BIBLE ADVENTURES by Gabe Durham

Untitled

Bible Adventures
(Boss Fight Books #7)
By Gabe Durham
Boss Fight Books – March 2015
ISBN 9781940535074 – 99 Pages – eBook
Source: Publisher


NOTE: The following was originally written as “Adding Jesus Stuff” for publication on Atticus Reviews. Changes in their review editor and format delayed processing of this so that it became too late to post with them. I therefore am publishing it here as a start up to new reviews here at Reading 1000 Lives.

There doesn’t appear to be much Christian about the current President of the United States. Yet even he donned a Christian façade in efforts to court Evangelical voters. From gaining the vocal support of Dr. James Dobson – “I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian.” – to choosing a ‘born-again’ running mate, President 45 injected his campaign product with elements of politically conservative Christianity to capture a demographic that is keen for ‘Jesus stuff’ in their politics and often beyond.

As goes an exchange of dialogue from South Park’s 2003 season seven episode “Christian Rock Hard”:

Stan Marsh: You don’t even know anything about Christianity!

Eric Cartman: I know enough to exploit it.

This episode, where Cartman starts a band named ‘Faith + 1’, famously parodies Christian rock music, emphasizing the interchangeability of lyrics between that genre and secular love songs through substitution of proper names with ‘Jesus’. The parody of this episode isn’t limited to music media. Interjection of a Christian veneer into the retail process –whether for goods or services – is ubiquitous. This is because a flavor of Christianity exists that wants alternatives to secular options, whether just to support fellow Believers or to set themselves apart into a community free from the perceived immorality or shortcoming of the secular world’s institutions.

Whatever their reason, for those that want purely Christian options there exists a plethora of markets, often conveniently organized in directories: Christian schools, Christian romance novels, Christian dating services, Christian plumbers, Christian political candidates, Christian video games.

The latter is the subject of Bible Adventures, a book by Gabe Durham that chronicles the formation of Wisdom Tree, a developer of unlicensed video games with ‘Christian’ content for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console in the early 1990s. The seventh book in the Boss Fight Books series – which takes a critical, historical, and personal look at personally significant video games – this particular volume is written by the senior series editor, who also founded the series through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Typically the series books have considered well known, highly regarded video games. The games from Wisdom Tree’s catalog are decidedly neither. Yet, the description of these absurd, lazily produced games, the tale of their unlikely production, and the impressions that their limited success conveys regarding American Christian culture make the Wisdom Tree games a fascinating subject for analysis in the series.

Wisdom Tree stemmed from Color Dreams, a small company of video game developers meeting limited success at producing unlicensed NES games. Nintendo held strict guidelines for official games that included bans on nudity, sexual innuendo, excessive violence, gore, and drug use of any kind. Nintendo’s control forced game developers to alter existing games for transfer to the NES console. For example, the Vodka Drunkenski of Punch Out! became Soda Popinski, and the statues of bare-breasted females in Castlevania IV gained clothes. To prevent unlicensed game production for thee console, Nintendo created 10NES, a lock-out chip that only permitted ‘official’ games that included a secret key to function within the NES. Color Dreams, however, found a way to thwart the lock-out. On the cheap they created a series of games that, at times, violated Nintendo standards. But these games also quickly found a reputation for poor quality, and sales went nowhere. Additionally, the company faced the specter of Nintendo’s legal action. Color Dreams’ solution to all this involved tapping into a potential demographic of buying that wasn’t yet being specifically targeted by anyone: the Christian community.

Wisdom Tree thus formed from Color Dreams, with the goal of producing video games with Christianity-related content whose sale could be targeted to churches and the religious. Meanwhile, Nintendo would abstain from any litigation against Wisdom Tree out of feared backlash from parents or religious groups.

Through interviews with the people involved in Wisdom Tree’s formation Durham relates this background and history that led to the development of their game catalog. He also uses the opening chapters of Bible Adventures to explore the mindset of Color Dreams employees during the germination of this plan, and their reactions as implementation proceeded. The Color Dreams game developers were mostly not Christians themselves. Many were atheist, and Durham relates how after a long day of work the team would frequently decompress with a trip to the strip club. Dan Burke, one developer at Color Dreams who was actually Christian at the time related his point of view of the decision to form Wisdom Tree. Durham describes the interview with Burke:

“It’s religion we began with, and religion we circled back to over and over in our two-and-a-half hour conversation, but it never felt like a tangent. Belief was essential to the story of Burke’s time at the company. It was his Christian faith that made Burke quit Color Dreams, and it was his time at Color Dreams that made Burke lose his faith altogether.”

At first objecting to the company speciously using vague Christian content in order to make more money, Burke’s objections continued even after his loss of faith. Only now, as an atheist, he objected to the placement of preachy, religious content into children’s entertainment.

