Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Homeward Bound

On Friday, I'll be flying to Louisville, KY for a little over a week. I'll get to see my brother's graduation from college, celebrate my father's birthday, and hopefully just enjoy a little time off. This time frame also happens to coincide with this year's BotCon, which I won't be attending.

Although I won't be posting regular blog updates during my vacation, I hope to keep my revamped Reflectionary site updated on Sundays, as well as post a couple of special news updates and reactions as news comes out of the convention toward the end of the month. Although the main Transformers news sites are always the best place to go for immediate updates, I just can't ignore the fact that we're heading into what will probably be one of the most critical periods in the franchise's history.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Think About It

Spending all of my time at a seminary--so much so that five years after finishing my MDiv I still work at one, I suppose that it's safe to call me an intellectual. I actually enjoy debates on various issues, getting my head around how another person thinks about an issue, attempting to understand it myself. I hope that's not to sound too conceited about my own intelligence. I'm surrounded by people--both professors and students--who far outpace me in sheer knowledge, and in the ability to use it. But still, I believe that it's important to seek out the truth, and so when I see an argument that I perceive as anti-intellectual, it tends to bother me.

It apparently bothers Ben Witherington, as well. In one of his blog entries this past weekend, he demonstrates that Christianity has, from it's very beginnings, been a movement of intellectuals:
What does it tell us about early Christians and early Christianity that it had so many documents, and was spread by writers and writings, among other things? For one thing it tells us that Christianity was not a movement led by illiterates.... [A]ll of the major leaders of the early church were literate-- could read and write.... This is not to say that it was led by a bunch of scholars either, but for sure it was led by some of the more socially elite and/or well educated persons in antiquity.

This brings me to an important point. There is, and has long been, an anti-intellectual element in low church Protestantism, especially in its more fundamentalist and charismatic branches. This is not always the case of course. Yet even today there is often a suspicion that too much study, intellectual effort, too much schooling can ruin one's faith, as if head and heart, reason and faith were necessarily at odds with one another. Not only is this not necessarily the case, a close study of the leaders of the beginning of the Christian movement gives the lie to such an assumption.
I would take Witherington's point a step further. I can't help but wonder if some of the heated arguments that some Christians engage in with scholarship, even some Christian scholarship (if it doesn't already agree with they themselves believe), is characterized by fear. Fear that, if some long-held belief is somehow "proven" to be untrue, that everything else worth believing falls down with it. I need only mention the words "slippery slope" to demonstrate my point.

Although it's a bit trite to say "all truth is God's truth," the point remains the same. If the Christian belief in God is true (and I believe that it is), it is therefore impossible to prove otherwise. I'm not here simply talking about the fact that religion and science have different spheres of inquiry, although this is true in at least some regards. I'm talking about things that religious people believe that are within the realm of science, as well. God wants us to know more about the world that God created. People of faith, therefore, have nothing to fear in engaging in the full pursuit of truth by whatever means they find at their disposal. Differences of opinion will continue to exist, of course. Even given all the proper facts, and data, and scientific observations we can get, the task still remains to interpret them. It's not possible to do otherwise.

And, yes, this means that some people will invariably get it wrong. That's part of what it is to be human. But can we at least stop criticizing scholarship simply for being scholarship? Can we stop mistrusting academics and intellectuals for no reason beyond that they've studied things we have not? By all means, let's not blindly believe everything they tell us, but let's give them the chance to make their case. We have nothing to fear from them.

Think about it... if God is the creator of all truth, no "discovered" truth can contradict God. If it seems to, then we must have misinterpreted something along the line. That may either be the "new" discovery, or it may be that what we previously interpreted as "truth" was a mistaken interpretation. But if we want to know who God really is, then we need to have the courage to be willing to change our interpretations if the evidence calls for it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rest In Peace: Ruth Bell Graham

Even though I've had a bit more time to reflect on Mrs. Graham's passing since yesterday, I'm still not at all sure how to respond, and so I'm going to "just do it." If this post is a bit more rambling than usual, please accept my apologies.

Although I have occasionally criticized some of Billy Graham's articles in the past, I hope that it has always been clear that I hold him in the utmost of respect. That respect extends to Ruth, as well (although I would have, out of respect, referred to her as "Mrs. Graham" in person and in any other writing, "Ruth" just seems more appropriate here). When the article mentioning her death said that she "could lay claim to being the first lady of evangelical Protestantism," I don't think it overstated the case. But such a statement is to say more than simply that she was married to one of evangelical Protestantism's foremost leaders. It is to recognize the role she herself played in evangelical ministry.

