Sunday 18 January 2015

How Fast Were The Magi?

I heard a preacher recently cross-examining children. Among other things, she asked them how old Jesus was when the magi came with their gifts. One young girl - eightish at a guess - suggested, hesitantly, that he could have been about one, to which the preacher replied that she was wrong. Jesus, the preacher reckoned, must have been far older because it would have taken the magi a long, long time to travel all that distance.

Three learning points - at least - from this. Firstly, don't ask questions where you don't know the answer yourself, unless you are properly prepared to listen. Secondly, children actually know a surprising amount, so don't discount what they say. Thirdly, double check your own assumptions. Fourthly - a bonus point - giving children the third degree is not the same as being interactive, and bluntly telling them that their answer is just wrong is poor teaching (not to mention that you risk making yourself look plain ignorant).

So, how old was Jesus when the wise men came? The Bible story, told in Matthew's Gospel, doesn't directly say, but it does tell us that Herod checked when the wise men first saw the star then sent his soldiers to kill all the children in the area under the age of two. So he certainly thought Jesus was not a babe in arms but no more than two years old. So 'about one' is a pretty fair estimate.

What about the distance the magi had to travel? Well, from modern Tehran in Persia to Bethlehem is around a thousand miles. The magi almost certainly would have come from west of there, so 1,000 miles is the maximum likely distance (Baghdad would have been about 550 miles). The Bible doesn't mention camels - it doesn't even mention how many 'wise men' there were - but if they were important people they would have been mounted on something, and camels are as likely as anything else.

On decent terrain - they would have been using ancient trade routes - a camel can comfortably travel 25 miles a day, for day after day. The humans involved may not have been so hardy, so a conservative estimate would be a hundred miles a week. That makes ten weeks maximum for the journey. On foot, people might travel at around half that speed, say fifty miles a week: a maximum of twenty weeks for the journey.

Long distance travel in the ancient world was not that unusual - there was a major trade route between China and the Mediterranean - and really not that slow.

So: ask questions, listen to answers, check assumptions, and always respect kids. That'll do for this post.

Wednesday 14 January 2015

I Am Not Charlie Hedbo, But

... I do think it is right to show the cover they published immediately after so many of their staff were callously murdered.

I do also call 'hypocrite' on all those who claim 'Je suis Charlie', but don't publish any of their cartoons, either for fear of causing offence or just through fear. Causing offence is what Charlie Hebdo did, if you don't want to do so - a perfectly reasonable stance to take - then don't claim to be them, even in solidarity.

Personally I don't want to do the "Je suis Charlie" bit, even in solidarity, because I am not and because I don't believe in being crude and offensive for the sake of it, which appears to have been the standard Charlie Hebdo approach.

Buzzfeed have a dozen of their covers here, if you wish to see something of what I mean. But don't say you weren't warned.

But I do believe in freedom of speech (along with responsibility for what is said) and I do believe in sanctity of life. To kill someone because you find something they have published offensive is simply wrong. To do so in the name of God/Allah/Jahweh is blasphemous, in my view ... but I leave it to God, Allah, and/or Jahweh to defend themselves.

The trouble with not doing something because it might cause offence is that it would be never-ending. People get offended very easily. I think the answer is exactly the same as for those 'Christians' who object to gay marriage: if you don't agree with it then don't do it. But don't try to impose your dislikes onto everyone else.

If you don't want to draw a picture of Mohammed then don't draw one. It's best, perhaps, to not buy magazines like Charlie Hebdo either. But certainly don't think your hurt feelings in any way justify mass murder. They don't, and you can expect judgement from your deity of choice for any suggestion that they do.

There is an immaturity and nastiness, I think, in those who seek to offend 'just because they can'. I agree with Will Self who, last week, reckoned that satire should be about lampooning the powerful, not about bullying the already persecuted.

There is serious hypocrisy in those states and leaders who bleat about freedom of speech whilst restricting that freedom in as many ways as they can (it is against the law in France to deny that the Holocaust happened, for example).

But none of that alters the fact that it is important to stand up against those who would impose their own views and prejudices by murder and by intimidation.

Je ne suis pas Charlie, mais j'espère que tout est vraiment pardonné.

With apologies to any French speakers offended by my linguistic incompetence ;)

Saturday 10 January 2015

Two Baptisms?

Early in Mark's Gospel he tells us that John the Baptist was "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins", and saying that, whilst John was baptising with water, the one coming after (Jesus) would baptise with the Holy Spirit.

Similarly, in Acts, we hear the story of Paul going to Ephesus and finding some disciples who had been baptised with "John's baptism". Paul tells them that John's baptism was a "baptism of repentance" and baptises them again "in the name of the Lord Jesus", then "the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied".

