Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What is Biblical Theology? A Working Definition

Do You Understand What You Are Reading?

In Acts 8, the Spirit leads Philip to encounter an Ethiopian official departing from Jerusalem. This person was riding home in a chariot, “and he was reading the prophet Isaiah” (8:28). The Spirit tells Philip to go over and join the chariot. At this point, Philip hears him reading from the book of Isaiah and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:29). The official responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

He then invites Philip to sit with him. As Luke recounts, “Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken from the earth”” (8:32-33).

The official’s question for Philip relates to the identity of the suffering servant being described in this passage from Isaiah 53. He says, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (8:34). “Beginning with this Scripture,” Philip tells him “the good news about Jesus” (8:35). What follows on this road is that the official is baptized (8:36-38), Philip is carried away by the Spirit to another location (8:39), and then continues preaching the gospel in the area (8:40).

This rather minor historical event serves an important role in Luke’s narrative in the book of Acts, caught up as it is in the spread of the gospel by the Spirit across geographic and ethnic boundaries. This brief but fascinating interlude also encapsulates several of the themes of biblical theology and illustrates some of the distinctive goals of the discipline.

The official recognizes the need for help in interpretation. There is an emphasis both on the details of an individual passage under investigation but also a broader literary context. The preaching of the gospel is connected to the close reading of the Scriptures. The two opening questions in this account also highlight what is at stake in biblical theology. “Do you understand what you are reading?” and “How can I, unless someone guides me?” are both questions that deserve enduring consideration.

There are further questions raised by the details of this scene. What is the message of the Scriptures when considered as a whole? In light of that larger message, how do individual passages relate to that broader textual horizon? In Acts 8, rather than detailing the interpretive decisions Philip makes, Luke chooses to provide a summary of Philip’s comments to the official. However, he does give us a glimpse of his method and show us an outline of the path that Philip takes. “Beginning with this Scripture” (8:35), Philip preaches the gospel about Jesus as the Christ.

This interpretive move involves considering the words of the prophet, the words of the gospel, and the ability to connect them. Are the Prophets related to the Gospels? Do the words of the prophet Isaiah really lead to the good news about Jesus? If so, how do they do this? What is Philip on about? These are the types of questions biblical theology seeks to consider.

A Working Definition

We can begin with a working definition of biblical theology as the study of the whole Bible on its own terms.

Having a “working definition” is helpful because one of the major points of discussion in the field of biblical theology is one of definition. A working definition is one that is not necessarily only tentative (not fully formed) but one that is flexible or broad enough for you to work with the definition. A working definition is intentionally brief, easy to understand, and focused on broad essential aspects. These features make it initially useful in orienting you to a particular discussion or type of study. These features also mean that a working definition will need to be unpacked in order to provide definitional clarity.

In order to unpack the working definition of biblical theology as the study of the whole Bible on its own terms, we can think about its relationship to exegesis and systematic theology and then note its prevailing concern for the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

A Tale of Two Senses

The study of biblical theology works within the electrifying dynamic between the two poles of biblical and theological studies. The two main components of biblical theology are of course embedded in the expression biblical theology, making it both a useful and easily misunderstood term.

On the one hand, you could take biblical theology to mean a theology that is biblical.[1]  Here, the sense of biblical theology is that the reflection one makes about God and all things in relation to God accord with the Scriptures. This refers to a theology that is “sound” or that agrees with what we find in Scripture. As Paul tells Titus, “as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). This type of theological correspondence is an important and crucial goal for those who are in ministry.

On the other hand, a more specific or narrow understanding of the phrase biblical theology refers more precisely to the theology that is presented in the Scriptures. Here we mean biblical theology to be “the Bible’s theology,” or the “theology that we find in the Bible.” In other words, when doing biblical theology, the goal is to first present the theological reflection that occurs within the Scripture before producing theological reflection that accords with the Scripture.

These two possible senses generate a level of ambiguity that some have said haunts the field.[2]  While a failure to recognize this distinction can lead to confusion and unfortunate misunderstanding, the distinction itself can prove helpful to us as we pursue our study of the Scriptures. This distinction provides conceptual categories that separate different types of analysis. As Brevard Childs notes, “from one perspective the entire history of the discipline of Biblical theology can be interpreted as the effort to distinguish between these two definitions and to explore the important implications of the distinction.”[3]

In broad terms, the process of understanding the Bible includes several areas of emphasis. An important preliminary step involves both distinguishing and relating the task of exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology. Both biblical theology and systematic theology involve exegetical analysis and also some level of abstraction. Consequently, it is probably not accurate to say one discipline on the whole is “closer” to the biblical text than the other.[4]  However, we can nevertheless note the distinctive aims of each discipline. Their purpose, goals, and object of study often are the reason their presentations often seem more or less directly connected to the biblical material.