As I've mentioned a few times in the past, I went to Montreat College in Montreat, North Carolina. Montreat, a small city, is known for only a few things. Near the top of that list is that it was the Graham's home. But it was the Graham's home because it was where Ruth's family lived after ending their missionary journeys in China. For a time before moving to a more secluded location, Ruth and Billy lived across the street from Ruth's parents. Ruth's father, L. Nelson Bell, was a prominent figure in his own right, having been a well-respected Christian missionary doctor. The college library at Montreat is named for Bell. Check out the obituary written by the current president at Montreat College. Although short, it contains a list of Ruth's achievements. In fact, it only mentions the generally more famous Billy in passing.

As I've briefly mentioned once in another context, I had the honor of meeting Ruth in person on one occasion. It was back when I was student body president at the college, and Ruth's daughter Anne was speaking at a chapel service. The college chaplain informed me that Ruth was thirsty, and could use a cup of water, which I was all too happy to provide. I wish I could say that we had some enlightening conversation on Christian ministry, but I think that the extent of the conversation was to offer her the water and her gracious response. Still, it's a happy memory.

I make no claims to be very much like either Ruth or Billy Graham. By the grace of God, they have achieved amazing things that I do not expect I ever will. But I nonetheless find it remarkable how much we shared in common through the town of Montreat. Two of their children attended the college. Ruth and Billy were married in the chapel where I regularly attended worship, and where I gave one of my first sermons. Apparently Ruth was a regular Sunday School teacher at the church that met on Sundays in that chapel, although this must have been before my time as a student, as I only found out about it by reading her obituary. Although Billy was a Southern Baptist, Ruth remained a lifelong Presbyterian: a fact reinforced by the fact that they lived in Montreat, which has strong Presbyterian roots including a well-known (among Presbyterians) conference center. Although I am Presbyterian, my wife is preparing for ordination in the Episcopal church. It is comforting to know that there are such prominent examples of bi-denominational couples out there.

Those of us who lived in Montreat knew that Ruth and Billy were very close. Despite some arguably traditional gender roles (Ruth stayed at home to raise the kids while Billy traveled on his evangelistic crusades), Ruth was a very independent woman who Billy always considered a crucial part of his ministry, and one of his most trusted confidantes. Even back then, more than a decade ago, we expressed concern that when one passed away, the other would probably not be far behind. Although we may well hope that this "prediction" fails to hold true, even still, an era has passed.

Good-bye, Mrs. Graham. Your rest has been well-earned.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

And So It Ends....

I'd fully intended to post this tomorrow, in honor of the final episode of The Price is Right to feature Bob Barker as it airs tomorrow morning. But I've just learned of the death of Ruth Graham (Mrs. Billy Graham), and I simply must spend some time reflecting on that tomorrow (I also learned only about an hour ago about the death of prominent Transformers fan Shaun Christopher, which came as a complete shock). I'm not sure how to respond to these tragedies yet, but know that I can't just go on with my original plans, so I'm going to post this piece, which I'd actually written a few days ago in anticipation of tomorrow's regularly scheduled posting time, and deal with Mrs. Graham's passing in due time.

I've already commented a bit on Bob Barker's unprecedented tenure when he first announced his retirement back in November. Very few people, in any genre, can claim to have been on the air continuously for 50 years! Steve Beverly of tvgameshows.net is fond of pointing out that Barker has set longetivity records that will never, ever, be broken. Given the fact that the current culture of celebrity tends to emphasize youth over experience, he may well be right.

Although The Price is Right is not ending, Barker's retirement has been occasion for many of us to reminisce about the show's history. I, myself, have spent a fair amount of time searching through YouTube, which has lots of The Price is Right clips available. I wasn't able, unfortunately, to find a particular clip that I was looking for: the person who I consider to be the worst player of all time. Now, you'll see a lot of downright stupid contestants if you look through those clips (a particular player of "Ten Chances" seems to be copied many times over on the site, but since she won, I have to grant that she did something right!), but this contestant, who was bidding on a toy guitar (the first of three prizes he would have bid on) while playing "Cliff Hangers," takes the cake for me. Although I couldn't find a clip, I was able to find this transcript, courtesy of Golden-Road.net (the person who shared it there credits it to Jeremy Soria, but I couldn't find the original): (UPDATE: A YouTube video of this event had finally surfaced by 10/11/08, but it's apparently since been taken down)

