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.
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.
This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve been posting some reflections here.
Last week I posted about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving their new home on Haran (in modern-day Turkey) and travelling to the great tree (maybe an Asherah tree?) at Shechem, where Abram build an altar to YHWH. In the section I’ve been reading today, the family group travel further, to a location between the cities of Beth El (‘house of El’) and Ai, where Abram builds another altar to YHWH. Again, it seems (to me) that Abram is building an altar in close proximity to a site dedicated to a Canaanite god – El, the king of the Canaanite gods.
After this the text says that they gradually moved into the arid region of Negev, and eventually had to go to Egypt because of famine. Abram says he’s worried that the Egyptians will kill him because Sarai is beautiful. (I wonder why he thought this?) He asks her to pretend they are siblings instead. When they arrive in Egypt, Sarai is taken to live in the Pharaoh’s house (presumably as a wife?), and because of this, Pharaoh deals well with Abram, providing him with livestock and slaves.
It doesn’t go well for Pharaoh though. YHWH afflicts Pharaoh and his household with plagues. It seems Pharaoh realises what has happened, and he tells Abram to take Sarai and leave. Even so, it seems like Abram is leaving Egypt a rich man.
Having read this little snippet, I wonder why it was that Abram presumed the Egyptians would kill him? It’s actually Abram who deals dishonestly in the story, denying his marriage to Sarai and benefiting from her presence in the Pharaoh’s household.
I find it interesting that this story has been preserved even though it shows the patriarch in a negative light.
On Wednesdays I’ve been reading Genesis and posting some reflections here. This week I reassessed my schedule for blogging and made some changes to make it mire sustainable. I think I’m going to post about Genesis on Thursdays now, but I’ll see how I go.
Last time I started looking at the story of Babel. The story describes a group of people who don’t want to be scattered out across the earth like the rest of humanity. They settle in one place and build a great tower in order to make a name for themselves. I said that we might see this as an expression of free enterprise, or we might see it as a description of empire.
Something I didn’t mention last time was that it seems to me that this story describes a people who have a fear of the earth. They don’t want to be scattered across the earth, so they build a city. If you live in the city (especially right in the middle of a big city) it can be quite easy to loose touch with the earth. These people build a tower with it;s head in the heavens, as though they’re wanting to escape the earth and enter the realm of the heavens.
When the god YHWH finds out out this, however, he has to go down to have a look at what they’re doing. (It seems as though the text is suggesting that the people think they’re approaching heaven, but they actually have a very, very long way to go. YHWH confuses their languages so that they can’t work together, and they join the rest of humanity in scattering across the earth.
We might say that YHWH should have minded his own business and let humanity see what they can achieve. (I’ve been in groups where we’ve read the story and people have said that.) However, I think this story may be shaped by the fact that the Jewish people knew what it took to build these kinds of monuments – slave labour. They would have observed this during their exile in Babylon. It seems like the name ‘Babel’ which means, ‘confused’ might actually be pointing back to Babylon. This story might have been told as a way of taking back power from their Babylonian oppressors by making fun of them.
On Saturdays I’ve normally been posting something about gaming, normally Dungeons & Dragons. I was planning to post something today on the taboo of the Abrahamic god/s in D&D, but I’ve been a bit sick and exhausted for the last week. I thought I’d repost something I originally wrote in 2015 on a similar topic. (Hopefully I can look at the problems with including Abrahamic religion next week.)
* * *
Before I started playing Dungeons and Dragons this year, the only experience of roleplaying was a freeform roleplaying game run by Marcus Curnow in the lead to the G20 meetings in Melbourne in 2006. I was involved with a group of Christians who were planning a three-day vigil at the barricades. As part of the preparation Marcus led us through a roleplaying game where some of us were Jesus’ disciples, planning to blockade the Temple with Jesus, and others were priests and guards in the Temple seeking to uphold the status quo.
Earlier this year I came across Testament, which is a Biblical roleplaying setting designed to be compatible with the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. What I really like about Testament is that because it is not designed specifically by or for people of any particular faith, the setting hasn’t been censored or sanitised for fit with a particular theology. The setting presumes that the gods and monsters of the other civilisations surrounding Israel are real, just as the Biblical text often does. The setting also doesn’t limit the players to choosing or creating good characters, as games developed by Christians often seem to.
I haven’t yet had a go at running a Testament game (I’ve mostly been learning to run 5th Edition D&D anyway) but last week I had a go at running a very simple freeform Biblical role-play. To begin with I just gave each of my five participants a basic character description, which said a bit about their character’s background as well as nominating a faction their character was aligned with. I’m not sure that I would match every character up with a faction in future, but for this role-play I used five factions, which were:
Pharisees – believe in adapting the Torah and making it accessible for the people of the land, so that they will know how to follow it properly, through the synagogues. They believe the Kingdom of God will be brought about if all the people follow the Torah strictly. Happy to join in revolts against the Romans and their Jewish allies.
