This post has spoilers about a Dungeons & Dragons adventure from In Volo’s Wake.
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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.
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?
At Easter I published a post where I said that we should treat the story of Jesus as mythology. Some folks said they were interested in what I mean by that. I started wondering what I really mean by that.
Dominic Crossan says that myths are stories that try to explain everything, make us at ease, close all the gaps, show us that everything makes sense and everything is as it should be. Myths explain everything. Myths don’t leave space for more speculation or conversation.
Parables, on the other hand, challenge mythology. Parables, disrupt, question and transform. Historically Christians have often read the parables of Jesus as though they answered questions and summed up reality, but in their original context they often challenged people’s assumptions.
Given Crossan’s definitions, would you say that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is mythology or parable?
One of the reasons I was sick of seeing the articles arguing for or against an hisotircal, literal resurrection was that I am not convinced that arguing gets us anywhere. I think it stops us from hearing what the other has to say. I think people who write these arguments already know what they think and are looking for arguments to back up what they think.
In the Facebook thread where I posted what I’d written, some folks started arguing. 😉 I engaged a little bit, but didn’t want to get drawn into arguing. That was exactly what the original post was about! (My trust is that it was still encourgiung for the folks it was meant for. I hope that folks who didn’t find it helpful are able to let it go.)
I don’t want to get involved in arguing this question because I just don’t know. But I do find myself inspired by and caught up in this story. I believe it because I’ve experienced people acting in the way Jesus did. (If you want you can read about that in a post I wrote last year.)
I don’t know whether Jesus’ followers met with a Jesus who was literally resurrected. I don’t know whether they simply meant that they experienced his corporeal presence in the body of believers or among the poor of Galillee. I find both possibilities inspiring as I try to practise resurrection, or at least not get in the way of others as they practise.
I’m going to finish today’s post there. It doesn’t mean this is finished. If you think it’s not finished, feel free to write a response. Or let me know if you think there’s more I should be exploring.
In the lead-up to Easter there have been the usual articles about whether or not Jesus rose from death – or if he even existed. I’m not particulalry interested in those articles because I don’t think they treat mythology correctly. I think the truth of mythology is in whether it can inspire and direct a society. Peter Catt, the dean of St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane, has reminded us that the story of Jesus taught our society that victims are innocent.
I’m less interested in whether the stories of Jesus’ resurrection are historical and more interested in whether they can teach us to practise resurrection. Can they teach us to seek life amongst the dead? Can they teach us to seek hope in the midst of despair? Can they teach us to keep working away when the world seems to be going to shit?
Yesterday I spoke at Moreland Baptist Church in Brunswick, not far from where I live at the Indigenous Hospitality House in Carlton North. In the liturgical calendar Easter actually goes for several weeks, so we were continuing to reflect on the story of Jesus’ execution and resurrection. In the story we read, from John’s gospel, Jesus mysteriously appears among his friends in the middle of a closed room, still bearing the marks of his execution. He breathes on them his executed-and-resurrected breath, telling them that they have the power to forgive sins or leave them standing. No flames above the disciples heads like we find in the book of Acts. In John’s account, God’s Spirit is the breath of the executed-and-resurrected.
Jesus’ friend Thomas misses all this and doesn’t believe it. He says he needs to see it for himself, to even touch the scars in Jesus hands and put his hand inside the hole in his body. Jesus turns up for Thomas’ benefit and challenges him to do exactly that.
Many people in our society today also find it hard to take the accounts of the resurrection seriously because of a lack of any material, corporeal evidence. However, I think there is actual corporeal, material confirmation of the resurrection out there. I have experienced it in the welcome and hospitality I have received from our First Peoples, despite the poor track record of Settler people. It is bodily because it has taken the form of shared food and drink, shared shelter in the bad weather, a hug of welcome. This is the forgiveness that the resurrected Jesus talks about.
I also see confirmation of the resurrection in the witness of Leo Seemanpillai. Leo
came to Australia as an asylum-seeker, and was living in Geelong when he received the news that his application for asylum had failed and that he would be returned to Sri Lanka. He feared that when he returned he would be killed, and in despair he took his own life. In his death Leo Seemanpillai returned our cruelty with generosity. He was registered as an organ donor. One of his eyes, one of his lungs, his kidneys and his liver were given to people who needed them. In a very material way, Leo Seemanpillai lives on in Australia, in our bodies, helping us to see, cleansing our bodies and giving us breath. This is the kind of forgiveness that the breath of Christ gives. This is not just as an illustration, an allegory or a parable. This is serious and it is real, and we need to take time to consider what it means.