BIBLE ADVENTURES by Gabe Durham

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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.

INTRODUCING EVANGELICAL ECOTHEOLOGY

20665283Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology:
Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis
By Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A.J. Swodoba
Baker Academic – 14th October 2014
ISBN 9780801049651 – 262 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Existing in worlds of both religion and science I come across people who are radically biased against one or the other, and there will be certainly people who see this book and think it is too great a stretch of Biblical theology into realms of science, or politics. And there will be those who see the science, the ecology as clearly important, but the theology not mattering, even perhaps being detrimental. I’ve met ecologists who want nothing to do with Christianity because they feel that the religion has been used to great environmental harm, and see no value in it. I’ve met Christians who think scientists make up data that overemphasizes the fragility of the environment, or view any environmentalism as equating idolatry.
Thankfully this book exists as a focused middle of the road alternative to those who do not accept either of the extremes and feel there is a place for the two worlds to dialogue. And here, not surprisingly the emphasis is for arguing for Christian involvement in ecological concerns, and providing the resources to act, the intended audience is Christian, but it is geared towards either end of the cultural spectrum from progressive to more conservative.
I haven’t come across anything like Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology before and was curious to see how it was approached while not outright alienating people who may be close to the borders of the Christian spectrum extremes. Written by a trio of people from a range of Christian backgrounds, the text largely succeeds. The premise at the book’s heart is the concept that Jesus’ message was for all people and that he held specific regard for those on the margins of society. As we now see that people on the margins are most vulnerable to ecological conditions – and that the health of the environment is of growing concern – then care for the environment should be a concern for discipleship.
This premise is not simply asserted only to move ahead, but the authors spend time arguing for its accuracy. Throughout they try to base that argument on a combination of science, theological tradition, Biblical interpretation, and Jesus’ message in word or deed. Some may disagree with aspects of the premise even after the arguments – or find some arguments a stretch, but the authors do an admirable job of making an effort at convincing, again with experiences and interpretation born from varied sociopolitical backgrounds. Though they excel at discussing the theology and history, they do a good job of covering the science, though I’m not a climate or environmental scientist to be fully certain on all details. (I can’t recall if one author in particular tackled more of science talk than another though.)
As an integrated text from multiple voices, there are certain issues where precise agreement wasn’t reached. The authors chose to put key discussion of these issues into separate boxes called ‘Tension Points’ and within the purpose of the book it works very well, as the book’s best audience would likely be a book club type group or class within a church, who may find these good discussion points, providing a format to keep the talk civil between disagreeing views. A large number of references are also provided for a serious student’s interest in the topic to go deeper, or back to the sources.
Readable without dryness this would be a wonderful book for either an individual or group to read, and the latter portion of it provides challenges to take the ecotheological themes to heart and put them into practice in meaningful ways both large and small. While the intended audience is Christian the book as a whole or in key parts would also be effective for showing to non-Christians allies in addressing these ecological concerns, simply as evidence that not all Christians are uninterested or unconcerned over the health of the environment. Many see it the problems and see it as a failure on many levels (including within the faith) and feel called on levels both religious or humanist to address them.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Baker Academic via NetGalley 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

The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy

The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00J84KLNK
273 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
(Original Publ: 1986)
Source: NetGalley

Pat Murphy’s name and writing were only familiar to me from the nonfiction articles that she coauthors for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Always interesting and well written, I was excited for the opportunity to read some of her fiction, this one a Nebula award winner.

Structured as alternating chapters between the points of view of Elizabeth, a respected archeologist leading an expedition studying Mayan ruins, and her estranged daughter Diane, the book explores dichotomies that exist within us all and how these influence both the individual and relationships. A certain conflicting contrast is present throughout “The Falling Woman” at al levels. There is the realism/fantastic divide in its genre: it could arguably be either a fantasy novel, or firmly grounded in reality. Elizabeth is haunted by her past, and by visions of ghosts, such as the Mayans who continue to wander the ruins and talk to her, sharing their own secrets, and their own world views. Unsure if she is crazy, or merely ‘gifted’, Elizabeth, and the reader are forced to consider whether it matters, or whether the two possible extremes can exist comfortably side by side.