Zealots – are working to overthrow the Romans and their collaborators through violence. They will assassinate Jews who collaborate with the Romans. They want to retake Jerusalem through force.
Sadducees – do everything they can to work with the Romans, and are willing to cooperate with them so that their people and faith are not wiped out. They are willing to adapt their faith in order to get along with the Romans and maintain the Temple.
Essenes – the Essenes distance themselves from the rest of Israelite society and believe they will create a parallel society that obeys the Torah properly, and that this will bring about the Kingdom of God. Egalitarians – everyone in their communities is considered equal. They will engage in apocalyptic preaching rather than physical violence.
People of the Land (am ha-aretz) – resenting the Romans, but politically ambivalent
When I handed out the character descriptions I explained that two of them might be familiar characters, but that they might not be instantly recognisable. One was Yohanan (who Western Christians know as John the Baptist) and the other was the construction worker Yeshua (who Western Christians know as Jesus). I asked everyone to draw what they thought their character might look like, so that we could use the images as miniatures.
The scenario was based on the first few verses of Mark’s gospel (Jesus’ baptism and temptation) and I mostly used it as an opportunity to encourage the participants to wonder more about what might have been going on for the characters on the story. These are some of the questions and ideas that I think we were able to explore by roleplaying the story:
reasons that different characters might be going down to the Jordan River to be baptised by Yohanan
how the location might influence what the characters might be expecting – the Jordan River is where Joshua led the people of Israel into the land before driving out the original occupants
how people may have responded if they heard the voice of God naming a man called Yeshua (a variation of Joshua) as his son, in the same location where another Joshua lead the people into the land before driving out their enemies. Would everyone (including Yeshua) have expected that this would mean driving out the Romans?
how Yeshua would respond if God’s Spirit drove him out into the desert to be tempted, instead of back into Israel to fight the Romans. Would Yeshua be wondering if this was really God’s Spirit?
I’ve generally been posting a refelction on Genesis/Bereshit on Wednesdays, but I haven’t had time this week. So here are some sketches I’ve done for a commission I’m working on this week, riffing off Paul’s letter to the Romans.
If you’d like me to do a commission for you too, let me know – email@example.com
I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis and on Wednesdays I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve been reading.
Cain’s great-great grandson, Lamech, is the first man in Genesis who has two wives, which might indicate the continuation of patriarchy. He brags to his wives that he has killed a man. He boasts that just as Cain would be avenged seven times, he would be avenged seventy times if someone killed him. YHWH intended to punish Cain for murdering his brother. Instead, Lamech is making Cain his inspiration. Did YHWH’s curse backfire?
However, at this stage a new thread is also introduced: Adam and Eve have another child called Seth. This time it is Eve who does the naming, and she says that Elohim has given her another child in Abel’s place. We’re told that Seth also has a son, and that at this time people began to call on the name of YHWH.
This looks to me like a comparison of two different lineages, headed in different directions.
I’ve been gradually reading through Genesis and each Wednesday I’ve been posting some reflections. I recently appreciated getting a question from my friend Nat:
‘What’s your take on the significance (i hope I’m remembering this properly) of there being no death in the garden? …ie, if it’s not literal truth’
When Nat asked me this I also wasn’t sure if I was remembering properly. I had a sense that I’d heard people say that there was no death before the humans ate the forbidden fruit. I wasn’t sure whether I’d read that in scripture or whether it was part of the folklore that’s attached to the story. So I thought I’d go back to the text and see if I could find anything suggesting that there was or wasn’t death in the garden.
In the first section of Genesis I couldn’t find anything saying that their was no death in the garden. What I did find was YHWH Elohim becoming concerned about what would happen if the humans ate from the tree of life (and became immortal) after having already eaten from the tree of knowledge.
I’m wondering if other people presumed, like me and Nat, that the story said people were immortal in the garden? If human beings are descibed as already having a limited lifespan in the garden, does that change our attitudes about death?
I’m also wondering if there may be something I’m missing? If you can see something in the text suggesting that humanity was immortal, we’d be keen to hear.
This week we’re away on holiday, so I’m posting some pieces that I’ve prewritten. One of my collaborators reckoned I should publish this one from a few years ago, so here it is. It’s a longer read that normal.
Last year I completed my Bachelor of Theology at Whitley College. One of the most rewarding units of study as part of my degree was spending a semester learning about Buddhism from Paul Beirne, a former Roman Catholic priest who’d ministered in Korea.
While I was learning about Buddhism, my church was also spending some time reflecting on the parables of Jesus. I wondered about how some Buddhist ideas might change the way that we read parables.
