Books

Too clever by half-elf: Dungeons & Dragons No Honor Among Thieves

Over the weekend I was cajoled into watching Dungeons & Dragons: No Honor Among Thieves

I did not enjoy it.

The problem was that I wasn't sure if I was watching a satire or a serious adventure film.  There were plenty of obvious laugh lines aimed at D&D players, and yet the pacing and general structure of the film indicated that I was also supposed to take it seriously.

This was impossible, because as the film itself demonstrated magic and do almost anything, and no sooner would this assertion be declared false than magic would in fact solve whatever problem was at hand.

This goes back to my repeated critiques of super-hero films and now Disney Star Wars, which is that if there is all this non-stop action, when am I supposed to find time to care about the characters?

The more wild and improbable (and unrelatable) the setting gets, the less invested I become in the outcome, because everything appears arbitrary and random.

At that point, if the good guys win, it won't feel like they earned it, they just happened to turn over the right card (or the game was fixed from the start).

This problem becomes doubly acute when the plot is built around a bank heist.  In the real world, I know that locks, walls of steel and massive doors covered by cameras present formidable obstacles.

But in the D&D world, there's probably a spell to circumvent all that - and then a spell to stop that spell, and a spell to the stop that spell, etc. 

As I said, arbitrary and random.

There's also the setting, which has no meaning to me.  Oh, I recognized some of the references from the game, but there's no overarching story of D&D World like there are of Narnia or Middle-Earth.

It's just a tale from the Land of the Knee-Walking Turkeys or something.  The Princess Bride felt far more grounded in that respect.  It make jokes about the genre, but not at the expense of destroying one's immersion in the story.  The fact that it was a story within a story actually amplified this effect - as Fred Savage became more invested, so did we.

Fans of the film have suggested that the digressions, asides and so on represent the course of the game, and in that case, I'd have loved to see a bunch of nerds sitting around the table arguing about what will come next.  Then we'd have to real tension because the story would finally be anchored in some sort of consistent reality.

Instead of being arbitrary and random.


The Duellists - a great, intense little film

While I continue to crawl my way through the Ford Madox Ford biography, I'm also digging back into Joseph Conrad and came across his short story The Duel.

I then recalled that an excellent film of it had been made in 1977, The Duellists.  This was Ridley Scott's first movie and it's excellence gave a huge boost to his career.

The film is an excellent adaptation of a very Conradian tale - a rational, intelligent officer who inadvertently offends a hot-headed comrade and then is forced to fight duel after duel with him against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. 

The film moves efficiently through the timeline, which runs from 1800 to 1816, and the costuming and atmosphere is superb.  The duels themselves are brilliantly choreographed.

It is also an example of using weapons to tell a story and the contrast between The Duellists and the decline and fall of lightsabers in Star Wars is pretty stark.

In short, it is a tight little movie of the kind that simply cannot be made today.


A few more words about lightsabers

Earlier this week I posted an article about the decline and fall of lightsabers in Star Wars over at bleedingfool.com.

Right on cue, one of the new Disney Star Wars shows has a character take would should have been a moral wound and essentially walk it off.  Fans are not amused.

As I point out in my piece, the increasing overuse of lightsabers is illustrative of poor writing and increasingly feeble efforts to produce dramatic tension by substituting action for plot and character development.

People who don't know how to write a loaded conversation or create a compelling story will simply resort to extended fight scenes, but the more they resort to this, the less any of them matter.

Having characters survive mortal wounds completely unscathed is part and parcel of this.  Once that happens, the reader (or viewer) ceases to take the story seriously.  This is why in all of my fiction, not a single character has returned from the dead.  I have had characters who people assumed were dead come back, but that's different device which leaves the consequence of death intact.

I have to say that seeing how awful entertainment is these days is really shocking.  I know that the political scene is a disaster area, which is why I avoid it, but entertainment seems to be even worse.  Who approves this stuff?  Is there any concept of quality control? 

