Straw Men & Fire

Matthew 3:11

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”

Most people, if they’re being honest, are only familiar with these words because of 2005’s V for Vendetta, a movie they likely enjoyed, featuring a protagonist for whom they likely rooted. It is a very violent film, based on a very violent comic book, both of which have achieved great popularity in spite of the fact that, at base, V for Vendetta is a celebration of terrorism and anarchy; so much so that the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the story’s lead has become the symbol of international cyber-terrorists “Anonymous.”

Intriguingly, though most can quote the poem few seem to actually remember the reason for its inception; they remember November 5th, but they have forgotten why it mattered: a terrorist plot was ended, a person who would cast a nation into bloody chaos was prevented from doing so. Regardless of how you feel about the authorities against which Fawkes (or V, for that matter) rebelled, you’re a strange person if you are truly pleased by the idea of blowing up unarmed civilians. Somehow the victory of the real November 5th is trumped in this movie by its reversal: a terrorist plot successful, for which its audiences cheer, and for which the date is now remembered; fiction has usurped reality, and the message of the poem now serves an antithetical purpose to its creator’s intention.

The interesting thing about V for Vendetta, then, is how it glorified Guy Fawkes — traitor and anarchist — in a way which the world at large seems to have embraced. Today it is not uncommon to come across a person wearing a trademark mask of the man’s face, symbolically becoming him. But for years the only thing people wanted to do with Guy Fawkes was to burn him. And every year, on November 5th, remembering him, that’s just what they’d do: create a straw-filled effigy, and burn it, as if in some token way the burning of a straw man were the same as actually destroying perfidy and anarchy.

As a culture, we seem intent on repeating this act, not yearly but daily. We see violence and evil all around us, sometimes manifest in truly ghastly ways, and our reaction is not to root it out of our hearts and minds but to find a scapegoat somewhere and toss it on the pyre. For over a century, America’s pyre has been stoked with art. And as the flames climb, they don’t consume the true violence in the world; they merely illuminate its daunting, terrifying scope.

One of the greatest mysteries to me is how easily people conflate depictions of violence with condoning violence. I’ve met many a person (particularly in Christian circles) who seems to be of the mindset that watching a violent film or television show (nevermind playing a game) is inherently wrong, that exposure to the violence is akin to delighting in it. In the whitewashed fantasy world wherein these people would have all media reside, there is no violence, because violence can never breed any good.

I find the Christians the most entertaining, in that respect, because my immediate response is to question whether they’ve ever read the Bible. If a work of art is inherently sinful because it shows atrocities (and may, even, suggest that those atrocities are acceptable), then what of the Old Testament? What of the crucifixion? What of the fates of the apostles? Surely God knows that showing these things is an affront to God?

I don’t mean to equate Yahweh with Ares, but I think it’s rather laughable to suggest that violence is inherently useless in the telling of stories. It is, and always has been, a part of life, and the question ought not be “is it violent” but “what does its use of violence communicate?” In the case of scripture, the violence merely illustrates the consequences of man’s disobedience, and affords a contrast to the paradise Christ will usher in in the end of days. It illustrates the suffering undergone by a scapegoat so that the true perpetrators may avoid the fate they deserve — and, of course, hopefully repent. If there were no violence, there would be no power in reconciliation — without war, the value of peace is unfelt.

We understand when we read the Gospel, or when we watch The Passion of the Christ, that the violence was necessary to facilitate a greater good. But what of travesties? What of events like those in Aurora, in Newtown? Is there anyone so jaded as to say children needed to die? That they deserved it? I suppose there probably are such jaded people, but then there are Guy Fawkeses in every culture. The rest of us, those with compassion and reason, shake our heads in disbelief.

To some extent, the year’s violence continues to illustrate the same thing as did the blood-soaked wars of the Old Testament: the wages of sin, the constant consequence of rebellion, the result of generations pushing God out of their lives, hearts, and minds. That is not to say that tragedy is revenge: God is not reactionary, He does not say “oh yeah? well how do you like this?” like some petty schoolboy. It is rather more like we have removed the guard rails along a narrow mountain road, kicked God out of the driver’s seat, and then wondered why the un-steered car was not miraculously kept from flying off a cliff. Bad things happen when God is kicked out of our lives — not because he sits there on the side of the road with a remote control and veers us into hazards, but because of the inevitability of driving blind. It is culture in general that is to blame for what has happened — innocent lives are the collateral damage of the bad decisions made by generations past and present.