Bob: "Tell me the price of that guitar."
Eric: "Two thousand."
Bob: "Now just a moment, audience. I want you to hear this.
What did you say was the price of that guitar?"
Eric: "Two thousand."
Bob: "Now---"
Eric: "I thought that was a violin or something!"
Bob: "No! That's a guitar."
Eric: "Oh, I see it now. Sorry."
Bob: "So? How much?"
Eric: "How much? Ahhh..." (looks out to audience) "Four fifty."
Bob: "Four hundred fifty dollars." (Audience groans)
Eric: "I have no idea..."
Bob: "I'll give you one last chance."
Eric: (after looking out the audience again) "Eight fifty."
Bob: "All right. He says $850."

Hans goes up...and over (all the while, Bob is telling him to hurry it up, we've got games to play, etc.) LOSS

(BTW, guitar's price was $23)
For those who don't know, "Hans" refers to the mountain climber, who isn't ever actually named on Barker's version of The Price is Right, but was given that name on Doug Davidson's short-lived The New Price is Right that aired in nightly syndication. If you put 33 "Cliff Hangers" games alongside each other, the mountain climber would have fallen off of every one of them on that one lousy bid alone!

So, what do you think? Worst contestant ever? Who are your candidates?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"Hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ"

Scot McKnight posted the following quote today, inviting people to figure out who said it. I confess that I cheated and immediately looked it up. It's from John Stott in Basic Christianity:
“Hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ.” These words describe large numbers of people, especially young people, today. They are opposed to anything which savors of institutionalism. They detest the establishment and its entrenched privileges. And they reject the church — not without some justification — because they regard it as impossibly corrupted by such evils.
Although Stott is a popular name in Christian thought today, I confess that I'm not terribly familiar with him and his work. But this quote is one that is worth reflection.

I believe that the institutional church is a necessary part of the Christian life. Whenever people tell me that they "can be a Christian without going to church," I fear that they don't know what they're talking about. It's not so much that I think that, if a person doesn't go to church, they cannot "be saved," but rather that I think that a person cannot hope to know who Christ is and follow Christ fully on their own, no matter how good they are at reading their Bible. We need each other! Through fellowship with other Christians, we learn more about who God is. (Disclaimer before folks start sending comments: Okay, so we can't ever know anything fully this side of heaven. I still maintain that there is an element of who God is that we cannot hope to learn on our own, that we do learn in fellowship with others.)

On the other hand, Stott (a recently retired Anglican clergyman and author with strong Evangelical ties) acknowledges that there are problems with the institutional church. Too many pastors more concerned with crafting a good sermon than with helping the parishioner that comes to their office in a time of great need. Too many church leaders who talk about the failings of certain church members behind their backs. Too many people who say all the right words about how people should live, but fail miserably at practicing what they preach. None of this is to say that this is equally a problem everywhere, but it's certainly common enough to scare a lot of people off.

Also, for me at least, some of this is personal: while I have a home church that I'm a member of, I haven't really felt it is a good fit for me, and my attempts to find a proper church home have been difficult. In some cases, there are theological issues. In others, it's how people respond when I show up (while it's good to be greeted, I don't want to be smothered). Although I definitely want to contribute to the life of the church community, I also need to protect my time and energy, as the church with which I'm a member has tended to suck all the energy out of me when I've let them (to be fair, they'd be horrified at this, and it's certainly not their intention). I've been part of the evangelical culture for long enough to know that some people will respond that I should just "suck it up" and "be committed," almost no matter what, but I don't believe that this is what God requires of his followers. (And I say this fully aware that God does ask his followers to give our very lives!)

So, how to reconcile the need to be connected with the need for proper self-care is a difficult one. I welcome comments, although I'm not interested in pat mantras. This is a topic for real dialogue.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Does "Tolerance" Have Four Letters?

