The Sci Fi Christian Classroom, Week 1: Invented Worlds and Ithaca

September 14, 2013

Week 1 of the Sci Fi Christian Classroom included “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning, “Ithaca” by C.P. Cavafy, Book 1 of “The Lord of the Rings” and initial character setup on Lord of the Rings Online. Ben and Adam discuss their thoughts and reactions after the first week. The class is at: https://www.coursera.org/#course/onlinegames.

 

Adam: Hello, class, settle down now.
All right, this is the first session of the Sci-Fi Christian Classroom. We’ll be talking about the week 1 of “Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative.”
First question: Did anyone else find it hilarious that he had to define such terms as “MMORPG” and “NPC”?Hello, class, settle down now.

All right, this is the first session of the Sci-Fi Christian Classroom. We’ll be talking about week 1 of “Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative.”

First question: Did anyone else find it hilarious that he had to define such terms as “MMORPG” and “NPC”?

 

Ben: I would have found it hilarious except that I learned that NPC didn’t mean what I thought it meant. I’d always defined it as Non-playable Character. He, on the other hand, correctly defined it as Non-player Character. A small difference perhaps, but I still don’t like being wrong!

 

A: Just a single word to say:  “Heathen!”

 

B: I’ve been thinking about this whole NPC business some, and far from admitting to being a video game heathen, I’m going to make the argument that Ben is Right! Non-Playable Character makes far more sense than Non-Player Character. Every character, besides the one you’re controlling, is a Non-Player Character. However, at least in an MMO, many of them could potentially be controlled by you. Non-Playable Character indicates that the character in question is completely AI. Ergo, my interpretation of the acronym is far more accurate and sensible. Ben is Right (cue the music)

 

A: I think one needs to understand that “Non-player character” originates from the old pen-and-paper days of roleplaying games. In theory, you could call a “non-playable character” any character who isn’t you. For example, other players depicting their own fully-fledged characters.
“Non-player character” indicates any and all characters played by the DM.
Whereas all player characters have a full stats sheet, an NPC might only have a few basic stats for a situation or no stats at all (like an innkeeper only there for information).
Cue the “Ben is hedging” music…

B: Actually, I don’t think you could call any player besides yourself non-playable. I could, theoretically, play your character in LOTRO if you gave me your login info. Ergo, it isn’t non-playable but simply – from my perspective – non-player. BEN IS RIGHT!

 

A: Uh, Ben, I hate to say it, but I think you just successfully argued that your term “non-playable character” doesn’t actually exist or that it is, at least, meaningless….

B: Whoops. I mixed up my terminology in that one 🙂
I hate it when I forget which side I’m arguing!

A: Second question: Did you cringe visibly when he used the term: “fandom”?

B: Not really. I’ve been hard on the term fandom on the show, but that’s mostly because I feel its been misappropriated to denote a shallow approach to stories, as well as exploited by studios to make fans buy crap. The way he’s approaching fandom in this course is something far different than what I’ve protested against.

A: Third (more serious and more SFC-related) question: He spent a lot of time talking about the invented worlds of video games and how they relate to our own reality.
Do you think these worlds are a positive or a negative for our Christian faith? Both? In what ways?

B: I think invented worlds are a positive thing that, unfortunately, are often used negatively. Let me explain. I don’t think it’s accidental that we as humans are drawn to love stories. It’s an inherent part of our psychology and, from a Christian perspective, our spirituality.

The Bible is filled with narrative. While most of its stories aren’t of invented worlds in the way of Lord of the Rings, they are, at least to modern readers, different enough from our every day world to fulfill a similar function.

Adam, as Catholics, you and I experience this part of our spirituality on a weekly basis at Mass. The entire purpose of Mass is to draw us into another world where Heaven and Earth are joined. Things like vestments, incense, chant and, most profoundly, the Eucharist serve the same function in Mass as things like magic, made-up languages and mythical creatures do in an invented world – drawing us out of our everyday life into a different time/space

Given that, I see invented worlds as being an enormous good. They speak deeply to the human psyche and spirit. They show us truth in ways we can’t get at in everyday life.

Where they become negative is in the abuse of entertainment and escapism. I think all of us, at times, need to kick back and turn off our brains with a dumb movie or show. However, that should be the exception, not the rule. For a lot of people, they reverse is the case. They go to invented worlds to check out, and, as a result, miss out on the amazing spiritual opportunities present in engaging invented worlds at a deeper level.