This looks very much like two baptisms: one in water for repentance and a second in the Holy Spirit. Although in the case of Cornelius they were the other way around: Cornelius and his fellows received the Holy Spirit then they were baptised in water "in the name of Jesus Christ".

It all seems a bit messy to me, and gives lots of room for different groups to argue about their differing practices, trying to make the passages of Scripture fit what they prefer to do.

As ever, words and their changing meanings over two thousand years are part of the problem.

'Repentance' gets confused, especially by religious people, with remorse and penitence: it becomes a very negative, "woe is me for I am a wicked sinner" kind of idea. That is not what the word means in the Bible. The original Greek word metanoia simply means change of heart, change of attitude or change of (life) direction. Almost certainly the underlying Hebrew word (Jesus' and John's native language) would have been Teshuva, which means turning back to God, implying turning away from darkness and wickedness. Both the Greek and Hebrew words refer to a positive concept: a positive change of direction. The process might involve being regretful for what went before, but that is not the point. The point is to turn to God, to direct one's life toward a new, better way.

This confusion about repentance has led to arguments about who should be baptised. If repentance is about being remorseful and penitent then it must require a certain level of mental knowledge and understanding; therefore some church traditions don't baptise young children - although they commonly will baptise people with dementia and other forms of severe brain damage, which is a little inconsistent. However, if repentance is simply about turning to God, then you don't need an IQ test to do that - in John's Gospel Jesus talks about an instinctive response to his light, whether we turn toward it or away.

Also, back in New Testament times people were much less individualistic then today's Westerners and more family and community oriented. So you get occasions in Acts where x and their household are baptised, for example Lydia and Peter's jailer. The latter brings up another confusion of words: in the New Testament 'believing in' and 'faith' are mostly about trust rather than mental ideas - believing in a person, having faith in a person, not in the sense of believing they exist, but that you can trust your life to them. Again, you can do that without schooling and without careful cogitation.

Then we get 'speaking in tongues' and 'prophesying'. Originally speaking in tongues simply meant speaking in a foreign language, see the story of the first Christian Pentecost in Acts 2. This illustrates a reversal of the division created by the Tower of Babel story. How this got turned into 'speaking gobbledegook' is a bit of a mystery. Similarly prophesying was not really about predicting the future but about speaking out God's message for today, which might happen to include future consequences.

The point is that when someone is 'baptised in the Spirit' they are filled with God's overwhelming presence and power, maybe with the result that their speech reflects that experience and that presence. This might involve praising God in other languages, it might involve speaking out in God's name, it might even lead to just speaking incoherently. Or the experience may simply lead to silent wonder and adoration.

Pulling this all together: I don't myself see the Biblical witness as being about two separate baptisms, but as one single life reorientation - possibly spread over a period of time. Repentance involves turning to God, receiving the Holy Spirit empowers us to step out in that new direction, and to do so in the company of others.

Walking in Jesus' way is a lifelong journey. In my experience this involves many wanderings and false turns, also a great deal of exhaustion and attrition. Re-turning towards God is a regular need; but equally important is the direction, energy, and sheer staying-power that comes from his Holy Spirit, plus the mutual support and encouragement that come from walking together with others, bonded by that same Spirit.

One baptism in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition - Early Impressions

Dragon Age Inquisition (DAI) is the third instalment in the computer RPG Dragon Age series. Dragon Age: Origins, the first, was a brilliant game, Dragon Age II was pretty horrible - bad enough to seriously dent developer Bioware's previously excellent reputation - what about Inquisition?

My first impression of DAI was poor, but as I have played on it has got better and better.

A bit of history before I attempt to articulate why. Inquisition has its roots in two venerable approaches to computer RPG games, both of which have deep literary roots.

The first approach is the mixed party of adventurers on a quest, typically to save the world, dealing with various side-quests along the way. Think Lord of the Rings. The party typically contains a tough fighter/knight sort of person, a sneaky rogue who can open locks and attack people from behind, a wimpy intellectual magic user, and a religious healer who often also doubles as a second fighter. This mix goes back to the days of Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop game played over many a weekend by people (including myself) back in the seventies and eighties. The great thing about this approach, particular with the 'group of friends around a table' background, is that interactions between party members became an important part of the tradition. Also the D&D background insists on an openness in gameplay - allowing many different playing styles and approaches to solving the problems encountered along the way. This provides a lot of replayability for this type of game, as you can play in several different ways, and make different decisions en-route which might significantly change the way the story unfolds.

