Let’s Play: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Uncharted LogoI recently played Naughty Dog’s 2007 action-adventure game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The game is the first of four Uncharted games made exclusively for the PS4. Having picked up a used PS4 earlier this year, I was eager to dip into this famous series to see what all the fuss was about.

Essentially, the game follows the swashbuckling exploits of Nathan Drake, a modern-day Indiana Jones, who is trying to recover the lost treasure of “El Dorado.” Drake is accompanied by his cigar-toting friend and mentor, Victor Sullivan (a.k.a. “Sully”) and the eager, intrepid journalist, Elena Fisher.

Even though the game came out twelve years ago, the game still holds up for someone like me who isn’t an action-adventure connoisseur. While I could have done with less action (i.e. gun battles) and more adventure (i.e. climbing, exploring, etc.), I found myself increasingly invested in seeing the story through to the end. Would Nathan, Sully and Elena be able to unearth “El Dorado” before the greedy goons got to it first? How would their interactions and relationships develop as the game went along? Would all of them make it out alive?

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In the end, the game’s story more than satisfied, and even left me a little surprised at times. However, it’s the character arc of Nathan Drake that’s giving me the most to chew on. Let me explain.

At the beginning of the game, Drake is presented as a cunning, single-minded treasure-hunter. Although Elena’s show funded the expedition to get him even closer to finding the lost treasure of “El Dorado,” Drake has no interest in helping Elena get her big story. In fact, at the encouragement of Sully, he abruptly leaves her in the dust and ventures off with Sully.

However, as the game progresses, Drake begins to change. After Sully gets shot by some ruthless thugs, Drake narrowly escapes and to his surprise, reconnects with the stubborn Elena who followed them. But the loss of Sully leaves Drake shaken. For instance, later in the game, after Drake reconnects with Elena once again after parting her in a plane crash (remember, this is an action-adventure game. There is a lot going on!), Drake argues with Elena about whether they should continue their dangerous treasure hunt. Drake says, “Elena, I don’t need your bullet-riddled corpse on my conscience. Let’s go.” Elena challenges him about quitting, and Drake in exasperation, responds, “(expletive), this is not worth dying over.”

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Eventually, Drake and Elena continue their journey and find what they are looking for. Yet the treasure is not what they had hoped for. I won’t ruin the plot for you, but suffice to say, instead of giving them fabulous riches, the “El Dorado” of Uncharted only leads them to the sinister doorstep of death. However, as the story begins to wrap up, Drake rescues Elena and sends “El Dorado” to a watery grave. As they are preparing to leave the wretched island behind, Sully rides up in a motorboat with treasure nabbed from some dead goons. So, it finally looks like Nathan Drake got his treasure after all. However, the trajectory of the narrative gives this golden find a hollow tone. The real treasure isn’t pirate gold. It’s the relationships Drake, Sully and Elena have with each other. To my point, as they ride off into the calm sunset, Drake doesn’t dig his hands into the gold and fling it up into the air. No, he puts his arm around Elena. Sure, Drake is excited about getting the gold, but that almost feels like a throwaway prize after what they’ve been through. The fact that they still have each other and are on to the next adventure – that is what is feels valuable at the end of the game.

Don’t get me wrong. Uncharted 1 is not the most narratively deep or thought-provoking game. It’s a fast and furious treasure-hunting romp. Moreover, there is plenty of objectionable content (thankfully, nothing sexual) that players should be mindful as they play. However, despite all its flaws or over-used tropes, the game nevertheless offers a tidbit of truth worth remembering. In a world where it’s easy to be more focused on earthly treasure and pleasure, there are some things that are just more important. Friendship is a gift from God that should be treasured. Relationships where we give and receive love are worth more than anything that glitters or glows.

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In the end, Uncharted 1 reminds me to beware of the fool’s gold of materialism. Everything we own, everything we save up for, everything on our Amazon wishlist will pass away. However, the people around us will last forever. As C.S. Lewis famously put it, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” May God help you and me to treasure the individual people He has put in our lives. Each of them was placed in our lives for a good reason. There is a way to glorify God in how we interact with each person in our lives. Most of all, may God help us to treasure the Person of Jesus Christ, who “though he was rich yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). What a peerless treasure, what a priceless good is the friendship of God in Christ!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Watch: Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk_Film_posterI just finished watching Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film, Dunkirk. The movie chronicles the massive evacuation operation of over 300,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Here’s a few things that stood out to me:

1) The film follows the stories of three different groups of people: 1) A group of soldiers trying to escape from the beach, 2) The crew of a private yacht sailing to the rescue and 3) Two RAF fighters providing air cover. The movie starts with three separate timelines, but gradually and skillfully, these story threads end up converging in the end.

