Monthly Archives: March 2006

For the Record

I think this is the first time that I’ve used the American Airlines terminal at O’Hare, and my first impression is that it beats United (our family’s usual airline). Now, I got a little lucky — I’m sitting near a floor electrical outlet, but I didn’t see many of them available — and my flight is delayed, so I splurged on wifi. But given the gamut of airport terminals, American has done well with this one.

My beloved Margaret says the hotel has wireless, so I’ll check in tonight after the first session with the Human Rights Campaign.

Horton As Moral Formation

Margaret and I have often exchanged poignant observations about the assumptions on parenting that inform Dr. Suess’s classic Horton Hatches the Egg.

On the other hand, I realized again this morning how powerfully the book’s moral catch-phrase had affected me over the years from when I used to read Horton frequently.

I meant what I said and I said what I meant
An elephant’s word is one-hundred percent

The web instructs me that there’s a citation problem here; the “elephant’s word” version of the saying is the one that sticks in my head, but that’s from Horton Hears a Who, which was not a central text in my growing-up library. Hatches seems to conclude the couplet, “An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent” (which also suits me, though it’s not the phrase that resonates as vividly in my conscience and my hermeneutics).

Warcraft as Learning Environment

John Seely Brown brings a technologist’s eye to what World of Warcraft and its online siblings portend. There’s a lot that a brief article in Wired can’t take account of (for instance, just for starters, “why not learn to improvise from materials at hand in a physical environment, like camping or hiking?”), but I agree that Brown is onto something. His article and Don’s that I cited yesterday both point to a dimension of MMORPG (“massively multi-player online role-playing games”) participation that frequently eludes detractors: that these games can cultivate a sense of cooperation and mutual respect among very diverse participants. I stress the word “can,” because that cooperative respect isn’t automatic; it may indeed be rare, as a sizable proportion of participants monomaniacally pursue selfish wealth and advancement.

Still, there can be much more going on than meets the casual eye. I maintain strong reservations about the game, but (for now) an even stronger interest in just what’s developing as increasing numbers of bright, inventive, cordial people encounter one another online. (Witness the scintillating thinking that shimmers around the Terranova community, for just one example.)

So participating in MMORPGs does not magically inculcate leadership, cooperation, and adaptive effectiveness, nor do MMORPGs present the only sphere within which to learn such capacities — contra one possible reading of Brown’s piece. But attentive observers have shown increasing interest in possible positive dimensions of MMORPGs, and I reckon that we’ll see increasing appreciation for them as the idea becomes less alien.

I still have to write the (a) review and (b) ethical reflection on Warcraft — I think about them a lot — but Don Park and John Seely Brown signal that something’s happening here.

Disclosure Statement: I’m a Guild Administrator in Joi Ito’s “We Know” guild on Eitrigg, one of the Warcraft realms; that gives me a particular investment in foregrounding positive social dimensions of the guild and the environment.

Gazes Wearily Over Stack of Papers

So, it’s thesis season for one of our degree programs, and I’m reading and commenting on theses for several; I assigned weekly short papers for one of my classes this term (why did I not remember that that meant I would have to read weekly papers, too); I redesigned my courses this term, so I don’t have course materials in a file somewhere for either one of them; I have an essay on my desk to referee for an editorial board; and today, the manuscript of the book that’ll include last year’s Winslow Lectures arrived for copy-editing. At the same time, the production editor of the other book coming out this year emailed me to say that they were sending the manuscript out for typesetting, and I should expect to see it soon for copy-editing, and I should be ready to prepare a bibliography and indexes of authors and biblical passages.

I’ll tackle what I can tomorrow, then (after class Friday morning) head out for the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign, where I’ll give them my perspective on their impending series of preaching helps. I’m not sure I’m exactly the right guy for that assignment, but we’ll try it on and see.

Meanwhile, David has been keynoting and blogging wonderfully at the Information Architecture Conference , Jeneane is getting boggled by Blogger, Dave noticed something helpful that Don wrote about Warcraft a couple of months ago. And Margaret and I will meet Pascale for dinner on Saturday night, making the in-person connection to complement our online friendship.

Apart from that, not much is going on here.

Pre-Movie da Vinci Fix

In a gesture toward perpetuating my wearisome fixation with the pernicious anti-intellectual Ponzi fiction, The daVinci Code, I offer a pointer to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me’s podcast of its “Not My Job” segment (streaming audio available here, but I couldn’t get it to work — if they’re going to make an mp3 version available anyway through their podcast, why do they have to link to cumbersome RealAudio files from their site?).

All of this is relevant because this week’s quiz involved questions about author-or-plagiarist Dan Brown. I won’t spoil the fun by divulging any of the correct answers, but they touch on his past as a failed singer-songwriter, his other literary accomplishments, and his inside tips for improving your writing skills. Fran Leibowitz, the guest expert, could have been funnier, but the insight into Dan Brown is more than worth the download.