Bioware developed the classic games in this tradition: Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. They moved on to other things and Neverwinter Nights II was developed by Obsidian, taking the gaming perspective from the old isometric top-down viewpoint to a more immersive 'over the shoulder' camera. I thought this was a great game and storyline, but badly marred by the game engine, which couldn't cope with the challenges of the new approach. Then there was a gap before Bioware returned to the genre with Dragon Age: Origins, which solved the camera problems (near enough) and provided a huge amount of replayability by having half-a-dozen different starting points - depending on your choice of main character - and by providing feedback at the end about the consequences of choices made along the way. To add the icing on the cake they also provided a modding tool - allowing people to create addons and extras to go with the game. The effect of this is to extend the lifetime significantly, as graphics can be improved and extra stories and quest series added in.

The second approach is the lone hero, an all-rounder who learns the skills s/he needs along the way. The greatest exponents of this approach to cRPGs are The Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda, whose most recent example is Skyrim. This approach forgoes character interactions, replacing them with a richer, more diverse set of questlines, and a more immersive approach to fighting. As well as the main 'saving the world' quest, the game world is more of a 'sandbox' filled with quests large and small. In a Bethesda game you can replay ignoring the main quest more or less entirely, instead focussing on becoming head of the mages guild, for example, or helping one side win the civil war which is the background to the gameworld, and so on. The more D&D-derived games retain a bit of a turn-at-a-time approach to combat, where you fight by clicking on a target and letting the game engine decide if and when you hit it. Skyrim and its predecessors work more on the basis that you swing a weapon and whatever it hits takes damage; a problem if you are not very accurate and hit a town guard, say. Bethesda's games always have a wow-factor in the graphics of their environments; being also moddable means that this can be kept up to date as time, and graphics technology, moves on.

One of Bioware's stated intentions with Dragon Age Inquisition was to add a more Skyrim-like vibe to the game, compared to previous games in the series, with a more open-world and immersive feel. I had been playing Skyrim a lot over the weeks before I got DAI and would say they failed. Indeed I felt their attempts just made the initial impression of the game seem cumbersome and rather naff.

For example the environmental graphics (hills and grass and sky and suchlike) are really quite good compared to earlier games in the series, but rather meh compared to Skyrim. Plus the way all the hills and trees and suchlike are laid out tends to get in the way of travelling - such practicalities seem less well thought out than in Skyrim. The game interface seems to be aimed primarily at console controllers, so using a PC with mouse and keyboard is that little bit less intuitive and convenient.

Fighting is better than Dragon Age II - where it was awful - but is still a clicky mess. If you try to fight in real-time, rather than overtly turn-by-turn, then the game seems to choose for you who you are attacking from nearby enemies, irrespective of which enemy you are actually trying to target, and you just click away - occasionally interrupted because the mouse pointer happens to be over some other control, like the inventory button - until the enemy is defeated. Little control and no real tactics. You can pause the game (although the pause button is inconveniently placed) to give commands to other party members, but they just seem to do what they are told for a few seconds then revert to their AI which, as a default, just attacks the same enemy as the main character. Party tactics - one of the strengths of the adventurer party approach - fly out of the window. There seem to be ways around this but the default approach is pretty much brain-dead.

One alternative is to use an old-style isometric top-down view, which seems to be more controllable. Unfortunately this doesn't give a good view of large monsters, nor of the rifts floating in mid-air. I hope there are ways around this with practice.

The game world is divided into something like a dozen different areas (thus far). Each area has a stack of individual quests which give you 'power' and 'influence' when you complete them. Said 'power' and 'influence' then go toward progressing the main story quest. The area quests are mostly of the 'go to location X, kill the enemies there, and collect Y' format. There are a few linked quest-lines which start to emerge as the game goes on, but in the early parts of DAI the rich storylines of  Dragon Age: Origins or Skyrim are notable by their absence.

The overarching story quest is controlled from a central area where you can talk to your companions (so far companion interactions are a lot less interesting than is usual in such games, but that seems to be slowly improving as the game goes on), send agents off to carry out investigations, which typically open up new quest lines and/or new areas, or travel yourself to one of the game areas. This is the part of the game which is relatively novel (at least within this genre) and which is growing on me.

In fact the game is a whole is steadily growing on me. As I get further on the characters and story are finally beginning to develop, and I am finding ways around the various issues and inconveniences. The graphics and music are not memorable but they're not aggravating either, and the game does have that imponderable "I'll just do this one next section before I stop" degree of addictiveness. If this continues DAI could prove to definitely be a good game overall, but given its many flaws I can't see myself ever considering it a great game.