Saint Augustine speculated that evil is, like cold, not a thing but rather an absence, of God rather than of heat. It is not so much that we, as humans, are evil as it is we lack God, and therefore lack good. And while some people — as the Newtown shooter — lack the capacity to differentiate, plenty of other acts of violence are perpetrated by people who have no such lack but act anyway. Just as not all mentally ill people will do terrible things, not all terrible things are done by mentally ill people.

Whether you like it or not (and who would), “normal” humanity is Godless, and therefore prone to bad things. Anyone who disputes this is welcome to observe any young child, who must be trained over the course of years out of an inherent posture of disobedience and selfishness. The first word many children learn is “no,” because they’re constantly doing things they oughtn’t; once they’ve learned it they immediately turn it back on us, refusing to do things they ought.

I’m not unique in suggesting the ills of this nation (and by extension, the world) are due not to religion (as John Lennon banally chooses to “Imagine”) but rather to its lack. In his parting words as President, George Washington notes that

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Washington’s aims were broader in scope than mine here — I’ll leave his suggestion that anti-religion and anti-American are synonymous to linger — but the salient point is that if our country or world seems to be coming apart at the seams, the first question we ought to ask is whether we’re being true to a system of living which believes that absolute good and evil exist and that there is a higher power to which we are accountable for upholding those absolutes.

For in a world of moral relativism, in which “what’s good for you may not be what’s good for me,” and where every person lives however he or she sees fit, there is no basis for denouncing another’s decisions, even if those decisions include slaughtering other people. Because true tolerance demands that no worldview, however abhorrent from our own, is condemnable, absent a metric for condemnation. The extent to which we feel compelled to cast judgment mirrors the extent to which relative morality is a sham. If you felt anger or resentment in the wake of the Newtown shootings, you don’t actually believe people should be able to live as they please. In which case I suggest you figure out who or what determines what’s absolutely right or wrong.

The existence of absolute truth (and thereby our culpability) is a tough pill to swallow. We are by nature arrogant, and though we will never come close to producing anything so grand as a planet or galaxy we still think ourselves incredibly awesome, and praise one another as such. When bad things happen we refuse to look within but point to external sources as the corrupting influences that tarnish our otherwise perfect Selves.

This is why, in the wake of Newtown, a new rallying cry seems to have gone out (not least of which — and this not lacking in irony — from the NRA) to cleanse ourselves of those filthy things called video games, whose depictions of violence are destroying our youth and leading to tragedies that could have been prevented.

Aye, games.

Just this morning I read an article about a movement in Connecticut to gather and, quite literally, incinerate violent video games. Despite explicit assurance that other media are equally viable for burning (books, the obvious analog, are not mentioned), and that this isn’t meant to suggest that games are actually related to the shooting, the implicit message of this and similar rallies is that the violence of our youth is due to entertainment; the unstated suggestion is that were there no games to corrupt the kids, schools would be peaceful.

You see, games are merely this generation’s Guy Fawkes effigy, burned at the altar where television, film, the novel, and the theatre have all taken their sacrificial place. Just last night I saw an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a community’s hysterical jingoism (and a death or two) were all instigated by one boy’s enthusiasm for a comic book. This story was written over fifty years ago; had the episode been made today, I have no doubt the boy would have been a fan of Call of Duty. Sadly, I also have little doubt that the true message of the episode — our frightening capacity to be carried away by a fear of the unknown Other — would have been lost behind the scapegoat’s specter.

Now, I have no qualms with people whose reaction to overt displays of real-life violence is a revolt against unnecessary exposure to violent entertainment. One can only stomach so much. And when it comes to what much violent media communicates via its violence, it’s undoubtedly true that many games, films, shows, etc. say nothing at all at best, and glorify violence at worst. Moreover, as most violent media (of the truly graphic variety) is made by, for, and marketed towards adults only, I’m fully behind any movement which removes that content from the hands and eyes of children.

But let us keep two key points in mind as we raise our pitchforks and cheer while the effigy burns.

First, depictions of violence can be used for valid, potentially redemptive purposes, and the inclusion of brutality does not always (or even often) correlate to acceptance or celebration thereof.

Second, a straw man is a straw man. Destroy all the violent media in the world and there will still be violence in the hearts of men, because they are spiritually cold. Doubtless the world’s problems can be solved by baptizing them in fire; all that remains is recognizing what kind of fire that is.

Chronos & Kairos

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. Saint Augustine, Confessions, XI.14

This time travel crap just…fries your brain like an egg. Looper

Chronos

The trouble with time travel is, it doesn’t work. It never has. It never will. And so long as you accept that, there’s great fun to be had with the concept.

