Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Shelves

 

 

Last week I talked about returning to 4e DnD. It was a decision that just... happened. I may never be able to fully describe it. It just seemed to happen to me, as opposed to me making it. Whatever it was, it was not to be argued with. I've begun planning a Dark Sun campaign in full earnest, happily throwing myself into that setting. But something a little odd happened to me. I am not going to try to understand it or analyze it. But maybe it will prove useful to others. Maybe you'll understand it. Who knows until you're done reading it? 

In the years since I stopped playing 4e I've been looking at various Indy RPGs. And who could blame me? Burning Wheel opened up a whole new world. But there was another impetus in there. I wanted to prove to myself I wasn't yet another DnD drone. That's not a particularly positive tendency, mind. My misanthropic tendencies are well known to me, even if not dealt with as well as they should be. I wonder how many of my own issues would be fixed if I figured that out.

See, the problem was that the more stuff I looked at the more this curious chasm of desire began to open up. Something wasn't right. I didn't know what, but reading these games wasn't making me any happier. At the time I'd a lot of other things to focus on, and I was quite happy with Burning Wheel. It is an odd fact of human nature that you can be otherwise happy but yet yearn for something more. I was very happy with Burning Wheel's character centric gameplay; that engine can help generate more meaning in a night than other systems can in years. And if there's anything I crave it's meaning.

And yet that gnawing continued.

Finally I stopped futzing about. I'd been doing multiple Burning Wheel campaigns for years. I was burned out. I needed to do something else. And I did! I tried out Bleak Spirit, Torchbearer, Trophy Dark and Gold, Tenra Bansho Zero, Sword and Board, and Hearts of Wulin, and others I've forgotten about. And some of these games really stuck with me! Bleak Spirit, Hearts of Wulin,  and the Trophy games are great palate cleansers for me. Each of them helps me blow off steam from my time with Burning Wheel. I'll definitely go back to them from time to time.

But the hunger continued.

And I began to feel desperate.

Like I said previously, the decision to return to 4e wasn't something I made. It seemed made for me. I've been questioning this reality, but have decided to see where it goes. Well the other day I went into a Barnes and Noble. I just needed a place to burn some time and what better place to do that than a bookstore? Now most of the time I'll head to the RPG section. I'll look at the section, and kinda fantasize about getting the whole freaking shelf. Just to have it. I wouldn't even do anything with them. Just have them on my shelf to have them.

So I went to The Shelf.

And felt absolutely nothing.

Nothing.

I picked up a copy of The Mutants and Masterminds GM Guide. I own the Hero's Handbook. I opened the book. And immediately thought "I'll never want to play this." Superheroes at one point was something I had thought about getting into, but as I held the book I knew there was only one thing I really wanted to do: fantasy. That's where I've found my chief meaning in fiction, from the more grounded high concept/slice of life like Clannad to the weird science fantasy of The Solar Cycle and Star Wars. 

In case it wasn't clear already, I demand that I put meaning in what I do. It's not an option. The world is a pretty meaningless place these days, and to be able to give meaning? That's actually an escape for me.  The world only has the meaning we infuse in it. Man named the animals and what name Adam used was the name of that animal. Man is the creature who names, who gives meaning.

And when I looked up from the GM's Guide to that shelf there was no meaning I wished to give to any of it.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I wandered the shelves in shock for about a half hour, trying to find something to tickle my fancy. There was a phantom hunger in my soul. But I couldn't give any additional meaning to the things I found. There was nothing in me to give. 

So I went home. And pulled out Dark Sun. 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Thanksgiving 2021

 


You can either have a pleasing life or a meaningful one; most of the time you won't get both. The older I get the truer this rings. Most of the times I've been happy I don't remember, because I wasn't actually trying to engage with that moment. And the times I was happy while engaging the moment? Being happy was a nice side effect; being present is a reward in itself.

I'm still working out whether it's better than being happy. Hedonism is so hard to kick.

