Yuan-ti and snake symbolism

This post has spoilers about a Dungeons & Dragons adventure from In Volo’s Wake.

* * *

On Wednesday nights I’ve been running a D&D campaign, and this week we had our third session. I’ve been using the scenarios from In Volo’s Wake (but I’ve also been mixing in some content from Lost Mine of Phandelver). Last night the party investigated what the yuan-ti were doing in the quarry near Old Owl Well. The yuan-ti are humanoids who worship snake gods. Through foul rituals, they have been modified into terrible, snakelike forms. In the adventure, the yuan-ti have captured inexperienced adventurers, who they plan to transform into yuan-ti.

Snake symbolism in European societies seems to be dominated by the snake from the Garden of Eden, which originates in the Hebrew scripture and but been reinterpreted in Christian thought. It’s often associated with evil, temptation and trickery – but it could also be associated with hidden knowledge. We could look at the story as being about humans choosing their own path and the conflict that causes with their creator.

Snakes can also be associated with rebirth or regeneration because of their ability to slough off their old skin and emerge with a shiny new skin. In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, it is the snake who possesses the secret of immortality. In paradox, many snakes are also poisonous. So they could be understood as having power over life and death.

I’d say the portrayal of the yuan-ti picks up more of the negative aspects of snake symbolism – evil and the temptation of hidden knowledge. In our game on Wednesday I also wanted to bring out some of the idea of rebirth. A kind of rebirth occurs when a humanoid is turned into a yuan-ti, or when a yuan-ti turns into a more powerful form.

When the players were getting close to freeing all the prisoners, I had a yuan-ti abomination turn up (I have a great abomination miniature that I wanted to use) and invite Sardior the dragonborn paladin to join the yuan-ti and be reborn. Sardior rejected the invitation, so the abomination cast the spell ‘suggestion’ on Sardior, instructing him to kill Kwinn, the half-elf warlock… I let Saridor repeat the Wisdom saving throw each turn (even though the spell isn’t supposed to allow that) and he did manage to beat it before he was able to attack Kwinn. I didn’t want him to actually kill the mage, but I wanted the party to get the idea that they could be corrupted by the yuan-ti.

If you want to read more about snake symbolism in mythology, I’d suggest reading James Charlesworth’s book The Good and Evil Serpent.

Construction accidents and sexual ethics

I just want to warn that this post talks (briefly) about clergy sexual abuse.

* * *

Maybe one way you can tell Jesus was really a construction worker is that he apparently made a joke about an industrial accident: You’re worried because you think your neighbour has a splinter in their eye, but you’ve got a construction beam coming out of your head! Who’s got the real problem?


We were talking about this confronting parable on Saturday at a meeting about how people of faith can promote the ‘yes’ vote in Australia’s upcoming survey on marriage equality. The parable is a darkly humorous way of talking about the hypocrisy of deeply immoral people attempting to ‘correct’ others.

I think what is really tragic is that many Christians don’t realise that in our wider society we have lost all credibility on morality – particularly with regards to sexual ethics. Christian clergy in Australia have sexually abused children and the church institution has tried to cover up the abuse. This leaves us with no credibility in the wider community if we try to say that two adults in an equal and loving relationship shouldn’t be able to get married.

Feeling love but acting hatefully


Someone said something like, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’

It’s easy to think that being loving is just about having loving thoughts or feelings toward someone else – even if we’re in conflict, if we try we might be able to conjure up positive feelings toward each other. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to do that. I’ve sometimes found it helpful to be able to do that.

However, I think there are problems when we just think of love just about how you feel toward someone or how you think about them. This idea of love has often allowed people to say that they love their neighbour while at the same time trying to restrict their freedom. This idea of love has meant that people have not listened to their neighbours feedback about the harm caused by their behaviour, because they believe that they’re still loving their neighbour from the depths of their emotions. I’m thinking specifically here about how people from my religious tradition, the tradition that believes in ‘loving your neighbour’ have treated members of the queer communities in particular, but also other groups.

A lot of people think that because they’re directing nice feelings toward a person they’re not acting hatefully. If our neighbour feeds back to us that our behaviour or beliefs are harming them, we need to reassess how we behave and what we believe. Otherwise we are are turning our back on our neighbour, treating our neighbour hatefully.

Genesis and weresharks

Sunday to Wednesday I was in a class on Indigenous Theologies and Methods, which NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) was running here through Whitley College. One of the things we spent a lot of time discussing was the differences between how Western Christians have read the Bible and how the Bible might be read from Indigenous cultural perspectives. One particular emphasis that our teacher Terry LeBlanc (a Mi’qmac man from Canada) noted was the tendency for Western Christians to focus on the rupturing of creation in Genesis 3 and overlook the goodness of creation in Genesis 1-2. His suggestion was that rather than Genesis 3 being an ultimate fall from perfection, it is more like a break in relationship between people, God, spirits and fellow creatures.

