has many language-learning podcasts available for free download. I found one for German that has 100 lessons, each ~15 minutes long. That’s essentially a 25-hour language course, free! I discovered these podcasts from a very helpful list of language-learning podcasts. From what it looks like, iTunes has a lot more that didn’t make this list, so I’m sure further exploration would be fruitful.

So again, I wish all of you a very happy Christmas, focused indeed on reflection on the having-already-come of the Messiah, and the having-already-been-inaugurated of the Kingdom of God. I leave you, therefore, with this excerpt from an article by CS Lewis (one that my family reads every Christmas Eve), which pretty much sums up my feelings about this time of year:

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in.

The Perils of Good Storytelling

(or, reactions after seeing M Night Shyamalan’s highly-recommended new film Lady in the Water twice in one weekend):

The problem with good stories is that we cannot always live in them (barring the “good story” which is hopefully and supposedly the whole of our life–but right now I’m talking about good fiction stories; the kind that make you wish they were real). The problem with the best stories is their singularity of message: “Good stories are real! Believe in them!” And of course, they’re not real either, strictly speaking. There are no narphs and scrunts lurking round small ponds in my hometown, waiting to magically awaken greatness in me via some ancient link.

Even so, the problem has rather more to do with their truth than falsity. When I look soberly at reality I don’t find the details of Lady in the Water or The Silmarillion or Le Morte d’Artur, but on the other hand I do suppose that I believe reality really is something like those stories, at the end of the day. Reality involves things other than what we can see; reality involves hidden purposes and identities meant to be discovered; reality involves the endowing of normal human beings with abilities that, to someone from a different world, might seem magical.

No, the problem is not with the absence of “magic”–the problem is with my inability to see everything around me for what it really is (magical). And so I leave a good story feeling a sense of indescribable, desperate longing for something more exciting, more adventurous, more exotic, more epic, more fantastic, while steadfastly refusing to consider that if I were in one of those other worlds, I would be wishing the exact same thing, and a great bard of that place who told a story of Earth, her creation, the way that life springs from the very ground, and so on, would inspire me to dream great things. So the question becomes: how can we re-enchant this world? How can we de-familiarize ourselves from the radically “magical” events taking place around us always? It is not easy, and that is why we tell stories–to keep that sense alive somehow. But the result is that unfortunately I begin to desire the reality of the stories more than the reality of the real, based on unfair judgements of the real!

Alas, for now, I will keep running off to hear stories of marvelous and far-off worlds just to remind myself that such things are worth holding on to; but I hope that, instead of becoming depressed after hearing a good story and mourning the “death of the miraculous” in modern culture, I would learn to perceive the miraculous more easily all around. Clearly there is a tension here with my deeply-embedded scientific impulse to categorize and define; to resolve it I hope to be able to know both what a thing is and what a thing means. (In other words, the problem is not with any kind of scientific impulse per se, but rather the presumption of saying that knowledge of a thing’s true identity and significance can be adequately captured by scientific experimentation).

Nonetheless, we should re-establish frequent storytelling as a way to convey the deep truths of reality, even and especially if the best way to convey those truths is to speak of things like magical lands and mythical beings. Remember one of the most powerful lines from V for Vendetta: “Artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians cover it up”.

On the storyteller’s end, let us become adept at using such “lies” to tell the truth of a wonderful reality, but on the listener’s end, let us be adept at loving not the “lie” in virtue of its brilliant and captivating colors, but rather the even more brilliant and more captivating truth it (hopefully) conveys. For those like myself who love to live in the imagination, that second part will prove to be the harder of the two… But I personally hope the other side of that coin leads to an increased ability to tell the truth in story (the first part).

The Quota of Rock

Last night I went back to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco for the second time this month, to see the Smoking Popes / Lovedrug show. It was an incredible experience, and I realized something about myself that is important to share (and might also be an important contribution to Rock Theory in general).