This is the consequence of three generations of nepotistic promotion, I suppose.  The current generation of studio heads have no real knowledge of life, art, or their audience - and it shows.

 


When Calvinists go bad: Karl Barth

While I had to stop listening to the Lord of Spirits podcast, one of the many positive things I took away from it was understanding just how jacked-up Calvinism truly is.

I don't think about it much, but First Things recently had an article on a controversy that continues to roil the Calvinist faithful.

The short version is that the leading theologian of the 20th Century, a Swiss German by the name of Karl Barth, was not as clean and pure as the wind-driven snow. He was hugely influential in Protestant circles, helped rally the Confessional Church against the Nazis, preached against Communism and wrote a massive multi-volume work called Church Dogmatics that attempted to adapt Calvinist (or Reform) theology to the modern world. He was a fierce opponent of the liberal theology (not to be confused with liberal politics) which was all the rage in German circles and posited using reason and "deconstructing" the Bible to find truth.

All well and good and Church Dogmatics and his other works are required reading in most Protestant seminaries. Or at least it used to be.

You see, Herr Barth had a secret that his family managed to preserve for three decades after his death in 1968: he was an adulterer. I don't mean he had a passing affair as a young man or maybe a series of dalliances, the guy kept a mistress in his home with his wife and children.

Way back in the 20s, when he started his magnum opus, he fell passionately love with his secretary and could not quit her. His wife threatened to divorce him, but they had five children, and the scandal would have been epic. After years of back-and-forth debates, the solution was to give "Aunt Lollo" her own room in the family home, which was conveniently located adjacent to his study. There the happy lovers spent decades writing Church Dogmatics and trashing his marriage covenant, traumatizing his wife and children in the process. He was fully aware that if his sinful living arrangement were known, no one would give damn what his theology was, so it was carefully shrouded in secrecy.

Thus, he went to his grave a revered and admired religious figure.

In 2000, his surviving kids decided that whatever his will said, the truth was more important, and they started releasing his private correspondence. It continues to trickle out and there's been some delay in it reaching the US because it's all in German and some of the formulations are esoteric. (In German, one can make up words by ramming concepts together, even creating oxymorons, and Barth did a lot of this.)

All of which is to say that the Protestants apparently got to experience the scandal twice: first the revelation of adultery, later the sordid truth of how blatant and selfish it was. This is why a story from 1933 (or 1968 when he died) or 2000, when the first letters came out, is still churning away. The latest revelation is troubling because it shows that Mr. Theology's inner circle knew what was going on and when they rebuked him, he conjured up a religious justification for what he was doing, arguing that God had made him fall in love, and his work was super-important, therefore it was okay.

That latter big is particularly jarring to his fans because it calls all of his work into question.  It's pretty much a given that almost all top-end athletes are womanizing egomaniacs but no one cares because we're paying to watch them play, not serve as life coaches.

In Barth's case, we have letters in his own hand declaring that God has sanctioned his sin, and therefore it's okay.  He actually makes the claim that love can never be wrong.  Yet at the same time, he carefully hid this arrangement from the public so he wouldn't have to acknowledge his hypocrisy.

I think this highlights the core failing of Calvinism, which created the concept of The Elect who where chosen by God before time began. This toxic sense of divine sanction has poisoned the American body politic since its foundation and right now it's worse than ever because the current elites no longer even bother with considering the will of God and just assume that whatever they do is perfect.

At its core, predestination posits a very cruel God who created people just to condemn them, denying them any chance of salvation. Calvin justified this by saying that God was purely good and his intellect surpasses human comprehension, so who are we to judge? This of course flies in the face of the fact that nowhere in scripture does God tell people to go ahead and sin, it's cool, he's got their back.

Barth's logic prefigures the argument that so many contemporary Protestant churches use to legitimize sin, whether or not they formally embrace Calvinist doctrine.