Definitely the most meaningful thing I experienced this year was a new addition to our family. It's amazing how much one can find out about oneself with the addition of one entity to the system you live in.  There's upheaval, doubt, and pure untarnished beauty. The whole experience has been more incredible than I can say. I mean, I'm stressed out and exhausted, but I can't really change whether I'll be stressed and exhausted, only what I can be stressed and exhausted about. And this is exactly the sort of thing that makes said stress and exhaustion worth it. Welcome, little one! We love you!

The collapse of our civilization continues to show itself. I don't think we notice because we have so much stuff on these stupid phones to distract ourselves with, but it is there. I know when I get myself off this stupid device it becomes clear just how lonely life really is at this point. I don't know who my neighbors are, not really, and I've been living near them for years. But this has led to an opportunity to read and learn. I've read more than I ever have before; I may never again get this opportunity. So I'm using that time to the best of my advantage. All things change. This will too.

I continue to put the time in for mental and spiritual health; I've never regretted it. Not once. It requires me to slow down and really work at focusing, which isn't comfortable, but how much does being quick benefit me anyways? And, while it was hard to do so at first, I've begun to share more of my spirituality with my children, something I've found tremendously satisfying. Perhaps it's the cynical modern in me, but I'm coming to realize that I want what I know and experienced to be passed on. Who I am should not die with me, it should be known. My life and what was in it should be known to my kids. They may do with it as they wish. But it is worth passing on the reason for my hope.

But perhaps the greatest gift, that I am gradually learning to accept, the one that gives context to all the others, is the realization that I am grateful for the struggle. I continuously find myself arrayed against interior forces that make the exterior decay of our world look like a cake walk. Time and again I try to turn back to the events going on in the world, only to find it is only an escape from my interior chaos. It is easier to deal with others, to make them look evil and bad and awful and cruel, than to realize that I am most definitely all of these things and so much more.

I find that I am not a captive, but a willing traitor to mine own self. 

The more I learn the more the Bible's talk about the heart of man being treacherous becomes a gentle reminder, as opposed to the judgmental statement that the world would like me to believe. Words that once felt like an unnecessary indictment become the slightest of nudges to look inside and own what is there. I absolutely must resist the wretchedness in my own heart.  Most of the time I don't even recognize the evil for what it is! I find myself making excuses for it; it was necessary at one point, or so I thought, why can't I keep doing these "survival" techniques? Excuses are so easy, they're readily available from my friends and family. It's not my fault I'm so angry, I was screwed over in pretty much every conceivable way one of my background could be! Whose sorrow is like mine? My Jerusalem was destroyed and it would be so easy to sit in it and despair!

But I find that if I resist this interior slide into chaos that I become more myself. Success is a byproduct: the struggle itself is the thing that I find enjoyable. And I don't mean in a nasty and wretched sort of a way. To resist chaos by dwelling in the purposeful Silence is a beautiful thing. To feel the pull of discordance and to feel interior repulsion is invigorating. I do not think such joy is permanent; the Christian will not end in conflict, but in Eternal Light. So I know it will change. I enjoy the Light chasing out the dark. Cobwebs get swept away, I board the ship, and wait for the day it is repaired and I get to see the swift sunrise. It is not for awhile yet; I will have to wait a very long time. Much was destroyed, and I had more than a small hand in doing it. But seeing the ship repaired, to know that it will be sturdy (even if it's not now), to see the preparations and plans, is rewarding in and of itself. Until then, the struggle awaits. That is my present. 

And I accept it with all the joy in my heart.

Let it come.

For some day it will be no more.

And I will be Home.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Entrances of the Theotokos into the Temple

This universal feast of Catholic and Orthodox Churches comes from the Gospel of James. Joachim and Anna, righteous but childless, finally had a daughter in their old age. Mary had an attachment to the Temple, and at three went to live there. Escorted by her parents she came to the steps of the Temple, fifteen in number. Not only did she go up the stairs herself but she danced. This was her home. Zacharias took her into the Holy of Holies. Mary lived in the Temple until twelve, frequently visited by her parents until their deaths. She didn't want to leave the Temple when she turned twelve, but propriety demanded she go. And thus Joseph, an old widower who really just wanted to be left alone, was found.