At the same time I’ve been participating in the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge for July. Each day there’s a Dungeons & Dragons creature to draw, and Tuesday’s challenge was a wereshark, which I really enjoyed drawing.


@bodieh, who lives in Western Australia (where the government has encouraged the culling of sharks) is one of the organisers of the challenge, commented on this one. I wondered whether this wereshark might be looking for former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett? I wondered whether we should be paying attention to what sharks may be trying to say to us, rather than culling them? It certainly seems unfair to me that we would venture into their natural environment and then kill them when they attack us.

Should Christians be afraid of ‘no religion’?

This week census data was released. In the lead up to the census there was a big campaign encouraging folks to tick ‘no religion’. There was also a counter-campaign from some Christian groups desperately encouraging folks who were undecided to tick ‘Christian’, so that Australia wouldn’t become a Muslim country.

The data’s come back, and it looks like about half of Australians still identitfy as Christian. However, those who ticked ‘no religion’ were larger than any of the Christian denominations.

I don’t think it should be any surprise that all the churches are in decline. I also don’t think this is something Christians should be afraid of. Out of all the religions, we should be least afraid of death. Death and resurrection is what Christianity is all about. If the church dies, who knows what will come next?

Abrahamic faith in D&D is problematic

For a while I’ve been reading though old Planescape material for 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. (I’m interested in running a 5E Planescape campaign, so if you’re in Melbourne and interested let me know.) Planescape is a setting that incorporates the various planes of the multiverse, meaning that adventurers are likely to come across representatives of various gods (called ‘powers’). I find it interesting that the god(s) of the Abrahamic traditions is not represented in Planescape and is generally avoided in D&D, especially since Christianity and Islam are the two most widespread religions. I think there are some good reasons for this. It would be problematic to portray Abrahamic conceptions of God in this context.

It seems that people of the Abrahamic faiths are often offended by representations of their god. I think this is particulalry because of the Jewish tradition of holding the name ‘YHWH’ with reverance and because of the Jewish and Muslim instructions against making images of God. I also think it would be problematic to include Abrahamic concepts of God, because the Abrahamic faiths believe there is only one true god. Monotheists aren’t likely to appreciate a setting where their one true god is actually one amongst many. These might not seem like a big deal for those of us who don’t have a faith or who hold our faith loosely, but for many people it’s very serious to portray the divine incorrectly or disrespectfully. A couple of weeks ago I posted about treating Aboriginal culture with respect, and I think most people who read that article understood this. I think for the same reason we might hesitate to portray Aboriginal culture and religion in a game, we should also hesitate to portray other faiths and cultures, and seek to be respectful.

My personal opinion is that the Biblical concept of God is pretty messy. (I’m not familiar with the Quran, so I can’t comment on that.) I don’t think the Bible has a consistent way of portraying God, but brings together various complementary and contrasting portrayals from different communities in different eras. I don’t personally find this very bothering, but I do think it is a reason why there is so much scope for conflict – some people will focus on one idea of God that they find in the scripture, and others will focus on a contrastic idea about the same, one God. If one were to include an Abrahamic depiction of God in Planescape, creative decisions would have to be made about which Abrahamic ideas to emphasise, and those decisions would be bound to offend some people who emphasise other parts of the tradition. Of course, I don’t people who are happy to explore these ideas playfully and creatively (which is what I prefer) would have a problem with this.

I was talking with one of my friends about this topic and he suggested that another problem might be that it’s hard to portray a god who is understood to be transcendent. I don’t really buy into the idea of God being transcendent myself – I think it has become commonplace in the Abrahamic tradiitons because of Platonic philosphy. That’s why I like what Neil Gaiman does with Jesus in his novel American Gods. Jesus doesn’t directly appear in the novel, but it’s mentioned that he’s been seen hitchhiking in Afghanistan, where he’s not so well recognised. It seems not so transcendent, and more like the itinerant rabbi found in the gospels. My understanding is that in the TV show there’ll be different depictions of Jesus, recognising that different cultures at different moments reshape their images of the divine.

If I was going to include Jesus as a power in the Planescape setting, I think I’d be most likely to portray him as a wandering stranger.

img_2261-1

Continuity through practices

On Saturday I posted about how our household (which is predominantly Christian) is trying to make sure we are clear about making sure there is space for folks who aren’t Christian. We want to make sure we can work alongside and learn from people who have other worldviews, not just people who have worldviews similar to our own. I’ve noticed that when groups make this decision there is often concern from Christians that the group will lose it’s Christian character. I don’t have that concern because I believe the project’s Christian character is preserved in our practises. (I’ve also been part of other Christian projects where we’ve involved people from other faiths or no faith, and we’ve been able to do that by focussing on Christian practices.)