2) The film’s driving, haunting musical score was truly fantastic. It really added to the suspense and the feeling that time is running out.

3) There was not a lot of dialogue in this film, but there didn’t need to be. It’s an action-oriented film where the evacuation and rescue attempts speak for themselves. Although it would have been helpful to have a little more background on how this disastrous military situation originally developed, I thought the movie did a good job of explaining its plot through the (brief) dialogue of its characters.

4) As someone who has been interested in World War 2 history since childhood, I really appreciated how the movie helped me inhabit the cockpit of a Spitfire or the chaos of a ship that was just torpedoed or the gloomy dread of a beach full of defenseless men about to be attacked by a German dive-bomber. The horrors these men faced was truly terrifying. Dunkirk helped me understand and appreciate their tragic plight better.

5) The message of the movie seems to be that sometimes in a fight, survival is good enough. But there’s nuance to this message. At one point in the movie, some of soldiers from the beach are in the bowels of a discarded ship waiting for the tide to rise so that they can escape the beach. The Germans begin shooting at the ship for target practice. If that’s not bad enough, the tide begins to rise and water begins to pour in through the bullet holes in the ship’s hull. The men quickly determine that they need to lighten the weight in the ship so that it can float. One of them has to go. But who will it be? After a quick interrogation of one particularly quiet soldier, the men realize he is French, not British. A number of the soldiers quickly want to sacrifice this French soldier to German gunfire. If it’s all about survival, then the ends justify the means, right? But not so fast. One of the movie’s central characters agrees that he wants to survive, but he doesn’t want to have to live with the thought that he sacrificed this man’s life. Not all survival is created equal. Doing the right thing even if it costs you your life is worth more than jettisoning your ethics to survive. If I’m understanding the movie correctly, then I would heartily concur. It’s refreshing to see utilitarianism unmasked for the ethical dead-end that it is.

All in all, I’m really glad I watched Dunkirk. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the heroism of so many during World War 2, from soldiers to sailors to fighter pilots to English yacht owners. There is still much we can learn from their courage, their sacrifice, their survival.

Let’s Read: The Battle of the Atlantic by Dimbleby

The Battle of the AtlanticI just finished reading Jonathan Dimbleby’s 2016 book, The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War. Here are a few things that stood out to me from the book:

  1. Dimbleby’s central argument is that the Battle of the Atlantic was far more important to the winning of WW2 than many commonly think. If the Germans would have been able to use their surface fleet and especially their U-Boats to sever the supply convoys from America to Britain, it is entirely possible Britain would have been forced to sue for peace. As it is, Germany didn’t put enough focus on their U-boat fleet and were eventually out-gunned in the Atlantic.
  2. Technological breakthroughs, like improved sonar equipment for the Allies, and tactical improvements, like using long-range bombers along with surface vessels to hunt U-boats, were the key turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic. Ironically, what I have always viewed as the industrially-progressive and tactically savvy German military was simply not able to keep up.
  3. Merchant sailors and their captains are some of the unsung heroes of WW2. These men literally risked their lives to carry needed supplies and food across the vast Atlantic Ocean. At any moment, they could be savagely attacked by a lurking U-boat and if they were not killed in the blast or drowned outright, they would be left to possibly fend for themselves in the chilly ocean miles upon miles from the nearest landfall. Time and time again, Dimbleby helped me to appreciate their courage, their fortitude and their dedication to fulfilling their duty to support the war effort.
  4. The Battle of the Atlantic was a human struggle. It was not fought by automatons blasting each other out of the water. No, flesh and blood human beings with minds and hearts and families fought in that brutal oceanic theater. And this was true on both sides of the conflict – for the Axis as well as the Allies. This comes out in the book several times. For instance, early in the war, U-boat commanders would sometimes signal freighters they were about to sink to give the ship’s crew time to evacuate the boat into life-boats. Then after sinking the freighter, the U-boat would sometimes come alongside the life-boats to provide a little bit of logistical or provisional help. Even though this naval chivalry began to disappear as the war waned on, it was nevertheless a sign that those fought in the Battle of the Atlantic were flawed human beings still made in the image of God with the capacity to show compassion and goodwill.

 

 

Only the Good Stuff

I recently came across a podcast called, Only The Good Stuff. It’s hosted by Stephen Altrogge, and the sole focus of the podcast is to interview guests and talk about what they are enjoying. I’ve listened to one of the episodes so far, an interview with popular Christian blogger and author, Tim Challies, and I really enjoyed it. It’s refreshing to hear a podcast that incorporates humor and simple delight in God’s good gifts.