Childhood love is everything. Sometimes this is obvious; I'm married to my childhood sweetheart. We now have babies of our own. What I experienced in my wife then carried forward into adulthood and new life has come from it. Very few people can claim that, or should. It's not like my wife and I married our childhood memories of each other. We found that what we have now, in the present, was marriage material. Neither of us had rejected the things we'd loved about each other in the first place, and so our childhood impressions stuck with one person.

But that doesn't mean what you love as kids stops mattering. I'd argue it never really goes away. If anything those are the memories I think one should clutch to the hardest. That feeling of beauty, of grace, however you found it? That can keep you going. I know it did me. What memories do you have that are beautiful? That make you better for remembering, no matter how painful it can be to do so? Nevermind if you think it's irrelevant. I assure you it's not, but is far more important than you know.

One of the most powerful memories I have is sitting up in a friend's treehouse on a farm in Illinois. The sun was setting; the fields were bathed in gold and shadow. I was by myself. It was quiet. Sitting there, after a long day of playing, I was struck by the silent light. The world was wrapped in a golden hue. A few minutes later and I found myself singing. It seemed the only way to really add to the beauty at the time. A few minutes later and I found myself climbing down to play with my friends.

It's a simple moment. My appreciation for it never seems to fade. I have to learn to do this more often, but every time I go back to that moment I'm a calmer, more thoughtful person when I come back out.  It doesn't really have a lot of "deeper meaning" to it.

I think the Theotokos dancing up the steps of the temple at three is one of those moments. She was going to live at the temple, where she always wanted to be. She was happy. And anyone who has seen a three year old climb steps knows it can be some work for them. But the Theotokos saw them as an opportunity to dance. And I'll bet you that moment stuck with her, all her life. A moment of pure joy, where the usually laborious steps were an opportunity to dance.

I'll bet we all have moments like that.

Don't leave them, okay?

I know it's not easy.

But I think it's worth it, to fan that little light. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Midnight Mass: Clericalism and Spiritual Experience

 


Last week I took Flanagan to the woodchipper over his solutions to the critiques of Catholicism and Orthodoxy that he brought. It's not good when I can make an Azathoth joke, folks, it really isn't. But those who diagnose problems rarely have good solutions. That doesn't make their data any less helpful. And Flanagan's criticisms of modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy are right on the money.  But in order to show you what Flanagan is so right about we must discuss what an ideal Apostolic Church actually looks like and why it works. 

It is no secret that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are pathetic. Petty squabbles over doctrine, systematic hypocrisy, and plain bad ole witness to the truth abounds. If you are an honest believer these should be not just acknowledged, not just mourned, but you should actively hate these things, not to mention seeking these cancers out and cutting them out of the Body of Christ. That's the unvarnished truth of the thing.

I'm not saying these things didn't use to exist. Of course they did! The Church (if you bristle at the thought of being lumped in with either Catholics or Orthodox I promise you all this applies to you and then some) has always been amongst fallen people. Humans are wretches by default, monsters if left unchecked. A simple yardstick to whether you're being a monster or not is to ask if you feel glee over some act that separates you from another.

Congratulations. You found it.

You're welcome.

So yeah. Christianity is for the wretch, a corrective to the monster in us all. So it makes sense that things were always ugly, we're ugly beings! But the original model did a pretty decent job at keeping this in check. And decent is as good as you're going to get.

Each city had a church. In that church was a bishop. Think of each bishop as a head doctor. This doctor had received his pedigree from three other doctors (at least) and had been thoroughly vetted and approved by his patients, the laity. There was no mysterious overlord  telling you what was best for you, although other bishops did have to confirm the appointment. Now, each bishop (doctor) needed assistants, nurses we call them in the medical field. Nurses take a look at the patients and make sure the minutiae get sorted out. You need someone who's got some experience to fill this role, someone who we know has had their heads bashed in a few times. They were called presbyters, or later on priests. Now, whether you like it or not, churches do need to be run, they require administration. And that's where we get deacon(es)s. 

