Saturday, March 12, 2016

Book Review: "Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward"

As I said before, I received a review copy of Nabeel Qureshi's latest book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward several weeks ago. I shared a few thoughts on the book then, but I have much more to say now.

Although Qureshi converted to Christianity several years ago, the "question" of Islam and Muslims is no less important to him. As he puts it, "Ignoring the reality of jihad endangers my nation, while responding with fear endangers my Muslim family." Helping others to understand the "how" and "why" of Islamic radicalization isn't just a religious conviction, but a deeply personal matter as well, and it shows throughout the book.

The book is divided into three parts, each addressing a general area of inquiry: The origins of jihad, jihad today, and jihad in the Judeo-Christian context. Each of these sections is then further divided into "Questions," wherein each chapter addresses a specific issue. This makes it possible to jump directly to subjects of interest, such as, "Why are Muslims being radicalized?" or "Does Islam need a reformation?" I still found it most useful to read straight through; Quereshi does a wonderful job explaining the subjects in his particular style, and he builds on each successive topic through the book. You may or may not agree with his answers on some of the Questions, but reading everything will certainly help in understanding how he came to the conclusions he reaches.

It's worth reiterating that the book was written as a primer on these things. Each Question could itself be the subject of a book. One does get the impression of only scratching the surface in each chapter, but Qureshi recommends further resources throughout the book.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Book Preview: "Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward"

I've got a review copy of a book, so some of you might find this interesting.

Two years ago you might have seen Nabeel Qureshi's book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. If you didn't read it, it was an American Muslim's story of finding Christ by trying to commit himself to Muslim Apologetics. Quereshi graduated medical school, but took up the path of Christian apologetics afterwards. In the entirety of his time doing so, he's been getting lots of questions about jihad and radical Islam. Apparently he's been rather demure on the topic, because it's kind of a hot issue.

The tumult of the last year was evidently too much for him, and he decided to take up the topic in writing. In fact, he wrote a book on it in three weeks, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward.
But was it true? After years of investigation, I had to face the reality. There is a great deal of violence in Islam, even in the very foundations of the faith, and it is not all defensive. Quite to the contrary, if the traditions about the prophet of Islam are in any way reliable, then Islam glorifies violent jihad arguably more than any other action a Muslim can take. - My Fork In The Road - An excerpt from Answering Jihad.
Qureshi's target audience for this is Christians, but some of the material could be useful to wider audiences. The book is presented in three parts. In the first part, he discusses the nature and historical basis for jihad, how it relates to the Quran, the Hadiths, and Muhammad's life. In the second part, he talks about the modern development of radical Islam and the basis of Islamic violence, both against the West and against fellow Muslims. In the third part, he explores jihad in the Juedo-Christian context: Whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, comparing the teachings of Jesus to those of Muhammad, Old Testament warfare in comparison to jihad, and so on.

The conclusion to the book, though, is a call to answer jihad the way Jesus would have: In love, even a self-sacrificing love.

I enjoyed it, although it was a very fast read. Qureshi admits the book is a primer, and he does recommend resources throughout for exploring certain topics in greater depth. Still, if someone wanted a book with good answers for various questions about Islam, radical Islam in particular, the book would be a great resource.

The book is only available for pre-order at the moment, but if you pre-order the book, you get access to bonus materials, including videos of Nabeel discussing various chapters of the book in greater depth.
This conclusion led me to a three-pronged fork in the road. Either I could become an apostate and leave Islam, grow apathetic and ignore the prophet, or become “radicalized” and obey him. The alternative of simply disregarding Muhammad’s teachings and continuing as a devout Muslim was not an option in my mind, nor is it for most Muslims, since to be Muslim is to submit to Allah and to follow Muhammad. Apostasy, apathy, or radicalization; those were my choices… - My Fork In The Road - An excerpt from Answering Jihad.
Later on, I'll have a full review of the book here, but for now you can (and should!) explore the Answering Jihad website for more info on the book.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Sentinels of the Multiverse Fate RPG - Character Building

Last year, I ran a six part RPG for my gaming group set in the world of the Sentinels of the Multiverse.  In the first post, I explained how and why I chose Fate Accelerated as the system for running the game. In this part, I want to explore the rules I used for building characters.
There's a lot of options to choose from. Thankfully, Fate is a flexible system.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Sentinels of the Multiverse RPG - Fate Edition

If you've never played Sentinels of the Multiverse, I highly recommend it. It's a cooperative game in which a group of superheroes take down villains using powers and cards in their decks. The game takes place in the fictional setting of Sentinel Comics, an homage to the best characters and stories in comics. Or, as I like to think of it, it's Marvel and DC shoved together with the serial numbers filed off.
There's a unique story in there, but it's all told in the margins. 
My gaming group loves the game (both the physical game and the electronic adaptation), but when we ended up between RPGs, I thought, wouldn't it be fun to run a game in this setting?