And then I read a post by fellow Christian blogger, Nerd Theist, about his list of “only the good stuff,” and I was inspired. Why couldn’t I create a list of my own good stuff? If I were being interviewed right now, what I would point to?

Well, without further ado, here’s my list of “only the good stuff”:

BooksFinally Alive by John Piper – Recently finished reading this book on what it means to be born again. I appreciated Piper’s exposition of Scripture and his encouragements on evangelism toward the end of the book. Knowing that God is the One who is decisively responsible for the new birth should be highly motivating and encouraging to us in our evangelism.

TVLark Rise to Candleford – My wife and I just finished watching the fourth and final season of this gem of a show. It’s a British drama focused on a cast of characters living toward the end of the 19th century in either a hamlet called, Lark Rise or the more wealthy neighboring town called Candleford. I really grew to love the rich, nuanced characters in this show and the wonderful nuggets of wisdom that some of the characters had to share.

SportsNBA Playoffs – I’m enjoying catching snippets of games here and there. Although I’m not a big fan of regular season NBA basketball, I feel like the intensity gets turned way up in the playoffs. I’m predicting another Cavaliers vs. Warriors re-match. Should be a good one!

MusicSwitchfoot – I’m always listening to Switchfoot. They’re my favorite band by a long-shot. I love their style. I love the lyrics. I love their live shows. I’ve particularly appreciated their 2011 album, Vice Verses, lately, including great songs such as “Restless” and “Where I Belong.”

GameNCAA Football 14 Online Dynasty – My favorite game series of all-time is the now defunct EA Sports series, NCAA Football. The first game I owned in this series was NCAA Football 99, so I’ve been playing this series on and off for over half of my life! Although the series was shut-down due to a legal dispute that EA Sports ran into, I own and continue to play the last edition of the game, NCAA Football 14. Actually, just this year, I started an online dynasty with some of my best friends who live in Ohio. What a blast it’s been! I started out at Toledo, “coached” there for two years and then replaced one my friends when he moved on from his job at Cal. So fun.

Marriage – Working to strengthen one another – I am so grateful for my wife, Melody. There are numerous reasons I could list, but one of the big ones lately has been her aide and accountability in setting new morning patterns for myself. In fact, this blog post is a result of her care for me. She’s encouraged me to set a morning schedule, so that over the course of the average week, I can work-out more regularly, write more regularly and meet with the Lord in His Word each day. Thank-you, dear!

Parenting – Enjoying my boys as they get older – I have the privilege of having two boys under the age of 4. What a joy it is to be their daddy! It’s so fun to come home after a busy day and just focus on wrestling, reading, tickling, etc.

Pastoring – Sex series in HS ministry – I have the privilege of being a youth pastor and helping lead the middle-school and high-school ministries at our church. Recently, I had the HS ministry go through a 3-part sex series, covering things like God’s good design of sex, what is not according to God’s good design for sex and how to live pure in this world. By God’s grace and a bit to my surprise, the series was really well-received, and I sensed the discussions in our HS small groups were really helpful.

AudiobookBattlefront: Twilight Company – I am a big fan of Star Wars. I’ve enjoyed the last two movies, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and I’m looking forward to The Last of the Jedi, set to release this December. In the meantime, I’ve been listening to the 2015 Star Wars audiobook, Battlefront: Twilight Company (written by Alexander Freed; narrated by Jonathan Davis). The book takes you into the trenches of Rebel Alliance’s war against the Empire and helps you understand life and war from the perspective of a Rebel sergeant in the Alliance’s 61st Mobile Infantry, known as Twilight Company. If you like Star Wars and you have a regular commute, then I’d encourage you to pick this audiobook up. The production quality is fantastic, including different voices for different characters, timely audio effects, etc. There’s also a run-in with Darth Vader!

So, that’s what I’ve been enjoying lately. That’s some of the good stuff in my life. What about you?

The Man Behind the Cigar

fidel-castroThis past week, Fidel Castro, the dictator of Cuba for about 47 years, died at the age of 90. When I heard the news, I was watching a football game. The news of this man’s death, one of the most influential people of the 20th century, simply scrolled across the bottom of the screen. And that was it. No breaking news cutaways. No media circus. Just another piece of news to distract me from my chosen entertainment. And yet this was no ordinary man who had died … or was he?

