Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Night of Mystery...and More

Last night I held a "Night of Mystery" with the youth at Holyrood...and what a night! So cool. Normally, these games are largely "whodunnit's" over supper...but this one, "Curse of the Pharaoh" from Free Form Games was so much more. Like a live-action roleplaying game without the they LARP with dice?

There was treachery, deceit, ancient Egyptian magic...and Pizza!

Dunno. But the costumes were great, and the time was great fun. I highly recommend a Free Form Game for the next time you feel you need a little mystery in your party.

There are two links to Free Form Games, and this is the one I found them at, which allows you to choose your game based upon how many kids are attending, which I feld so very helpful.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Heretic's Guide to Eternity: Chapter 01 - Jesus Beyond Christianity

The first chapter opens in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's prison cell during WWII, where he wrote a short letter titled "Religionless Christianity", a letter "which does not seem to be abandoning the Christian faith as reimagining it." This is the Heretic's goal. To revision faith, not abandon it.

Burke keeps jumping from the term "traditional religion" to "religion" synonymously. As someone whose academic work has largely been in religious studies, it seems to me that Burke is setting up a straw man and given it the title "religion". Anything that smacks of patriarchy or traditionalism can be given the title religion. We'll ascribe all historical fubars (such as any of the Crusades, Colonialism, patriarchy, anti-semitism) to religion. The alternative Burke offers to religion is "spirituality", a "religionless" way to "celebrate the sacred". Everyone digs spirituality, as he demonstrates by citing Bono and the preponderance of magazine articles on the subject. Those historical cock up's were the fault of religion, not "spirituality".

When Burke says that "cracks are appearing in the foundation of traditional religion" he isn't telling us anything new. Judaism was the cracks in Caananite polytheism. Christianity became the cracks in Judaism. Then that cracked into Orthodoxy and Catholicism. And then Protestantism came along and we've been cracking ever since. I'm simplifying of course, but when Burke says "religion is no longer regarded as a place to find peace for the soul" it sounds like students in religious studies courses wanting badly to not be defined as "religious" in the way that people like Durkheim and Eliade implied all men might be.

If we can just distance ourselves from those bad religious people, those modern day Pharisees, then we'll be in the clear. The problem is that Burke never defined what he meant by religion. He implies it heavily, with words like "external and dogmatic belief systems" and "power-based interpretations of foundational texts". He suggests we need to "move past religion".

He states that "Faithfulness to the message of Jesus does not mean that we must simply imitate our forbears in the Christian tradition. To do so might help preserve their formulas, but it will freeze us in history." I couldn't agree more. But it does not follow, to use his language, that faithfulness to the message of Jesus means that we must simply ignore those forebears, or abandon those traditions. I realize I'm only in the first chapter and there's lots more to unfold here, but if this first chapter were an article, I'd be assuming (and I hate doing that, but this is the limitation of the step by step dialogue) that Burke wants to leave "the Church" behind.

I think the ideas Burke has are good, but his dichotomy is false. Most of the academic staff in the program of religious studies at University of Alberta would still label a "celebration of the sacred" as a religious actitivity, therefore a form of religion. Burke wants to define religion as patriarchal Christendom, or perhaps fundamentalism, or both and all the other shit that gets swept under the header of "religion". A better polemic might be traditional religion vs. transforamational religion, which Burke calls spirituality. I know I'm playing a semantic game, but words are powerful, and I dislike that "religion" is equated with some dry, lifeless concept while "spirituality" retains an effervescence and vitality. I also find it suspicious that we will revision, not abandon "faith" but that "faith" is not "religion". And I dig Bono's sentiment that "religion is the temple after God has left it", but that won't change that popularly, we still think of religion as being associated with God. Again, maybe what's needed isn't abandonment of religion but revision. Redemptive revision of the word religion.

Better yet, let's get historical. What is it exactly we're all rebelling against in the West? Is it really the Church of Jesus Christ, or is it the Church of Reverend Jimmy Bakker, and via him to fundamentalism, and via that to Colonial missionary movements, etc., which could be boiled down into the term "Christendom" could it not? The earthly kingdom of the church. As defined over at wikipedia, Christendom "in the widest sense, refers to Christianity as a territorial phenomenon: those countries where most people are Christians, or nominal Christians, are part of Christendom." It's a political entity.

I am not so eager to divest myself of Christianity. There have been many times I've wanted to ditch the phrase, to call myself something funky like "follower of the Way" but I always end up in my explanations telling people I'm a Christian. A Christ follower. You can dress it all up, and the people you're talking to will likely still think "Christian". Christianity, and the church ought to be, to use one of Bonhoeffer's other works, a spiritual reality created by God which we may choose to participate in.