The curse of Confederate cavalry raiders

As is my wont, I will sometimes browse the pages of Wikipedia to see just how uneven the site is.  The entry for Confederate General Earl Van Dorn did not disappoint:

He is considered one of the greatest cavalry commanders to have ever lived.

That's a remarkably bold statement for a someone whose resume was far from exemplary and whose career was so brief.

His entry exemplifies what I think is the unwarranted praise heaped on Confederate cavalry leaders, especially those known for raiding behind enemy lines.  I'm thinking in particular of Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Singleton Mosby.

Both men combined rapid movement, ferocious attacks with dauntless personal courage and their exploits are quite impressive.

However, there are some important caveats.  The first is that they were leading veteran first-line troops against rear-area security forces, rarely facing first-rate troops or leaders.  It was common practice in the Civil War to send troops forward without completing their training, the assumption being that it would be finished while in a quiet garrison post.  The Union also utilized short-term enlistees in these positions, troops whose length of service might be a short as 90s days.  They were therefore little more than armed civilians.

These troops were almost invariably infantry, meaning they were at a considerable disadvantage vs hit-and-run attacks.

The Confederates were also generally operating on interior lines, which meant the not only knew the terrain, they knew the people, who provided them with excellent intelligence.  Union troops, by contrast, were often isolated and had little knowledge of what was going on around them.

About the only advantage Union forces regularly had was numbers, which is of little use in countering hit-and-run tactics.

All of which is to say that the raiders' success was to be expected.

While it raised Confederate morale, and created iconic heroes, I think it was ultimately harmful to the Rebel cause.  There are two reasons for this.

The first is that capable Union commanders soon learned that they could have either secure lines of supply or freedom of maneuver, but not both.  Their solution was to pack their troops with ammunition and rely on foraging to feed them.  Ulysses S. Grant tested this method in his Big Black River campaign, and his lieutenant, William T. Sherman, further refined it during the subsequent Meridian campaign.

The culmination of this was Sherman's March to the Sea and subsequent march through the Carolinas. 

This brings us to the second unintended consequence: the devastation wrought be these forces.  Throughout history armies have foraged to sustain themselves.  While we think of them as looting and pillaging, this was not always the case.  Julius Caesar famously sent emissaries ahead of his troops to purchase supplies and thereby gain allies.  Of course, those who weren't willing to make a deal usually ended up getting plundered, but the point is that Union forces could have done the same had the local populace been open to it.

In the event, the standard practice was to take what could be carried and destroy what was left.  This inflicted great hardship on Confederate civilians, creating a refugee crisis throughout the South.

In the case of the Shenandoah Valley, the destruction was necessary because the prevalence of raiders and the asymmetrical terrain made it impossible for Union garrisons to sustain themselves.

Thus, while the raiders did inconvenience Union forces and arguably slowed the advance of Union forces, they also ensured that when they did advance, they would wreak untold destruction on the very people the raiders were trying to protect.

Throughout history, we have seen situations where a specific tactic is initially successful, but the counter proves more dangerous than what was happening before. 

I will also add that claims to world-historical status for minor figures like Van Dorn are particularly ludicrous when compared to the vastly larger scope of Chinese military history.


Ford Madox Ford vol. II, or why am I reading this?

The second volume of Max Saunders' mammoth biography of Ford Madox Ford has arrived and it continues to (mostly) impress.  Saunders does tend to get hung up on literary meaning, symbolism and his interpretation of why Ford's work is so great, but I have to cut the guy some slack.  After all, he wrote more than 1,000 pages on the topic.

He's clearly a fan.

This book picks up where the other ended, with Ford now serving as an officer in the British Army during World War I.  I will have more to say on this later, but one element that stands out is that after an awkward beginning and a severe episode of shell-shock, Ford actually took well to Army life, so much so that he considered remaining in the service after hostilities ended.  Apparently, he proved very gifted in providing lectures and mentoring young officers.  He would certainly have found a home in the training establishment, but he put his writing career first, and so was demobilized.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This is yet another point of comparison between Ford and Evelyn Waugh, who military service did not end on such an optimistic note.  To be fair, Waugh's service was of greater duration and he never seemed to find the ideal billet that Ford did.

