Sunday, July 05, 2015

Facelift

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.)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: The Lion and the Unicorn

As the players prepare to leave Dockhouse to further their adventure, their host, Colton, gives them a warning. As a man privy to rumors, he's heard talk of a traitor within the Family, prepared to sell them all out to the Queen. Although rumors like this circulate frequently, the threat of a crushed rebellion certainly raises the stakes. Colton tells them to keep an eye out for things in Sar Diga and bids them farewell.

In Hillstead, the players quick meeting with Glabrous and their next Brotherhood contact, and the players are off and on their way to Fol Thron, capital of Alessia's empire.
Fol Thron would later be fleshed out a bit more, but at this point it was just a generically large city with a few interesting land marks. This is one of the challenges of using your own setting. You usually have the time to flesh out one location really well, or you can design a broader setting, but any given location is by necessity less interesting. Of course, that's assuming you need every street named and every building assigned. I've found it to be most useful to give the important details and let imaginations fill in the rest. 
The players have to figure out what happened to the spy, with only half a letter and a hastily scribbled riddle. It turned out to be a lot less complicated than you'd imagine.

(Read the rest below the fold)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: High Stakes

After the players, agents of the Boland Brotherhood, finished dealing with the kraken in Lake Kheldram (because krakens are clearly freshwater creatures), they made a brief detour to Hillstead on their way to Fol Thron. While here, they retrieved the half-letter in the hopes of deciphering the missing agent's clues, as well as to meet up with their fellow traveler, Glabrous Emerald-Eye.

Why were they meeting Glabrous in Hillstead? Aside from Glabrous's player being absent for the first session, Glabrous was in Hillstead convincing the leaders of other churches to support the Brotherhood's cause, for it is in need of allies.

Of course, most revolutions start this way. The Brotherhood needs allies, and the players will spend a great deal of the game recruiting for the cause of unseating the Queen.
Actually, this is one of the things I tried to bring in early to make player agency matter. If the players are plotting a civil war, how will their actions bring it to a favorable conclusion? I wanted them to be thinking about how their actions would direct the outcome of the war, rather than simply having events unfold around them.
To make sense of the sides, we have to travel back to the past.
(Read the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: The tale can now be told

It's been roughly six months since this D&D campaign ended, and nearly as long since I last wrote about it. There are several reasons for why this series has been on hiatus for so long, and just as many for why I'm finally starting it again.

Since it's been a while, a recap might be good (or you could just start here).

The land of Mar Tesaro has a troubled and storied history. The current queen, Alessia, fought tooth and nail to get recapture this land from a supremely powerful lich, consolidate her power in a devastating civil war (culminating in the return and defeat of said lich), and then rebuild in the aftermath. Along the way, she made friends and enemies. One particular group of enemies wouldn't forget the civil war, determined to overthrow the queen and restore the previous ruling order, calling themselves the Boland Brotherhood. The players cast their lot with the "Rebel Alliance."

It's a lot like this, except instead of space ships we had wizards on gryphons. Otherwise, exactly the same.
The telling of this story will be interspersed with commentary about actually running the game. Those bits will be in block quotes.

Speaking of which . . .
(Read the rest below the fold.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 3

8:30 So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”8:31 The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30-31)
Have you ever given, or received, an evangelistic tract? I consider them to be something akin to street preaching, not a particularly effective tool but not one I can say is 100% ineffective.

Sometimes those things make us look bad. Sometimes they make us look really bad. Take, for example, this old Jack Chick tract. Although Dungeons & Dragons isn't a particular bugaboo these days, you'll still find folks who think Harry Potter is going to indoctrinate their children into the occult. All the same, the RPG community still passes around poor Blackleaf as a joke. I realize that even the most genuine attempts at evangelism can open a person up to ridicule, but I think we can all agree that something that sticks around as the butt of a joke for 30 years is a problem.

The point of the chapter for week three was that evangelism is almost entirely about relationship. Most tracts are used in a "fire and forget" manner, shoved into the hands of passersby on the street in the hopes that someone will read it. What if they do? Who explains the meaning of the text to them? Who helps them find a Bible to actually look up the things that are said in the tract? Who helps them connect to a body of believers in their area? Who helps explain to them what being a Christian even means?

It's not even just tracts. When I was in college, we used to hand out food as a means of "ministering" to our community. The hope is that someone receives some free food, sees the love of Christ behind that action, and becomes curious enough to probe further, offering an opportunity to share the gospel. We used to make care packages (instant drinks, ramen noodles, candy, etc.) for the new freshmen. We'd hand out snowcones at the festival showcasing all of the student groups. We'd hand out hot cocoa to people during the winter. In the spring, we'd hand out Poptarts. I was part of that for four years, and I can probably count on one hand the number of people who even stopped to ask why we were giving away food, much less wanted to ask about this "Jesus" fellow.
From PRC's study on the "nones"
It only compounds the problem further that Christianity is becoming much less "standard" as far as cultural knowledge goes. As the general public moves away from church, it's much less likely for anyone to even know the basic Biblical stories, much less what specific terms of theology mean. As with Philip and the eunuch, how can they understand if there is no one to explain it to them?

I won't discount the potential for one person to sow while another person reaps. However, so much of the world views us as uninterested in the person we are talking to, instead seeking another notch in our belt, another conservative voter, another tithe in the church coffers. If we want people to take our attempts to share our faith seriously, our attempts have to look genuine. If evangelism is like a meal, we need to sit down and grab a menu, rather than hitting up the drive-thru.