Last week, I wrote a post advocating greater tolerance. I had forgotten at the time that this concept is considered bad by a certain subsection of conservative Christians. For example, when I was shopping this past weekend, I saw a license plate. The plate itself said "God Created" in that way that license plates do, with an "8" for the syllable "-ate," and so forth. The license plate frame around this plate had the motto "Truth not tolerance!" (italics in the original)

I thought that I had blogged about this phenomenon some time ago, but can't seem to find it (if someone can point me in the right direction with a comment, I'll make the appropriate edit), but it seems to me that some people greatly misunderstand what the word "tolerance" actually means. So, dictionary.com to the rescue:
  1. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.
  2. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own.
  3. interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one's own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.*
A common thread to all three of these definitions is the idea that there are viewpoints with with people do not agree. Let's assume for the sake of argument that I agree with the license plate owner: God created everything. (Actually, I do, agree with that! But for the sake of argument, I'm reading between the lines a bit to guess that the owner of the license plate believes in a narrow definition of "creation," i.e., "God created the world ex nihilo in six 24-hour days, without the need for Darwinian evolution, and that human kind appeared on the sixth day. Any theory that suggests that the Earth is millions of years old is contrary to the idea of divine creation.") To "tolerate" another view (i.e., "the Earth is millions of years old") is, according to definitions 1 and 2, merely to "permit" the opposing viewpoint, or the person holding that opposing viewpoint, to continue to exist. We are to treat them "fairly," and (to the degree it is possible for any human to do so) be "objective" in our dealings with them. I am free to disagree with that person however strongly I like. But if I have failed to persuade that person that my viewpoint is the correct one, I do not punish that person in any way. I "tolerate" it. I see no reason why any sane person should have a problem with "tolerance" defined in this way.

We do have the third definition here, though. I can certainly see why the hypothetical creationist might not wish to take an "interest in and concern for" the idea that the world is actually millions of years old. They (so they suppose) know the truth already. Why should this contradictory idea interest them? By this definition, I suppose that people such as the conservative license plate owner are safe in the "truth not tolerance" mantra.

But I'm not at all confident that this is what they're thinking. I'm reminded of the statement by Polish Vice-minister of education MirosÅ‚aw Orzechowski, who infamously said "We want a school without lies – such as the theory of evolution, soulless zygotes... We will also manage without tolerance". One can't argue that he's taken no interest. This was an active campaign against teaching these theories in school. Although the Polish context is rather different than ours, it seems pretty clear that movements such as the one in Kansas not that long ago (and which is a continuing controversy even now) are intended to remove this idea entirely from the classroom. This flies right in the face of definitions 1 and 2 of "tolerance." Teachers who insist on teaching this viewpoint would lose their jobs!

As I mentioned last time, it's one thing to withdraw from the community of those with whom you disagree. Sometimes, it's the only acceptable option. But fighting to punish people for nothing more dangerous than holding a disagreeable opinion should not be acceptable. Conservatives often mock people who advocate tolerance in this way: "You can tolerate anything except people who are intolerant." They seem to think that by pointing out a logical fallacy, the whole concept of "tolerance" can safely be dismissed. But as Slacktivist pointed out, "Well, yeah. And also, duh. Antonyms are incompatible. Opposites are opposed. That's not a particularly noteworthy observation, so I've always been baffled as to why this bit of adolescent wordplay was regarded as meaningful." Most people, even liberals (although I grant not all) believe that there is such a thing as "truth" out there. We may well have differing interpretations of what the "truth" is, but most people believe that there is an objective reality. The concept of "tolerance" is in no way opposed to this. All "tolerance" requires is that we recognize that not everyone sees "truth" in the same way, and that we continue to allow them to hold their own beliefs undisturbed. Why is that such a hard thing for some people to accept?


*(I should note that there are four other dictionary.com definitions on the linked page, but none of these appear germane to this discussion. The link also provides definitions from other dictionaries, some of which are indeed relevant, but similar enough that I won't quote them here.)

Friday, June 08, 2007

I Am The Very Model...

It's that time of year again. Finals Week Friday of the Spring Quarter! This is, for most Fuller students, the very last day for assignments to be turned in for the academic year. As the person who receives most such assignments for the School of Theology, this is always a busy day for me. In honor of this event, allow me to share a parody I wrote several years ago, back when I was still working on my own degree.

(to the tune of "Modern Major General", with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan)
By Mark Baker-Wright

I am the very model of a Fuller individual.
I'm taking classes practical, and biblical and spiritual.
I'm learning all about the facts of how to exegete a verse.
But I must say that all this makes my headaches keep on getting worse!