As we will discuss at various points, this does not mean that a given discipline is automatically pursuing a task wholly disconnected from the biblical text. Rather, it could mean that the purpose of a particular study or a presentation of research is more or less suited to an arrangement other than a strict exposition of the biblical text.

In our focus on biblical theology, we will be mindful of the way other disciplines relate to our area of study.
  • A working definition of exegesis is the study of an author’s textual intention.
  • A working definition of biblical theology is the study of the whole Bible on its own terms.
  • A working definition of systematic theology is the study of God and all things in relation to God according to his Word
In some ways, biblical theology shares a family resemblance to close reading of individual biblical texts. Exegesis is the study of an author’s textual intention. Recognizing that the mental state of an author is inaccessible to a reader, the focus of exegesis is on what the author has in fact communicated in a particular act of written communication. The difference between doing exegesis and biblical theology is often a difference of scope. Whereas exegetical studies typically focus on individual passages and ask how individual words relate to other words to form sentences, paragraphs, and sections to create meaning, biblical theology begins asking how those larger sections relate to one another to create book-level meaning.

Further, biblical theology begins to ask how the textual intention of one biblical author’s book relates and intersects with books of other biblical authors. Moreover, when one author draws directly upon another biblical author’s text, we can see with clarity how closely the exegetical and biblical-theological tasks are often related within the biblical canon.

As the study of God and all things in relation to God according to his Word, systematic theology resonates with the broad sense of biblical theology as a “theology that is biblical” or that accords with the Scriptures.[5]  The theological task involves at least three types of activities. First, systematic theology aims to summarize and synthesize what the Bible says about a particular topic in an understandable way.[6]  Second, systematic theology seeks to demonstrate the basic coherence and logical connections between the many statements and teachings found in the biblical literature.[7]  Third, systematic theology seeks to draw out the theological implications of the statements that the biblical authors make when they compose their texts.

Whereas part of systematic theology’s goal is to summarize, synthesize, or draw out the theological implications of what the Bible says, biblical theology is mostly focused on how the Bible says what it says and how the biblical authors have composed their books.[8]

Both of these disciplines are critically important and should be constantly related to one another in the context of ministry. They are both important and necessary for the life and practice of the churches. To be sure, each of these tasks are required in order to achieve “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Consequently, it is counterproductive to set these tasks against one another in some sort of disciplinary combat. Rather, they complement one another even if the process they move in is not strictly linear.

Recognizing its organic connection to exegesis and systematic theology, the focus of the discipline of biblical theology is to articulate and defend the value and significance of the study of the whole Bible on its own terms as a discernible and discrete task.

A Tale of Two Testaments

This way of understanding biblical theology strikes at the heart of another definitional question. How do the testaments relate to one another? By defining biblical theology as the study of the whole Bible on its own terms, we necessarily understand the discipline to directly involve grappling with this particular question.

How does the Old Testament relate to the New Testament? How do the textual connections between books in these collections impact this area of study? How does the ordering of the canonical collections and the shape and meaning of individual books contribute to the way we address this relationship? If we define biblical theology in the way that we have, these are questions that we should anticipate in this area of study.

As we understand the discipline, the aim of biblical theology is to behold the big picture of the biblical writings and to convey the inner-workings of that big picture. How does the big picture of Genesis, for instance, relate to the big picture of the New Testament? Or, how does the book of Romans fit into the meaning of the rest of Paul’s letters? Biblical theology tells a story from “beginning” to “end.” The story of the Bible begins with the creation account in Genesis and ends with the outline of the “last things” in Revelation.

These are the bookends of the grand storyline of the Bible. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and in the end he makes a new heavens and a new earth. This cosmic scope is the staggering perspective that we encounter as we make our way through the biblical narratives. So, when we engage the Scriptures at any level, we must keep in mind the grand storyline that we examine and reflect upon in biblical theology.

These preliminary reflections help fill out our working definition. Biblical theology is the study of the whole Bible on its own terms. This discipline of biblical theology can be understood first in relation to the exegetical task and the discipline of systematic theology (a tale of two senses) and also by its relentless pursuit of the question about the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament (a tale of two testaments). These distinctives help give shape to this area of study.

This working definition and these two areas of emphasis characterize much of the work that flies under the banner of biblical theology.