Or perhaps I should say that messing with the timeline doesn’t work. Because a timeline implies a single, fixed path. And whenever some story comes along in which someone has to fix history, the same problem impedes it: if the fix is successful, there will never have been a problem to go back and fix, and thus the fix would never have happened.

A man goes back in time to prevent another man from rising to power. If he succeeds, then he never had a reason to come back — in fact, success of his mission should preclude his existence in the past entirely. But that, of course, precludes the prevention of the rise to power, and necessitates his presence in the past. And so on, ad infinitum.

The best a time travel story can hope for is to provide a look at an eternal present, the place in between actual time where the things causing time to run as it does are happening, perdurably. Anything else is destined to fail, for we have the paradox of two concurrent, impossible, yet inevitable realities: the one in which the problem is eternal, and the one in which the fix is eternal. And so like a hair the timeline splits, and this for every possible variation in what we call history.

It’s fun, if not taken to unhealthy extreme, to consider how our lives would be different had we done certain things differently. But for even basic changes, the potential consequences are staggering. Pluck the wings from a butterfly and chaos ensues.

I recently saw Looper, and (as with Rian Johnson’s previous films) I quite enjoyed it. Looper provides a great deal of entertainment, a refreshingly cool scenario, and stellar acting performances all around. Moreover, Looper happily avoids most of the pitfalls of the time travel genre. Like the concept of loops on which it’s based, the movie nicely wraps things up in a mostly satisfying way. It fails to close the ultimate paradoxical loop, but then I suppose it couldn’t have been expected to.

Movies are pretty brief in the grand scheme of the entertainment spectrum. Even were Looper more ambitious in scope, to the point of pursuing the alternate reality side of the time travel equation, it would likely have lacked the time or the resources to do that pursuit justice. To truly achieve a satisfying grapple with time travel, I think other media are required. Something long-form, like a novel, a television mini-series. Perhaps a game.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 (henceforth 13-2) over the past month. As a sequel, it shines, correcting (if occasionally overcompensating) for every complaint the first game generated. The battle system is more compelling (put another way, it’s a lot easier to die when just relying on auto-battle), the dialogue less stilted, the music more memorable.

More germanely, the story is no longer linear. At all.

Final Fantasy XIII was an ultra-linear experience, one to which the subtitle “The Longest Hallway” would have been aptly applied. It is a perfect illustration of the way we tend to look at time: one line, stretching from start to finish (let’s leave eternity out of this for the moment), unwavering and unchangeable. Aside from the form-enforced exception whereby saved files can be overwritten and failures replaced with victories, there is no alternative to the one path.

One might even argue that the save/load feature enforces the concept of inevitability, for death in battle precludes continuation of the story, a story in which the characters did not die in that battle, and thus you must repeat that piece of history indefinitely until victory — the “true past” — has been achieved.

The sequel, which plays as an apology for its predecessor, obsesses over the consequences and implications of choice and change. Its inciting incident transpires at the end of the world: a protagonist hurled back through time to prevent this reality from happening. And so the red flag is raised: if I prevent the disaster, I’ll never have been sent back to prevent it.

But perhaps not. For it doesn’t take very long for you to realize that in 13-2 the resolution of temporal irregularity results in the generation of a new timeline; or, more accurately, a new branch of the time web.

Early on, you meet a group of people at whose behest you enter a paradox to destroy a time-straddling threat from the space-time out of which it is operating. You then “return” to the time period whence you came, but no one recognizes you; the threat you saved them from never existed. Elsewhere — or, really, elsewhen — the original versions of these people are still waiting for you to destroy that monster. And they always will be — until, perhaps, it destroys them — because for you to destroy it would, in that timeline, preclude your impetus for doing so.

The ramifications of this discovery for the protagonists are staggering. They have undergone a sort of apotheosis, alone (or, at least, quite rare) in their capacity to see and (for lack of a better word) remember every version of history they encounter, and alone in their capacity to change time without obviating themselves.

Or so it seems. I am not terribly far into the game, and already I get a sense that my actions could lead to terrible paradox. I may at some point act in such a way as to generate the aforementioned impossible loop, solving not the problem of others but my own, thereby liberating myself of temporal agency and creating an impossibility  both conceptual and, more importantly, playable.

Meanwhile, changes to the past and future are irrevocably tied to one another. There is a very real possibility that successfully eradicating the apocalyptic future from which Noel was sent will also eradicate Noel. And while that would be extremely problematic for a film (for how, absent Noel, would Serah have embarked on her journey?), it may work in the game, for he would still have existed in the other branches of the timeline wherein his presence was necessary.

