Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Book Review - Allah: A Christian Response

You might remember that last year I wrote reviews of books by Nabeel Qureshi. The latter review of No God But One covered a crucial topic for Qureshi: Are Islam and Christianity really all that different?

A friend of mine suggested my next book be Miroslav Volf's Allah: A Christian Response. In fact, he actually bought the book for me; thanks again, friend. 

I think understanding this book starts with understanding the author. Volf's Wikipedia page carries a lot of noteworthy accomplishments and glowing references. Theologian, seminary professor, author, public intellectual, White House advisor . . . the man has a long and reputable résumé. There is a strong theme throughout his work, however, of interfaith engagement, the most relevant work being his crafting of the "Yale Response" to "A Common Word.

This book seems to have been an outgrowth of that work, though in this case, Volf's audience is fellow Christians, or at least that's what he claims in the book. The central question Volf seeks to answer in Allah is, "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" Nabeel Qureshi answered the question in the negative. Volf, in the course of the book, says, "Yes, we do worship the same God." (If you're interested in hearing these two debate the matter, there's audio of just that.)

Volf spends a lot of time laying his groundwork, but his basic argument follows that of "A Common Word," arguing that Muslims and Christians worship the same God because of their common ground, a faith centered in the love of God and the love of neighbor. He spends a great deal of the book unpacking these ideas. 

I really struggled to finish this book. My first inclination while reading it was to call Volf a hack. That isn't fair or charitable, but it was born out of irritation, and a sense, as I worked my way through the chapters, that Volf was not dealing with the topic in an honest manner. I can't know the process by which Volf reached the conclusions he did; I can't unpack the people he's met or the books he's read. However, I can at least respond to the arguments he's made, and they are not convincing, as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

On The Paris Climate Treaty Exit

I've written sparingly about global warming/climate change over the years. I'll be the first to tell you that most of the actual science that comes from the myriad concerned fields goes right over my head. I do take quite a bit of it with a grain of salt, not just because I suspect some people are playing fast and loose with the data, but also because on a social level it's become associated with a sort of eschatological environmentalism.

Nowhere was the latter bit more evident to me than following President Trump's announcement that the US would be leaving the Paris Climate Treaty.

It's hard to determine just how serious to take any of it anymore. I understand that Trump's election represents an existential crisis to many on the American left, but many declared that the US exit from this treaty means no less than the end of the world. Everything as we know it is lost! The world will burn! Our only chance at possibly saving a remnant is to vote Democrat!

Everything Donald Trump does is wrong, I get that. This panic over the Paris Treaty, though, the rending of garments, the gnashing of teeth . . . it's really not worth it. Let me explain.

Monday, May 08, 2017

On Origins and the Molecular Basis of Life



I've said on a number of posts, mostly about the possibility of life on other planets, that I don't particularly buy into the idea of a chemical origin of life. This often leads to some awkwardness in my professional life. I have advanced degrees in life sciences; how can I disregard actual science in favor of a purely religious point of view?

I don't reject a naturalistic explanation of the origin of life on purely religious grounds. Even in the absence of a motivating faith, the ideas regarding the chemical origin of life don't inspire confidence. Frankly, I find it requires more faith to believe that life arose out of a primordial soup than not, a conclusion in search of evidence to support it, and the evidence is wanting.

In all of the posts where I've mentioned this, I've said that I ought to explain why at some point. This is an attempt to do so, and like the theory itself, this explanation is complicated.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Chasing the Wind: Of Pain and Sovereignty

In my last entry of the series, I didn't dwell on the text of Ecclesiastes in order to present some arguments that I'd need to return to later. In retrospect, my discussion on God's sovereignty would have been all the better for consideration of the following text, although it was already lengthy enough. My purpose last time was addressing the criticism that our actions and lives cannot be meaningful if they cannot actually change the outcome. God's sovereignty, in that consideration, prevents us from having Meaning because nothing we do matters.

Although I did address this argument, it turns out there's another aspect of God's sovereignty which weighs on the heart.
For everything there is an appointed time, and an appropriate time for every activity on earth: 
A time to be born, and a time to die;
     a time to plant, and a time to uproot what was planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
     a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
     a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones;
     a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to search, and a time to give something up as lost;
     a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
A time to rip, and a time to sew;
     a time to keep silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
     a time for war, and a time for peace. 
What benefit can a worker gain from his toil?  I have observed the burden that God has given to people to keep them occupied. God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time, but he has also placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives.
I have concluded that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live, and also that everyone should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all his toil, for these things are a gift from God. 
I also know that whatever God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken away from it. God has made it this way, so that men will fear him. Whatever exists now has already been, and whatever will be has already been; for God will seek to do again what has occurred in the past. - Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 (NET)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Sentinels of the Multiverse RPG - Campaign Characters

With the news that Young Justice is returning for a third season, it seemed like a good time to finish off my posts about my Sentinels of the Multiverse RPG. I've previously discussed choosing the system and the character building rules. Now, it's time to meet the characters who inhabited my game.

