Flatland, Fez, and M-theory

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Written by Edwin A. Abbott in 1884, ‘Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions’ is an excellent, laugh-out-loud satirical novel that provokes deep thought about dimensions beyond our daily experience. You think ‘The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe’ is good allegory? Fuhgeddaboudit! I think Flatland should be required reading for all Christians.

Now, if Flatland existed in video game form, ‘Fez’ would be it. Fez stars a pale protagonist who has the amazing powers to walk, jump, climb, go through doorways, swim, and pick up small objects! A lot like us, actually. One day, this simple-living character has his perspective radically expanded. Something dimensionally beyond himself impinges upon his 2D universe. He can now perceive a much more complex reality, and one that is in peril.

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I have written before in brief about Kierkegaard’s concept of ‘dimensional beyondness.’ God, as an infinite being, is qualitatively different than anything within the created cosmos. But where does the cosmos end and the supernatural realm begin – the realm of spirit which is invisible to our unaided senses? In Brian Greene’s popular book on theoretical physics, ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos,’ Greene references a version of superstring theory called ‘M-theory,’ which hypothesizes ten space dimensions and one time dimension (we commonly experience three space dimensions and one, forward-moving time dimension). If this is true, at what level of “physical” reality do we find Christ holding “all things together?” (Colossians 1:17).

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Back to Fez – I do not believe that video game creator Phil Fish is a Christian – at least not based on what I saw in ‘Indie Game: The Movie.’ Fez certainly does not get into deep theological territory, but is pleasantly stimulating aesthetically, philosophically, and is fun to play. It is also rife with mind-bending puzzles that you may never, ever unravel – much like the universe itself! I recommend playing it right after you read Flatland.

So says a Fez NPC, “My favorite shape is a square. Not a cube – those don’t exist!”

Maslow, Music, and Self-Transcendence

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I believe that the music of a culture or people group often corresponds to a sort of societal-level Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs stage. Indigenous groups may perform rain dances or sing songs about the harvest, reflecting basic physiological needs. Inner city rap music and some blue collar country music may often speak to concerns about personal safety and financial security (amassing wealth, fighting against those feuding against you). Pop music perpetually hovers around the themes of love and belonging (love at first sight, dating, breaking up, commitment).

Rock music, on the other hand, frequently transcends the basic or lower level needs, and moves from the “deficiency” needs to the “being” needs. Take for example the song ‘Peace of Mind’ by the band Boston. Moving into the Esteem stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy, this song explicitly addresses finding meaning and purpose beyond the rat race of everyday life. One may also point to harder edged but socially-conscious songs from bands like Rage Against the Machine.

Now, are there any songs or types of music that address the fifth and final stage, Self-Actualization? Certainly, but I’ll take it a step further. For Christians, Self-Actualization is not the end-all, be-all goal of life. Christ-Actualization (or the Imitation of Christ) is the highest possible stage of human growth, achievement, or needs-meeting. Maslow himself touched on this theme in his later years, criticizing his own theory and proposing a higher stage – Self-Transcendence. Christian music has the inherent potential of reflecting this most important stage.

‘Messiah’ by George Frideric Handel represents this, not only as one of the highest human achievements of music, but as a Self-Transcending work of art that points to Jesus Christ. Take a couple minutes and enjoy this Hallelujah Chorus performed via flashmob in a mall food court.

The Theology of Pokemon

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Back in 1998, Pokemon promised to be a unique hybrid of RPG / Virtual Pet gameplay. Tamagotchi? Digimon? Eat your pixelated hearts out. On the heels of the original games came sequels, spin offs, anime, a collectible card game, and much more – all the way through the present day communal walking-and-flicking Pokemon Go craze.

On the spiritual side of things, the nascent series of 1998 seemed fairly innocuous. Yes, there were a handful of ‘ghost’ and ‘psychic’ and ‘dragon’ type Pokemon adding some para-psychological / occult elements, but for the most part you were collecting and fighting with anthropomorphic radishes, giant butterflies, and Rip Van Winkle-inspired giant panda bear thingies.

There were in-game rumors that Pokemon originated on the moon. I suppose some proponents of Intelligent Design may have chafed at the evolution mechanic… Still, subsequent versions have muddied the theological waters of the Pokemon franchise. Pokemon Gold and Silver introduced ‘dark’ Pokemon (demonic?) and the newest incarnation has added ‘fairy’ type. However, the lowest point in the series is the introduction of the absurd Pokemon God in Diamond and Pearl.