The ultimate goal is simply to unlock a good future for Serah and Lightning, in which their past never went so wrong, away from which Lightning was never whisked. Even if memory of the journey taken to achieving such a timeline is lost to its participants, the journey itself is for the player that eternal present to which I earlier alluded. As such, while it’s too soon to guarantee, I think 13-2 is the most successful experiment in time travel as a plot device I’ve ever encountered.

Successful or not, experiences like 13-2 and Looper have had me thinking quite a bit about time lately, and particularly about an encounter, an epiphany of sorts, I had a couple weeks ago while praying rather more urgently than usual.

Kairos

I’d been pressing in for a while, disheartened by a feeling of disconnect, that I was engaged in mere parody of prayer, speaking aloud to an empty room because that was the role I should be playing, not because there was an eternal deity with which I was presently conversing. I wanted to understand God as He really was, not as some character or distant “thing.”

And then a moment of true revelation, the vastness of God, transcending space and time. I don’t know how else to put it. I saw, for a moment, the implications of true omnipresence, of a being unbound by time or space. I could only think of it in terms of the very time that reality defied. At that moment, God is.

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”

God’s presence. His state of being present. Not just in what we understand to be the present, but also in our past and our future. Wherever He is, He is present, and He is everywhere.

I have never felt as small as I did just then, or as empowered. For I realized that at that moment, the only moment, God was in that room, with me, speaking to me. He was also parting the Red Sea as Israel crossed. He was causing Jericho’s walls to fall. He was guiding the stone from David’s sling. He was freeing Paul from prison. He was watching Augustine steal a piece of fruit. He was witnessing my birth. He was witnessing my death. He was riding triumphantly on a white horse. He was reigning forever.

He was bleeding on a cross.
He is bleeding on a cross.

“Crucifixion,” 1954. Salvador Dali.

Everything that God was doing in that room He is doing right now, and always will be. That is what it is to say that God is unchanging. It is to say that all things are happening at once, which is to say nothing “happens,” for everything simply is. To happen implies a past and future which are merely experienced by us, limited and temporal beings. The concept of changing past or future is therefore preposterous, because while the repercussions are unknown to us they have been, will be, are known to God.

The Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is the timeline, the past, present, and future as we tend to think of it. Chronos does not allow for interference. It is inevitable and sequential. Things which do not align with chronos are antithetical to time — anachronisms.

Looper, despite the good it may offer, is bound by chronos and its laws, and judged thereby. It seeks but ultimately fails to introduce kairos into the picture. Kairos is the moment of importance, the thing that matters, perhaps the thing that intrudes on or supersedes chronos. Kairos doesn’t so much change the timeline as define it.

A story in which a person goes into the past to change time but, by her actions, causes the very thing she sought to change — that moment would be kairos. Yet though it cannot be predicted or pinpointed with the exactness of chronoskairos still occurs within chronos‘ confines — and so there is no kairos that does not already have its fixed place along the path of chronos; we cannot expunge these moments from the record or add new ones to it. What changes is simply our awareness of the moments that truly mattered. We see kairos only after it happens, never during or prior, but for one unbound by time, the kairos is there all along, speaking for itself.

In that moment, the absurdity of speaking of God’s fore-anything had me dumbstruck. All the arguments against His “doing things knowing x would happen” felt silly. And of course that’s the point, the reason for his response to Job. His prerogative, yes, but more than that: Job’s questions were framed from a position of temporality and were therefore fundamentally flawed.

I recently discussed Job with an atheist (perhaps agnostic?) who condemned God on the basis of his treatment of Job, acerbically saying “because of course children are fungible” in his denouncement of the supposed consolation for Job’s faithfulness. And admittedly, the whole ordeal still troubles me, for reasons just such as this.

But after that night, it troubled me less. Because I realized that any explanation for the existence of such terrible things in our world as the death and sickness and misery and poverty of people would be beyond my comprehension, and the futility of my understanding might well preclude any attempts at explaining. It is frightening to encounter the reality of one’s limitations, but comforting as well. Boundaries are not inherently bad; they can guide us towards more worthwhile pursuits.

I’m not a universalist. Maybe someday I will be. But playing through 13-2 and watching Looper and having this breakthrough in prayer have all made me think more about alternates, about the very fabric of reality. In 13-2 there is a “true” timeline, the one in which all things end well, in which the bad is not merely corrected but made never to have happened at all.