Gratuitous picture to get you to read further: Lovedrug’s symbol of the moment

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The Da Vinci Code: Movie Follow-up

(If you haven’t yet, read my long, philosophical review of The Da Vinci Code)

I saw the movie a few days ago, and so I thought I’d make a short list of some important ways that it was different than the book:

  • The movie’s plot was less complicated.
  • Langdon was more of a spineless religioid. (In the book, he knew about, and believed, the Priory’s story. In the movie, he calls it a “myth”, tacks “according to the Priory myth” on the end of all his statements, and argues unconvincingly about it with Teabing–using much the same arguments as moviegoers would expect frustrated Christians to use). Ultimately he comes across as having gone on a journey of personal discovery, which is not at all the character of the book.
  • Bezu Fache was more of a religious fanatic, and a forensic dupe (as opposed to the brilliant, hard-as-nails police captain from the novel).
  • Teabing was a much more lively character than I would have assumed from the book.
  • The conclusion, especially regarding Sophie’s family, was far less satisfying.

Apart from the Teabing bit, all of these were disappointments. The one change I really liked about the movie was the part where Robert finds the seal under the sign of the rose in the keystone. It is covered with “mysterious writing” (in reality, just English written reflectedly). In the book, the characters agonize for a long time over its deciphering. But it is quite clearly (there’s a picture in the book) English. In the movie, Robert takes one glance at it and says, “We need a mirror,” as any non-catatonic English-speaker would. So it cleared up one embarrassment.

Now, mostly what I want to talk about is two broader-picture statements which occurred in the movie explicitly but not in the book. As we will see, it’s to Dan Brown’s credit that he didn’t write such laughable dialogue into the novel. (Or if he did, it was done in such a way that I missed it).

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The Da Vinci Code

I just finished reading The Da Vinci Code (hereafter TDVC–or maybe I’ll write it out for SEO purposes). It was more or less, given all the fuss, what I’d expected. I thought I’d share some thoughts and reflections. Be warned–I will probably reveal things about the plot that you may not want to know if you are keeping a vow of Da Vinci virginity or something.

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Things That Are True

As I noted in my Greece / Prague travelogue, I kept a list on my recent trip to Europe, which I named “Things That Are True”. Disappointingly, the content of the list had little to do with philosophical truths or anything which would be of interest to your average human; instead, this was a list of things that were true mostly concerning myself (with the occasional random observation). It was a special list more because of the concise nature of the statements, the self-perception achieved, and the relatively high degree of honesty. So what follows is a very incomplete but nonetheless good summary of, actually, my identity as it currently stands, phrased in terms of struggles, loves, hopes, observations, and more.

Here it is, exactly as I wrote it out over the 10-day adventure (any editorial additions or comments will be italicized and in brackets):

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Greece / Prague Travelogue, Part III

(this is part III of my recent European trip journal. If you haven’t seen them yet, you should read part I and part II)

4-2, 8:11 AM, The Aegean

I slept fitfully last night…it didn’t feel like I slept at all, but 5:30 AM eventually did come. Rachel and I were out of the hostel at 6, meeting up with our hostel-mate Victor, who was traveling to Santorini on the same boat as us. We walked the deserted Athens streets and caught the Metro to Peiraias in time to buy a sandwich and board our ferry–a large, cruise-style ferry with first class, cabins, etc… I think it counts as the biggest ship I have ever sailed on. The seats are large and comfortable! When we set sail, I went to the deck and took pictures of the sunrise as we were leaving port. Again, there was a sense of excitement, as well as a sense of deep sadness. Here at this port and in this ocean were spawned the tales of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Great men and adventurers saw the same hills as they worked their sails in the harbor. Then, leaving was actually meaningful–the weather was fickle, and there was never a sure return. Traveling took adventure and commitment. Now, all it takes is 30 euros. The port was bustling this morning, as it would have been 2,500 years ago, but today it was filled with the noise and smell of cars, and the waiting ships spouted black smoke in the air. What sadness! Are there any adventures left? It doesn’t seem so. The ocean is a sea of calm, barely a ripple as we glide through. But I wish, just a little, that a storm would come and make things more interesting.