As I've said before, the characters of Sentinel Comics are homage to the comics we all know and love, with their own world filled with comic-book drama. Many of the characters have analogues, singular or combinations, in the DC or Marvel properties. For example, Legacy, Tachyon, and The Wraith are all homologous to Superman, The Flash, and Batman, respectively. Tempest, on the other hand, is more of a blend of the Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, and Storm.

I mentioned this during August and the RPG a Day binge, but the characters for my Sentinels campaign were inspired by Young Justice, a superhero team comprised of the side-kicks and proteges of the DC heroes. (The story of the campaign borrowed liberally from the first season of Young Justice, too.)

And . . . hero pose!
In total, there were nine characters in my game. This wasn't just because I had a bunch of fun making characters. I made the characters so that we could just jump into playing the game; if the people available to play at any given time changed, it wouldn't matter because there wasn't any connection between the players and the characters. Plus, with a variety of options for the players to choose from, they could experiment with different mechanics and play styles.

That was the intent, at least. In practice, the players tended to gravitate back to the first character that grabbed their attention in the first place. Not a bad thing, just not what I'd intended for the game. One player even made his own character,

Without further ado, meet the cast of the Young Sentinels.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Missionaries to Mars

Every time there's exciting news about space, whether it's missions of exploration, the discovery of new celestial bodies, or an advancement in relevant technology, speculation starts flying about extraterrestrial life. One variant of that you don't see very often popped up in the Wall Street Journal: "Could Aliens Have Souls That Need Saving?"
Post title shamelessly stolen from Albert Mohler.
(If you don't have access to the WSJ, the discussion of said article over at Get Religion is worth reading.)

The question at hand: If alien life were discovered, would Christians have to share the Gospel with them? It's not a new question, although it's usually expanded to consider the role of cosmology in Christian theology as well. CS Lewis wrote a series of books about it, for example.

There's a few ways of looking at this.

  • The positive case would state that, since Adam's sin caused the Fall to ripple out through all of creation, then aliens would also be in need of redemption. 
  • The negative case would state that, since any alien life would not be descended from Adam, they would not be inheritors of Adam's sinful nature and thus not bound by the details of Christian theology. 
  • The demure case would state that, since the Bible says nothing, positive or negative, about life beyond Earth, then speculation about the theological ideas surrounding it is improper. 
Dr. Mohler argues the latter case, incidentally. 

As for me, I'm a contrarian on this topic. The question is hypothetical, but I'm convinced that the possibility of alien life is so poor that it's not worth taking seriously. Allow me to explain.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Chasing the Wind: Our Story

I mentioned in the first entry for this series that I've been re-reading some philosophy books. In A.J. Ayer's essay, The Claims of Philosophy, I came across this paragraph:
But for now, it may be objected, suppose that the world is designed by a superior being. In that case, the purpose of our existence will be the purpose that it realizes for him; and the meaning of life will be found in our conscious adaptation to his purpose. But here again, the answer is, first, that there is no good reason whatsoever for believing that there is any such superior being; and, secondly, that even if there were, he could not accomplish what is here required of him. For let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything happens as it does because a superior being has intended that it should.
 . . . The point is, in short, that even the invocation of a deity does not enable us to answer the question why things are as they are. 
I've left out the details of the argument, and Ayer goes on like this quite a bit more; Kai Nielsen repeats Ayer's argument in his essay, Linguistic Philosophy and "The Meaning of Life." (I don't recommend the latter. Linguistic Philosophy, as a field, seems like endless pontification on what the meaning of "is" is with the assumption that such navel gazing is profound.) There's much to say in response to this line of argument, but it becomes easier to do so in the context of the Christian world view. In other words, the response to all of these different formulations and perspectives on Meaning becomes understandable in the light of the story Christians tell about the Meaning of Life.

Maybe this comes off as surprising to some. Christians have an answer to the question of Meaning? What is the Christian answer here?

We were made to be in relationship with God.

Does that seem too simple? It really isn't. To make the most sense of this, we have to go back to the beginning. Before that, really.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

There's No Place Like Home

"Howdy neighbor!" Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
I've got another post in the works on topic of Meaning, but it's been almost two weeks since my last post went up, and I wanted to break the silence with something that's a bit easier to write.