I don’t think Christianity is generally known as a faith that emphasises practices. Generally we think of Chritianity as being focussed on beliefs. However, the gospels suggest that Jesus first invitation to his early disciples was to come and follow him. By looking at Jesus’ behaviour (rather than looking for theological doctrines) I think we can find the kind of practices that Jesus was teaching his followers:

  • befriending the stranger
  • sharing meals across social boundaries
  • providing access to medical treatment
  • reconciling with enemies
  • bringing marginalised pople back into the community

Those Christian practices are all things that we do in different ways as part of our project. They don’t require people to adopt our religion to participate. But I think they do preserve continuity with the teachings of the founder of our movement.

Sharing space with other voices


Over the last couple of years our household has started hosting learning circles. These have been informal events where we’ve opened up the house to visitors so that we can discuss things that we’ve been learning through the project. We’ve realised that because we’ve been a predominantly Christian household we need to be clear about making sure participants don’t presume everyone is Christian. I’ve found that a lot of the time Christians will presume that they are in a homogenously Christian space where their beliefs and values are taken for granted. I’ve been lucky to have had a couple of experiences of Christian spaces which I think did a good job of making space for outside perspectives. I think it’s important that we keep finding ways to create spaces where people with different worldviews can learn from each other. (I don’t have any problem with Christians having their own spaces, I just think there are already so many ‘safe spaces’ for Christians just to be around other Christians.)

You can’t missionise people, then accuse them of cultural appropriation


This ANZAC Day it seemed like we hit peak outrage. There’s been a lot said about Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s ‘Lest we forget’ Facebook post. But some senstive folks were also upset by the words of Kaurna elder Katrina Ngaitlyala Power, who mentioned in her Welcome to Country, that this land was invaded. People were also upset that Power paraphrased the 23rd Psalm to say, ‘though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Invasion’.

“We had to listen to a culturally misappropriated, bastardised version of the Psalm that included “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Invasion”,” the Grange resident said. – Craig Cook, ‘Speech of welcome by Aboriginal elder Katrina Ngaitlyala Power at Anzac dawn service referencing slavery condemned as too political’ The Adveriser April 25

I think it is ridiculous to say that this is cultural appropriation. In any case, I don’t think cultural appropriation is always a problem. But in this case, I don’t think anyone has any right to criticise Power for using the psalm in this way. Aboriginal people have this Psalm because European Christians gave it to them. In many cases Europeans forced their faith on Aboriginal people. We have no right now to accuse Aboriginal people for adapting texts and traditions that we gave to them, often at the expense of their own culture and religion.

I don’t think we have any right to be offended by Power’s refernces to invasion. If we are paying attention, we should be aware of this fact whenever we acknowledge country or are welcomed onto country.

Acknowledging LGBTIQ folks at SURRENDER

On Thursday I said that I was hoping to make space at SURRENDER for folks to acknowledge where they are at with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity, and I am pretty happy with how that went. A number of people participated in the labyrinth on the Saturday and Sunday mornings while I was hosting the space, and also at other times when it wasn’t intentionally hosted. I also got to have conversations with several people who have more conservative views on this topic than I did, and I think we were able to hear where each other is coming from. We also received feedback from folks who said they appreciated knowing that there was some affirming presence at the conference. (Some of my friends were also hosting a space where people could come and chat about these things.)

For the sake of transparency I thought I should post here the statement that I provided at the labyrinth. If anyone has suggestions about how I can imporve this, please let me know. (My email address is christop@gmail.com if you’d prefer to contact me privately.)

LGBTIQ Acknowledgement Labyrinth

We’re coming here with different perspectives. The unity of Christians is in Christ, not in the perspectives we hold.

One thing I think we should all be able to agree on is that Jesus loves and accepts us all as we are – but it is something that has often been forgotten by the church in our treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer people.

Whatever our perspective, we should all be able to agree that the church should be sorry for the harm it has caused to people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. this is a space for the church to acknowledge the presence of LGBTIQ people in the church.

  • to acknowledge without reservation that the church has often caused harm in its response to LGBTIQ people
  • to acknowledge that LGBTIQ people have often been pushed out of church communities
  • to acknowledge that many LGBTIQ people who have been able to stay part of the church have faced restrictions on their involvement 
  • to acknowledge that there are things we have struggled to understand about human sexuality and identity
  • to mourn the loss of LGBTIQ people who have taken their own lives as a result of hateful treatment
  • to celebrate the contributions that LGBTIQ people have made to the church in spite of opposition
  • to acknowledge that the church needs to begin listening to LGBTIQ people and to commit to doing this in our own contexts

If there is something you’d like to acknowledge, please feel free to take a ribbon, walk the labyrinth with it, and tie it onto the cross. (If you like, you can write your acknowledgement on the ribbon.)

As we walk the labyrinth, we often have to make space for people coming from the opposite direction. In these situations it’s often someone who is travelling in the direction that we were previously taking. We have to work out how we’ll share the space and pass each other. I think this can show us something about sharing space with people we don’t agree with.

If this space has brought up anything that you would like to talk about, I’m more than happy to discuss this and share how my own limited perspective on this has developed over the years. – Chris Booth 04– — —