There are some Christians whose greatest objection to such thinking is that without eternal consequences for sin, the whole exercise was meaningless. But I’d disagree, just as I’d disagree with those who, if 13-2 concludes with Noel never existing and the journey — in the true timeline — never having taken place, would argue that with such ends the means lacked all meaning.

No, so long as we are aware that things could have been different, and are able to appreciate why they aren’t; so long as we can know the extent of evil, and relish in its full and lasting extirpation, then I don’t think an end in which everyone “lives happily ever after” is pointless. I don’t think it’s antithetical to God’s nature either. Paul says that as sin entered all humanity through one man, so shall salvation. The only way that metaphor works is if the salvation is as irresistible and ubiquitous and indifferent to individual volition as was the sin nature it replaces.

But like I said, I’m not a universalist.

What I am is a person bound by chronos, seeking a serendipitous glance at kairos as it unfolds, appreciating the power of a story in which an outside force enters the flow of time and, dying, brings life.

15 Days, Day 4

This is part of a writing exercise dictated by this list. It may benefit you to read it if you seek to know me (or merely someone) better; it may benefit me in the selfsame way. And if knowledge of others is your goal, seek out Anna, whose list prompted mine, and Kimi, whom Anna credits for said list.

Day 4
One passion in your life?

Quite a ways into writing this, I suddenly decided I really love autumn, and that I would finish my brief thoughts and go ahead and write about that. I liked what I’d written, and thought maybe others would too (since, after all, if you’re reading this it’s because you want insight into who I am) so I’d post it below my thoughts on autumn, and that’d be that. But then, as I continued to work out my thoughts on passion and its role in my life, I realized that what I was writing was more important than any pontifications about cool air and colored leaves and pumpkin pie could be. So a passion in my life is New England autumn. The rest follows:

Part of the reason that I had to call it (temporary) quits on this 15-day task was a seeming inability to respond to this question. As one who tends to be over-passionate in all things, nailing down a specific passion has proved fairly difficult for me. I feel a bit like a fruit-of-the-month club member who’s trying to answer the question in a more precise way than “fruit;” or at least figure out how to talk about “fruit” in an interesting and unique way. (No, I’m not passionate about fruit).

At any given time, my passion may be gaming, or cinema, or theatre, or photography, or writing, or vampires (no, but seriously), or politics, or…well, you get the point. And I don’t mean to list hobbies, or general areas of interest; I go through seasons of extraordinary obsession, ravaging the flavor of the month in a way that cannot possibly interest most people. For example, I went through a pretty strong Kingdom Hearts phase a few months back, which led to buying a game, reading about lore, catching up on news, following a half-dozen tumblogs, changing my twitter avatar, etc. In the moment, I was frighteningly fanboyish about it.

And then one day, all of a sudden, it was something else, and I unfollowed the blogs and changed my picture and stopped playing the game halfway through. It was as simple as that. The passion which had driven me for three or four weeks just up and vanished. But it’ll be back, I’m sure, because this is the fourth (or was it fifth?) time that that passion has taken me by storm.

There are few constants (true constants) in my life which can be talked about in a non-abstract way. I’ve pretty much been a writer since I was 9 years old, but I don’t get off on sentence diagrams or crave sonnets or revel in bookstores and cafes quite as much as I’ve always felt I was supposed to. In fact, I’ve spent precious little time in libraries since junior high, and am only now (in post-graduation haze) rediscovering a love for what got me writing in the first place.

Alternatively there’s the Jesus route, but while I’ve been quite a theologian for the past few years my actual faith and knowledge of scripture has floundered (again, things are changing). I don’t have a there-and-back testimony; there’s no before and after. I’ve called myself a Christian ever since I had self-awareness (or at least ever since Mr. Sauder handed me a New Testament and told me that going up to the altar every single time there was a call for rededication was just plain unnecessary), and though there have been crises of faithfulness there has never been a true crisis of faith. God has not so much saved me as He is saving me, and though sometimes I forget to tremble with fear I am still working out my salvation.

Here’s the thing: I’m bad at my passions. I love Christ but go long stretches without serious prayer or devotional. I love gaming but haven’t gamed in weeks. I love writing but struggle with actually, well, writing. I love theatre but I have no plans on seeing a play anytime soon. If this 15 Day Challenge is useful, perhaps it’s because of epiphanies like this: seeing that I don’t embrace life (or facets of it) with the fervor that I ought to, that others do. I have impetus to change, to define myself more fully, to be a more consistent and faithful believer, writer, gamer, photographer, human being.

So that’s not bad at all, is it?