The makers of the game thought so, too, which is why there's a Sentinels RPG in development. Still, there's no indication as to when that's going to be finished, and we wanted to run something now. So why not come up with our own solution?

Sunday, July 05, 2015


I decided to make a few changes to the blog's layout. The old design was getting a bit long in the tooth; I think I first set that design in 2005, maybe 2007.

I might make some more changes, but I feel better about it now than I have in a long time.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Paul vs. Jesus

Earlier today, I posted this to my Facebook account:
Made with the Bible app YouVersion. What interesting times we live in.
I posted it because, well, Paul doesn't mince words. American culture tends towards the milquetoast, especially when it comes towards criticizing someone else's behavior, but Paul was unabashed in his criticism of the church at Corinth.

Verses like this aren't very popular. It's not the warm, fuzzy face of Christianity. It warrants difficult decisions. It's problematic, especially in a world where we'd like to get along with people who we'd really like to reach with the gospel, and they don't appreciate all this talk about sexual immorality. "Why can't people be nice, like that Jesus was? Jesus loved everyone. He's the one Christians worship anyhow, right? Who cares about this Paul guy? " It's not a new criticism, but it does deserve consideration. Although as I see it, it's actually two different arguments that need to be addressed:
  • Shouldn't Jesus be given primacy over Paul?
  • Jesus loved the sinners in his midst; so why are Christians so hung up on sin?
"Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

The funny thing about this first argument isn't that it was addressed ages ago, but that it was Paul himself who did so. 
Now I mean this, that each of you is saying, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” or “I am with Cephas,” or “I am with Christ.” Is Christ divided? Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he? Or were you in fact baptized in the name of Paul? . . . What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth. . . . So then, no more boasting about mere mortals! For everything belongs to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. - 1 Corinthians 1:12-13, 3:5-7, 3:21-23
Paul was addressing divisions within the church at Corinth, but he certainly didn't understand himself  to have been preaching a different gospel than the one Jesus taught. Nor did the apostles who formed the church in Jerusalem and interacted with Paul frequently over the years.* Nor did the early churches which circulated copies of Paul's letters. Nor did the ecumenical councils which established the canon of the New Testament.

Ignoring any issues about authority or canonicity, was Paul actually being harsh where Jesus was lenient? Was he holding people to a higher standard than the actual Messiah? 

"And you are proud!"

Paul wasn't just addressing divisions and factions within the church of Corinth, but deep misunderstandings about sin and Christian living. 
It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful instead and removed the one who did this from among you? - 1 Corinthians 5:1-2
It's not clear from the text why they were proud of this; in 6:12, Paul addresses popular sayings of the Corinthians in an effort to correct them. It's plausible that the particular group being addressed here had a rather exaggerated sense of "Christian freedom" to the point that they were inviting scandal and celebrating their ability to sin so freely. 

In chapter 5, Paul is exhorting the church that letting sin fester in its midst is harmful. Like an infection, it can spread and cause misery throughout the entirety of the church. Thus, deliberate, ongoing, unrepentant sin shouldn't be tolerated in their midst, but be removed from fellowship.

To come back around to the argument at hand, people like to imagine that Jesus was not judgmental, not like this. Except:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. - Matthew 18:15-17
Paul is echoing Jesus's specific directive here. As he makes clear, he's already written to them about avoiding sexual immorality, and this scandal was apparently so notorious that word of it had spread to Paul from beyond the city of Corinth; it was likely part of the reason for division within the church. Jews did not associate with Gentiles, and tax collectors were seen as Roman sellouts, so Jesus was not advocating kind responses to fellows who refused to stop sinning.

None of this is to say that the church which casts this fellow out is perfect. Both Paul and Jesus recognize the struggle with sin and temptation. Still, it is one thing to wrestle with sin, and another to wallow in it. 

Even so, perhaps Paul is still too harsh. After all, Jesus was silent on a number of subjects, and he didn't talk about sexual sin too frequently. He preached against divorce and adultery, but that was it, right? If Jesus isn't all hung up on sex, why should we let Paul get away with it?

The problem is, Jesus set a high bar for sexual sin.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. - Matthew 5:27-28
Jesus makes it clear in his teaching, it's not just about actions, but what is in the heart. It is, after all, "deceitful above all things." (Jeremiah 17:9)

Fine, but that's just for adultery. Did Jesus preach about any other forms of sexual sin? Yes, as it turns out:
Then he called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person. . . .  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person." Matthew 15:10-11, 18-20
That term, sexual immorality, is one Paul uses as well. It is often translated as "fornication," understood as sex between unmarried individuals. 