What first triggered this idea was the Zen Buddhist idea that the highest truth cannot be put into words. Instead, a Zen master will posit a koan (or ‘problem’) that is designed to trigger an experience of enlightenment. These koans tend to seem a lot like riddles and often have no adequate answer. In this way, Zen koans reminded me of the parables of Jesus, which seemed to confuse his closest disciples. In fact, when his followers ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, he is recorded to say,
To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’
I find this explanation as confusing as any Zen master’s koan. Jesus says that the disciples are in on the secret and that parables are used so that others may not understand, but it is the insider disciples who need the parable explained. I am confused about why Jesus would use a method of communication that he knows will not be understood, and is in fact misunderstood by his closest friends.
As part of my study of Buddhism, Paul Beirne suggested that I read Paul Knitter’s book Without Buddha I could not be a Christian. Knitter is a Roman Catholic who, in crossing over into Buddhism, has found resources that help him reconcile the difficulties he’s had with Christianity.
Knitter has found that the Buddhist emphasis on the interconnectedness of all things is a helpful remedy to the dualistic views that have come to dominate Christianity. He also says he has benefitted from the Buddhist understanding that suffering happens because of selfishness, which is caused by ignorance – ignorance of our interconnectedness. Rather than being a thing or a substance in itself (as sin or evil have often been understood by Christians) it is understood as a lack.
Knitter says he has appreciated the space Buddhists allow for mystery, as Christians have had a tendency to talk to much, trying to give explanations for everything. He says that Buddhists recognise that words are a means to an end, not the end in itself. Our words and ideas are not adequate to describe the end that we seek, so we must hold them loosely.
Knitter describes the practises of metta and tonglen, Buddhist techniques which may also help Christians develop compassion. He also says that he has been challenged by Buddhists to accept all things, even things he would like to identify as evil, and not to wish that they were different. It is understood that by doing this one can come to an understanding of why things are the way they are.
After reading Knitter’s exploration of Buddhism I decided to see how my reading of parables would be impacted by these Buddhist ideas and practises. Before and after reading a parable I decided I would try to practise metta. As I reflected on the parables I would keep in mind the Buddhist ideas Knitter had explored.
Before reading these parables I spent some time practising metta, which is basically directing love. You start off directing love toward yourself, then toward someone close to you, and then to someone who you have no significant connection with. After this you try directing love toward someone who you find difficult to love, maybe even someone who you’d say you hate. Lastly you take some time to direct love toward yourself again, in recognition that many of us find it most difficult to love ourselves.
As I began to read the ‘lost’ parables of Luke 15, I noticed that the setting for the telling of these parables has some tax collectors and sinners gravitating towards Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes are unhappy about this and, in contrast, they seem to want to disasociate themselves from Jesus. The gravitation fo the sinners and tax collectors toward Jesus might indicate a recognition of their interrelationship with himbut it is also leading the Pharisees and scribes to deny any interrelationship.
In the first parable Jesus tells them, the relationship the shepherd has with the one lost sheep is so strong that he will momentarily leave all the other sheep (distancing himself from them) to have all of his sheep back with him. I wonder whether there is a similarity between the shepherd risking leaving all of the other sheep in order to find the one stary and Jesus risking his relationship with the Pharisees and scribes in order to acknowledge his interconnection with the tax collectors and sinners?
It seems that one stray is noticed because its place in the group is missing. With just one missing, the flock is not whole and so all are diminished. This is why there is great rejoicing when the stray is returned. In the second parable th set of coins is also diminished because of the one missing coin.
In the third parable, the first son acts as an individual, separating himself from his family and their land. He suffers because of his selfishness and ignorance. He sells the land that he should have maintained connection with, wastes the money received from the sale and has nothing left when hard times hit. This happens because he is trying to operate as a separate and independent self. He is ignorant of the connection with his father and the love his father has for him. In the foreign land where the first son ends up, no-one will give him anything to eat, even though they are dependent on his labour.
When the son decides to return, he thinks his father will not be happy about his return, He doesn’t recognise the depth of relationship that is missing. He doesn’t realise how much his father just wants him back home. The father celebrates his son’s return. The loss of their relationship was such that his son was as good as dead. Now that he has returned to his family and (what remains of) their land it is as though he has been resurrected.
The second son’s suffering is caused by ignorance. Like his brother, he is thinking of himself as separate from the family. He is thinking about what he will get one day when his father dies. He thinks of his workd as slavery because he is ignorant of his father’s love and generosity. He thinks his father is going to try and keep everything for himself until he dies, which is why he is angry at the unexpected generosity shown to the other son. Because he is thinking of himself as an individual rather than part of a family he doesn’t recognise what has been missing while his brother was away or what will be missing if he chooses not to join the celebration.