For the conservatives (what exactly are you conserving? I promise it isn't a a healthy system) yes, female deacons were not just a thing, but necessary. Not everyone had the same way of ordaining them, but the Byzantine female deacon ordination service is almost identical to the male one. Sorry, nobody was thinking about in persona Christi for clergy. Really wasn't a thing like it is now in the Roman Catholic Church. And that's part of the problem.

Notice the comparison to medicine! Clergy are not there for your normal spiritual life. Health does not require a physician. Oh sure, regular checkups are necessary (Confession), and getting your regular doses of God is necessary (Eucharist), but very few practical spiritual works talk about Communion, but instead focus on what you do assuming you have it. Supernatural grace was assumed before the 19th century to be a normative part of tht spiritual life, with each member of the Body of Christ having gifts that helped heal and glorify the community.

There are exceptions to this general model, of course. All models are fake. Some models are useful. And this is a good and useful way to look at the early Church. Each city was its own Church, because each city had its own bishop. This Eucharistic model was more or less the norm.

The problem was that, as the Church grew, the model of one bishop in a city became impractical.  Too many people were now in the cities to have one (or even a few) churches. Did we realize that the important thing was to keep bishops as local as possible? I mean, when there are more bishops you get more staff in general, but especially doctors and nurses, right?

Nope. We made the doctors politicians and made the nurses do the doctor's job, with none of the graces or privileges. 

Are humans stupid or what?

The thing is the model only really works if the bishop is around. Without the bishop the living grace of the apostles isn't readily available. I strongly suspect this is why the grace of monasticism began to flourish: to get around our idiotic ideas of bishops as politicians. Take that with salt, of course, but it is what I think, so whatever that's worth.

Regardless, however, the laity internalized this similarity between monastic and bishop. The churches followed suit:  celibacy is officially regarded as the true way of Christianity in the Latin Church, mandating that all their priests be celibate, and the Eastern Churches usually only pick bishops from amongst the monastics.

This distance creates simplification.

Simplification leads to overestimation.

Overestimation of others creates a lack of trust in your God- given, baptismal graces. 

Which leads to Clericalism: that which is distant is superior. Which is the exact opposite of the point of Christianity. We are to be gods by grace, not sycophants of the hierarchy!

If you don't value your own experience, you won't go looking, reject what you do have, and will hang onto the first megalomaniac who has no scruples.

Like Father Paul of this show.

So how do fix this, assuming I'm right?

I've absolutely no idea.

As my angel of a wife frequently reminds me, I have no charism to fix the Churches. But I do know that a spiritual strengthening of the laity isn't just a nice idea.

So here are my suggestions for my lay brethren, Catholic and Orthodox:

When you were baptized you were made priest, prophet, and king/queen. You were given much. Trust in the gifts God gave you! He is in your heart and if you show Him you are ready He will show up.

At the same time you have to acknowledge that God didn't just appear to only you one day. God left a Church, which has made some attempts at archiving spiritual practices and doctrine that hold to God. I do not mean listen to your clergy blindly. Unlike medicine spiritual knowledge really doesn't change that much, and it's important to have a good range of knowledge of what came before you. You are not a special snowflake; God is not going to contradict what He told folks for the last 2000 years. 

Keep it short and simple, at least at first. The following books can get you a pretty decent grounding.

Arise O God (which I have reviewed on this blog before) is the only English work I know that sums up the Gospel with all the mythological and spiritual  considerations necessary.  It is small and mercifully short. Catholics: do not let the fact it is by an Orthodox priest throw you off. This is pure gold. And it's so mercifully short and simple to boot. A real home run of a book!

Unseen Warfare is the best introduction to the spiritual life I've ever read, hands down. It is, not coincidentally, a book that has both Catholic and Orthodox contributors, over a few centuries. You can use it either way, which I heartily recommend. Maybe if we get a common parlance again it won't be so hard to talk.