As for other sexual sin, talk of homosexuality never appears in any of the gospels, it is true. A full explanation of why this is irrelevant is too much for this post; consider the arguments being addressed here, here, here, or here, just as a start. Suffice it to say that no first century Jew would have understood homosexuality as anything other than a sin due to Levitical teaching, and it would have gone against the entirety of a scriptural understanding of the nature of marriage and sexuality as given by God; Jesus didn't preach about it much because his ministry focused almost entirely on Israel, where (presumably) homosexuality wasn't up for debate.

Jesus runs with a bad crowd

Even so, Jesus did hang out with sinners. It was a charge repeated by his critics multiple times. These weren't purely social visits, however. When Jesus taught, he called these people to repentance.
When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this he said to them, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” - Mark 2: 16-17
We don't often know how these dinners with sinners played out, but we can assume Jesus did not treat the conversation lightly. Consider how things turned out for Zaccheus:
And when Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, because I must stay at your house today.” So he came down quickly and welcomed Jesus joyfully. And when the people saw it, they all complained, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:5-10
Compare that to the Pharisees. Jesus reserved some of his harshest language for these men. They were also called to repentance, but their response to Jesus was considerably less enthusiastic.

Paul the father

In the end, Paul didn't write the verse in question above, or any of the first letter to the church at Corinth, out of animus or hatred. He did so out of love.
 I am not writing these things to shame you, but to correct you as my dear children. - 1 Corinthians 4:14
Paul loved the Corinthians, as he loved every church he planted or visited along his travels. He only wanted what was best for them. Knowing how destructive sin could be if left unchecked, he urged them to remove it and spare themselves any further consequences from sin.

Paul's advice is specifically for the church, too. Expanding the original quote:
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. In no way did I mean the immoral people of this world, or the greedy and swindlers and idolaters, since you would then have to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? But God will judge those outside. Remove the evil person from among you. - 1 Corinthians 5:9-13
In Matthew 18, Jesus makes clear that the course he is laying out is for those within the fellowship of the faithful. What would bringing the person to the church mean otherwise? The command is not to disassociate from sinners in the world; how else can we reach them? It is also not for those who struggle with their sins and temptations. Indeed, in the very same chapter, Jesus tells Peter to forgive his brethren not seven times, but seventy times seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

No, this advice is for the church in dealing with those who remain in sin, deliberately returning to it, celebrating it, exulting in it. It is for the church in addressing those in its midst who would put their sin on display for the world to see, refusing to turn from, apologize for, or make amends for it.
*I find it deeply amusing that Paul is often criticized as being too strict or harsh compared to Jesus, when Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem thought that Paul was too lenient. After all, he was baptizing all these Gentiles without first having them follow the Mosaic law. Quelle horreur!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: Court Intrigue

The players ride hard through the day, arriving in Woodhurst after nightfall. Not wanting to draw attention to themselves, they sneak into town and drop their prisoner off in a safe house.
There was a brewing discussion about where to hide the prisoner. Although the town is loyal to the Brotherhood, parading one of the Queen's lieutenants through the streets would draw too much attention, as would grabbing rooms at the local inn. I didn't want the game to grind to a halt over the issue, so I told them the Brotherhood had provided a small home for just such an occasion. Never be afraid to 
They see to Fariba's comfort before going to confront the Brotherhood's council.  The council meets in a private hall; the players being the group's top lieutenants, their entry is welcomed warmly, but the Hawk has no interest in mincing words.
"All right you bastards, time to politick."
(See the rest below the fold.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Men

It's been utterly bizarre to see the riots ripping across Ferguson, the massive protests, and general mayhem all around. I grew up in the St. Louis area. These are the sorts of things that happen elsewhere. St. Louis has its problems, but it's always seemed like a rational place, a safe place. Perhaps that was naivete on the part of a sheltered youth.