I practised metta again before reading this parable. As I read, what was most apparent to me was that I wanted it to be different. There are other unpleasant parables with nasty endings in the scripture, but here the author actually has Jesus saying that God may act like one of the nasty characters in the parable. However, since I’ve been challenged to accept things as they are rather than wishing they were different, I must try to accept this parable as it is, in order to underdtand why it is like this.
I wondered if perhaps I should practise metta, directing love toward all of the characters mentiuoned in this passage before I came back to it. I spent some time directing love towards the various characters: Peter, Jesus, the king, the first slave, the second slave, God, the author of the text, and myself the reader.
When Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive another member of the church, Jesus gives Peter a nonsense number, seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven times. This seems like a Zen koan, meant to confuse Peter and distract him from counting the times he has forgiven. Jesus follows on with a parable.
The parable starts with a king wanting to cash in on his loans. It appears that this king is thinking selfishly, as though he is not interconnected with the people around him. This is confirmed when he orders one of his slaves to be sold, along with his family and possessions, in order to pay a ten thousand talent debt. However, when this slave begs for patience, offering to pay back all he owes, the king cancels the debt. Perhaps the slave’s plea has called the king to compassion and reminded him of the interconnection between the two men?
It appears, however, that the slave is ignorant as to what has just happened. He does not realise that he has just been treated as though he is not a separate person. He continues acting as an individual. When he sees a fellow slave who owes him one hundred denarii, a much smaller sum, he demands that this man pay what he owes. When his debtor pleads for patience he does not recognise their interconnection, even though he was just recently in a similar situation. Unlike the king, he sends his debtor to prison until the debt is paid.
The other slaves know that the king cancelled the first slave’s debt. They know that the first slave then showed no mercy to his fellow slave. As I refelcted I wondered what significance this would ahve for the other slaves. Perhaps the king’s actions represented for them the possibility of a new way of relating to others, founded on compassion? Maybe they saw the first slave’s failure to follow this pattern as a threat to the possibility of compassionate relationships? Whether or not this is the reaosn for their distress, they tell the king about what has happened. As the slave has not followed the pattern of compassion and forgiveness, the king revokes his pardon.
Jesus explains that God will also treat people in this way if they do not forgive others. Does this mean that God will amke sure one is punished unless one learns to forgive? My hunch is that if Peter had asked this question Jesus might give ans answer aloing time lines of, ‘The question does not fit the case.’ This question is still coming from the kind of minset that asks, ‘How many times do I need to forgive.’ The point may be that if we do not maintain a pattern of compassion and forgiveness, even going beyond what seems reasonable, nobody else will either.
Once again I spent time practising metta before reading this parable.
The setting for the telling of this parable is a dinner Jesus attended, whcih was hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. Jesus tells the person who invited him that when he invitesguests he should invite people who would be unable to returnt he favour. Normally I would presume that Jesus said this becasue it was the opposite of their practise. This time, howeve, I wondered they were not already trying to practise this kind of hospitality. If they were not already trying to practise this kind of hospitality I wonder if they would have invited Jesus, a man who was known to associate with tax collectors, sex workers and foreigners?
In the parable Jesus tells at the meal, a host invites many guests to a meal, but they all refuse. The intended guests have treated the host as though they have no significant relationship with him. This puts the dinner host in the place of those whose interconnectedness is routinely denied by others: the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame and the people fo the land. Since he has been treated like one of them, he recognises that he is interconnected with them. He has compassion for them, inviting them to the meal.
I felt uneasy about this parable because of the host’s declaration that none of the intended guests would taste his dinner. I found myself wishing the parable was not written like this. But as I menioned abwhile reflecting on the previous parable, I felt challenged to accept the parable as it was rather than wishing ti was different. When I sought to accept the parable as it was recorded I realised I felt uneasy because I was treating the story like an allegory where the dinner represents Heaven and the guests who were originally invited are understood to end up in Hell. The text, however, does not say that this is a parable about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. The parables does not say that anything bad will happen to the original guests or even that they will never be invited to another banquet.
I’ve been gradually reading through Genesis, and writing about it on Wednesdays. One of my favorite parts of the Hebrew scripture is the mythic section of Genesis, which has been chopping into chunks that we now call chapters 1-11.
I’ve been keen to get on to writing about the story of Cain and Abel because it is one of the parts that I’ve found most interesting. But I thought I’d be jumping the gun a bit if I posted about that without posting about the forbidden fruit. So I’m going to post a link to a resource I worked on with Beth Barnett for use during Advent. Beth talks about the event as more of a twist than a fall, and I’ve sought to reflect that in my illustrations.
How does this story change if we think of it as more of a twist than a fall?