According to the source of all some knowledge, Wikipedia, Arceus “shaped the universe with its thousand arms.” It was born “from an egg in a vortex of pure chaos before the existence of the universe” and went on to form other deity-esque lifeforms. More ridiculous, you can capture this “god” and carry it around in your pocket in a Pokeball, summoning it to battle in glorified cock-fights for your enjoyment!

Actually, the God of Pokemon has very much in common with the gods of most religions and mythologies throughout human history except for the One True God of Judeo-Christian belief. Pantheistic and other belief systems have the same basic starting point of gods arising from primordial chaos or some pre-existent cosmic battle. The Judeo-Christian God alone stands completely and utterly transcendent and independent of all created matter and the universe that contains it. God, as an infinite being, has always existed. He did not emerge from any pre-existing matter, form, force, or intelligence. And, you cannot capture him in a Pokeball.

Video Game Theology

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In a previous post I argued that humanity directly reflects the image of God when we engage in creative acts – when we bring something good into existence out of “nothing,” we are intentionally or unintentionally imitating the work of the ultimate Creator. This divine reflection reaches its apex when our art involves worldbuilding.

We find worldbuilding in visual mediums such as film, television, and graphic novels, but these are ultimately static worlds, and the audience members are passive participants. Worldbuilding in nonvisual literature is more dynamic, forcing the readers to actively visualize the world in their imaginations. Still, worldbuilding in video games is the closest parallel we have to the creativity of God.

Picture this: a brilliant Programmer designs a self-contained ‘reality’ in which other freewill agents (players) can interact. There are clear design parameters to this game world and limits to what the players can do within the world. That being said, the players can do anything they want within those parameters. Following the Programmer’s design, there are goals or intended ways of playing that lead to success in the game. Some players, despite taking diverse and individualized paths, seek to achieve these intended goals, and their creative ways of doing so may delight the programmer. Some players love the experience so much that they send fan mail to the Programmer and celebrate the good creation, even as they seek to exercise mastery within in.

Other players may ignore or violate the design and purpose of the game, resulting in mutual frustration for the Programmer and players. Perhaps the players grief and harass other players, try to undermine the integrity of the program itself, or otherwise violate the terms of service. Such players, if not willing to come around, may receive permanent bans from playing the game. Even if a fantastic new game update or expansion is released, the permabanned players will likely not be able to enjoy it. For all types of players, although experiencing the game world through their digital avatars, there is a clear sense that the players exist beyond the confines of the game world, that their consciousnesses will endure regardless of what ultimately happens to their in-game avatars.

Even the Programmer, preexisting the game world and being separate from it, can interact with the program on multiple levels, even through the use of an avatar (likely with certain advantages). The Programmer can interact with other players in a “meta” way, or in the game itself through the avatar. Having full knowledge of the game world, the Programmer’s actions serve as an example of how the game is meant to be played and what other players are truly capable of accomplishing. Regardless of the level of interaction chosen, the Programmer has the right and ability to change and suspend the rules and “physics” of the game world whenever desired, for whatever reason. God mode, anyone?

If any of this seems interesting to you, I highly recommend checking out The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (2011); the discussion of simulated universes in Chapter 10 is worth the price of admission alone.

Theology truly is a science, and theologians should act more like scientists. One problem is that theological theories have seldom been testable. Simulated worlds can change that. Interactive simulated worlds have the capability of being laboratories for testing philosophical, existential, ethical, and theological propositions in ways that have not been possible in generations past. This is especially true for simulated worlds that allow for emergent behavior or emergent gameplay, like Second Life, Minecraft, EVE Online, Dwarf Fortress, and other examples.

Are we not all players in the structured sandbox that God designed?

The Importance of Christian Art

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There was a time when great Christian art was not an anomaly. Think of the magnificent frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, the sculpted perfection of the David statue, the soaring grandeur of Handel’s Messiah, and the literary achievements of Dante, Milton, and Bunyan. Even in the modern medium of film, recall the Academy Award-winning Ten Commandments (1956) and Chariots of Fire (1981).