To be ignorant of the Scripture is to be ignorant of Christ. That's not a trite saying. Scripture is to the mind as Communion is to the soul. But what's missing from common Catholic thought is that Scripture is incomplete without the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. They show what prayerfully receiving Scripture can look like. I personally use Ancient Christian Commentaries,which breaks it down into as short and easy to manage chunks as possible. You can pick any book you like to start out, although you really can't go wrong with the Gospels.

If you're in the mood to read more than that short amount (and a lot of the time I'm not) I find perusing the Old Testament to be extremely useful, given that the Old Testament is the context for the New. I go off a program suggested by the second most important book of Catholicism, The Golden Legend:

Revelation for Easter season

Pentecost through Advent/Phillips Fast: Samuel, Kings, and Maccabees

Christmas to Lent: Isaiah

Lent: Genesis and Exodus

I personally don't go through commentary here, not yet. I let the stories puzzle me. You are under no obligation to be so masochistic.

I also have The Book of the Elders, which is a collection of stories and sayings from the Desert Fathers. There are two editions: Latin and Greek. The Greek is longer, of course. I take these with heavy doses of salt and may puzzle over them for months.

I assume regular participation in the Sacraments, particularly Communion and Confession. The rest is just context for your walk with God in the Sacraments.

I take Flanagan's criticisms very seriously. I cannot solve the full scope of the problem as I see it, but I can suggest ways that have helped this cantankerous layman stay in the basket God is using to yank him out of Hell. There's more, of course. What I suggested is just barely a drop in the ocean of information out there. But anyone with the grounding I suggest would have been much, much, much harder to fool than the sad folks in this show.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Returning to 4e


I suppose this was going to happen sooner or later. Almost a decade later and I'm not just returning to 4e, I'm staying for the foreseeable future. For all of 4e's faults there nothing like it. Whether it be longings for deep tactical play, excellent character building, the skill challenge system, re-evaluating my concept of story games, or just plain ole nostalgia... it's just time to stop wandering. Time to go home.

Let's face it: nothing has ever done 4e's type of tactical play in an RPG. From what I understand Pathfinder 2e does something similar, but the resource management system of 4e's damn-well near universal At-Will, Encounter, and Daily set up hasn't really been attempted since. It's a very specific itch to have.

No, 13th Age doesn't count. I count it as a step backwards.

Like, when I think back to 4e that's the thing I really miss the most: everyone having a similar system of resources. This lets them figure out more intricate plans and really treat combat as a puzzle.

But that's only one half of the tactical picture. 4e's secret sauce, the thing that keeps the above framework interesting, is Page 42, which allows for strong and effective improvisation. You marry these two systems together and the conversation of combat becomes a free wheeling affair, especially if you're willing to let players sacrifice their power slots to make better on the fly effects. There's a lot of freedom in 4e, but that's specially because of the framework it operates in; any other system it wouldn't work quite as well 

Character creation in 4e is a bit tricky. On the one hand you can have people do it together, and get some really cool workshopping, with people coming up with combos and intentionally shoring up each other's weaknesses and increasing strengths. But it has to be purposefully done. For whatever reason I remember folks not doing this sorta thing by default, but when it is done it's deeply enjoyable. And yeah, I miss it. I'll make sure it happens.

The skill challenge system has gold at its heart, even if it has issues. The GM tells you how many successes you need before three failures; you get XP based on how many checks you had to make, not on how many successes you had. This gives you a good basis for getting XP on the nights when combat isn't on everyone's mind.  4e could be a surprisingly open system for how heavily focused it was on combat, even having rules for getting XP for straight up RP. This doesn't make it a good straight up "story" game (more on that nonsense in a minute), but the game has built in alternatives for when you're just not in the mood to pull out the battle map.

The term story game is bullshit. Period. The term is not positive, it doesn't actually have its own identity. It just means "We don't like DnD and that makes us superior". This isn't to say that DnD is a good game necessarily (5e is hot garbage), but liking DnD is certainly not proof of being uncultured or something like that. That's not to say you can't make a term for the various types in the indie scene. I'm sure better classifications can exist. PBTA (Powered by the Apocalypse) is now very much its own thing, as are FitD (Forged in the Dark) and RiT (Rooted in Trophy). Maybe instead of using story game or Indy as some weird form of identity we simply say what we play and have done with it?  I acknowledge not everyone does this. But I know I did, and it robbed me of a lot of fun I could otherwise be having.