And why not? I'm not proud of everything in the history of Christianity, and I find most church life stifling, but then again, not everything in the Perschon family tree is squeaky clean and I'm not changing my last name to Bush (God, that was inflammatory, wasn't it?).

Maybe I've misunderstood Spencer Burke. If I have, my apologies...hopefully by the end of this road, I'll know more definitively. But in a nutshell, my back's up a bit. Trying hard to keep an open mind, but...well. I digress. Until next week.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Someone likes my picture of that Biblical whore...

Got asked if my first rendering of Rahab from the Josh and Caleb webcomic could be used on a blog today. Irony of it was a woman. And she said "your comic of her is exactly how I see her". After all the crap I've taken for my take on was nice to have someone say that. Check it out over at What Donna Learned Today.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A Heretic's Guide to Eternity - Part One: Introduction

Spencer Burke, the man behind sent me an advance copy of his book, "A Heretic's Guide to Eternity" (HGTE), asking me to do a review of it. I read half of the book in a frenzy when it first arrived, and then my first semester of grad studies started up and...well, those who know the blog know that I'm too damn busy for my own good.

For those of you who are wondering what the hell I'm doing posting a fresh blog entry instead of just pasting in excerpts from my academic papers, rest your minds. This is something I'm taking on as part of my paid work. I think a pastoral examination of Spencer's book is valuable enough to do that. Not to mention I promised him I'd review the book.

Rather than just review it though, I'm going to walk through it step by step as I re-read the first half, and then carefully examine the part I haven't read yet. I'm not going to say what I've thought of the book so far--that will come later.

In the introduction, Spencer states that the "focus and hope" of HGTE is to see "Spirituality in the twenty-first century...not etched in stone but fashioned out of the fabrics of our lives in new and ever-changing permutations" (xxiv). This thesis statement is prefaced by the claim that "God is to be questioned as much as obeyed, created again and not simply worshiped. Our views must be continually revised, reconsidered, and debated." Hence the Heretic in the title. Spencer is saying that "we need heretics today" (xxv) to revise, reconsider and debate our views.

Unlike a lot of works from so-called emergent church thinkers, Spencer has the balls to say he's not "merely seekly to put a new spin on old beliefs; I am actually declaring that there are new ways of believing when it comes to the Christian story" (xxvi).

Provocative enough for you? It was for me. I've been considered a heretic by many, and since yesterday's heretics are often tomorrow's saints, I don't much mind being branded thus. The way Spencer starts out HGTE makes me look orthodox. I'm looking forward to the journey, since I had trouble putting this book down before time constraints made me do it.

I'll be working out each chapter as a weekly discipline, so check in next Friday to hear what I have to say about chapter 1.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Through a Mirror Shade Darkly: The Subtle Sublime of Cyberpunk part 07

Works Cited

Bear, Greg. “Petra.” Mirror Shades. Ed. Bruce Sterling. New York: Arbor House, 1986, 105-124.

Fielding, Julien. “Reassessing the Matrix: Reloaded” 7. Journal of Religion and Film 2003: [electronic resource].

Gibson, William. “The Gernsback Continuum” Mirror Shades.

K¯okaku kid¯otai, a.k.a. Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Mamoru Oshii. Bandai Visual, 1995.

Kelly, James Patrick. “Solstice.” Mirror Shades. Ed. Bruce Sterling. New York: Arbor House, 1986, 66-104.

Maddox, Tom. “Snake-Eyes.” Mirror Shades. Ed. Bruce Sterling. New York: Arbor House, 1986, 12-33.

Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Olsen, Lance. “The Shadow of Spirit in William Gibson’s Matrix Trilogy.” 3 Extrapolation 1991: 278-289.

Otto, Rudolf. “The Idea of the Holy.” Theory and Method in the Study of Religion: A Selection of Critical Readings. Ed. Carl Olson. Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003. 107-119.

Porush, David. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson's SnowCrash” 3 Configurations (1994): 537-571.

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. Toronto: Bantam Books, 2003.

Sterling, Bruce and Gibson, William. “Red Star, Winter Orbit.” Mirror Shades. Ed. Bruce Sterling. New York: Arbor House, 1986, 202-222.

Sterling, Bruce. “Preface.” Mirror Shades. Ed. Bruce Sterling. New York: Arbor House, 1986, vii-xiv.