But as Saunders notes, Ford was unusual among mobilized writers insofar as he welcomed the structure and rules of Army life, probably because they curbed his tendencies towards chaos.  Waugh, like most writers, found Army routine tedious, particularly after five years (World War II for the British lasted nearly six years; World War I lasted little more than four).

At any rate, this is probably the most painfully obscure topic I've ever explored, so I will endeavor to keep my writing about it as brief as possible.


The return of the "Akshually, sin isn't technically bad" form of argument

The other day I was reading through some of the online content at First Things and I was amused to see a commenter trot out a 1990s-vintage argument regarding sin.

Back then I was no paragon of virtue, and a bitter opponent of organized religion, but even so I recognized that it took a remarkable amount of special pleading to argue that the only actual sins were those specifically enumerated by Jesus in the Gospels.  Now this was intended to legitimize sodomy, but if taken at face value, it also included rape, incest and a host of other crimes. 

The problems with this are manifest, and I need not elaborate on them, but it struck an eerily familiar chord with commenter CN's observations about Jewish witchcraft, which while not an oxymoron, should be.

I suppose there's some comfort in the knowledge that stupid ideas pushed by equally stupid people never really go away.  Just as each year sees the change of the seasons, and the heat of summer gives way to the cool contemplation of fall, so hackneyed sophistries continue to be recycled by mid-wits who think they've found the killer argument against Catholicism or something.

Indeed, some years ago, a former friend trotted out a bunch of well-worn cliches in an attempt to undermine my Catholic faith, and after spending entirely too much time batting down his feeble barbs, I finally suggested that, since he was so smart, he should start his own church.  He laughed with delight, noting with satisfaction that he'd driven a Catholic priest to a similar 'admission of defeat' years before.

I then pointed out to him that it wasn't an admission of defeat, it was simply an observation that nothing he said was either original or compelling.  Like me, the priest wasn't overwhelmed by the force of his logic, but bored by the dullness of his arguments.  This is one of the reasons he is a former friend.

Still, there is no denying the thrill of trying to square the moral circle by declaring witchcraft and devil worship fully compatible with Judaism or that "true" Christianity is actually a goddess cult dedicated to hedonism.  One is tempted to reply:

Sure, go with that.

However, we are in a time of heightened spiritual warfare, and the Enemy is attacking on every front.  That is why is necessary to set aside our pride (and boredom) and face these claims patiently but seriously.  Failing to do s0 risks allowing the cancer of this heresy to spread unchecked, with dire results.

This includes having the moral courage to say that no matter what blasphemous ceremonies or blessings are given, sin remains sin.  To its credit, the Global Anglican Future Conference did exactly that earlier this year.

The lesson here is that a generation of tolerance and "being nice" got us to a very bad place.  Clearly, a more aggressive response is required.


The allure of paganism

Over the past week, commenter CN has deftly woven together two of the themes of this site - the corruption of Christianity and the complex personality of Ford Madox Ford.

The discussion of Jewish women indulging in neo-paganism reminded me of a consideration of paganism from a few years ago.

As I said then, paganism offers much that appeals to our contemporary culture.  It's bold, transgressive, and  it eliminates bothersome boundaries. 

The primary weakness is that once one casts aside restraint, why bother with religious ritual at all?  I think for the Boomer generation, there was something of a thrill in going to church in a bathrobe and slippers and the Gen X crowd went even farther by getting all tatt'd up and "blessing" same-sex relationships.

But why bother with all that?  Why not sleep in on Sunday?  The truth is that classical paganism actually had lots of rules and required frequent acts of devotion.  All those marble temples were used; they weren't just empty monuments to be admired.