There's been quite a bit of news about the universe lately. First, there was the short-lived bit of excitement about SETI detecting a radio burst from deep space. Then we detected an "Earth-like" planet around our closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri. A scientist even wrote a recent piece for the Boston Globe about directed panspermia, the theory that life on Earth originated, indeed, was specifically seeded, from extraterrestrial sources.

Most of this is nonsensical. The SETI signal is most likely Earth-based interference, or at the very least random noise amplified by natural phenomena. Proxima B, even if it's located in the "Goldilocks zone," is unlikely to be able to support life as we might appreciate it for all kinds of reasons.  Even the author of the panspermia piece recognizes that it's not a particularly compelling theory, and it only moves the goalposts when working out the problems with the chemical origin of life. (That's a topic I've been meaning to address someday.)

Still, people get very excited about the idea of life on other planets. It's certainly been a staple of science fiction since the genre came about. Given all the recent talk related to that idea in the news, I wasn't surprised to see this article: What will it take for humans to colonize the Milky Way?

Thursday, September 01, 2016

RPG a Day - Post Mortem

I started doing the "RPG a Day" activity as a way of jump-starting the writing process. You might notice the blog's been a little thin on content the last few, erm . . . years.

Well, it was certainly successful on that score. My enthusiasm for writing has been reinvigorated, although I can't say my time available for such things is any more abundant.

I'm rather proud I managed to put something up every day but the last for this. I'd been writing several of the posts at a time and scheduling them to go out, but that last one just got away from me.

In any case, I'm hoping 2016 will look better for the blog from here on out. I've been having enjoying writing my "Chasing the Wind" posts, and I hope to do a lot more with that. I've got several other ideas I've been percolating as well. No politics, though. Not that I have nothing to say on the current state of things, but it seems like a moot point; of all the voices clamoring for attention out there, I have nothing to offer that others won't say in more detail or more eloquently.
Here's to 2017.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 30

Today's topic: Describe the ideal game room if budget were not an issue.

I don't have much to say here; maybe give me a room from Britannia Manor with a digital table top and I'd be set.

For a more interesting topic, one of my own consideration: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a GM?

I ask this question because I've been thinking a lot about the games I've run in recent weeks (go figure) and it occurs to me that there's a lot to be said for learning from our mistakes.  I certainly have enough to choose from. However, there's one in particular I'm considering.

Fear the Boot frequently talks about The Golden Box. It's this concept to illustrate the idea that a player's character shouldn't be changed by the GM, at least not without some measure of consent. After all, the GM has control of everything in the game, while the player only has control over his character; take that away, violate The Golden Box, and you've breached a social contract and diminished the game.
Tread carefully.
When I ran last Dresden Files, I definitely violated The Golden Box.

I won't belabor the details, but within my game world there were five Items of Power, tied to powerful patron spirits, that needed to be claimed in order for the local ley lines to be balanced. This seemed like a fun idea at the time. The provided a physical link to a campaign idea, and offered some fun options for sponsored magic and other boons from the items.

The problem was, I hadn't opted to provide the players with any more refresh to take up the Items of Power. (Refresh is the resource one uses to 'purchase' powers and abilities, and it's the basic measure of how powerful a character is. Taking up an Item of Power usually requires spending refresh to gain access to its abilities.)

I hadn't considered this from the players perspective at the time. Here was something that, as I'd structured things, had to be taken up in order to prevent calamity, but I wasn't making it free to use. Thus, they had to give up the abilities they'd built into their characters in the first place in order to take up the Items.

That's definitely a violation.

I didn't realized the mistake I'd made until one of my players vocalized just how much he resented having to trade off the powers he'd wanted to use for the powers of the Item. In the end, I allowed the players to pass of the Items to NPCs if they so desired, but the damage had been done.

There's no great solution here. Probably would have been best to make the items free to use, although then I'd have run into issues balancing the game. Perhaps, had I been up front about the items with my players, we could have reached an understanding that would have suited everyone. The items were a central mystery to the game, so that would have ablated much of the investigation and exploration as they went.

All the same, I know how not to handle it in the future, and that's the most important part.
Cool as this is, it may not be the vision your players had in mind.

Monday, August 29, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 29

Today's topic: You can game anywhere on Earth; where do you game?

Easily, that's Richard Garriott's (former) home. That place would have some serious atmosphere for a game.

On a more substantial topic, I think the choice of gaming location is worth exploring. So today's actual topic is going to be: Where do you prefer to do your gaming?