  1.  An often-cited discussion of these two senses of “biblical theology” is Gerhard Ebeling, “The Meaning of ‘Biblical Theology,’” The Journal of Theological Studies 6.2 (October 1955): 210-25. Noting that biblical theology is “in any event no simple idea,” Ebeling observes that the term means either “the theology contained in the Bible . . . the theology of the Bible itself” or “theology in accordance with the Bible, scriptural theology” (210). “Both possible meanings,” he laments, “are pregnant with a mass of problems” (210). As Ebeling observes, these two senses represent two distinct disciplines: “In the latter sense, ‘biblical theology’ is a normative concept, in the former sense it is an historical concept. In the one ‘biblical theology’ means a theology of the right kind, in the other a theology of a particular stamp. Among theologians it is the dogmatic theologian who is concerned with one, the historical theologian who is concerned with the other” (210). Thus, Ebeling highlights the importance of reckoning with the issue of definition.
  2. For example, Christine Helmer notes that “the famous definition of biblical theology that Gerhard Ebeling formulated in 1955 identified the fundamental ambiguity haunting the field” (“Multivalence in Biblical Theology,” in The Multivalence of Biblical Texts and Theological Meanings, ed. Christine Helmer [Leiden: Brill, 2006], 1). For Helmer, “Ebeling’s contrast has convincingly set the conceptual parameters for biblical theology. The contrast between historical and theological methods, between the object as described historically and the object of theological construction, exposes the braided trajectories of biblical theology’s two foundational disciplines” (2).
  3. Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 3.
  4. For a helpful dialogue on this particular issue, see D. A. Carson, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. D. Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 89-104; and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Is the Theology of the New Testament One or Many? Between (the Rock of) Systematic Theology and (the Hard Place of) Historical Occasionalism,” in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic theology in the New Testament, ed. Benjamin E. Reynolds, et al (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 17-38.
  5. For an articulation of this way of phrasing the definition of systematic theology, see John Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological?” Journal of Analytic Theology 3 (May 2015): 17-28. Webster argues that the object of Christian theology “is twofold: God the Holy Trinity and all other things relative to God” (17).
  6. Along these lines, Vanhoozer notes that systematic theology involves “faith seeking understanding—of God, the world and ourselves—through an ordered presentation of the doctrines implicit in the biblical testimony to the history of creation and redemption” (“Systematic Theology,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Martin Davie, et al [Downers Grove: IVP, 2016], 885). Further, this theological reflection is “expressed via contemporary idiom and addressed to relevant cultural intellectual issues” (885).
  7. Cf. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 29: “To assume that the Bible itself gives us a system of doctrine and practice is simply to acknowledge its organic unity as a single canon: the interdependence and coherence of its various teachings.” On the relationship between the disciplines, Horton also notes that “if biblical theology is a topographical map, systematic theology is more like a street map, pointing out the logical connection between various doctrines spread throughout Scripture. Without biblical theology, systematic theology easily surrenders the dynamism of revelation to timeless truths; without systematic theology, biblical theology surrenders the Bible’s internal coherence—the relation of the parts to the whole” (29).
  8. Cf. Karl Barth’s understanding of the task of systematic theology (dogmatics) as “the self-examination of the Christian Church in respect of the content of its distinctive talk about God” (Church Dogmatics [London: T&T Clark, 1975], 1.1, 16). In relation to the other disciplines, Barth notes that “exegetical theology investigates biblical teaching as the basis of our talk about God.” Further, “Dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and the prophets” (1.1, 16).    

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Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Trickle-Down Academics: Why Scholarship For the Churches is Often but Not always To the Churches

Academic Ministry works for the Churches
The goal of theology is to produce a product that glorifies God and edifies the churches. The former goal can be effectively accomplished by means of the latter goal. The best theology is to be done for the churches.[1]

As long as churches bear the mark of the “right preaching of the Word,” biblical theology will always have a place in the churches. Pastors must grapple with the issues addressed by biblical theology whether they realize it or not. Theologians should make it their aim to foster a theological dialogue within the church. If biblical theologians can enable their students and members of the local church to think biblically and theologically about their lives and about the world around them, then they have succeeded in this task. As Vanhoozer argues, “to correspond to revelation and to the substance of the gospel, the theologian must not only speak but act.”[2]

Further, the theologian that provides a big picture framework that enables students and church members to read their Bibles better and apply the message of Scripture more faithfully has accomplished the ultimate aim of the biblical theology quest.