 As I began to read various articles on Castro’s life and legacy, it surprised me to learn that a man like Castro who had so thoroughly trampled upon the liberties of his own people was also a man who had studied law at the University of Havana in the mid-1940’s. In fact, in his famous four-hour 1953 defense speech in court, Castro had even talked about working for the cause of the “vast unredeemed masses to whom all make promises and whom all deceive; we mean the people who yearn for a better, more dignified and more just nation; who are moved by ancestral aspirations of justice, for they have suffered injustice and mockery, generation after generation; who long for great and wise changes in all aspects of their life.” In the same speech, Castro had even declared that “Cuba should be the bulwark of liberty and not a shameful link in the chain of despotism.” And yet the bitter irony is that this student of law, this prosecutor for the poor, became the very one who systematically stripped dignity away from the common Cuban and preserved the shameful chain of despotism in that historic island nation.

If that were not enough, it also amazed me to learn that the man who in 1962 had welcomed the nuclear missiles of Nikita Khruschev and the Soviet Union into his nation and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war was also the same man who years later when asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic whether he thought it would still have been logical for the Soviets to bomb the U.S., said, “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all.

Again and again, as I read, Castro surprised me. He both worked to improve the education and healthcare of the Cuban people, but also simultaneously crippled them. As  Krishnadev Calamur noted in The Atlantic, even though, Cuba had near universal literacy, “its citizens couldn’t freely read the books they wanted to.” And Kevin Sullivan and J.Y. Smith in the Washington Post noted that while Castro “dispatched ­Cuban-educated doctors and ­Cuban-developed vaccines to the poorest corners of Latin America, Cubans in central Havana found pharmacy shelves empty of medicine, and many lived in apartments in which they used buckets in their kitchens as toilets.”

So, what are we to make of all of this? Isn’t Castro just another ruthless tyrant, an exemplar of evil, a Communist mad-man, a symbol of authoritarian injustice? Yes. A thousand times yes.

But as I briefly surveyed the canvas of Fidel Castro’s life, I also noticed – or better, remembered, that he was a human being, too. A human being made in the image of God, but also sinfully corrupt. A human being who studied and learned. A human being who made decisions and later questioned them. A human being who wanted to do practical good to others – even if it was limited and superficial. A human being who puffed cigars, who loved and was loved, who laughed, who got angry, who adored the aquarium, who was someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s husband, someone’s sibling. A human being whose body, once strong, grew weak. A human being whose breath, once regular, expired into deathly silence.

In the end, Fidel Castro, for all of his disgraceful deeds, was a man. Yes, a powerful and influential man. But a mere mortal, nonetheless. And I find this both comforting and sobering.

It is comforting, because in this life, Fidel Castro was not going to live forever. He could only do so much injustice. He could only harm so many people. The allotted period of his life and the boundaries of his dwelling place were established long ago (Acts 17:26). The rule of “El Comandante” had an expiration date. And so, while Cuba still suffers under a repressive regime initiated by Fidel Castro for which we should lament and pray, the man himself can no longer exert his wicked rule. In this we should rejoice.

And yet the fact of Fidel Castro’s humanity is also sobering. It’s sobering because you and I are human, too. While neither of us have been the brutal dictator of an island nation for five decades, we, too, sin. We too rebel against our Creator and do harm to those around us. Yes, we may not have committed the horrific crimes of Fidel Castro. But surely our sins are not altogether different. They may differ in degree, but not in kind. We may not have murdered, but we have burned with anger (Matt. 5:21-26). We may not have led a whole nation astray with our words, but we have broken promises.  We may not have set-up repressive regimes, but we have been petty tyrants of our own little kingdoms – whether its ruthlessly guarding our “free time” or callously ignoring the stranger in the halls of our church building. When it comes down to it, through Biblically-calibrated lenses, all of us have more in common with Fidel Castro than we’d like to admit. Like Castro, we live in a fallen world in “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21) – where everything – our plans, our relationships, our bodies – can break down over time. Like Castro, and left to ourselves, we are naturally hostile to God and cannot submit to God’s laws (Rom. 8:7). Like Castro, we face endless temptation – the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). And one day, like Fidel Castro, we too will die and face our Maker (Heb. 9:27).

And so, what is our hope? Is it that we will leave a better legacy than Castro’s? Is that we sinned in more socially “acceptable” ways than he did? Is that we are “good” people?

No.

Our only hope is found in a true and better ruler – King Jesus. For when it comes to Judgment Day, the only thing that can rescue the dictator of Cuba or this petty typing tyrant will be the shed blood of Jesus – the blood that can cover us by faith in this life – and be our source of unending joy in the next.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might be boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'” (1 Cor. 1:26-31)

 

Surfing the Web (Nov. 9th)

Surfing the Web is a series of short blog posts about interesting, thought-provoking pop culture articles. Enjoy! 

ArticleThe Binge Breaker by Bianca Bosker in The Atlantic magazine (Nov. 2016 edition).

Some Quotes to Whet Your Appetite:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.