This is why I think it is no accident that much of paganism is concentrated within the global church rather than rising outside of it.  This would of course fit in with the Enemy's designs of outright blocking the path to salvation by corrupting Christ's message and misleading His servants.

But even that thrill seems to be fading.  In places where Woke Christianity reigns triumphant, church attendance is almost undetectable.  It's interesting that the Anglican population of Wales (which needs six bishops (most of them female, of course), could fit into a mid-sized sporting area. 

Whether "observant" or not, a frequent recourse is to the display of virtue.  The old amulets and shrines have now given way to a bumper sticker or yard sign, hence closing the ring between neo-paganism and Yard Sign Calvinism.

For students of history, there is a dreary familiarity to all of this.  Just as the same worn-out heresies keep cropping up in new wrappings by people who think they've just invented the wheel, so the same old sins get repackaged as virtues.  Waugh, Chesterton and of course Tolkien all saw it, and it's still going on today.

Something to keep in mind as the latest "new neo-pagan" thing emerges.


One of the hardest Gospel readings: Matthew 10:37-42

Some years ago, I heard a homily that has stuck with me ever since.  It was in Easter, and the priest noted that while we try to approach Easter each year with a sense of newness and wonder, for most of us, it's quite familiar.  We've celebrated Easter before, so what else is new?

He answered his own question by pointing out that every year is different.  We are older, we may have kids now, or our kids may be moving out, etc.  Life brings constant changes, even if they are incremental.

He was right, of course.  The Easter I celebrated this spring was vastly different from the one I celebrated in 2019, when lockdowns were unheard of, or in 2020, when we were unable to attend Mass in person.

So it was with this week's Gospel readings, which is the famous passage where Jesus creates a string of paradoxes surrounding faith, but also says that those who cannot leave their parents and children for him, are not worthy of him.  That passage always rankled with me, because how could a loving God demand that I put aside those people?  We are commanded to honor our parents, and what parent would cast aside a child?

This year I see it differently.  I realize that this life is not all that there is.  If God calls, we must answer, and He will see to it that my parents and children are taken care of. 

That is probably the biggest difference between believers and those without faith in God.  If this life is all there is, then death is a nightmare, the worst thing ever.  Pleasure must be taken as often as possible, because its joys will fade.

It is clear to me that the top rungs of the social ladder have lost faith in God, and believe that nothing else matters besides their time on earth.  Cheating is something they admire, and cleverness is superior to courage.  A person willing to die for faith or conviction is a sap and fool.

All of that is predicated on there being nothing else; on the Unseen being non-existent.  At this late date, I don't that that view is logically sustainable.  I have experienced too much of the spirit realm to believe otherwise.

I'm also starting to wonder if the "evangelical atheists" aren't trying to convince others to abandon faith so much as reassure themselves. 

This is also why one gets Yard Sign Calvinists, who - unable to reach God - seek social salvation through virtue-signalling. 

J.R.R. Tolkien had an interesting take on the "end game" of a society that turns to darkness.  His description of the fall of Numenor is very much reminiscent of where we are - people becoming status-obsessed, proud, willful, and above all hardening their hearts against God, doubling down on their rebellion.

There's a lot of that going on, too.


Inflation and the Indie author

Effective June 20th, Amazon raised the prices for print versions of their self-published authors.  I'm sure many authors are also looking at raising their e-book prices simply because everything else has gone up.

Inflation poses a unique problem for people who don't have major publicity behind them.  Such folks can charge a premium for their work.  Lesser lights, on the other hand, rely on a lower cost to help entice readers.  While inflation is distributed across the board in the book market, people still have a sense of what is expensive and what is not, and there can be a disconnect when prices rise as sharply as they have done over the last couple of years.

I supposed that - had I been market-savvy and seen it coming, I could have announced a big sale before the price hike.  I may do that anyway, offering "retro" prices over a big weekend.

The fact remains that when everything gets more expensive, that includes books.