Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Zlata the New Martyr

Today is the Feast of the New Martyr Zlata (also known as St. Chryse). The title New Martyr refers to those who were martyred after the 4th century, when the first great period of persecution ended with St. Constantine issuing the Edict of Milan making Christianity legal within the Roman Empire. St. Zlata lived in the 18th century in the Bulgarian village of Slatena when Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule.

I am going to be blunt about this, because this story really isn’t very pretty. St. Zlata was kidnapped by a Muslim man who wanted to force the saint to become his wife. When she refused, she was beaten and held captive for almost a year. They tore strips of flesh off her back. A hot poker was shoved into her ears. Through it all she never wavered in her faith in Christ and refused the demands of her captors. When it finally became clear that she was not going to relent, they tied her to a tree and carved her flesh up into little pieces with knives.

This brings up a difficult topic, especially considering what is going on in the Middle East these days. Political correctness demands that I be tolerant of what many consider to be one of the great religions of the world. Unfortunately, Orthodox Christians have been victims of this great religion for centuries, almost from its very beginnings. The synaxarion (list of saints) is littered with New Martyrs like St. Zlata who suffered a similarly cruel fate.

Theologically, Orthodox Christianity and Islam could not disagree more. Indeed, I would argue that the theology of Islam is dangerous. It holds that there is only one soul that humanity shares. This strips us of our individuality, our uniqueness, our value and our free will— it dehumanizes everyone, especially those who refuse to accept Islam. When we, as human beings, dehumanize entire groups of people bad things follow. A quick scan of U.S. history is proof positive of this fact, and we aren’t even close to being the worst offenders.

This is where I wax philosophical about art and how it allows society a safe place in which to wrestle with issues that would otherwise be less than desirable water cooler talk. It is also here that I place RPGs within that large umbrella known as art.

As I have proved via this blog, RPGs are an art form that allows us to wrestle with Christianity — a subject that was virtually taboo in this corner of the internet when I began blogging several years ago. RPGs became a safe place in which to explore, discuss and otherwise deal with the relationship our lives and this hobby has with Christianity.

There are plenty of other difficult issues that RPGs have allowed our community to struggle with. Feminism — via the way this hobby has used both language and illustrations — has been a hot topic several times since I started paying attention to our little corner. Rape (via the existence of Half-Orcs) has been grappled with. Certainly freedom and what that word means has been part and parcel of the whole old school vs. new school discussion.

In other words, RPGs are a marvelous vehicle for us to wrestle with difficult issues in a similar way that other art forms do. Sometimes this struggle might be too uncomfortable to make the whole experience very much fun (which is the primary purpose of this hobby), but we can always dial things back and return to what originally brought us to this hobby.

Therefore, I don’t particularly mind folks like Mr. Raggi pushing the envelope (though I won’t be sending much of my own gaming budget his way). He is using this hobby to wrestle with those issues. In turn, I have found that a lot of folks have grown to appreciate my own proclivities, especially when it comes to how I allow my faith to inform my game. I hope to see the day where we can wrestle honestly with the issue of Islam and what it means for the average joe on the street. Maybe a cautious use of RPGs can help us get there.


Anthony said...

What you're describing re: roleplaying games is art as a form of therapy. While I have minimal knowledge of psychology,I think roleplaying was used in that field for a while before Gygax and Arneson invented our hobby. And you're right, it's a useful vehicle for exploring that which disturbs by projecting it into a safe space.

Regarding Islam, while I don't visit RPG boards for current affairs discussions (I get plenty of that elsewhere), I couldn't agree with you more, even though my perspective is much more secular in origin. And I think religion, though a delicate topic, should be something one can deal with intelligently in a RPG setting. One thing that attracted me to WFRP's setting was the sense it gave of a religious transition underway from polytheism to monotheism, which I found fascinating to explore. (And I may have been totally reading that into the setting, but it's what I saw. :) )

FrDave said...

I saw it too, and it heavily influenced the way I made campaign worlds. In fact, WFRP is one of the reasons that T1 is one of my favorite D&D modules of all time, because it has that same religious transition feel about it with the New Religion represented by the Church of St. Cuthbert and the Old Religion represented by the druid.

Anthony said...

T1 is one of my all-time favorites, too. I've used it as an introductory adventure in many games, even science fiction. (With some heavy adaptation) But, to show one can always see something in a new way, this is the first time I had ever considered "Hommlet" as an example of religious transition. I may just have to break it out, again.

AndreasDavour said...

Intriguing post, and comments.

iemattias said...

Hmmm.... interesting perspective. I like to agree with you as far as the role of rpg/ fantasy in general for dealing with tough issues, but it also has its problems. I am primarily a wargamer, and one cannot help but find certain portrayals-- such as orcs or ogres, or the new Fanticide Centaurs, which are modeled to look like American Indians-- troubling along racial lines. It's a tricky issue that I spend a lot of time thinking about.

As for your thoughts on Islam-- I'm not sure its fair to call it 'dangerous', nor to claim that Christians have been persecuted by Muslims any more than Muslims have been persecuted by Christians (which you don't actually claim, but its a fine line). It is difficult to accept the stories of Martyrs as proof of persecution when they are just as likely to have been stories designed to demonize the religious 'other'. At any rate, the stories of martyred saints are a deeply Western tradition, and therefore do not admit of the Islamic perspective.

Furthermore, I don't think the Islamic idea that we all share one soul is necessarily dehumanizing. I could see it equally as a foundation for a philosophy that fosters the appreciation of other human beings as brothers, since they are literally a part of us. This seems reflected in the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and non-extremist. Just like the vast majority of Christians are peaceful and don't burn the texts of other peoples/religions or act out violently against them (yet those 'Christians' still exist.)

FrDave said...

I quibble with the label “deeply Western.” One of the earliest examples of hagiography is The Martyrdom of Polycarp, which was written in the east.

The main reason I find the whole idea of one soul dangerous is the flip side of your assessment that it encourages people to see each other as themselves. What happens when we inevitably run into someone who disagrees with us (especially in regards to the question of religion)? If we all share the the same soul, then the disagreement does damage to all of us. Since Islam is deemed correct, anyone who does not accept it becomes a cancer on the one soul. Since we are not unique individuals who have value in and of themselves (because we have one soul), it is a very small step to come to the conclusion that removing that cancer (by killing the person) is a reasonable thing to do. Indeed, this has been the history of Islam.

In contrast, Christianity has always emphasized the unique personhood of every individual — even identical twins are unique persons. Therefore, regardless of what they might believe or do, each individual is precious and unrepeatable. Thus, the atrocities committed by Christians are aberrations rather than a logical conclusion.