Tuesday, January 29, 2008

History and the Boardgame

It has been my privilege this quarter to take a class on the historiography of the Reformation with Constantin Fasolt. The class, he has said, is to be a class not so much about the Reformation per se, but about knowledge of the Reformation. To this end we have begun the quarter reading various classic treatments of the Reformation from the nineteenth century, and attending specifically to their methodologies and theoretical frameworks rather than particular factual information. Having dispensed with the Idealist Hegel and the Positivist Ranke, we turned most recently to Engels, for whom both of the other writers suffered from the same problem:

"These ideologists are so gullible that they accept unquestioningly all the illusions that an epoch makes about itself or that ideologists of an epoch make about that epoch...To this day our ideologists have hardly any idea of the class struggles fought out in these upheavals, of which the political slogan on the banner is every time a bare expression..."(Frederick Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, pp. 12-13)

That is to say, that historians who look to tell the story of the past solely in terms of the decisions, opinions, and ambitions of individuals have crafted the shallowest of histories, and sketched only a brief outline, where they ought to have laid bare the mechanisms of events. For Engels, of course, the actual mechanisms of history are economic, and the interests of their social class will dominate individuals, if unconsciously, to the point that it is far clearer to look at history in terms of the struggles between these classes than in terms of the struggles between individuals or nations.

It is not the aim of this post simply to hold forth on the relative merits of the various schools of history, as I am neither qualified nor able to make any meaningful statement on them, but rather to offer a brief observation of the way in which such frameworks influence the design of historical boardgames; for it occurred to me, turning over Professor Fasolt's comments on Engels' separation of himself from these other sorts of history, and indeed the way in which the practice of history includes today many more subjects of inquiry than it once did, that this difference of approaches could be observed, if inexactly, in two boardgames with which I am familiar, Diplomacy and Antike. I say inexactly, because the history practiced in board games is very much like the history practiced in poetry, or in painting, for, being like them an art which is principally pleasing and edifying at its best (as opposed to history proper, which is principally edifying and pleasing at its best), it is constrained by the intents of its enterprise to offer only vague and adapted notions of history. Yet merely because one turns more confidently to the Commentaries of Caesar than the Pharsalia of Lucan for a history of the Roman Civil War does not mean that Lucan contains neither history nor a historical point of view. Similarly, although neither one tells us anything historically useful about the periods they claim ostensibly to cover, Antike and Diplomacy nonetheless offer differing perspectives about the mechanisms of history.

Diplomacy is a game about individual ingenuity in the exercise of military power. The game contains an economic element, in that certain spaces on the board ('supply centers') allow players to produce new military units, and others do not, but, as only this brief description makes apparent, there is no use for wealth other than war; in fact, it may be better to dispense altogether with the idea of an economic element to the game, and view 'supply centers' rather as armies in potentia, than any sort of wealth, as they can do nothing but produce military units. But this is not the place for any theoretical strategy. In any case, the object of the game is to achieve absolute supremacy, that is, to have more than half of the supply centers on the board. This is achieved by negotiation with other players, and combat between the players' forces; but again, since negotiations are conducted only gain assurances concerning military matters, it may be better said that victory is achieved through purely military means. The only actual action in the game is the movement and conflict of armies and fleets; victory, consequently, is entirely dependent on these factors.

Antike, on the other hand, is a game in which the military level is only one of many. Like Diplomacy, there are armies and fleets, but there are also cities, temples, and technologies. Instead of an economic level which offers only a third type of military unit, the potential one, Antike has three different resources, gold, iron, and marble, which appear on different spaces on the board, and can each be spent to purchase a specific thing. Victory is achieved in gathering points for achieving various goals, such has having a certain number of cities, temples, or fleets, or developing new technologies or destroying an opponent's temple. Although this variety of paths to victory might make it appear than Antike lacks the single-mindedness of Diplomacy, it becomes clear when playing the game that it is principally economic. The production and consumption of resources drives all the other aspects of the game, and, although no points are awarded for the possession of wealth, all the things for which points are awarded are purchased by it, so that the points may be seen as results of the player's economic policy.