Those are examples of when Christian art was second-to-none, innovative and peerless – leading the artistic charge. My, how the times have changed. These days, a common refrain from believers whenever a new faith-based film is released is “they keep getting better with each movie,” which is at best a backhanded compliment. Christian fiction (bonnets required?) is relegated to a niche shelf in the back of your local bookstore. Mainstream Christian music is still catching up to trends that secular music mastered two decades ago.

Here are three reasons why Christian art is important:

IMAGING

In the words of Michael Heiser (2015), we are God’s human “imagers.” We are called to represent God and participate in fulfilling his vision and will on Earth. God is the ultimate creator; he is the greatest artist and author; can anything man-made rival Giant’s Causeway, the Aurora Borealis, the feathers of a peacock? When we humans exercise our uniquely God-given artistic potential and make something new, we are sharing in an ex nihilo-lite act of creation that reflects the image of God within us.

GLORIFYING

I love the accounts of Bezalel and Oholiab in the book of Exodus:

“Now Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones to fill in, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship. And behold, I myself have given with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and in the hearts of all who are wise of heart I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded you.” (Exodus 31)

Then Moses said to the sons of Israel, “See, Yahweh has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And he has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding and in knowledge and in all craftsmanship; to devise designs for working in gold and in silver and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings and in the carving of wood, so as to perform in every inventive work. He also has put in his heart to teach, both he and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with wisdom of heart to perform every work of an engraver and of a designer and of an embroiderer, in blue and in purple and in scarlet material, and in fine linen, and of a weaver, as performers of every work and makers of designs.” (Exodus 35)

“Now Bezalel and Oholiab, and every man wise of heart in whose heart Yahweh has put wisdom and understanding to know how to perform all the work of the service of the construction of the sanctuary, shall perform in accordance with all that Yahweh has commanded. Then Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every man wise of heart in whom Yahweh had put wisdom, everyone whose heart stirred him, to come to the work to perform it.” (Exodus 36)

God had specifically gifted these men with artistic ability, and was now calling on them to use those talents for his glory and greater purpose. To borrow the words of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, “… God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

TESTIFYING

A third reason why Christian art must not be neglected is the evangelistic testimony it can provide. Timothy C. Tennent (2009) writes in Theology in the Context of World Christianity that even elements of non-Christian art can be co-opted as a preparatio evangelica, something that prepares the heart to receive the gospel and an opportunity for us to build bridges to non-believers. A classic example of this is Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, when he quotes a pagan poet but immediately uses that illustration to point his hearers to Jesus Christ (see: Acts 17:28).

In our postmodern Western society, the strengthening of explicitly Christian art has never been more important. Will McRaney (2003) says it this way, “Postmodernism has its roots in artwork. Art has increased in value and use in postmodern culture. One way to sum up the modern mind-set is that it is an attempt to know empirically and rationally, to control and engineer reality. This is the work of the scientist. Another way to sum up the postmodern mind-set is that it is an insightful attempt to perceive, imagine, and create reality. This is the work of the artist. Evangelism of the future will look more like an art form than a science formula.”

Gamertags for God

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Proverbs 3:6 is for me a lodestar, a guiding verse I return to time and time again – “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

I’ve been playing videogames ever since Mario first stomped on a goomba, and I have no plans of stopping. Some assume that gaming is something that I would have grown out of years ago. Others find it a shocking contrast to my intellectualism and scholarly pursuits. Still others view it as a waste of my limited free time shoehorned into a busy life of church, multiple jobs, and young children. Regardless of the responses of others, I accept this aspect of myself and own it – in fact, I recently identified gaming as one of my seven core interests. In a future post I will discuss the importance of Christian art, videogame theology, and concepts of world-building, but for now I want to return to the verse posted above.

On November 28, 2010 I posted an entry titled ‘A High Score in Heaven’ on my former-former blog, ‘Thank You Jesus For These Pop Tarts.’ In that post I explained how, in seeking to live out Proverbs 3:6, I agonized over choosing my Xbox Live “gamertag,” attempting to arrive at a clever handle that would also serve to point people toward God. Ultimately I decided on FirstCore925, a reference to just about the only scripture I could find that seemed to apply to video games – 1 Corinthians 9:25: “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

However, years later, I wasn’t sure that anybody ever caught on to my clever reference. Nobody stopped to ponder just how meaningless their video game achievements really were in the face of eternity. I fear my subtlety was lost in the hubbub of exploding giblets and score multipliers. Indeed, on the face of things FirstCore925 appeared deceptively generic.