Nevertheless, the firestorm all began because of the actions and death of a man, Michael Brown. At this time, here's what we can say with certainty: On August 9th, Brown stole cigars from a convenience store, using his imposing figure to intimidate the proprietor, even shoving him around. A few minutes later, he was stopped by a police officer, Darren Wilson, leading to a confrontation that prompted Wilson to fatally shoot Brown. We learn more about that confrontation as the days go on; a lot of people have already reached conclusions as to whether the shooting was justified or not. My point actually has little to do with that.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: City Folk (Part 3)

Marcus, aka The Hawk, has been occupying his time, albeit nervously. Early in the morning, before the other players have split up, he receives a Sending from Tralene. 
Fantasy settings tend not to have cell phones, so long-distance communication requires magical work-arounds. Among the various solutions are Sendings, magical rituals which send a telepathic message to the recipient of limited length. The recipient can also respond in a limited fashion. 
"Good morning, sir. Is your refrigerator running?"
It's a careful balance determining how common such communication should be in your setting. Making them exclusive to the players, or the few rich and/or powerful people in the world, can leave the setting with a feeling of isolation. The world will feel imposing, but establishing any lasting connection with the places you've been will be next to impossible. If those communications methods are too common, the players lose any prestige in having access to it themselves; keeping it from them in any way becomes an artificial hindrance. The same can extend to other magical substitutions for modern technology; overuse can lead to thematic muddling, raising the question why you didn't simply play in a modern or sci-fi game in the first place.
 (See the rest below the fold.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: City Folk (Part 2)

In the last installment, Traster, Ronan, and Zeus found some ways to keep themselves occupied in the city, meeting interesting people in the process. While they were busying themselves with trading useless treasures for useful gear, Glabrous and Hawk opt to tackle some errands of their own.
Plus, these places never have amulets in your size.
The Temple of Avandra
The city of Sar Diga is home to the chief temple of Avandra in Mar Tesaro. Glabrous announces his intention to visit the place, in particular to have an opportunity to convince its leader to support the Brotherhood in its mission. Marcus politely declines, wandering off to explore the city; being a druid, most temples make him uncomfortable.

(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: City Folk (Part 1)

Up to this point, the players have been adventuring at a steady pace: Killing horrible monsters, rescuing the captured operative, and rooting out the traitor to the uprising. The players have some items stacking up on their agenda they'd like to attend to, such as spending the filthy lucre they've attained so far.
"What do you mean  you don't accept enchanted gauntlets as payment?!"
The players split up to deal with various issues.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Intermission: Edge of the Empire

It's been more than a month now since the last entry on the Mar Tesaro game. Writing took an unexpected hiatus, first for a much needed vacation, and then so I could properly prepare a couple of one-shot games for Charm City Gameday. Things have still been busy, but it seemed like there would be time to discuss a game I played at CCGD, the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG.

In case you didn't know how to click a link to figure out what I'm talking about.

The actual session was a mini-adventure put together by Fantasy Flight, the company that produced the game. The story elements of the session aren't really important, although it was fun. It was definitely made for beginners, as the players are gradually introduced to the various elements of the system, such as the dice, skill and combat mechanics, space combat, even character advancement.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

World building, granularity, and the long payoff

When I wrote about the introduction of the Patriarch, I mentioned that he never spoke for himself, but had a red imp familiar who sat on his shoulder and spoke for him. This was an attempt at world building that never came to fruition, and it's a pretty common problem for GMs.
This is a perfectly reasonable arrangement.
There's a principle for dramatic narratives known as "Chekhov's Gun," which says that you generally remove any narrative or contextual elements that aren't necessary to the story. If you point out a gun on the wall in act 1, then it ought to be fired by act 3, otherwise it never should have been pointed out at all. You could reasonably extend that idea to RPGs, cutting out the unnecessary fluff and narrative clutter, but it's not the same process as with a novel or play.

The way I understand it, there's two general ways this plays out at the table.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: Family Matters

Following their rescue of the captured spy, the players make their way to Sar Diga to help The Family deal with traitors in their midst.

I've written at least a bit on Sar Diga before. It's a well-connected hub of commerce: It's not terribly far from the capital, it's a hub of fishing off of Lake Kheldram, and it's sitting on the coast. Merchant and passenger ships coming from the east make their first stop here, so there's a lot of commerce that passes through the city. The gothic aesthetic of the city distinguishes it from the others. It's the perfect place for a crime syndicate to make its headquarters.

Like Thief but replacing technology with magic.
The Family isn't really familial, but the ranks in the group are organized by lineage. The head of the group is the Patriarch, an elusive figure whose true identity is known only to his inner circle, the Brothers. There are five Brothers in the organization, each in charge of respective fields of crime: Prostitution (Thalia Cyanal), gambling (Haneth Tsalaxa), black market goods (Imre Levalle), and organized theft and protection schemes (Kahveh Harandi). The fifth Brother, Dimos Seeren, acts as liaison between The Family and the Boland Brotherhood. After that, the organizational breakdown goes through nephews, then cousins, then various levels of "friends of The Family."

The players don't know how to get in touch with their liaison, but they do know how to find the Greeter.
(See the rest below the fold.)