I'm not here saying I think 4e is a perfect game. To the contrary, I think there's a lot of room to house rule. Combat takes way too long sometimes, some of the classes need significant help to be effective, and the system doesn't reward role-playing as it could. But, as it turns out, the design team was cognizant of these issues and were working on evolving the system! Dragon Magazine published a lot of Unearthed Arcana articles, addressing many problems of the system. Turns out that the designers had put a lot of thought into improving 4e and I like a lot of their ideas. From rewarding role-play with action points, long term wounds, go a complete backstory system, I can tell that the designers had more than enough to make a new edition that would have been an actual evolution of 4e. So yeah. 4e ain't perfect. But the ideas presented in Dragon Magazine are great and I'm definitely going to try them. But that means dropping the pretensions to grandeur. 4e's story isn't going to be Dostoevsky, more John Wick. But John Wick has a fantastic story in its own right, easily standing on its own.

And yeah, there's more than a little nostalgia at work here! 4e was the first RPG I legitimately loved. That's just not going to go away. Trust me, I tried to kill that and here I am, ten years later, right back to where I started. I've learned a ton along the way, and will always have Burning Wheel, Trophy Gold, and Bleak Spirit, not to mention Crescendo (whenever that gets done). I learned a lot. It'll make my present so much better.

It's been a good journey. Time to come home.


Friday, November 12, 2021

Avengers: Endgame


I remember going to see Iron Man in theatres. I liked it, but it sure wasn't Shakespeare. Robert Downey Jr was Iron Man, that I could tell, but beyond that? It was fun. But that really was it. Fun. There's a lot of technical craft and whatnot, but the movie lived and died by its lead, period. Sure as hell wasn't because of the script, that's for sure.

"I am Iron Man." What a fantastic way to end that movie!

And y'know what? Over the years I've warmed to the movie as a singular work. Still not my favorite thing, but there's a lot of heart in the film and I appreciate that. 

But I don't know of a soul who wasn't sent into a geekout by that post-credits scene! It was bold. Brave. And I wanted to know what would come next.

I make the distinction here between Iron Man the movie and Iron Man the promise. One of them is okay, the other pure gold. No one had ever tried this! The Avengers! Wow! 

Folks, The Incredible Hulk still has a much softer space in my heart.  I know that's heresy. But my goodness I love that movie. But Captain America is not a movie I love. Nor is Thor. But each one ended with a promise: this is going somewhere.

Y'know what I call that in the gaming industry? The Treadmill. Get something good (but not too good) along with a promise that it'll all add up in the end. That's one of the reasons I got out of Marvel Champions; I realized I was playing for what the game could become, with just a bit more time and money.

The Avengers is an amazing movie, on its own merits. Whedon took something that hadn't a snowball chance in hell of working and not only did it but did it with style. I was fine with it ending there. Marvel had managed the impossible. Whedon will never not have that to his credit.

But then they showed Thanos. And we got another dopamine hit. The Treadmill continued. 

Let's cut to the chase. Some of these 26 movies are excellent. Winter Soldier, Civil War, Ragnarok, the Guardians Movies, Iron Man 3... and the rest are merely okay. At best. But The Treadmill had been activated and we wanted to see where it was going. Infinity War was actually pretty dang good.

But what would happen with Endgame? Y'know, the end?

There was a moment in the final fight where I yawned. Yup. Everything up until that fight had been done... alright. But something was wrong and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And I can tell you what exactly is wrong with this movie, but it may actually work to show you what this movie could have looked like, without the stupid checklist that restrained the Russo Brothers.

Most of the film I would have kept similar, up until that final fight. Hulk does The Snap, everyone asks if it worked and- 

BAM!

THANOS!

Thanos comes in for the kill. Immediate bombardment. Devastation so horrible it would have one upped Avengers. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America crawl out of the wreckage to find Thanos with the gauntlet almost on. Steve just grabs Mjolnir ("I KNEW IT!") and thrashes Thanos. 