A: What I hear you saying in this is that what the Christian religion (especially Catholicism, I agree) shares in common with fantasy and science fiction a nature of “trancendence.” I suppose the question that raises is “trancendence into what?”
In the case of our faith, we are transported to a fantastic realm of mystery wholly unlike our own. This spiritual realm, however, also has the distinct advantage over invented realms in that it also just happens to be real.
Pause there for a moment… aaaand… mind officially blown.
While I think our attention is best spent in studying the spiritual realm of God and Christ directly, I do also agree that there is tremendous good in invented worlds. Quite often they are reflections of what makes us most human – like Sam – and warnings against how deeply un-human we can become – like Gollum.

B: I want to follow up to something you said. You said, ” I think our attention is best spent in studying the spiritual realm of God and Christ directly.” Forgive me if I’m overanalyzing your words, but I find myself question how much – if at all – that’s possible. I could just be channeling my inner Karl Barth here, but I question to what extent any sort of direct study – let alone understanding – of God is possible.

That brings me back to what I see as the God-given love – dare I say need – for stories in most of us. I would actually argue that, at times, stories give us the most direct access to God due to their forcing us to look beyond just the tangible here and now.

A: When I said “directly,” I wasn’t meaning in any sort of literal sense, as in putting God under a microscope and getting to fully know every last detail. That’s not possible, by definition.
I’m talking more about “vector” perhaps. In mass and in the sacraments, our vector of intention is as directly toward God as we can manage in our human brokenness.
In fiction and story, the vector is more tangental. We’re not aimed right at God, but rather directed toward something else (the fictional story) and we glimpse God out of the corner of our eye and with a different viewpoint. In that way, fiction gives us a distinct benefit, views on God from another angle.

So, yes, now that we agree that invented worlds are best used in the service of a deeper reflection upon true worlds, I’d like to invite you into a bit of a deeper reflection. Namely, that of the poem “Ithaca” discussed at the end of these sessions.

It’s By C.P. Cavafy – full text here: http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?id=259&cat=1
Namely, I’d like to look at two phrases in particular.

But first, a bit of context to the poem. The names and places here are from Homer’s Odyssey and Ithaca was where Osysseus was trying to get back to. He ultimately found himself forgotten and Ithaca itself disappointing. The point of the poem is it’s the journey, not the destination.

So first phrase to discuss:
“The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.”

Do you agree? Is the only evil that which we carry within ourselves and bring with us? Or is there an external force of evil that is not contained within humankind?

Second phrase: “Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.”

As Christians, our ultimate Ithaca is heaven. So what if, (IF!) as this might suggest, heaven disappoints. Is the journey of walking with God in THIS life enough?

And what are your other Ithacas? Have you found them to disappoint? Is it really all about the journey?

B: It’s interesting you bring up the Ithaca poem and the notion that the point is really the journey. That concept has always bugged me somewhat. There are certainly contexts where it’s true – when I play a Mario game it’s far more fun to solve the levels than it is to actually have rescued the Princess. However, I’m not sure it actually translates that well into real life, into stories or into our spiritual lives.

I’m actually in the middle of rereading The Odyssey at the moment. I’ve been struck by how much the story mirrors classical initiation rites. Odysseus goes through all of these trials and sees wonderful things on his journey. However, it’s those experiences that prepare him for Ithaca and handling the disappointment that awaits him there. I really have the exact opposite view of The Odyssey from the poem. I don’t think it’s just about the journey. I think it’s about being prepared – or initiated – for life in Ithaca.

By the same token, I don’t buy the notion that the real action is here on earth while Heaven is just the nice, relaxing reward afterward. I believe that God is shaping us here on earth for eternity in the New Heavens and New Earth – whatever that may look like. This is the journey, our initiation. But the journey isn’t the point. Ithaca is.

A: I think that as with much in life, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes. What I hear you saying is the journey prepares for the destination. But I would also argue that there is joy and pain (commonly called “adventure”) in the journey as well.
The journey has value for its own sake, AND for the sake of where you’re headed.
One last point, I am of a thought that Heaven is something of a journey itself. Remember toward the end of “The Last Battle” by C.S. Lewis, where they have reached heaven with Aslan, and they keep going “higher up and further in”?
I love this idea. That Heaven is not some sort of stasis. That God is so big that sanctification and being brought deeper into the presence of God is, itself, eternal. That our destination will end up proving to be the greatest journey – the greatest adventure – of all.

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