It should be somewhat apparent from these brief descriptions that Diplomacy and Antike offer quite divergent historical frameworks. In the former, not only is everything ultimately decided by military power, but military power is also, quite literally, the only thing to talk about in the game: The narrative of a game of Diplomacy is one of military campaigns and alliances, in which the deployment of armies is alone important. Antike, on the other hand, although it gives appearances of being a slightly more nuanced portrayal of the same military situations as Diplomacy, actually rests on patterns of the exercise, production, and deployment of wealth, and not military power. The terms of victory in either game, that is to say, what really matters in the worlds these games present to us, likewise complement these views. A player is victorious in Diplomacy when he has such military power as no one can stop him; a player wins Antike by acquiring points from various sources, some military, some cultural (such as the game portrays them), and some commercial, but all of which grow out of the resources and wealth of the player's nation.

I would certainly go too far if I were to claim that Diplomacy is a perfect analogue to the history of politics and personages, or that Antike is the sort of game Engels would have made. Yet I do not think these associations are without value. Although there is absolutely no class struggle in Antike ("What about the people building those temples for the clerical-aristocratic interests?"), the game does offer something far closer to social and economic history than the maneuvers of Diplomacy. And the absence of any ideological level from Diplomacy (if such an level could even exist in a board game), does not diminish the fact that the game gives us war without any framework to make sense of it beyond itself, that is, precisely the sort surface history we saw Engels at odds with earlier.

Although I could say much more about these very interesting games, I will leave this essay here, and happily take them up another time.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Well, it's new to me...

I posted a link a couple weeks ago to an address given by Stanley Hauerwas in 1991. A few Google searches later, and I have found, courtesy of this blog, something slightly more recent, from 2002. It's always encouraging to find a voice saying things one oft has thought, whether it expresses them so well or so-so. Some highlights:

(Asked generally about September 11)

" People say that September 11 forever changed the world. That is false. The year 33 A.D. forever changed the world. September 11 is just one other terrible event in the world's continuing rejection of the peace God made present through the Resurrection."

"American Christians simply lack the disciplines necessary to discover how being Christian might make them different. For example, after the Gulf War, people rightly wanted to welcome the troops home, so they put yellow ribbons everywhere including the churches. Yet if the Gulf War was a "just war," that kind of celebration was inappropriate. In the past when Christians killed in a just war, it was understood they should be in mourning. They had sacrificed their unwillingness to kill. Black, not yellow, was the appropriate color. Indeed, in the past when Christian soldiers returned from a just war, they were expected to do penance for three years before being restored to the Eucharist. That we now find that to be unimaginable is but an indication how hard it is for us to imagine what it might mean for us to be Christian."

It would be interesting to know what period of history he's talking about, although I would assume it has to be sometime in the Middle Ages.

(Asked about homosexuality)

"The problem with debates about homosexuality is they have been devoid of any linguistic discipline that might give you some indication what is at stake. Methodism, for example, is more concerned with being inclusive than being the church. We do not have the slightest idea what we mean by being inclusive other than some vague idea that inclusivity has something to do with being accepting and loving. Inclusivity is, of course, a necessary strategy for survival in what is religiously a buyers' market. Even worse, the inclusive church is captured by romantic notions of marriage. Combine inclusivity and romanticism and you have no reason to deny marriage between gay people.

When couples come to ministers to talk about their marriage ceremonies, ministers think it's interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn't about whether you're in love...

The difficulty, therefore, is that Christians, when they approach this issue, no longer know what marriage is. For centuries, Christians married people who didn't know one another until the marriage ceremony, and we knew they were going to have sex that night. They didn't know one another. Where does all this love stuff come from? They could have sex because they were married."

I remember C.S. Lewis saying something similar about marriage in Mere Christianity.