Oh, Chris Evans keeps the freaking beard. Not. A. Question.

Cap's not holding back, calling down a lightning storm that almost fries the atmosphere. "AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!!!!!" Steve roars it at the top of his lungs, rattling the fillings of everyone in the audience. Thor and Iron Man jump in. This a brutal, ugly, awful fight. Cap, Thor, and Tony are fighting like animals. They've no idea if a cavalry is coming, they don't know where Hulk is. It's life and death. And it looks like it's going well, too! Until Tony makes a mistake, gets too close. Thanos uses him as a meatshield for one of Cap's super bolts. The suit lights up like a Christmas tree, and then goes dark. Friday's gone. Tony looks dead.

Steve almost stops at that point. He killed Tony! But Thor pushes on. They have to win. They must. They're all that's left. He finally has his moment of leadership. And Steve gets up. He's a mess, but he gets up. But without Tony it's just no use; Thanos cleans their clocks. "I am inevitable."

Steve gets up, one last time."No, you're afraid. And fear, it makes you less. Makes you hunker down, refuse to be vulnerable, not enjoy the time you do have. Fear gives you tunnel vision." Thor gets his ax into Thanos, "The Inevitable does not need fear. And I am just that." Thor is punched off planet. Cap's arm's broken a moment later; he drops Mjolnir. 

"Hi Inevitable. I'm Iron Man." Tony's been getting the damn glove on the whole time. We switch to his POV. We watch the fingers snap. And then the camera falls to the side, with the sound cutting out. It's getting dark.

There's a flash of light. And Stephen Strange walks into the POV frame, one finger held up. And then there's Peter, sobbing, pulling Tony into his arms.

And then there's Pepper. We rest on her face a second. She's luminous.

Darkness.

And then we cut to all the restored heroes standing around Iron Man.

If you cannot tell what I think is wrong with Endgame from that, I don't know what else to tell you. My version would certainly need revisions and probably a bit of pacing work, but y'know what it isn't doing? Checking boxes with a pen. There's no artificial inflation of a fight scene that had very little emotional weight. There was definitely no stupid stupid stupid dear God stupid "We've got her back" pandering nonsense. Just our three heroes, the three that we'd been following in one form or another this whole time, finally reaching their full potential, together.

That's all I needed 

Instead I got The Treadmill. Again. 

No, not this time folks. If something is being reported as truly excellent I'll give it a look. But I'm done with "Just wait for the next! It'll all add up!"

It didn't. And I'm disappointed.

Midnight Mass: A Beginning Critique


Boy, that was something.

Peter wanted me to watch this show. I did. I've a lot of thoughts. And I'm going to start with what I disagree with in this show. Understand I do not do this to show disrespect. On the contrary! This is a good show worthy of your time. But I need to get the bile out of the way. So bear with me please.

This is the most accurate and cutting take on modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy I've ever seen. If you are a believer in either Church you owe it to yourself to watch it. Period. It's not a question. Flanagan is an Ex-Catholic, who has measured and reasonable critiques of both Churches.

Yes, oh smug and self-satisfied Orthodox, especially you. 

We'll get there.

But first, my critiques. Flanagan makes two points I think need to be broken, and hard. I think them a smudge on what is an otherwise pristine production. Flanagan's thoughts on why religion exists are catastrophically wrong, and his ending statement on pantheism is a bandaid on the gaping wound which is theodicy.

Now, to the best of my knowledge, Flanagan is an atheist. And I will respond like he is. And, like most atheists, Flanagan posits that religion was developed for two reasons: the fear of death and early mankind being stupid. These aren't new claims, of course, and are just as tired and trite here as the first time I heard them. Religion was not invented due to a fear of death and needing to explain it. We think of Egypt and its detailed murals of the afterlife for its Pharaohs... and then forget Judaism didn't really have an afterlife. And that the Greek's underworld was a sad and dismal place for most, except the favorites of the gods. Norse mythology certainly doesn't have great options.  I could probably go on.