If I am asked to say who wrote the Institutes or Table Talk,
I probably will make you think that I am worse than Mr. Spock.
Why I could rattle on and on about the most pedantic things. (pause)
Like how the hermeneutic exegetical assignment rings.

Like how the hermeneutic exegetical assignment rings.
Like how the hermeneutic exegetical assignment rings.
Like how the hermeneutic exegetical assignment-ignment rings!

My social life is dominated by lots of religious talk
About how Jesus is the Christ and Simon Peter is the Rock.
In short in matters practical and biblical and spiritual
I am the very model of a Fuller individual.

If my professor tells our class that everyone must read a book.
I'll guarantee that very few will not give me a dirty look.
When I inform them that the book was sold out several months ago.
Because the bookstore thought that only a few students would enroll.

When translating a passage of First Peter or Leviticus,
The Hebrew or the Greek editions tell me what to do with this.
Because I know the meaning of the nominative article, (pause)
which tells me that the passage I'm translating from is marginal.

which tells me that the passage I'm translating from is marginal.
which tells me that the passage I'm translating from is marginal.
which tells me that the passage I'm translating from is margin-arginal.

If you should have a question about Hebrew terminology
I quickly will be able to show you the truth from BDB
In short in matters practical and biblical and spiritual
I am the very model of a Fuller individual.

If you want me to tell you why the crucifixion had to be
I'll give a dissertation on atonement substitution-ry.
I'll talk about the Trinity, how our God can be Three-in-One
And you may wonder what a seminary student does for fun.

I've been at Fuller several years, and still I haven't run away.
And now I'm writing silly songs about the debts I have to pay
For I'll be working overtime to pay off all my Stafford Loans. (pause)
While cutting some expenses by eliminating my cell phones!

While cutting some expenses by eliminating my cell phones!
While cutting some expenses by eliminating my cell phones!
While cutting some expenses by eliminating my cell my cell phones!

I have no money because pastors are to live in poverty
But I don't care, my flesh I'll starve, for my soul is in liberty
In short in matters practical and biblical and spiritual
I am the very model of a Fuller individual.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Offensive

Like most people, I have a few well-meaning friends who send me e-mails containing no personal correspondence whatsoever, but bits of humor the friend thought I might appreciate. Sometimes I do. Other times, I wonder how much the person thought about who they were sending the stuff to before hitting the "send" button. Here's an example:
Postmodern Liturgy

Leader:
The Lord
be with you.

Persons of all genders, creeds, theologies, ideological backgrounds including but not limited to Christianity in all its denominational forms:
And also with you, providing you are not referring to a gender-specific denominational-claiming deity, but, if you are, that's okay.

Leader: Let us lift up our hearts.

Persons of all genders, creeds, theo… yada yada yada : We, being both the collective body gathered here as well as the collective persons living on the earth, who may or may not want to be included in the pronoun we, do lift them up to the Lord with the understanding that the word "up" is not the only way to recognize the direction of an all-loving but still judging God, because that God is not just up but all around us.

Leader: Let us give thanks to God...

Same group as before: It is right, though not entirely required, based on the idea that right may be geographically influenced to give him/her/it/father/mother/sister/brother thanks and praise, which can be expressed in a multitude of ways with the understanding that no one way is the actual way preferred by the aforementioned deity.

Leader: It is a right and good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

People: Yeah, whatever.

Although I'm not unsympathetic to some of the concerns here, I can't help but feel that such humor, specifically referencing the liturgy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, isn't entirely innocent, but rather is a veiled attack upon a particular group of believers already decried by many "conservatives" as falling from the paths of orthodoxy (a claim many conservatives within the Anglican Communion may themselves agree with, but the point remains that the group certainly isn't homogeneously "conservative" nor "liberal").

I know the person who sent this humor (who presumably is not the original source of it) enough to know that he holds a deep concern about issues of "postmodernism," "liberalism," and "political correctness." However, this piece, which specifically claims to be about "postmodernism," belies a failure to understand what "postmodernism" is really about. "Postmodernism" is not an "anything goes" type of theology. Neither is "anything goes" truly a hallmark of "liberalism" (certainly not among religious liberals). The fact is, many people on opposite sides of the "conservative/liberal" spectrum would agree that "anything goes" would be a bad thing! Although people who consider themselves "postmodern" do seek to learn from a wide variety of traditions, they are perfectly willing to dismiss certain doctrines as "wrong." All that's left to create the difference between "postmodern" Christians and other believers is the criteria by which teachings are assessed.