The Matrix Reloaded. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2003.

The Matrix Revolutions. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2003.

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss. Village Roadshow Pictures, 1999.

Voller, Jack. “Neuromanticism: Cyberspace and the Sublime.” 1.Extrapolation 1993: 18-29.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Through a Mirror Shade Darkly: The Subtle Sublime of Cyberpunk part 06

The element of the metaphysical in cyberpunk is an example of the literary sublime, not as “the powerful and cataclysmic aspects of physical nature” as Jack Voller writes, but as “at its heart, a tradition of spiritual inquiry, an aesthetically grounded quest to recovering intimations of the divine” (18). In “Snake Eyes”, Aleph has an aspect of the sublime to it, since it possessed “several thousand voices” (18) and “is constituted by an infinite regress of awarenesses…” (17). The snake as well is spoken of in transcendent language, relating to the sublime, for it “cannot be reached through language—it exists in a prelinguistic mode…” (23). In Bear’s “Petra”, the sublime is revealed when the canvases drop, and a “burst of light” which was “more than simple sunlight” throws the Cathedral’s smoky world into clarity, astounding “all who beheld them” (118-9).

As Jack Voller observes, the sublime nature of infinity is “relocated, interiorized, and manifested as cyberspace” in Gibson’s Neuromancer. Likewise in Snow Crash the Metaverse is an example of the sublime simply based on its massive size of “65,536 kilometers around”, but gains a spiritual sublimity in that it is also compared to the spiritual world (208).

For each of these examples, the words of Colonel William Hawley in James Patrick Kelly’s “Solstice” are true; “The more we dig, the more the mystery appears to deepen” (79). If the mystery is taken from the reader, then the mystery ceases to hold its attraction. In the matrix, the spiritual quest embodied in the sublime is made explicit, but the mysteries it seeks after retain their ambiguous nature. Every time a question is answered, another emerges. Neo’s ability to transform reality does not diminish the sublime nature of the matrix universe. Rather, if anything, it enlarges it.

Cyberpunk’s spiritual path is not an altruistic one. Not all cyberpunk contains spiritual imagery—it is not one of the defining features of cyberpunk. However, insofar as it does express a sense of transcendence, it is often encoded behind the movement’s penchant for anti-authoritarianism. Behind that veneer however, often exists a deep yearning for something beyond the seen, for sublime metaphysical possibilities.

Like the mirror shades that are the totem of the movement, what is reflected on the surface leads us to believe there is an absence of soul. However, in addition to giving a true picture of what is immediately before them, mirror shades also hide the eyes, the gateways to the soul, protecting the “sun staring visionary” (Sterling, ix), permitting them to look into the face of glory without coming away blind and in the dark.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Through a Mirror Shade Darkly: The Subtle Sublime of Cyberpunk part 05

In her book, The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson explores this issue by saying “it is because of our culture’s post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment prohibition on the supernatural and the exclusion of a transcendent, nonmaterialist level of reality from the allowable universe has created the ontological equivalent of a perversion caused by repression” (19). Nelson’s book is an exploration of the sublimation of the supernatural in popular fiction into cybernetic entities such as cyborgs, androids and robots.

The post-Enlightenment mindset cannot admit angels and demons, or gods and goddesses. Strangely, it seems to be able to admit aliens, robots and artificial intelligences. As belief in the transcendent has waned in the past century, the proliferation of genre fiction such as science fiction, fantasy and horror has waxed. And within these genre fictions, the use of spiritual or religious imagery abounds, as we have shown within the subgenre of cyberpunk. However, if cyberpunk is truly a postmodern form of literature, then when the narrative demands, as is seemingly the case in Snow Crash to permit metaphysical possibilities rather than avoid them.

In regards to our discussion, the first film of the Matrix trilogy could be said to follow along the same ambivalence toward metaphysics Stephenson has, since it is only within the cyberspace reality of the Matrix that characters are able to defy gravity, “know Kung-Fu” in moments, and “dodge bullets”. In the final moments of the second film, The Matrix: Reloaded and throughout the third film, The Matrix: Revolutions, Neo, the messianic “One” is able to transfer his transformative shamanic abilities into the “desert of the real”.