But I won't.

Here's how religion came about.  I think.

Go into the woods. Or on the prairie. Mountains. Somewhere isolated from our society. Leave your phone behind. 

Quiet, isn't it? It's a different kind of quiet than being in a city. Cities have always felt dead to me. All that concrete, you just get used to things around you not being alive.

Not out here, though. Everything is alive. Stay out there for about an hour or three. However long you can.  And listen. Soothing, isn't it? As you walk through the place you're in you'll find places quieter than others, where it almost feels.. well.. personal! There's an awareness you can find there. It's not an awareness like yours, of course, but if you sit in it and actually listen, jettison your expectations and just... exist... you can be aware something is there.

Now imagine if you couldn't get away from it. Imagine you didn't have that phone. Or anything else in your modern life. We're not aware of it, but electricity actually does make noise. It pulses all around us and blocks out everything else. But if you could hear that silence, all the time, and didn't really travel all that far, you'd get used to that presence, in that place. You'd probably go there just to feel like you're not alone. 

And then one day the thoughts in your head aren't yours. It's Something Else. And, after some initial shock, you might find yourself talking to it. It doesn't speak in a way you'd normally recognize but it is communicating. Turns out you have to have an open mind to the idea that not all consciousness works like yours. You have to accept real diversity.

No, the basis of religion is wonder and joy, as Carlyle says. And it is a wonder and joy that is now alien to us, living in the wreckage of the world wars. Men were different before World War I, that is a fact of history. Only a time as disllusioned and stupid as our could say something so ridiculous. So I don't fault Flanagan. I think that's a far more accurate take. Pre-moderns weren't cowards like us. Death was so present they didn't notice it the same way we do now. To even bring death into the center of the picture is so laughably modern that it almost doesn't deserve a response, except that it's a central idea in this show. So yes, it's wrong, and can prove it by picking up any pre-modern story and forcing yourself not to sneer. It's a titanic effort. But it's worth it.

Flanagan, through the words of Riley, who is really the hero of this show, posits that man likened stars to campfires, and that they had to be incredible because they were in the sky. Basically, since man had limited ways to figure out the world he anthromorphized everything. It is with reason, with science, that the world needs to be examined. Standard new atheist stuff, right out of that modern playbook of foolishness, The Golden Bough. The problem isn't just that this is inaccurate to every single actual shred of evidence we have of ancients, it's that science can only give is information about the material world. You cannot ask what the best way to raise a family is, whether or not morality need exist, or even why we exist. Those aren't scientific questions. Science has its limits, being a method for getting information about the material world. Morals aren't material. Neither is joy. You can't figure those out with science. You can collect material data on them, sure, but that doesn't make thing you're talking about material in itself.

The other thing that Flanagan does that I disagree with is he makes an open case for pantheism as a solution to the problem of evil. The self is just a dream of the cosmos. This sounds familiar.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce Azathoth, the Blind Idiot God! He sits in the center of the cosmos, where many profane beings play on their discordant flutes to make sure he keeps dreaming. See, we are his dreams. If he wakes up we wink out. He is all. I'm not sure he even counts as distinct from us. And what a horrifying dream it is, isn't it?? Death and disease and terror and despair and people singing insipid Marty Haugen songs at Catholic mass and dictators and the World Wars and all the petty personal evils I commit involuntarily and paperwork and-

Have I made my point? If we are God we deserve what we get. The child sleeping on my chest as I write this, her energy comes from someplace evil and profane and I owe it to the world to snuff it out, so that way the dream doesn't turn into a nightmare again.

No?

Too dark?

I didn't ask if it was too dark. If you're going to follow the logic follow the fucking logic, all the way to the end. If the abyss blinks you may as well smile and wave and hold its gaze, cause I got news: you came out of it and to it you will return.

No, painted pantheism doesn't solve the problem of evil. 

And Flanagan saying it does is the true horror of the show.

Next week let's be more positive. Flanagan gets so much right. And I can't wait to talk about it. So much good can come out of this show, and I can't wait to share it with you.