I also mentioned my friend's concern about "political correctness," which he tends to define as a desire not to cause offense to anyone for any reason. This desire not to cause offense definitely seems to be one of the targets of this e-mail, despite the lack of overt mention of "political correctness" (which I would again argue has been misinterpreted) in the piece itself.

But let's grant for the sake of argument that "postmoderns" don't wish to cause offense to anyone (is that such a bad thing?). It seems to me that one of the hallmarks of the modern conservative movement is the willingness to cause offense in the name of "defending the truth of God." I'm not sure God (who conservatives would certainly argue is all-powerful) needs defending, but that's beside the point. I have suggested many times over that conservatives often defeat themselves by their offensive tactics. Perhaps if they sought to be a bit less "offensive," more people would agree with them! It's not like I think conservatives are wrong on everything! In fact, I think it's safe to say that I agree with them on all of the most essential matters. It just seems that one or two "important, but not essential" (to borrow a phrase from one of my professors) matters take up all of our attention.

But the reality is that, once in a while, offense will (and must) be caused in the defense of what we believe is right. This is unavoidable. But this does not give us license to "be offensive" whenever we feel that what we hold to be true is threatened. Ultimately, a lot of this discussion boils down to tolerance. We have several options when confronted with positions that we ourselves do not hold:
  • Do we allow those who are "unlike us" into our lives? This is essential to dialogue, not to mention conversion, but does indeed risk the possibility that we might be changed ourselves.
  • Do we fight against these positions? There are indeed some evils that must be fought.
  • Or do we retreat entirely, allowing those "unlike us" to continue to exist, but only so long as we do not have to interact with them in any meaningful way. This may seem an unattractive or undesirable option, but it may be the best alternative. In fact, Slacktivist cites the example of the Amish as a group of people who advocate for such separation. He argues that this option is preferable to the ideal of "conquest" and "domination" that many conservatives advocate.
I do not mean to suggest that any one of these possibilities is the "right" answer. As with most things, the best option will depend on the circumstances. Of course, that lack of willingness to advocate a singular response for all situations may well be what gets me criticism for being too "postmodern."

Oh, well....

Monday, June 04, 2007

With Great Power Comes... Greater Power

Most fans of Spider-Man, either through the comics or the recent string of successful movies, are familiar with the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility." The phrase is so ubiquitous that Weird Al is able to say in one of his parodies, "if you missed it, don't worry, they'll say the line again and again and again"! After learning a harsh lesson early in his career, Spider-Man resolves to use his power for good whenever and wherever he can.

It's a good phrase. A good moral lesson for our time. I wish that more people seemed to share it.

I've taken to playing the classic game, Risk, quite a bit recently. My family has a now-legendary tale to tell from last Christmas, where I picked up a game already in progress with my nephew. His great-uncle had been playing with him, and was doing rather poorly, but it was getting late, and so he decided to turn in, leaving it to me to serve as "custodian" of his failing empire until it could finally be defeated.

The game lasted several more hours, until just before sunrise, when my nephew finally threw in the towel, needing to get some sleep before his parents woke up again. By the time this happened, I had successfully taken the small army I inherited to take over the bulk of my nephew's forces. The writing was on the wall, but it would likely have taken several more turns to finally finish him off.

My more recent attempts to play Risk have always been on the computer, which goes considerably faster than the board game version. I don't always win, but I think I've figured out more or less how to strategize the game to its greatest potential. Because the game allows a player to continue attacking indefinitely, so long as one has enough troops, and an adjacent enemy country to send them to, one can do considerable damage so long as one doesn't fight oneself into a corner. The other important element is the use of the cards. These represent technological advances, and when played, grant an immediate boost in the number of troops one gets. If you can survive long enough to be able to play your cards, you can turn the tables around very quickly. Moreover, if you completely destroy one of your opponents, you get all of their cards, as well, enabling you play a set again in the near future (Of course, this element did not come into play in the 2-player game with my nephew).

Since troops are given at the beginning of a player's turn based on the number of countries one possesses, it is quickly apparent that whoever has a greater number of countries gets a greater number of troops, thereby enabling them to take over other countries with greater efficiency. If this is coupled with the extra cards one receives for destroying one's opponents completely, it becomes quickly apparent that whoever is leading at any point in the game has the odds tipped rather heavily in their favor to win the game entirely. Other players have little recourse but to try to survive long enough to get a lucky card draw (and it's concomitant boost in troop levels), but this becomes more difficult the more other players are annihilated, since the leader is better able to play card combinations earned through this tactic.

