Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Another Thought On the Passing of Gary Gygax

There's a very interesting tribute to Gary Gygax up at Wired Magazine. It's pretty long, but well worth the read.

But toward the end there is a passage that made this Christian sit up and take notice.

While it may surprise – or embolden – the religious groups who long rallied against him, Gygax says he has found God. The discovery began one day about 25 years ago, fittingly, during a game. A friend of his was doing some role-playing with Gygax as a kind of personality test. He had Gygax describe his journey down an imaginary road. At one point, Gygax described coming to a clear lake, and his buddy said, "There's a drinking vessel there. What does it look like?"

"It's a beautiful silver chalice," Gygax replied, "all engraved."

"I didn't know you were religious," his friend said.

Neither did Gygax, but he warmed to the idea that the universe has been mapped out in advance by some celestial designer. "There's got to be a creating hand behind everything," he says. "As Thomas Aquinas said, ‘Out of nothing, nothing comes.'"

Over the past few years, Gygax has suffered two minor strokes, a heart attack, and a series of falls. And, he says, it was his newfound beliefs that sustained him. He began to pray frequently that he would regain the movement that he lost in his arm and leg after his most recent stroke. And it was an experience inside a game that prepared him for his ultimate journey, too. At the completion of the round, he tells me, the game master said, "You've come to a wall. The wall is the end. It's death. What do you do?"

Gygax looked him in the eye and said, "I jump over it. When you come to the end and you can't go any farther, you've got to go over the wall. Gotta see what's there."

I can honestly say that I didn't know that about him. And yes, it's deliciously ironic, seeing as how there have been so many religious people over the years who found the game of Dungeons and Dragons to be something unwholesome.

As a Christian, I believe that humanity is estranged from God through our sin; but that God, through his love for us, is trying to end the estrangement and bring us back into His family. To this end, He tries to get our attention--He tries to get us to think about Him and to think about the great questions: on life, on our place in the universe, on beauty, on liberty and duty.

And because we are all individuals, each with different interests, different competencies, different missions in life, God's call to each of us is similarly individualized.

It's an interesting experience, hearing people talk about what exactly it was that convinced them that God was real; no two people say quite the same thing. For some, their eyes were opened during a time of crisis; for others, during a time of quiet meditation. For some, it was through watching the actions of a loved one who was living out his or her faith; for others, it was through intellectual inquiry. Some Christians became so for reasons that make other Christians scratch their heads and say, "Huh?"

And yet somehow, each person who becomes a Christian has a reason that just fits that person. It may not fit anyone else, but it fits him.

C.S. Lewis provides an example. This site has a good description of his conversion process. Here's an excerpt:

Lewis began teaching at Oxford in 1925, with a special emphasis on medieval literature. He was, at the time, an atheist. His mother had died of cancer when he was only nine, and trust in God’s goodness was shattered. By the age of fourteen, Lewis had rejected faith in any kind of God, and horrific experience in World War I (in which he was wounded) only confirmed these convictions. Yet his immersion in European literature repeatedly confronted him with the fact that the writers he most admired were Christian. By 1929, Lewis felt compelled to adopt a cautious theism. In his 1955 autobiography, “Surprised by Joy” (there’s that term again), Lewis described himself at this point as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, was to take a decisive role in the next step of Lewis’ conversion. On a fall evening in 1931, Lewis had dinner with fellow professors Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. They walked through the college’s park, talking, until the early hours of the morning. The conversation turned to mythology. Lewis felt that myths, despite their imaginative appeal, were, in the end, merely lies. Tolkien proposed instead that the beauty of Christianity is that it is a myth that happens to be *true.* The universal hunger planted in human beings by God, evidenced by all the world’s mythologies, was made manifest in time and space. In Jesus Christ, God really did walk this earth, die, and rise again.

These words must have rung an uneasy bell. Some years earlier a tutor in classical studies at Oxford, T. D. Weldon, had troubled Lewis by stating that, as ancient texts go, the Gospel documents bore strong evidence of authenticity. Although Weldon was a vehement atheist, he said, “It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”

A few days after the late-night walk with Tolkien, still pondering the conversation, Lewis got into the sidecar of Warnie’s motorcycle for a trip to the zoo. He later wrote, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” It was a distinctly intellectual conversion, a laser-like search for Truth, unaccompanied by emotional tumult. Yet it seems somehow characteristic of Lewis—never one to stand on dignity—that it took place in a sidecar on the way to the zoo.

So the highly intellectual Professor of Literature came to an understanding of God through his study and contemplation of literature and myth.

And I saw something a few months back along similar lines: an article asserting that for the last several decades, there has been a semi-steady rate of conversions to Christianity among East Asian musicians, of all people, due to their exposure to the music of J.S. Bach (Hat tip to The Anchoress).

Some theologians tend to attribute the astounding impact of Bach’s music particularly on the scientific minds of many Asians to the Holy Spirit. Canon Arthur Peacocke, a Church of England clergyman and noted biologist who is also one of the leading spokesmen in burgeoning international dialog between theology and the natural sciences, once suggested that the Holy Spirit personally dictated “The Art of the Fugue,” Bach’s arguably most challenging work, into the composer’s plume.

“The reason why Bach’s most abstract works guide some Asian people to Christ is because his music reflects the perfect beauty of created order to which the Japanese mind is particularly receptive,” suggested Charles Ford, a mathematics professor at the University of St. Louis. “Bach has the same effect on me, a Western scientist,” added Ford, who is also one of America’s foremost experts on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred Lutheran theologian hanged by the Nazis.

Henry Gerike, organist and choirmaster at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, a Lutheran school of theology, agrees with Ford: “The fugue is the best way God has given us to enjoy his creation. But of course Bach’s most significant message to us is the Gospel.” Gerike echoes Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom (1866-1931), who famously called Bach’s cantatas “the fifth Gospel.”

Rev. Robert Bergt, musical director of Concordia’s Bach at the Sem concert series, has first-hand experience with the missionary lure of Bach’s cantatas in Tokyo. He used to be the chief conductor of Musashino Music Academy’s three orchestras in the Japanese capital. Bach’s compositions brought his musicians, audiences and students into contact with the Word of God, he said. “Some of these people would then in private declare themselves as ‘closet Christians,’” Bergt told Christian History magazine. “I saw this happen at least 15 times. And during one of them I eventually baptized myself.” While only one percent of Japan’s population of 128 million is officially Christian, Bergt estimated that the real figure could be three times as high if one includes secret believers.

So God uses some of the most perfect music ever written to speak to musicians whose minds are attuned to appreciate beauty and order; and God uses ancient literature--even myth--to speak to an atheist Professor of Literature.

I don't know the details of Gary Gygax's spiritual experience; the Wired article is a bit thin on details here (although his reference to St. Thomas Aquinas is a very hopeful sign). But somehow, it seems altogether fitting to me, that God should speak to a designer and master of games, through games--that the man who spent his time creating worlds, and designing all the rules by which these worlds operate, should thereby have his eyes opened to the Designer who called the Universe into existence and established its laws.

Godspeed, Mr. Gygax.

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