I know of four major locations people do their gaming:

  • Someone's home
  • Game store
  • Bar/Restaurant
  • Some other public venue
I've only done the first two. Of them, my preference is definitely to game in a home. 

There's certainly advantages to be drawn from gaming in a store. You can meet new people and attract others to your game, if you're in need. Store owners like having people in their store having fun, so a gaming group can be good "advertisement," even if they don't buy much during their time there. Unfortunately, I've found game stores to be too loud to be conducive to role-playing, and often times "meeting people" devolves into looky-loos making your players uncomfortable. 

Playing at someone's home can be much more comfortable; you don't have to worry about the distractions of other gamers, although the distraction of spouses or children can counter-balance that benefit. You have much more leeway with game time that isn't centered around store hours. You're also much less restricted in terms of food and beverage, which is a definite advantage.

That's partially why some people game at bars or restaurants; I've never seen this, but I've heard stories. It just doesn't seem like a good environment for it, though. It's highly public, so "enthusiastic" gaming is unlikely to be appreciated, and you're limited to the time a business has patience for you. If it's a busy period, they're not likely to appreciate you taking up a table for four hours.
"I don't care if Middle Earth is in danger, either buy more food or get out."
As for other, I hear some people will play at libraries, or at school after classes get out. A friend of mine used to belong to a "social club" for gamers that provided gaming space. I'm sure these have their advantages, although I imagine the first two are chosen out of necessity or convenience.

All the same, my preference remains home gaming. More comfortable, fewer restrictions, free reign on food. 


Sunday, August 28, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 28

Today's topic: What is the thing you'd be most surprised a friend had not seen or read?

As this is an RPG topic, I'll assume these are properties that are at least vaguely RPG-related. To that end, I'm going to skip the obvious elephants in the room: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Yes, I'd be amazed if someone hadn't seen the movies or read Tolkien's books, but that's largely because these properties carry such huge cultural influence that you couldn't avoid them if you tried.

To this end, I'm thinking more outside the box. With that in mind:
Don't be too impressed. Every man is shaped like that in Timm's animated shows.
Super hero cartoons enjoyed a good deal of popularity during the 90s. Two of the most popular shows during that time were the Batman and Superman animated series.

Following on that success, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini followed their previous work with the series based on the iconic superhero team, running 2001 to 2004, followed by Justice League Unlimited through 2006.

It's understandable how someone might have missed the show. Older millennials like myself would have been college students when the show was on TV. Even then, it aired on Saturday nights in a time when DVRs weren't yet abundant, Netflix wasn't around, and Cartoon Network was recalcitrant on the matter of reruns. I only saw most of the series because my parents recorded it on VHS for me to watch when I went home to visit.

So why do I list it as the property I'd be surprised someone hadn't seen? Three reasons.
  1. It has been available on Netflix for quite some time.
  2. It was really good. 
  3. Few superhero cartoons that came afterwards were able to match the quality of these shows.
There's a lot of love to be had for shows like Young Justice or Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Even so, few modern series were as widely celebrated, or influential on the genre, as the JL/JLU series. It's a series I'd recommend in a heart beat to someone interested in the genre.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 27

Having not gamed in any unusual or exotic circumstances, I can't really speak to the scheduled topic for today. Instead, I'm going to backtrack to something I mentioned the other day.

When talking about "What makes a good character?" I focused on the narrative and table-centric elements: Backstory, Goals, and Personality. This time, I'd like to talk about the place where mechanics and character meet, and how that interface can be difficult.

Friday, August 26, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 26

Today's topic: What hobbies go well with RPGs?

Video games are the first thing that come to mind, given that most of the audience for RPGs overlaps with video game players. The benefit is often twofold. Players will get exposed to stories and narrative structures that provide useful inspiration to draw or borrow from when making their own stories. On top of that, seeing various mechanics at work in a video game can inform an understanding of how mechanics ought to work at the table.

That being the most obvious answer, there are some others that fit as well:
  • Writing, for the obvious reason of having experience crafting a narrative and understanding different elements of the story structure.
  • Acting, especially improv, because being able to take on the role of a character and make him real and compelling can be complicated.
  • Drawing, although any artistic skills will also find use. If you can create good renderings of characters or events in your game, you will never want for a group to play with. People eat that stuff up.
  • History, and the study thereof. This might seem an unusual one, but it's a simple explanation. Sometimes the events of history can make for great inspiration in games, especially when real events are stranger than fiction. 
  • Cooking, because who doesn't love the person who brings homemade snacks to the table?
Really, the best answer to this is, "Whatever makes you happy." That's rather the point of hobbies, right? Just about any hobby will synergize well with gaming, if only because it lets you bring additional perspective to the table.