Having upgraded to Xbox One (useful for spousal Kinect work-outs and dropping Titans on things), I decided that a rechristening of my online username was in order. FirstCore925 is dead; long live FlatlandPilgrim.

Inspired by two works of literature, ‘Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions’ and ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ my new gamertag symbolizes both the lifelong Christian journey from our present plane of existence toward the “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16), as well as the adventures of a Christian’s avatar in the ‘flat’ virtual reality of video games.

If I Were a Superhero

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In the M. Night Shyamalan movie Unbreakable, the concept of superheroes is presented in terms of shared mythology, hieroglyphic language, familiar archetypes, and heightened symbolism that represents actual life events and experiences or common hopes and fears. We’ve all heard the anecdote of the mother who, in a sudden adrenaline-fueled boost of strength, lifted a car off of her trapped son. Many of us have seen footage of Olympic athlete Usain Bolt (aka, the fastest man alive) competing in a race. Most of us are familiar with the Biblical story of Samson who at one time single-handedly slew one thousand enemies in melee combat. Superhuman qualities of strength, speed, and intelligence as well as virtues such as courage, justice, honor and sacrifice resonate with us on a deep level.

Referencing the X-Men, I often joke with my wife that her mutant power is the ability to have an authentic looking smile in every photograph she appears in. A real smile “involves both voluntary and involuntary contraction from two muscles: the zygomatic major (raising the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi (raising the cheeks and producing crow’s feet around the eyes). A fake smile … involves the contraction of just the zygomatic major…” Each type of smile is controlled by a different part of the brain. Somehow my wife can voluntarily activate involuntary muscle contractions in her face, or at least she has the ability to feel genuinely happy about being in every single photograph. In contrast, my ‘mutant power’ is that the more stressed out people around me get, the calmer I become in inverse proportion. This has served me well in my crisis intervention background.

However, let’s take it a step further. Thinking of symbolic representations, what superhero best represents me in my role and God-given gifts? If the question was which superhero do I wish I could be, the answer would be The Flash. If the question was which superhero is my favorite, the answer would be Daredevil. However, the superhero that best represents me is Black Bolt.

According to the Comics Database: “Black Bolt has the ability to unleash great destructive power through the use of his voice, but even the slightest whisper will release his power. At maximum the force is equal to that caused by the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Therefore, for the most part, Black Bolt remains silent.”

Years ago, God showed me a passage of Scripture that applies to my life. You might call it my ‘life verse’ or more accurately, verses. A life verse is “a verse from scripture that speaks to your heart, almost as though it was written for just you. It’s very personal, and usually there is a story behind why we are drawn to that particular Bible verse. Here is a portion of the larger passage: “He has made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he has concealed me…” (Isaiah 49:2a).

Words can have terrible power. James 3:5 says, “the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!”

In my ten years of work in the mental health field, I have in one form or another had the opportunity to counsel over one thousand people. In five and a half years of crisis and suicide intervention work, I have literally used the power of words, and often nothing else, to talk people off of ledges. As an author, blogger, and occasional screenwriter, the use of language is everything. In my current and future ministry work, again, words are the primary tools that I use to impact lives.

But… just as I have talked people off of ledges, I could just as easily have talked people onto ledges, and over the side. As delusion-of-grandeur as it may sound, I actually believe that I could talk somebody into killing themselves. That is a scary thought. This is not an unheard of phenomenon – there have been many tragic examples in the news of teenagers, for example, being goaded into suicide by bullying peers. At the very least, and certainly in my line of work encountering hurting people at rock bottom, my words have the dangerous potential of creating deep psychological wounds, breaking relationships, and even alienating people from the Christian faith.

I have a fallen, sinful nature. Despite my spiritual rebirth twelve years ago and my ongoing dedication to follow Jesus Christ, evil still exists within me. Indeed, the tongue is “a restless evil, and full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). I frequently must ask God to forgive me for being judgmental and hypercritical. I must continue to bring to mind what Jesus said in Matthew 7 about the speck in my brother’s eye and the log in my own. I need to set myself to the discipline of Ephesians 4:29: “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Sometimes it is better to say nothing at all.
As Spiderman’s Uncle Ben once famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”