When interpreting Scripture, theologians are caught up in a process that extends further than themselves. Obviously, as a reader of small and large portions of the Scriptures, you must find a way to transfer the insight you gain and glean to your students in the classroom and to your fellow church members. Otherwise, the interpretive process will remain woefully incomplete.[3]

Academic Ministry works within the Churches
If theology is for the church, then it only makes sense that theology would also be done from within the context of the church community. Indeed, the interpreter who has a vested interest in the outcome of the theological process is well-positioned to do faithful and informed theology. Ideally, the theology produced by the theological educator will transform him or her into the image of Christ. As they shape their theology, this theology must shape them. As Childs notes, “The true expositor of the Christian Scriptures is the one who awaits in anticipation toward becoming the interpreted rather than the interpreter. The very divine reality which the interpreter strives to grasp, is the very One who grasps the interpreter.”[4]

When theological educators communicate the truth they find in Scripture, they personify “the transformation that is created through encounter with revelation.”[5] Thus, their lives must bear witness to the truth they have found through the interpretive process. In this way, theologians remain tethered to the community of faith and fulfill the ultimate goal of their vocation.

In the discipline of biblical theology in particular, there should never be a gaping chasm between the academy and the church. There is simply no way to compensate for the loss that occurs when the biblical or theological scholar is cut off from the local church. Vocational theologians exist to build up and edify the churches. There should be a natural and organic connection between the classroom and the churches. This crucial task cannot be accomplished if there is an ugly ditch or relational rift between the church and the academy. Theologians should be doing the best theology for the churches and from within the churches. Whether pastors, church members, professors, or students, all of the various participants in Christian ministry and theological education would benefit from meaningful fellowship within the context of a God-centered, Word-saturated, gospel-oriented local church.

Trickle-Down Academics: 
Does for the churches always mean to the churches? 

An important distinction to consider in this particular discussion relates to the audience of any given scholarly study. In short, scholarship for the churches is not always to the churches. In other words, the direct audience of a given study might not immediately be a particular local church or a group of local churches. This particular study or scholarly project, though, can still be for the church.

This observation is simply a recognition of the “trickle down” effect that scholarship has within scholarly communities (both academic and ecclesial). The “general consensus” in a particular area of study often has a wide-ranging and largely unacknowledged influence in teaching and preaching. What is considered “common sense” is either taken for granted or must be consciously argued against in a particular message or scholarly argument. Either way, the general consensus exerts an influence and makes its presence felt on the teaching or preaching moment.

A study of biblical theology that contributes to the field or a sub-discipline within biblical or theological studies may have far-reaching implications for churches, but it may simply need to take a few steps to make its presence felt. When a consensus forms at the highest academic level, this consensus typically is reflected in major journal articles and scholarly monographs. These monographs are then read by those who then typically write books for those who are teaching and training students and pastors. Those individuals are often the ones who write the commentaries and popular level works that are read by those who are ministering in churches. Thus, a broad approach to reading the Scriptures, a hermeneutical principle, a theological position, or an interpretation of a biblical passage that becomes pervasive among the churches often does not have single point of origin.

This scenario highlights the fact that it is often inadequate to pit technical academic work over against popular level writing solely on the basis of audience. For, many times the consensus that an academic work is contributing to or working within will at some point impact or influence the popular level writing or the preaching ministry of the churches. This discussion helps explain how a work that is not intended for a popular audience can nevertheless greatly impact that audience (the churches).

This phenomenon also helps explain why there is sometimes a “gap” when a particular interpretation or theological position is roundly rejected among evangelical scholars but is nevertheless still relatively widespread in evangelical churches. What is sometimes missing are those who have the dual skill-set to access, process, evaluate, and communicate the high-level discussion and then communicate it effectively to a broader audience.

When done well, this does not involve a loss of meaning or nuance but rather a shift in the rhetorical situation and the communicative context of a particular writing or teaching scenario. There is an enduring need for this type of scholarly bridging work in evangelical scholarship (in exegetical, biblical-theological, and systematic theology fields). 

This recognition is both a challenge but also an encouragement. We need preachers, teachers, and scholars at every level working in the field of biblical theology who are self-consciously striving to produce careful and faithful work for the churches.

The Universal Academy and the Local Academy
Another helpful angle to approach this relationship between the academic study of the Bible and the churches can borrow from a key distinction in discussions of ecclesiology. When studying the nature of the “church,” an important distinction is the one between the universal church and the local church. The universal church is a way of referring to the people of God in the broadest possible terms both temporally and physically (Eph 1:22-23; 1 Cor 12:28; Col 1:18). The past, present, and future believers in the gospel make up the universal church.