Yet rather than detracting from the narrative, the ability of Neo to actually transform reality, not just cyber-reality, only added to the mystery of the trilogy. It is this element of mystery, of an unexplained aspect which makes the Matrix trilogy an apotheosis of cyberpunk narrative. The Architect of The Matrix: Reloaded is the fulfillment of Gibson’s Wintermute-Neuromancer and Maddox’s Aleph, while Neo’s transformative powers are the realization of Enki’s nam-shub, both within and without the Matrix. Some of these elements remain unexplained, and therein resides what may be the reason behind the prolific and ongoing discourse concerning the nature of the Matrix universe; the mysterium of Rudolph Otto, “something which has no place in our scheme of reality but belongs to an absolutely different one, and which at the same time arouses an irrepressible interest in the mind” (111).

The films draw copiously upon the cyberpunk tradition, from the mirror shades sported by the heroes and villains, to the use of cyberspace as setting, to the blatant plundering of cyberpunk literature, the most obvious being the use of the word “matrix” in regard to the cyberspace reality in reference to Gibson’s Neuromancer. In addition, it draws heavily upon religious elements to motivate its narrative.

As has been shown in Julien R. Fielding’s article “Reassessing the Matrix Reloaded”, the trilogy creates a pastiche from a number of religious traditions, namely Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, avoiding the easy cage of allegorizing any one of the religion’s mythologies. The reaction to these religio-philosophical elements in the films was fascinating; a large number of websites and books emerged as the trilogy unfolded, all trying to decipher the meanings behind The Matrix. As Fielding observes, “Taoism, Shintoism, popular literature, anime and manga, and even popular films from Star Wars to Vertigo help us peel away more and more layers” (par. 18).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Through a Mirror Shade Darkly: The Subtle Sublime of Cyberpunk Part 04

William Gibson’s Wintermute computer in Neuromancer also embodies this godlike artificially intelligence. At the end of the book Wintermute has joined it’s “hive mind” with the “personality” and “immortality” of Neuromancer, and has “become something else”. It has become, in its own words, “the sum total of the works, the whole show” (268-269). As Lance Olsen observes, “the spiritual infuses the material, the material the spiritual” (281).

This is seen as well in Ghost in the Shell when the Puppet Master says to the female cyborg Motoko, “Now we must slip our bonds and rise to the higher structure”. Given the film’s reference to 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways”, the spiritual connotations are inescapable. And Motoko’s union with the Puppet Master speaks of an inner yearning to be one with some form of divinity. However, Wintermute-Neuromancer and other godlike AI represent “vast knowledge which cannot be known by humans. It appears by means of indistinct intimations, whispers, a voice speaking out of a babel of tongues” (Olsen, 284).

This ‘babel’ of tongues calls to mind Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a work so thick with religious imagery that to cite and discuss it would alone take an entire essay. Like the cyberpunk writers before him, Stephenson uses religious imagery to construct his narrative world but maintains the earlier works’ ambivalence toward organized religion, and more importantly here, metaphysics.

Stephenson has created a narrative wherein cyberspace serves the function that the otherworld would have in mythic tales. Anyone with a computer can visit the Metaverse, but since Hiro is part of the elite few, those like the “technomedia priesthood of Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong” (192) who have designed parts of it, he is able to do more than simply travel there – he can transform it, like some sort of cyber-shaman.

Unlike Gibson, Stephenson goes a step further by introducing a physical way in which the code that has constructed the Metaverse can be used as a form of magic, namely the nam-shub of Enki. Stephenson describes Enki as a sort of messianic figure, stating that Enki was “…a fully conscious human being, just like us…he created the nam-shub of Enki, a countervirus that spread along the same routes as the me and the metavirus. It went into the deep structures of the brain and reprogrammed them” (397-8).

This messianic aspect is reinforced by the further exposition that “the ministry of Jesus Christ was an effort to break Judaism out of this condition—sort of an echo of what Enki did. Christ’s gospel is a new nam-shub, an attempt to take religion out of the temple, out of the hands of the priesthood, and bring the Kingdom of God to everyone” (401). Here Stephenson is referencing Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar, when he says that “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” but rather “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23, NIV). If the words of the Christian messiah are merely an echo of Enki’s nam-shub, then the reader must conclude that Enki possessed a potent spiritual power.

Yet, despite the groundwork Stephenson has laid with this idea of the nam-shub being something that works both in and outside cyberspace, Hiro never attains the ability to use it. He is set up as a sort of Enki, but is never granted an actual nam-shub; his ability to transform reality remains limited to the Metaverse. Even the character of Juanita, who becomes a “ba’al shem” who can “hack the brainstem” (430) is treated dismissively by Hiro.