This simultaneous coexistence of faith and doubt – and the moral conflicts regarding methods, products, and intent – continued as Wisdom Tree started. Like Cartman, most of the non-Believing developers knew they could exploit Christians for gain. However, like President 45, they knew that to effectively do so would require an advocate the Christian community would recognize as one of their own. And so they recruited of a sales team led by a young pastor named Michael Wilson, and Brenda Huff, the former employee of a Christian book publisher. In contrast to the game developers, the sales team viewed their product as part of a ministry. Often including prayers during their meetings, they targeted sales efforts to churches and Christian supply stores, trumpeting the value of Wisdom Tree products for young Christians and Biblical education.

The first Wisdom Tree game was Bible Adventures, a three-in-one game that provides the title for Durham’s book. A huge success for the company, this game found a place in Durham’s heart when he first discovered it in his church’s library. And my experience is similar. Back in the day I owned the game solely because I noticed it one day as my mom shopped our local Christian supply store among the many Jesus-related Chotchkies. My mother rarely would let me buy a Nintendo game out of the blue. But this one had educational value! Religious value! It helped you memorize Bible verses! It taught you about faith through Bible stories! Could I have it, just this once? It was good for the soul! For thousands of other children, this sales pitch worked.

With Bible Adventures, and then with later Wisdom Tree games, Durham spends chapters describing game content and his impression of game playability alongside the history of its source and development. Whether familiar with those games or not, these chapters are entertaining, as long as you have some memory of games of that era in general.

Wisdom Tree’s Bible Adventures debut is a three-games-in-one cartridge built around the stories of Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, and Baby Moses. With similar controls and game play, all three of these games were modeled after the successful Super Mario Brothers 2. Play of both the Noah and the David stories was built around the goal of gathering things: Pairs of animals and loads of goods for Noah, and level after level of lost sheep for David. Collecting for those quaint days before Pokémon Go. Along the way various malevolent beasts would attack or throw things at you to impede completion of your checklist. In its final level, the David game provides you the added ability to sling rocks at Philistines on the way up to a mountain-top confrontation with the famous giant of Gath. In Baby Moses you play Miriam (or his mom?), carrying Baby Moses to safety, with little to do other than avoid Egyptians eager to grab the babe and toss him to a quick drowning in the river. Durham writes about connections between the absolute silliness of this game and the rushed, cheap work of the game developers:

“…Moses’s mom is a picky Levite and she wants to abandon her baby where she wants. She also wants to hold her baby how she wants: Basically she just Super Mario 2’s the baby over her head like it’s an engorged vegetable… and impressively holds the baby aloft like that indefinitely. Even while running at up to 10 mph. That is, unless she throws Baby Moses across the screen, which is that the B button in this Bible Game for Children is for – hurling your baby mightily across the desert and hoping for the best… The reason… [that you can]… throw your child is simple: All the characters in Bible Adventures have the same controls – elderly Noah, buff young David, and our Levite Woman – and the buttons for each Adventure do the same thing: run, jump, pick up, and throw. Wisdom Tree could have programmed each of the three games to have different controls based on the needs of each game, but it would have taken more work.”

The strange thing is that, for both Durham and myself, Bible Adventures is a rather fun game to play. Maybe it is because collecting things are fun. Or maybe it is something else. Durham closes his discussion of each Wisdom Tree game with analysis of why the game failed utterly in its day, or why it, like Bible Adventures, was a success – at least initially. Despite its popularity at the time, the game now frequently makes lists of infamy among those considered worst ever. Durham spends time speculating why this may be: how it may reflect changing tastes or bias against the Christian content and views against its original intended audience.

Released in 1991, Wisdom Tree’s Bible Adventures sold over ~350,000 copies. With such success, and feedback from players that they actually enjoyed the game, the company moved forward to put out even more games, each with a dash of added Jesus-stuff to target the willing audience. Some of these games were ‘originals’ like Bible Adventures. In other cases Wisdom Tree simply took previous titles from the Color Dreams archive and redesigned a few elements to now make them ‘Christian’. The first of this group was Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, a game modded from a ‘crawler’ game they had made titled Crystal Mines, where a robot mined through dirt for hidden treasures. About the ‘Christian-ized’ version, Durham writes:

Joshua is an uglier game [than Bible Adventures] but it was one I could play for longer, a maze crawler where you’re trying to collect all the little thingies to make a magic door appear. You shot music from your body, which first made enemies angry, then killed them. Truth was, it wasn’t much of a battle for Jericho. It played out more like the story of a little man, buried in dirt, trying to sing his way out.”

Durham completes the book with similar coverage of each Wisdom Tree title. The best random fact from this: The cartridge King of Kings: The Early Years, composed of three games built around minor stories around Jesus’ childhood, one of which involves the donkey transporting Mary, Joseph, and the baby Christ to Egypt. At one point you, controlling the donkey, must leap over a polar bear. Because somehow the flight to Egypt involved passage through the Arctic Circle!