The novel also delves into cultural divides, of being Western or Mayan, from the United States or a Mexican, Christian or ‘pagan’. How are these each different, and how might they be surprisingly similar? However most prevalent, the book explores the dichotomies of male/female and mother/daughter. Elizabeth’s eccentricities and uncertain sanity are tied to emotional pains she has dealt with in her life to varying success. She has cut herself and has attempted suicide. These and other darkness led her to separation from her husband, and abandonment of her daughter. Unable to conform to the accepted societal maternal position, and female submissive position, Elizabeth goes out on her own, to deal with her emotional darkness, gain a college education, and try to find a passion for something in life. Diane as a result, views her mother as a mystery, but with love and devotion despite her abandonment, Diane seeks Elizabeth out, and together begin to evoke certain maternal aspects in each of them, and deeper connections.

The emotional frailty of Elizabeth, relatively frowned upon by traditional American society is contrasted nicely with the maternal cultures of the Mayan, with their infant sacrifices. Similarly it is contrasted with the traditional, and largely accepted, male answer to addressing emotional pain: drunkenness. Filled with these sorts of relationship complexities and profound insight in feminist and other cultural matters, “The Falling Woman” is simply a brilliant novel. The writing is simple and straight-forward, but in that way it is delicate and poignant, precise, without ever being over-bearing or too frenetic. Although marketed as SciFi/Fantasy, this is far closer to a literary novel, and fans wanting hard genre adventure may be disappointed with what is here. But those open to exploring dichotomies of culture and characters will find this richly rewarding. Open Road Media, who is publishing this in ebook format, is putting out other works by Murphy as well, and I am definitely putting those on my list to pick up.

Five Stars out of Five

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DTTQBDE
363 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
(Originally Publ. 1990)
Source: NetGalley

The entry for M.K. Wren in the “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” aptly describes this novel as ambitious and eloquent. I was unfamiliar with her work before coming across this ebook reissue, but now I will eagerly pick up the “Phoenix” fantasy trilogy for which she is apparently best-known.

“A Gift Upon the Shore” uses the post-apocalyptic scenario to delve into two unique responses to wide-scale tragedy where civilization has collapsed and individuals are forced to give up or survive. The first response is one of fear and the erection of a rigidly controlling, false worldview based around the worst of Biblical literalism. The second response is one of careful rationality, deciding to preserve what is beautiful about humanity: art, knowledge, and compassion.

The conflicts between these two world-views drives the plot of the novel, related through the first person present point-of-view of protagonist Mary Hope, an elderly teacher living amongst (though philosophically apart from) a small Christian community. The origins of her present conflicts within the community are related through her first person past recollections of the advent of nuclear holocaust, her survival along with friend Rachel in solitude as they turn to preserving Rachel’s library, and their joyous, though ultimately disastrous, encounter with another survivor sent forth from “The Ark” to find potential mates to repopulate the devastated Earth.

The dichotomy between the rationally agnostic (or atheist) Rachel or Mary and the fervently ignorant religion of other characters has led some to criticize the novel as anti-religious or anti-Christian. This is only true, perhaps, if you accept reason and faith as diametrically opposed. Instead, the novel is more aptly described as being a reaction against the anti-intellectual Conservatism that we sadly see all to frequently coming from political and social news. Wren’s target is not Christianity itself, but rather a form of religion that grabs hold of simple, comforting answers or interpretations and holds onto them vehemently in the face of reality, because if they were to acknowledge reality their rigid and weak system would crumble, leaving them exposed to fear and despair. Rather than investing energy to support a dogmatic system of suppression, Wren argues that something more divine (and, I would argue, more religious) is possible, namely focusing on what is beautiful about humanity and about creation.

Wren masterfully uses female characters, something sadly not that common in science fiction. Rachel and Mary are each memorable, finely rendered and realistic characters. However, the other characters are less developed. The major antagonist is dogmatic repression made manifest and many of the rest are simply literal weak-willed followers. This arises from Wren’s separation of the two philosophies: one very liberal humanistic and the other totalitarian and thus unsympathetic and less ‘humane”.

These religious or philosophical points of the book are thus perhaps too overt and not presented as complexly as one would hope. But, the heart of the novel doesn’t lie in simply presenting the conflict between these two opposing ideas, it lies in Wren’s appreciation for life and the world, which the beliefs and behaviors of Rachel and Mary merely echo.

Here is the true gift presented by Wren to the readers of the novel: her descriptions of nature are profoundly beautiful. Numerous passages describing the Oregon coast and its surrounding ecosystems are rendered in hauntingly poetic language. Reading this and thinking of another literary ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel, “The Road”, I can only think how much more evocative and meaningful is “A Gift Upon the Shore”, though admittedly, they are very different kinds of books. This is truly eloquent and ambitious, and though it may not attain the profound heights that it strives for, I would easily recommend it.

Five Stars out of Five