“Our generation relies on our phones for our moment-to-moment choices about who we’re hanging out with, what we should be thinking about, who we owe a response to, and what’s important in our lives,” he said. “And if that’s the thing that you’ll outsource your thoughts to, forget the brain implant. That is the brain implant. You refer to it all the time.”

He argues that technology should help us set boundaries. This could be achieved by, for example, an inbox that asks how much time we want to dedicate to email, then gently reminds us when we’ve exceeded our quota. Technology should give us the ability to see where our time goes, so we can make informed decisions—imagine your phone alerting you when you’ve unlocked it for the 14th time in an hour. And technology should help us meet our goals, give us control over our relationships, and enable us to disengage without anxiety.

Companies like Google and Facebook, which have offered mindfulness training and meditation spaces for their employees, position themselves as corporate leaders in this movement. Yet this emphasis on mindfulness and consciousness, which has extended far beyond the tech world, puts the burden on users to train their focus, without acknowledging that the devices in their hands are engineered to chip away at their concentration. It’s like telling people to get healthy by exercising more, then offering the choice between a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder when they sit down for a meal.

The Unintended Consequences

What do the following situations have in common?

  • Using a virtual reality headset.
  • Observing people using their cell-phones in group gatherings.
  • Typing a blog post on a desktop computer.

All of these involve the use of modern digital technology. All of them involve the introduction of rather recent cultural goods onto the pages of history. All of them involve incredible potential. And all of them involve unintended consequences.

Andy Crouch, in his excellent 2008 book, Culture Making, argues that “the very nature of cultural goods is to go beyond the reach of their creators. They leave the circle of influence and are taken up by a wide public, and very often the consequences of their adoption could never have been foreseen … The telephone, the iPod, the interstate highway and the atomic bomb – all have had tremendously consequential impact on human history, yet none has remained, or could have remained, fully within the control of their creators. Indeed, over time, the unintended consequences of a given cultural good almost always swamp the intended consequences in magnitude, as people continue the culture-making process, making new culture in response to the changed horizons” (198).

If Crouch is correct, then when we approach new forms of digital technology, we cannot assume that the effect of a particular technology will be uniformly good. We cannot assume that using a virtual reality headset or owning a smartphone or even blogging will undoubtedly contribute to human flourishing. While I would argue that these forms of digital technology can be viewed as gifts from the Creator, they are also the imperfect creations of fallen humanity. Because that is true, then we shouldn’t just ask, “What can this technology do for me?” but also “What will this technology do to me?”

Every form of digital technology we engage with has intended and unintended consequences. As Tim Challies has pointed out in his book, The Next Story, we are really adept at seeing the intended consequences, the “amazing” benefits, the increased efficiency and captivating experiences that the technology will bring us. However, we are not so adept at seeing all of the ways that the technology we hold in our hands or in our homes or that we drive in, are shaping – or should I say, mis-shaping – our world.

Yes, blogs – and social media as a whole – allow anyone to have an voice in the public square, but sometimes those posts could use a little bit more editing or refining before being inflicted upon the public (perhaps, like this post!). More than that, with the vast proliferation of voices on the internet, are the voices that need to be heard quickly being drowned out?

Yes, smartphones allow us to watch YouTube videos, text our friends, catch up on Twitter and figure out the name of that actor we couldn’t quite remember all in one fell swoop, but does it also mean we are imperceptibly losing our ability to focus on one task or one person or one group and be truly present?

Yes, virtual reality headsets allow us to immerse ourselves more fully in beautiful virtual worlds, but is there something we miss out on when we cannot see our friends or spouse enter and leave the room, when we are literally caught up in our own little worlds?

In the end, I am not saying that we should totally avoid these digital technologies (at least not yet!), but rather that we should engage with them thoughtfully, aware that everything we do has real consequences – intended and unintended. We should ask the Lord to show us areas where we are subtly being mastered by these technologies (1 Cor. 6:12) and ask for His strength to live in new ways. And we should ask for the feedback of our family and friends to point out our technological blind spots. All of this is needed to wisely navigate this fascinating and frustrated world of ours.

 

Game Over: A Crusader Kings 2 Tale

It’s the 1150’s. The place is medieval Ireland. And I should have seen it coming.

King Conall of Mumu has spent a good bit of his 25 year reign expanding his realm and filling his coffers. County after Irish county have been grafted into the budding greatness that is the Petty Kingdom of Mumu. Soon, the kingdom of Ireland will become a reality.