Given the metahistory the narrative has developed, this power should make her “an extremely righteous rabbi, someone possessing such deep penetration that he knows the unutterable name of God and can use it to control nature” (Porush, 568). Yet her awesome ability only serves to rescue Hiro so that he can reenter the Metaverse, the cyberpunk otherworld and foil L. Bob Rife’s plans using a computer hack. It seems that Enki’s magic is more along the lines of “subtle kind of magic, the only kind still possible in this overly explained world” as being a “magic that works exclusively in the mind” (Kelly, 68).

Porush sees Stephenson’s “rejection of the metaphysical turn not as a lack of insight, but as the residual restraint one of the most potent viral ideas in our culture has on Stephenson and on his hero: a commitment to orthodox rationalism” (569). I would apply this statement to most of the previously examined writers, with the exception of Bear, whose “Petra” has nothing to do with rationalism. It’s the most postmodern of the works examined here, allowing more than just reality to be considered a matter of perspective; reality is determined by perspective in a very real way.

Nevertheless, the absurdity of the premise for “Petra” does not allow for the wild verisimilitude of Snow Crash, which is built upon a mythology which demands that Stephenson acknowledge “spiritualism as an activity just as important to civilization as word-tech:
“The effect of the Babel/Infocalypse…was to enlarge the domain of human activity in two directions at once. The first leads to words…which from thence forward would never be enough. The second leads to a recognition of the spirit world, a domain that transcends physical presence and mechanical activity, a realm beyond words, which we can never utterly know…The inability of Snow Crash to confront its own metaphysics, the spiritual transcendence it conjures only to banish, comes from the fashionable unwillingness to grant any credence to narratives of metaphysics, even while so much of postmodern culture apparently yearns for it” (Porush, 569).

Monday, October 02, 2006

Through a Mirror Shade Darkly: The Subtle Sublime of Cyberpunk Part 03

Speaking from orbit, Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into space was reported to have said, “I don’t see any god up here”. On first glance, the characters of cyberpunk seem to be saying the same thing, albeit from the vantage point of seeing a “perfectly detailed rendition of Planet Earth” in Stephenson’s Metaverse (106). William Gibson “openly and methodically mocks organized religion…implying that it is potentially crazed and possibly even hazardous to one’s mental and physical well being” (Olsen, 281), and portrays a couple of urban missionaries as predators “edging toward a trio of young office techs” who stand “like tall exotic grazing animals” (Gibson, 1984: 77).

Neal Stephenson’s portrayal of the Pentecostal L. Bob Rife in Snow Crash as good-old-boy-turned-megalomaniac seems to make his comparison of televangelists with “polluted rivers, greenhouse effect…and serial killers” (293) superfluous, but the injury has already been added to insult to organized religion. When Y.T. visits “the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates #1106”, transcendent language is used to describe the Visa transaction necessary to enter the interior of the chapel, the swiping of the card as a “sacrament…as though tearing back a veil” after which “it just remains for a Word from on High”, namely for the charge card to be verified (195).

Yet despite this “fashionable condescension toward religion” (Olsen, 281), cyberpunk maintains a sort of ambivalence toward religious imagery and metaphor. Greg Bear’s “Petra” is thick with it. The setting is a Cathedral, wherein live animated gargoyles, stone saints, fornicating nuns and a patriarchal bishop. God is dead, and the Stone Christ in the Cathedral proves a poor replacement, “only as good as He does” which in the end is nothing and therefore “there is no salvation in Him” (115). He contains “barely…enough power to keep myself together, to heal myself, much less minister to those out there” (121). In the end, it is up to the collected minds of the newly enlightened dwellers of the Cathedral to hold reality together in a consensual creation.

Tom Maddox attempts a similar theme in “Snake Eyes” where the religious imagery takes on the form of the cerebrally implanted wire-snake which has clear diabolical overtones, described as an “incubus that wants to take possession of my soul” (13). Maddox would like his reader to conclude that George and Lizzie are “Adam and Eve under the flaming sword, thrown out of Eden, fucking under the eyes of God and his angel, more beautiful than they can ever be” (33), and by implication, so are we all; outside paradise, having to make our own way. However, despite the statement that there’s “no place to go, no Eden” (28), it is ultimately the mysterious and somewhat omniscient artificial intelligence of Aleph, who precipitates victory over George’s “uncivilized, uncontrolled nature” (22) by urging George toward his attempted suicide, thereby defeating the snake. This Aleph, named for the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and by extension related to the Hebrew name for God given to Moses in Exodus 3:14, observes the personnel of Athena Station with a certain omniscience, and is said to love humanity (32), attributing godlike qualities to the AI.