Not Prepared

Today the Fantasy Baseball League in which I participate — which is about ten years old — holds our annual player auction. I have paid absolutely no attention to baseball this winter, so I’m going to play it safe and stick with proven greats. I’ll pay top dollar for Cal Ripken and Jim Palmer, and fill out the roster with whomever I can.


Margaret called my attention to a story that should curdle the blood of everyone — but especially anyone with affection or respect for Duke University.

First, I acknowledge the principle of innocence till proof of guilt; nothing has been proved at this point.

Second, the allegations compiled in this story demand public, vigorous, unwavering enforcement directed not only against convicted offenders, but also against any circumstances that conduce to encourage students to imagine actions even remotely comparable to the most innocent account of what could have happened. Rape, kidnapping, and strangulation are not simply out-of-bounds; they bespeak an utterly disordered sense of what counts as possible human behavior. At this point, Duke’s officials have a human obligation to step up and stamp out any sense that anything even vaguely like this event is tolerable.

The many dimensions of vicious brutality that converge here are neither coincidental nor arbitrary. These men are alleged to have used life-threatening physical violence to effect sexual violence against a woman of color (at whom they allegedly addressed bigoted rhetorical violence). No element of the situation permits hesitation, ambiguity, or the risk of lingering infection.

This sort of crime is intolerable, and Duke needs to send the loud, clear, convincing message to that effect. Immediately. Effectively.

Follow-Up And Next Random Thought

Jill and Esther cover a fantastic re-employment of Warcraft, and articulate some of the noteworthy problems relative to using the Warcraft infrastructure for such outlandish merriment.

And cheers to Jennifer’s classmate Isaac Everett for his participation in the Game-Mosh winning entry. Maybe Micah and Isaac and I should form a weird society for game-design/theological reflection. Seminarians don’t have to enter ordained church leadership — that’s a good thing — and maybe by devoting some deliberate theological energy to game-design problems, we could both enliven theological discussion and add a further critical dimension to the design of games.

About Those Links

Here’s what I was going to say about the first of those links from Saturday:

By the way, lest I forget, the Episcopal Church has asked that we Blogarian Episcopalians link to their survey on “online evangelism” through their website. If you feel like giving the Episcopal Church a piece of your mind (relative to their use of the web), this is your opportunity.

So, first of all, headphonaught picked up Joi’s post on leadership in World of Warcraft, and applies some of Joi’s conclusions to church life. Since Joi prodded me into playing Warcraft, I’ve been fascinated by many aspects of it (I actually will write up a review someday). Most prominently, though, I have relished the community life of Joi’s guild. Warcraft illustrates a premise that I’ve held for a long time now: online applications thrive by providing the opportunity for social interaction while doing something else. Flickr, the old Flickr, illustrates the point; ostensibly an image-sharing application, it gave people a social space for annotating and commenting, not just looking at pictures. In a similar way, Warcraft — by enlisting players in shared adventures — makes conversation and cooperation possible not by creating an Orkut-like space where social interaction constitutes the end of the site, but by drawing people into activities in which social interaction emerges as an attractive byproduct.

What does this have to do with church? Headphonaught identifies two lessons. First, he notes Joi’s enthusiasm for camaraderie in Warcraft, which he (plausibly) associates with “fellowship” in church. In light of my comments above, I’d just add that the durable, productive sort of fellowship emerges when shared activities evoke harmonious interaction — much more so than from settings in which an organizer sets up an event and expects people to fellowship. Churches offer a skillion opportunities for that kind of cooperative activity: the liturgy itself, of course, and the countless support activities. The church should probably recognize those activities not solely as productive endeavors toward the goal of [whatever], but as opportunities for people to intertwine their lives (and we should handle matters of setting, comfort, and so on, with a view toward encouraging the sort of ambiance that enriches the side-conversations that ensue when a bunch of people is making sandwiches or cleaning fixtures).

Second, Headphonaught notes the importance of mood, and suggests that “[t]he role of any leader in church should be ‘mitigate’/ facilitate and act as Custodian to the group rather than a formal leader.” Certainly churches have tended toward authoritarian leadership, in ways that belie their mission and limit participation to only those who don’t mind the power structure. At the same time, I’m very cautious about the dogma of egalitarianism. The “We Know” guild in Warcraft has very real power structures, and is not casual about applying them (even though Joi himself does not usually drop the hammer on people).

Church life presents a dangerous temptation to “let the Spirit guide (so long as it happens my way).” I’m much more comfortable with honest authority structures, so long as they’re occupied by people who don’t particularly want the power. By the same token, one can’t eliminate manipulation and power games by eradicating the explicit lines of authority.