And then King Conall dies. There is nothing particularly suspicious about the death: just a 50+ year old man succumbing to the rigors of his position and the medieval world. Thankfully, he has an heir, one Suibne mac Conall. A gregarious young fellow with some interest in managing money, Suibne looks to be an adequate heir with plenty of room to stretch his kingly wings. He has a strong Irish army. He has wealth. And he has a wife; a genius of a wife, in fact. Emer nic Aed is a scholarly, zealous woman. She is even known to be charitable. But she is also deceitful, an expert schemer. No matter; she will make an excellent spymaster. Suibne is in need of someone he can trust with all matters of royal intrigue and skullduggery. Emer, his wife, seems to be just the one.

And so the reign of the great King Suibne mac Conall blissfully begins. Three months in, a new council has been assembled around Suibne. And Emer is indeed the spymaster. Hand in hand, they will leave their mark on history. And so, with a skip to his stride, King Suibne decides one day to make his way out to his terrace to look over his kingdom. What a beautiful sight: the rolling, green hills of medieval Ireland; the sheep dotting the landscape; perhaps even a rainbow shimmering on the horizon after a recent rain. This whole kingdom is under his control, to be shaped by his will and used for his glory. And hopefully passed one day to his heir – a son he doesn’t have at present, but one he hopes to have. Yes, the House Ua Briain, Suibne’s family dynasty, is alive and well indeed.

But then – something happens. A threatening cracking sound is heard followed by a frightful crumbling. All of the sudden, the ground begins to shake – and move! Suibne frantically tries to catch his balance, but it’s too late; the whole terrace crumbles off the side of the castle and the gregarious King Suibne mac Conall plummets screaming to his death. Someone has sabotaged the terrace! And that someone, waiting in the shadows, observes it all with grim satisfaction. She is now the widow of Suibne mac Conall and spymaster par excellence of the Kingdom of Mumu. She is Emer Nic Aed.

That is how my first game of Crusader Kings 2 (CK2) ended. Before I could realize what was happening, the “Game Over” screen popped up and my 70+ year dynasty was over. Four generations of planning and plotting and ruling and conquering. Gone. And I should have seen it coming.

If you’re not familiar with CK2, it is a 2012 medieval grand strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive. The game allows you to role-play as a medieval lord seeking to expand their territory, grow their prestige and pass on their kingdom to the next generation. Once your lord dies, if you have a legitimate dynastic heir, then you as the player assume control of that character and continue your journey through the ages. However, if you do not have a legitimate dynastic heir – and your spymaster wife plots your untimely demise, for example – then no matter how much time and effort and care you’ve placed into building up your kingdom, the game is over.

And yet even though I knew this, I was kicking myself at the “Game Over” screen. I knew I shouldn’t have had King Conall so aggressively gobble up neighboring counties. In the midst of gearing up for battle and fighting wars, I had become sloppy. Irresponsibly, I had married my son off to a dangerous woman. I had put the whole kingdom and dynasty in jeopardy for the sake of a few measly counties. And now I had to live with consequences. I really, really should have seen it coming.

And yet, oddly enough, I’m thankful. I’m thankful because this jarring experience of having all of my efforts swiftly crumble to dust is a helpful reminder of what life is really like. Even if we don’t spend our days in the cut-throat world of medieval nobility, all of us spends our days investing in some sort of kingdom. Whether we’re stay-at-home moms or businessmen or pastors or students or whatever, all of us find ourselves working day after day after day to build something of our lives. Maybe it’s our report card. Maybe it’s our garden. Maybe it’s our bank account. Maybe it’s our reputation among our peers. Whatever it is, we plan and toil to make something of our lives.

But as my recent experience with CK2 has reminded me, all of our planning and toiling will come to an end one day. Perhaps for some the end will come suddenly: you will be diagnosed with cancer and then a month later, you will be gone. Or perhaps for others, the end will come slowly. You will live your life. You will raise your kids and see your grandchildren. Your hair will gray and your body will weaken and crumble under the weight of decades. And then one fateful day, you will be gone.

I’m sure that all of us would prefer the slower end to the sudden end, but the point is still the same: There is an end for each of us. There is a “Game Over” screen for all of our lives. And at that point, the question of whose kingdom we invested in will be the only question worth answering.

In Luke 12, Jesus tells us a parable about rich man who had a bumper crop. But that caused a big problem: what should he do with the gobs of extra produce? He had nowhere to store it. So, Jesus tells us that this enterprising man decided to tear down the barns he already had and build bigger ones. And then after he had done so, he kicks back and says, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” The rich man had arrived. His investments were paying off. And now he could relax and enjoy the view.