I'm afraid that life seems to be more like Risk than it is like the Spider-Man series. More often, people with great power use that power to achieve even greater power, rather than to "responsibly" help other people. That's not to say that it's impossible for someone in a "lower" power position to achieve better, but more often than not this accomplished through a fortuitous turn of events rather than from any effort on the "power deficient" person's part. While the person in the lower position can do certain things to improve his/her position (and by all means should do all he/she can), it remains much more difficult for such a person to do anything to improve his/her position than it is for the person who already has great power. And if the powerful person continues to use his/her power to achieve more power, rather than using it to help those who have less power, the situation is only made worse.

I wish there were more people like Spider-Man out there, who use their great powers to help others. It doesn't help matters that Spider-Man is a fictional character. We need people with his philosophy in the real world. But if more people did follow his motto, "With great power comes great responsibility," the world would certainly be better off for it.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Oooh! Buy Me! I'm AFA Graded!

I enjoy going to eBay every now and again to look for things I might add to my Transformers collection. Although I'm a bit of a cheapskate, and I have to admit that going to eBay isn't necessarily the most cost-effective method for finding used toys, given the likelihood of success in finding something interesting when compared to yard sales and flea markets (other venues I enjoy, which tend to be much cheaper!), I'm willing to argue that you usually get what you pay for, and part of "what you pay for" is the convenience of going to a place that has items of interest, rather than just "taking your chances" that a place (such as a yard sale) might have Transformers at all!

But one thing I've never really understood is the attention some collectors give to "graded" items. I'm not just talking here about an item that is still in it's original box, and the box and the toy are in pristine condition. That can be important, and I recognize that. What I'm talking about here is a specific type of grading that, after you've had your toy sent in and assessed, the toy (and, usually, it's original box from which the toy has never been removed) is placed in a clear, tamper-proof, acrylic case. Here's an example. Now the pristine toy in its pristine box can only ever be viewed through the case. You can never, ever touch the toy, let alone take it out and actually play with it. It seems to me that such an item defeats the purpose of what the toy is all about!

Of course, ensuring that one's pristine toy stays pristine can be important if you want to sell the toy and make some money off of it. And, of course, anyone who is putting something on eBay is wanting to sell it, and presumably hopes to make as much money as they can. That's normal enough. And it's certainly true that items graded in this way tend to sell for more than items that were not graded (but are otherwise identical). It's also the case that having something graded is not cheap. The service itself can be quite expensive, depending on what you're looking to have graded and sealed in a case for all eternity. All that said, some people tend to go overboard. For example, here's a current auction that the seller is trying to get nearly $2000 for! As nice a toy as he has, and as popular a character as Cyclonus is, I just can't image that it's worth so much. And that's the minimum bid! (Off-topic in regard to grading, this seller is committing another "sin" by typing out his auction details in such a large font that's hard to read. Seriously folks, let the item sell itself. These kinds of "tricks" are irritating in the extreme. It's one thing to want to take advantage of HTML code to make your description easier to read and understand, or even eye-catching. But this is ridiculous!)

But even if we grant that sellers are simply doing what they can to maximize their profits, why would anyone buy an item like this? You can't ever open it! Buy something similar that's not been graded, and save tons of money! It's a toy, for crying out loud! It's meant to be played with! Take care of it properly, and it will last for quite a long time, but go ahead and play with it! That's what it's for! The only reason I can imagine someone buying something like this is because they, themselves, want to sell it again later. Ironically, I expect that most such people will never make as much money off of it as the original seller. Such "investments" really tend not to pay off all that well.

If you're into collecting expecting to make money off of this stuff, you're not really much of a collector. A "speculator," perhaps, but that really is a different thing. That's not to say that collectors never sell the items they collect: I do it a fair bit myself, but any "profit" tends to be an unusual occurrence. Usually I don't even make back what I paid on an item in the first place, and that's okay. I more likely than not enjoyed the item while I had it. I realize that some people don't always recognize the difference between collectors and speculators as much as they ought to (I still sometimes wonder if the folks behind the Official Transformers Collectors Club recognize the distinction), but the difference really should be pretty clear.

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