Hauerwas also (on the bottom of the first page) uses the word "image" as verb in the sense of "imagine," a usage I first encountered in Sharon Howell, my pastor throughout high school, who, like Hauerwas, grew up in rural Texas. The OED does list such a use of the verb "image" and even dates its first use all the way back to 1440! So I guess it's legitmate and no provincial innovation (or at the very least a rather old one). But I've still only ever encountered it in these two Texans.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Blood of the Martyrs...

Jim West, always colorful, always prodigious, posted a link yesterday to this website, the online presence of a group which seeks to alleviate discrimination against Christians in Europe. That their 'About Us' statement feels obligated to make the claim that their cause "by no means disregards or devalues the dramatic persecution of Christians in several countries of the world, but rather supplements this worldwide concern," is I think enough to demonstrate that there exists even on the part of its architects an anxiety about this project; that those same architects appear either oblivious to the good reasons for such an anxiety or unwilling to heed them should excite disapproval in the conscious Christian. It is one thing to appropriate the discourse of this world to advance the Gospel; it is quite another to allow that frame of mind to shape the Christian.

It is precisely that worse alternative which seems to have informed the program of this site. This fact is in view from every angle: the clinical calmness of the description of "Christianophobia," the validating citation of a non-Christian scholar who coined the term, the ugly term itself, a faux Hellenism crafted carefully to invoke the authority of Science. Christianophobia, we are told, is "a negative categorical bias," a "prejudice," "a form of religious intolerance," that "may lead to stereotyping or discrimination." One need not have any sharp perception of style to understand that all these terms have been chosen and accumulated for their shock value only, and that the only statement in them, bereft as they are made in their close proximity of any real meaning, is that this sort of thing is something society really rather disapproves of. There is not a theological appeal, that I can find, in the whole page; to the bogeymen of liberal democracy, there are many.

Such cheap rhetoric should be disappointing to any thinking person, but to the Christian it should be a source of deep dismay. For such labels and terminologies are not only not Christian in any positive sense, but, far from being even neutral, promote a decidedly anti-Christian view of the world. Let us take an example from the front page of the site, where the call is sent out for "victims" to share their stories; we must first move beyond the reverberations of that language in the popular sphere, which has been discussed above. What suffering Christian has ever or could ever be properly called a "victim?" Did not our Lord "suffer under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried?" Did he not thereby, far from suffering as a victim, arise in triumph over the last enemy to be destroyed, which is death? (1 Corinthians 15:26). Had not this same victorious Lord exhorted his followers to "rejoice and be glad" in the experience of all ranges of persecution (Matthew 5:11-12), knowing that through his love they would be "more than conquerors" and under all catastrophes and duress inseparable from the single source and object of their being (Romans 8:36ff). Are any of those properly called victims to whom the apostle says "if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name?" (1 Peter 4:16) All Christians must suffer at the hands of this world for their Master's sake (John 16:33), but in this suffering no Christian is belittled or made less. On the contrary, in that he shares however meanly in the life and the suffering of Christ, who was "despised and rejected" (Isaiah 53:3), the Christian has a share in that which is highest, truest, and best. Such a one is no victim of the world, but rather a victor in Christ.

The authors of the site are correct in insisting that their statements in no way lessen the real and far worse persecution of Christians occurring now in many parts of the world. Indeed how could they or anyone else do so: it is Christ the Lord who stands by those who suffer for his name and elevates them to the prize of an imperishable crown (1Corinthians 9:25). The authors are no less correct in pointing out that there is a casual but explicit antipathy to the Christian faith in some influential segments of the West, among intellectuals (as they are called) especially. Yet in their tone and mindset they are so terribly gone wrong and appeal so feebly to the powers of this world, that they can serve as no aid to the Christian but that of a cautionary example.