And yet, just like Suibne mac Conall, everything comes crashing down for him, for that very night, God says to the man, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ And then Jesus finishes with the clincher: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

The rich man invested in his own kingdom. He thought his life consisted in the abundance of his possessions. But like me in CK2, he had made a huge tactical error. He had forgotten, or chose to ignore, that this life, what you can have now, is not all there is. There is an eternity waiting for each one of us. Like me in CK2, he should have seen it coming. And yet he didn’t. And it cost him dearly.

Thankfully, though, this doesn’t have to be our story. Even though Satan prowls around like Emer nic Aed, seeking someone to devour, Jesus Christ has made a way to be rich with God. And amazingly it doesn’t come through our work, but through His. Through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus has made a way for each person who turns from his sinful barn-building and trust in Him to gain access to an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1 Peter 1:4). In fact, the Bible goes so far as to say that we will be in the same dynasty with Christ. We will be “heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Romans 8:17). In the end, for those who invest their lives in the kingdom of God, who submit to the loving reign of Jesus, the end is not really the end. No, far from it. The “Game Over” screen of this life is but the dark gateway into the luminous halls of true, unending life.

 

Note: This article is also published on Gospel and Gaming’s website.

Playing at War?

Recently, I decided to play through Gearbox Software’s 2005 World War 2 First-Person Shooter (FPS), Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30*. The game places you in the boots of Matt Baker, a sergeant in Fox Company of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the famed 101st Airborne Division. Just mere hours before the D-Day invasion took place, the 101st Airborne parachuted behind German lines to disrupt enemy operations and inhibit any possible German counter-attacks. The story-line of Brothers in Arms is set over seven days and attempts to accurately represent the harrowing journey of the 502nd Regiment. The missions have you clearing out towns, blowing up bridges, assaulting and defending farm-houses, etc.. Beyond that, you also get acquainted with your “brothers in arms,” learning about them, fighting with them and sadly, even watching some of them die.

For me, Brothers in Arms was a gritty strategic experience. The game, far from being a cake-walk, takes patience and persistence. Fail to find cover – you’re dead-meat. Send your squad-mates recklessly scampering toward a German machine gun nest -and you’ll find their limp bodies later. Think you can take on a German tank with your rifle – think again. The game forces you to think like a soldier, act like a soldier and live with the brutal consequences. It’s one of the most vivid and realistic experiences I’ve had while playing a videogame.

In fact, I greatly appreciated the game’s desire to be realistic and in some way, tell the story of the 502nd Regiment. These men were heroes. Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 opened my eyes to that in a whole new way. Yes, I’ve read about books about World War 2. I’ve watched Band of Brothers. But I’ve never realized what it was like to be a paratrooper. I’ve never ducked behind cover as bullets whizz by. I’ve never heard my squad-mates screaming for me to get-down. I’ve never watched as a fellow soldier lies dying on the ground. I’ve never experienced that until now. Well … sort of.  You see, as realistic as Brothers in Arms attempts to be, I could shake the feeling that I was only playing a game. Sure, it was immersive. Yes, it faithfully traced the foot-steps of the 502nd Regiment. And even better that I didn’t feel it was reveling in war, but rather depicting it as it is in all of its bravery and bloodiness.

And yet when it all said and done, I walked away from the game realizing it was only a game. And that bothers me.

Maybe the irksome feeling started when I died for the first time and realized that the game didn’t have “perma-death” (when it’s over, it’s over). Or maybe it grew when I realized that if I left my squad-mates out to dry and got them slaughtered in one mission, I could usually count on getting them magically resurrected to full health for the next mission. Or maybe the feeling festered when the game wouldn’t let me finish a mission without killing one more poor stranded German. No taking prisoners here.

Whatever it was, I walked away from Brothers In Arms being reminded that all mediums have their limits. While a FPS videogame can do so much more than a book or a movie in bringing World War 2 to life, it cannot do everything. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a realistic, sober-minded FPS like Brothers in Arms may actually do a grave dis-service to its own subject matter if it’s not careful. How so?

Well, consider that any video-game is comprised of a bunch of rules that you have to obey in order to progress through the experience. No matter how immersive or historically faithful the game is, the medium is still gripped the inexorable pull of 1’s and 0’s. You either satisfy the game’s rules or endure the fail state. You either make it out of the level with sufficient health and satisfied objectives or you don’t. It’s either “Next Level” or “Game Over.”

And while this might be perfectly acceptable in a game like Tetris or Mario, it raises questions in a game like Brothers in Arms.

How do you take something as complex and bloody and heart-wrenching as World War 2 and faithfully represent it in a game with health ratings and pre-programmed level design? Is something lost when we can replay a level over and over again without any of the physical and psychological devastation that the real soldiers encountered? And because games are often played to be fun, what do we lose or what do we foster when we make killing nameless German foes the core objective of our game? Does life, even if it’s “virtual life,” become cheap –  a commodity to be consumed on the insatiable altar of our entertainment desires?