Bible Adventures the book closes with summary and considerations to conclude its main theme of paradox: a company of atheists making Christian video games; lazily designed product that is relatively successful and fun to play despite poor quality; exploiting Christians for money while still sating their desire for content tailored with Christian themes, no matter how authentic.

“The fact that [Color Dreams founder] Lawton’s decision to make Bible games was based on money and not faith is more the rule than the exception in retail. Many of the biggest sellers of Christian stuff are actually the Christian-targeted arms of their flexi-theistic parent companies… The Cynical was of putting it is that these companies are squeezing dollars out of people who think that buying Christian merch is in some way supporting Christianity itself…”

However, as Durham quotes one Color Dreams employee responding to this criticism, this is “like expecting every company who delivered your kale to the market to be authentically ‘organic.”

Bible Adventures is therefore one-third history/biography, one-third video game analysis, and one-third reflection on the paradoxes that the Wisdom Tree story provides. Durham’s text is conversational, by no means academic. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some substance to the words. Durham makes clear that despite the coarseness of Wisdom Tree products, and their questionable ethics as peddlers of Christian content, their games provided a lot of fun and fond memories for many. Now if we could only say the same about President 45.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization, by Jacques Ellul

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization,
by Jaques Ellul
Translated by Willem H. Vanderburg
Publisher: U. of Toronto Press
ISBN: 1442626267
273 pages, paperback
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

This fascinating volume was not what I initially expected based on the provided summary and the title. It is not a well-developed treatise on the theme of Christianity in an age of economic globalization. At all. Rather than a cohesive whole, it is rather a transcription of separate studies on the books of Amos and James, commentaries with follow-up remarks to questions from Ellul’s audience. Though the theme of rich/poor comes up as one aspect in each study, that particular issue is not necessarily predominant. Additionally, in those sections that do address this theme, Ellul repeatedly points out that richness/poorness should not be understood merely in economic terms. Hence my disappointment with this volume solely consists of how it is being sold. If you are looking for a structured and complete exploration on the subtitle topic, I wouldn’t recommend this.

However, ignoring this subtitle and the emphasis of the blurb, this book is well worth reading, for Ellul’s writing is clear and well-reasoned, and his insights into both Amos and James are substantial, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Rather than an overall focus on economic disparities, what rather unites these texts more strongly and thoroughly is the simple message that God loves, and then consideration of what follows from this in God’s means of connecting with humanity and the rest of Creation.

In this way I found “On Being Rich and Poor” to be in some fashion an Apologetic, something that like Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” sets out to answer some of the common critiques of Christianity by defining what exactly the faith is. Here, Ellul delves into the texts of Amos and of James to clarify his interpretation of the texts and the unity of their messages across the span of the Old to New Testaments and its relation to both Christians and Jews. In contrast to defining Christianity, Ellul instead spends a lot of the text detailing what he thinks these books tell us about what/who God is, and how this is sometimes quite different from popular understandings. In another sense these two commentaries strive to point out the various ways Scripture has been abused through literal readings and ignorance of both historical context and nuances of the original languages.

Although not as ‘sold’, this is a tremendously good and approachable read, and would be ideal as the basis for group or individual Bible studies on Amos and/or on James. In addition, anyone with an interest in theology and interpretations of the Bible could gain valuable insight from Ellul’s thoughts, and it serves as a potentially useful tool for clarifying common misperceptions on the nature and ‘personality’ of God as portrayed by the Biblical authors.

Four Stars out of Five

Nightmare City, by Andrew Klavan

Nightmare City, by Andrew Klavan
Publisher: Thomas Nelson Publishers
ISBN: 1595547975
311 pages, hardcover
Published November 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This is the first book by Klavan that I’ve read, but I was intrigued by the information about this book’s plot and the reception of others to his previous novels. This one turned out to be a disappointment however, which is a particular shame in that due to shipping problems I ended up with two copies (one I passed on to a friend), and the publishers were very kind about this. I hope others enjoy these copies as I pass them on at least.

Nightmare City suggests to me that Klavan can write really well, but it just seems lazy here in terms of plotting and development. Although the main character, Tom, is compelling, the others are all flat and the story is too straightforward, remarkably predictable. The first half of the novel consists of Tom wandering around in a literal fog, trying to figure out the situation he is in, with moments of filling in backstory or him being ‘threatened’ by so called ‘malevolents’. We are told how awful these creatures are, but never get much more than a vague sense of what they are or the danger they supposedly present. I say ‘supposedly’ because many a chapter seemed to end with Tom in dire straights only to start the next chapter with him ‘waking’ anew in a new situation, apparently safe and fine. As such, after awhile these ‘malevolent’ threats start to lose their effect.