Yes, by all means, church leaders shouldn’t boss people around, shouldn’t play neighborhood tyrant. That has more to do, though, with guiding the right people to leadership roles than with defining the role of “facilitator.” A good leader will facilitate, but calling someone a “facilitator” doesn’t mean they won’t live out their power trips (all the more destructively if they can plausibly disclaim any “authority”).

That’s not precisely what Headphonaught is talking about, I think, but it touches on a frequent current in discussions of ecclesiology and emergence — and I needed to get it off my chest.

What else about church and Warcraft? Well, I see a couple of things worth remarking. One, people want to believe in magic. Not only do they enjoy the exercise of magical faculties in the game, but the meta-play (in chats and during intervals of relative inaction) suggest strongly that participants relish an outlook that takes explicit account of extraordinary capacities. Obviously, one part of that is plain old-fashioned wish-fulfillment — but I think I detect something else also, a sense that they feel a deep affinity for this “virtual” world in which people can change into animals, disappear, levitate (but not “fly,” interestingly), zap evil-doers and (especially) never die. If we bracket the interminable discussion about “magic” vs. “miracle,” we can acknowledge that a sizable number of people are ready to deal with claims about worlds in which more is going on than meets the strictly scientific eye.

Second, I observe that the game (as other team sports) evokes extremely strong feelings of solidarity, accomplishment, frustration, disaffection, and persistence. The possibility that these are intensified by the manifest extent to which “doing well” in the game world involves making optimal use of complementary, different gifts suggests that the church may want to learn from Warcraft about team-building and orchestration — which brings us back to leadership (as “leaders” in the game can’t afford to ignore effectual differences among players to satisfy sentimental inclinations, whereas the church very often subordinates competence in favor of sentiment).

And more — but I should leave that till the essays I expect to write by way of a general game review, and my musings about the ethics of playing Warcraft.

What do elves, Tom Coates,

What do elves, Tom Coates, a mallet quest, dwarves, St. Paul, and ninjas have in common?

They all have parts in today’s sermon (posted below in the “extended” section). Tom brought the typology of dwarves/elves and pirates/ninjas to my attention; St.Paul wrote the epistle on which my sermon concentrated (with constant attention to the Torah, from which the Old Testament reading today was the Ten Commandments); and an interlocutor online suggested that I incorporate the phrase “mallet quest” into my sermon. It did not make it per se, but the words “mallet” and “quest” appear in relatively close proximity to one another.

You may question the spiritual wisdom of my accepting a challenge such as this, and I see some warrant in that question — yet if we take preaching seriously as an exercise in sacred rhetoric (and few people take it more seriously than do I), the aspect of rhetorical artifice always constitutes both a dynamo of spiritual semiosis and the glittering lure of worldly showiness. I frequently resort to rhetorical gimmicks to dislodge conceptual logjams when I’m working on a sermon: making acrostics of the initial letters of the sentences in a paragraph, omitting or including certain letters (in an Oulipian mode), embroidering the words of particular songs or poems into sermons.

There are some rough, forced transitions, and some points I’d wish for more time in which to expatiate — but part of the point of my attending to rhetorical ornamentation is to distract me from my temptation to deliver academic lectures on my pet theological themes. At least to that extent, I think the device worked out all right for today’s sermon.
Continue reading What do elves, Tom Coates,

It’s All Happening at Seminary

For the time being, I’m working on tomorrow’s sermon. I can’t keep the links to all these posts sitting in my browser. Eventually there’ll be a real post here, commenting on them, but for now I’ll just put the links up.

From Joi: Church Leadership and World of Warcraft

From Jennifer: Union Seminary Student Wins Twenty-Four Hour Game Design Mosh

From Micah: Students Flock to Seminaries, Not to Pulpits (NYTimes, registration required)

From the Archer: Superheroes and their Faiths


Margaret got the following phishing letter yesterday, from which I copy and paste directly:

Dear CitiBank Member,

We are looking forward to your assistance and understanding and inform you about new CitiBusiness® department system updrade performed by security management team in order to protect our clients from increased online fraud activity, unauthorized account access, illegal funds withdrawal and also to simplify some processes.

The new updated technologies guaranty convenience and safety of CitiBusiness® account usage. New services for your account will be effective immediately after an account confirmation process by a special system activation application.

To take an advantages of current updrade you should login your account by using CitiBusiness® Online application. For the purpose please follow the reference:

Please note that changes in security system will be effective immediately after relogin.

Current message is created by our automatic dispatch system and could not be replyed. For the purpose of assistance, please use the “User Guide” reference of an original CitiBusiness® website.

I don’t know, maybe Citibank attracts billions of dollars of savings and investments by economizing in the copy-editing department. Maybe the writers at Citibank don’t know the subtle difference between “guaranty” and “guarantee” (though one might think such ignorance runs the risk of legal complications), and maybe their IT department really does install updrades.

Maybe. But somehow, I don’t think so.