Ignatius of Antioch, one of the so-called "Apostolic Fathers," who lived at the beginning of the 2nd Century AD, when he had been brought to Rome to face trial for his life, pleaded with the more influential members of the Christian community there not to interfere with his case, and to allow him the victory of a martyr's death. Roughly a century later, with Christianity still very much illegal in the Roman world, writers such as Tertullian and Origen could lament the fact that the Church had not kept the mentality of martyrdom. I do not know what they would say to these things. Tertullian certainly wrote with great eloquence and passion against the anti-Christian bigotries of his time in his Apologia, and it is perhaps in this same apologetic vein that these exposers of "Christianophobia" wish to operate. But I cannot help but feel from the language they employ that they truly do seek and desire merely those worldly comforts of privilege and law which are the idols of our age. And this no Christian should do. No Christian should ever take his cares and his complaints to the state, to have them heard, and to have them satisfied. For our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20): Christ was on the cross for our cares, and it is to him that we should take them. We have in him a better advocate before a truer judgment than any worldly court can provide.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Some Links

A strange basketball oddity.

An even stranger basketball oddity (read the story).

High Comedy.

An Amen! (practical)

An Amen! (theoretical)

Something Refreshing.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Genesis in Geneva

I feel as though I should take it for some sort of significance that the most prize of all my Christmas gifts this year was a facsimile of the 1560 Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible, which was the first translation of the whole Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek, was the work of expatriate scholars in Calvin's Geneva who had been driven out of England under the reign of Mary. Their translation quickly became the most widely used English version of the Bible, and sustained this position for a century, until the 1660 Restoration jettisoned it for its Calvinist notes and began the process of turning the King James translation, which had dwelt in relative unpopularity since its first publication in 1611, into The Bible. The Geneva Bible was the familiar Bible of Shakespeare, Milton, and the whole litany of great Elizabethan and Jacobean writers; even King James' translators in the very preface of their new translation quote the Geneva version.

In any case, I took some time last night to read through the first few chapters of Genesis in my brand-new old Bible, enjoying especially the notes. For example, observe this sequence in the last few verses of Genesis 2 (The Geneva Bible was also the first English Bible to employ verse divisions, certainly an inheritance of mixed benefit):

Verse 23: "She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man."
Note to 'woman:' "Or, Mannet [little man], because she cometh of man; for in Ebr [Hebrew] Ish is man and Ishah the woman."
You'll find a similar note in any modern Bible.

Verse 24: "Therefore shall man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh."
Note to 'leave:' "So that marriage requireth a greater duty of us toward our wives than otherwise we are bound to show to our parents."
An interesting thought, once you get past the knee-jerk sexism assumed in "our wives."

Verse 25: "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed."
Note to 'not ashamed:' "For before sin entered all things were honest and comely."
An innocuous comment on the surface, but its placement with this particular verse certainly takes sides on the age old speculative question, "was their sex in Eden?"

The note which particularly caught my attention, however, was this one:

Chapter 3, verse 22: "And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil. Now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat and live forever..."
Note to 'behold:' "By this derision he reproacheth Adam's misery, whereinto he was fallen by ambition."

Having always assumed that God was talking to himself in this verse, I have often been troubled by such an apparent proof of the common portrayal of the petty God begrudging his creatures knowledge and life. But this interpretation, besides being more amenable, follows more sensically from the previous verse where God has "made them coats of skins and clothed them." God's words take on the character of a mock presentation, saying sarcastically to Adam and Eve "How impressive this new man and woman are! Now that you have this little bit of knowledge, you're pretty much the same as I am!"

I am reminded of this older post on Chris Heard's blog about the comical and childlike characteristics of Adam and Eve. The tone of the story of the Fall is something that I think modern scholars have increasingly questioned, opting against the solemnity that bears the aura of the received interpretation. I am usually skeptical of modern positions which encourage a satirical or comic reading of texts traditionally considered serious; they seem so often no more than echoes of that careless irreverence which typifies our age. But if the somber scholars of Calvin's Geneva had room for a sarcastic, scolding God, perhaps I ought to be more reserved in my judgment, just as the promoters of such positions ought to accept that they may not be offering much that's radically new.