Repetition of themes also occurs throughout the novel, such as truth and the search for it. To Klavan’s credit the theme doesn’t get too preachy or too beholden to any particular religion until the tail-end of the story with a few too-sappy moments where the protagonist is urged to keep on living because of Christ’s sacrifice. Which is kind of an odd theological view in itself.

The ideas and themes here are straightforward thus too, but they are also simplistic, and not particularly realistic or helpful for a young person as presented in the absolute sort of world “Nightmare City” exists within. Moreover, at no time does Tom actually remind of any teen I have ever known. Some questions at the end of the book could help getting someone to think a little more deeply about the issues Klavan raises through his story, one only wishes there were a bit more complexity in addressing those same issues in the story itself rather than simply following the obvious paths.

One Star out of Five

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem
Publisher: Solaris
ASIN: B00INHMFKA
222 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

I began this excited from the book’s description, eager to delve into a horror novel with rich, gothic mood. High expectations probably account somewhat for my overall feeling of being let down. I’ve come across Steve Rasnic Tem’s fiction through short stories, particularly those published in Asimov’s in the past years and seeing how his style fit into a longer form held my curiosity. To my mind his work is known for a heavy dose of darkness, occurrences that will not go well for characters, no bright futures.

“Blood Kin” fits into this thematic mode well, but the plot and overall divided structure of the novel creates some problems. I’m not talking about the division of plot into two point-of-view protagonists here. Both Michael, and his grandmother Sadie are compelling characters. The switch of narration between the ‘present day’ and Sadie’s past works well. The division that posed a problem for me is regarding the genre emphasis throughout the novel. The story opens with a strong sense of Southern Gothic realism, with perhaps a tint of the magical. After building some tension and increasing the fantastic elements of the story it ends in a stronger dose of horror. At least one other reviewer found this to be the case and preferred the first half of the novel. However, for the most part, my interest in the story lay stagnant until the last moments.

There are some notable exceptions to this. The start of the novel with its Southern gothic vibe and the element of the encroaching kudzu grabs your attention. About midway through there is a fantastic chapter detailing Sadie’s first exposure to the church and its snake handling. Between these moments and the close, however, I simply felt the story drift within a lot of potential, but going nowhere significant.

This would have made a fantastic novella, the aforementioned highlights of the novel could have been condensed into one and I think the story would have had a far greater impact overall. If you are a fan of Tem’s work, or if the plot description rings as something you tend to like then this is worth reading. I wish as a novel it would have had greater development or a more consistent focus on horror/fantasy.

Two Stars out of Five

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, by Tariq Ali

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, by Tariq Ali
Islam Quintet Book 1
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00FEZ2432
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
(Original Publ: 1993)
Source: NetGalley

This novel intrigued me and held my interest primarily from its exotic nature to a Western reader relatively unfamiliar with the time period, particularly from the Muslim point of view. I studied Medieval Spanish history in course for school years ago, but not up to this point of the Renaissance period of ‘Reconquest’ under the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella.

It is immediately apparent that Ali writes nonfiction essays and screenplays predominantly, in many respects this novel is a mixture of the two set around a fictionalized plot of one family’s tragic destruction as microcosm of the Reconquest as a whole. Ali focuses the story around key historic details both political and of daily life, writing most eloquently when describing the mundane and quotidian, such as cooking a dish, or when describing moments of tenderness and eroticism. In contrast, while relaying large dramatic moments, Ali employs matter-of-fact brevity. The result is a flow that feels a great deal like watching a film, or a documentary re-enactment of events. In similar film manner the focus of scenes flows back and forth between characters with complete omniscience, favoring no single character in the novel overall, but intimately zoomed in to each for their moment in the camera’s eye.

The resulting style may not be for everyone’s reading taste, but I didn’t mind it whatsoever, in a way it gave the events related on the small scale of this one family seem more grandiose and general for the society as a whole, splitting focus between characters with varied pasts, secrets, and points of view. What is interesting is that although on the face of it the events in the story feature a clash of religions, particular theological faith has very little to do with it. Really it is a clash of general cultures. The majority of characters have either a general faith in an almighty power, willing to accept the Muslim version or the Christian as required, or have no faith whatsoever. Instead, the events are reduced to a matter of conqueror and conquered. Of destroying a particular culture and wiping it out and the decision of whether to give into assimilation or fighting to preserve a culture and religious heritage.

This treatment of a complex mixture of religion and general secular culture into a simplified form makes the point that these conflicts in history are, at their heart, ultimately independent of any theological issues. However, the treatment also reduces the characters, particularly the chief villain, into one-dimensional caricatures of cruelty. The novel thus certainly has its flaws, and those demanding happy endings to their stories should obviously stay away, but for those interested in an introduction to this period and the type of conflict that continues to this day, it would be worth reading.

Four Stars out of Five