In the end, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 leaves me conflicted. It was a well-designed, historically-accurate, thoughtful FPS game. It was an engaging play. But it was also an uneasy play. I am left wondering in the back of my mind if the colossal travesty of World War 2 has merely become an epic virtual playground for me? Am I truly honoring the heroes of the past or blissfully playing a complex game of cops and robbers over their cold tombstones? I am not sure, but one thing I do know – I need to tread carefully on this hallowed ground.

 

 

 

* Note: This game is rated “M” for Mature for “Blood and Gore, Intense Violence and Strong Language.” It would not be appropriate for younger audiences. Parent discretion is advised.  If you are familiar with the movie, Saving Private Ryan, or the series, Band of Brothers, then you will know what to expect from this title which is seeking to accurately depict WW2 combat.

A Raisin in the Sun

Recently, I had the privilege of watching the 1961 film, “A Raisin in the Sun” for the first time. What a powerful, moving film!

If you’re not familiar with the story, the movie is based upon Lorraine Hansberry’s book of the same name which chronicles the hardships of a black family in post-WWII Chicago. After her husband dies, Lena Younger, the matriarch of the family, waits to receive a  $10,000 life insurance check. However, not everyone in her family sees eye-to-eye in how the money should be spent. In particular, Walter, Lena’s restless son, wants to use the money to invest in a liquor-store partnership that him and a couple of drinking buddies have come up with. Walter wants out of his ordinary day-job as a chauffeur where he drives rich white people around. He desperately wants to move up in society, to become more than his laborer father ever was.

However, there are numerous road-blocks in his way. For one, Walter’s wife, Ruth, seems content where they are. Moreover, Beneatha, Walter’s impulsive sister, is pursuing her dream to become a doctor by attending college classes. Some of the money will likely go in her direction. But the greatest road-block in Walter’s way is the indomitable Lena Younger (or “Mama” as she is called in the play). At the beginning of the movie, Lena wants nothing to do with liquor-store partnerships. In fact, she is deeply bothered by Walter’s lust for money and Beneatha’s denial of a personal God. But as an audience, we’re left wondering what Lena will actually do with the money. And so the drama begins to unfold …

But I won’t spoil it for you! You really need to go watch (or re-watch) this movie for yourself! However, without giving too much away, I did want to comment on one particular scene which stood out to me.

Toward the end of the movie, after the family has hit an emotional rock-bottom based on a massive foible on Walter’s part, Lena Younger makes a statement about love which arrested my attention. Quoting from the book, the scene goes something like this:

Beneatha: Love him? There is nothing left to love.

Mama: There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. (Looking at her) Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for the family ’cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning – because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! when you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

What I love about this quote – and what I love about the character of Lena Younger in the movie, is that Lena Younger is a woman who loves deeply. She loves her God. She loves her family. And she is willing to fight to love both – even it seems outrageous in the eyes of the world. When her son is at his lowest, when the family’s prospects are grim, Lena doesn’t walk out. She doesn’t throw a pity party. She doesn’t lash out in anger or revenge. She simply chooses to love. She loves her son by weeping with him and for him. She stands by him when no-one else will. She chooses to believe that even hard times can be used to shape a man, to make him into what he will one day become.

What love Lena Younger shows! I believe it changes everything in the movie. But not just in the movie. But also in our lives. For you see, Christian, we have been shown that kind of love as well. As wonderful a character as Lena Younger is and as strong as her love is, it is infinitesimally small in comparison to the mighty, transforming love of the triune God.

In some ways, we were like Walter Younger. We had wasted our lives living for something that would never satisfy. Spiritually, we were broken down. We were guilty. We were hopeless. And yet into the clouds of our misery, the rays of God’s radiant love broke through for us in the Gospel. Consider these rich verses:

“For God so love the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved -“ (Ephesians 2:4-5)

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)

Christian, like Lena Younger’s love for her son, our Father’s love for us isn’t circumstantial or conditional. It’s not based on whether you read your Bible this morning or prayed through your prayer list last night. It’s not riding on our performance or our track record. It’s not based upon how we “feel” about our relationship with God. No, the Father’s love for us is unconditional. It’s utterly unchanging. It’s strong when we are weak. It’s full even when we are empty. It shines brilliantly even when our eyes are dimmed by failure or fear or pain. God’s love is a vast ocean that we will never be able to plumb the depths of. It stretches out as far as the eye can see in every direction. Brothers and sisters, we are meant to lose ourselves in the love of God – and thereby become who we we were always meant to be.