Greece / Prague Travelogue, Part II

(this is a continuation of my recent trip journal…be sure to read part I if you haven’t already)

4-1, 7:30 PM, Athens

So we arrived OK. After a long, cramped ride from Chicago to London, I settled in at British Airways’ executive lounge, where Rachel arrived shortly after I did. It was good to see her, and she looked all pro with her backpack and whatnot. We had a long layover, and boarded our plane to Athens around 9:45 PM. We’d tried to talk about how things were going with us [our relationship] in Heathrow, but I was very tired and kind of annoyed so it didn’t really go anywhere. It didn’t help that I couldn’t get my mind off of “my troubles”–made worse in public places, where there are hundreds of girls for me to be constantly evaluating–not sexually or anything, just… [hmm, this one is kind of hard to explain sensibly…]. So, the peace of airplane solitude was definitely broken.

On the seat in front of us on the flight, there was a young Greek woman, and I realized again how attracted I am to foreign girls. Something about speaking other languages just makes them infinitely more beautiful…I wonder if that’s something that would wear off, if it’s something I should really care about or look for…I don’t know. Is it true mystery or just surface mystery? Probably depends [just like with women in my own culture] on the girl.

Anyway, our flight got in on time, and Rach and I found the bus to Syntagma square alright–10 minutes later, and we were waking up the receptionist at our hostel! The room was small but we were tired, and it was after 4 AM. The next day we slept until about 2 PM, then braved the ancient Athens streets for the first time. I was pretty amazed by how close our place was to the center of everything–the Acropolis, the temples, etc… Rach and I found a grocery store and got a loaf of bread and some chicken salad for lunch. Not quite gyros, but cheap. Then we proceeded to get ourselves lost until dinner, taking in the maze of old streets, the views of the agora [the ancient agora] and the acropolis which promised an enjoyable morrow. [Even though] tired, we decided to walk across town to the Lykebatos hill, on which was a church and some awesome views of just-past-sunset Athens. Food there being too expensive, we walked all the way back to our hostel and ate at an estiatorio [restaurant] next door around 9 PM–the meal, which was excellent, lasted till 11 or so!

This morning, being Saturday, the 1st, we woke up relatively early to go on our walking tour. It was as you’d expect such tours would be–a lot of walking interspersed with some ancient monuments. Being some of the most important ancient monuments in the world, it was an incredible experience. In the space of 15 minutes I’d stood where Socrates had taught, and sat where Paul had preached in the Areopagus. So much history I was overwhelmed by it–but the hundreds of other tourists there didn’t seem to be–talking, laughing, smoking, littering…on the Areopagus, the stone smelled of cheap beer from a recently-broken bottle. It made me angry at humanity, both specifically for littering there, and more generally for creeping with its ugly modernity over and into places which should have been kept holy as monuments to the more important kinds of progress–philosophical and religious, for example.

In my opinion, to be in ancient Athens and to be anything but in awe is to be disrespectful of our own nature–all that God has given us to be. So in that sense I’m actually quite glad I don’t live here–these monuments can thus stay mysterious and far-away, otherworldly. The chattering tourist mob still kind of ruined it for me, but at least my imagination could still conjure up the sights and smells of a bygone era, when people were probably exactly how they were today, in terms of forgetting how to be in awe. Even then, better to have been the pilgrim from a distant village than a desensitized resident of the Acropolis. Well, I’m rambling–I should get Rachel and find a place to eat dinner. Tonight we pack, for tomorrow we leave very early for the boat to Santorini, where we’ll spend the next 3 days!

Inspiration from Game Design

The list of bloggable topics on my mind is currently very long, and (I am thinking) very good. Prominent on said list are (a) a long discourse on spiritual discipline and its effects, and (b) an explication of a home-brewed, possibly-heretical theology of creation that Nick and I have been kicking around for a little while and are pretty enchanted by, which seeks to resolve intuitions of a good pre-fall state with what evolutionary history says about nature being “red in tooth and claw”–i.e., vicious and cruel–long before humans arrived on the scene. However, something I saw last night on digg inspired me to push these topics yet further back, and that was a demo for an upcoming game by Maxis (creators of all the Sim games–of which the early SimCity and SimCity 2000 were the most groundbreaking, in my opinion–incidentally, you can play SimCity Classic online here if you have a PC).

Now, I want to preface this whole entry with a bit of history, since to many of you it may come as a shock that for most of my life I have considered myself and been considered by others a “gamer”. If you want to skip the history and get to the point, scroll down to “The Reason for this Entry” below.

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