The local church, then, would be a specific gathered group of believers who serve the Lord in a particular place and hold to a particular confession (1 Thess 1:1; 1 Cor 4:17). In the New Testament, the vision of a universal church undergirds the vision of the global reach of the gospel and connects to the cosmic scope of God’s revelation in Christ, while the overwhelming emphasis is on the nature and function of the gathered local church of believers.[6]

This textual pattern within the shape of the New Testament epistles can provide theological guardrails for how we conceptualize the task of teaching, preaching, and “cultural” engagement. Especially in the context of social media, there is an ever-present draw to engage and speak to the “church in America” or “the church” in general (universal church or “generic” church) rather than the nitty-gritty reality of ministering to the actual individuals present within a local church congregation.

A parallel movement can sometimes happen in the evangelical scholarly world, where a scholar’s focus might drift toward speaking to the universal academy (perhaps the “guild at large” or the networking event) rather than the local academy (perhaps the classroom or the follow-up student meeting). These contexts, of course, are not at odds with one another.

Making the distinction, though, perhaps can help a pastor-theologian or a pastoral theologian maintain a set of priorities. The relationship between the academy and the churches might be easier to delineate in practice if there is a clear role for both the local church and the local academy present in a minister or scholar’s vision of their vocation.

While much more could be said along these lines and many examples could be populated, I have found these categories to be a helpful way to begin thinking through this urgent area of concern.

  1. For a sampling of recent theologians considering the role of the “pastor-theologian” in light of the relationship between the academy and the church, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015); Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015); and Todd Wilson and Gerald L. Hiestand, eds., Becoming a Pastor Theologian: New Possibilities for Church Leadership (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015).
  2. Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 59. Vanhoozer characterizes the “primary role of the theologian” as bearing “witness, in word and deed, to the meaning and significance of God’s communicative action in Jesus Christ, in order to enable others to understand and participate in it too” (58).
  3. D.A. Carson, “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World, 71, states boldly that if the message of the interpreter is not transferred to the people of God, then “the entire exercise is such a distortion of the purposes of revelation as to approach profanity.”
  4. Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology: A Proposal (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 69. Cf. Childs’s similar comment to this regard: “It might also be refreshing for the pastor to be told that the interaction between the university and the parish is not a one-way street. It may well be that some of the direction for the new biblical theology of the future will come from the experience of pastors on the front lines of the church’s confrontation with the world. It was not by accident that a working pastor in the forgotten Swiss village of Safenwil first discovered what Romans could mean to a congregation before dropping his theological bomb on the scholarly community. Fortunately God still has a way of making use of the Bible which is not synchronized to the publication schedule of the religious press” (Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis, 96).
  5. Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 408. Maier observes further that “in passing along the interpretation that has transformed him and made him into a witness, his interpretation itself becomes testimony.”
  6. A particularly instructive example of the relationship between these two senses occurs in 1 Cor 1:1-3, as Paul writes “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (local church) and connects this address to the broader context of believers: “together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” On the pattern of the New Testament’s affirmation of the universal church and emphasis on the local church see Thomas White, “The Universal and Local Church,” in Upon This Rock: A Baptist Understanding of the Church, ed. Jason Duesing, et al (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 208-39; and D. A. Carson, “Why the Local Church is More Important than TGC, White Horse Inn, 9Marks, and Maybe Even ETS,” Themelios 40.1 (2015): 1-9).

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Thursday, August 09, 2018

5 Reasons why What Remains of Edith Finch Won Best Game in 2018

Why did What Remains of Edith Finch win Game of the Year?

In 2017 and 2018, the game What Remains of Edith Finch won several awards. These include Best Narrative at the 2017 Game Awards in Los Angeles, and the award for Innovative Narrative at the South by Southwest Game Awards in Austin. It was also nominated for a host of other categories as well. However, perhaps most surprising, at the 14th annual awards show hosted by BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, What Remains of Edith Finch won the coveted Best Game award for 2018.

Part of what makes this award particularly significant were the other contenders for this year’s competition: Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Both of these games are major entries in longstanding series with well-established player-bases that are critically acclaimed and wildly popular in the gaming community.

And yet, when the time came, neither of these games won the Best Game award. The announcer even says, “Amazingly,” before he announces Edith Finch as the winning game. Even the director of Edith Finch was taken off guard by the award as well. As he said, he clearly expected one of these other two games to win game of the year. In fact, he comments that he had prepared a speech for all the other categories except the main Best Game award.

So, what happened? How could a small, quick, little story game like this win an award so big among this caliber of competition? Here are five reasons why I think What Remains of Edith Finch won the BAFTA award for Best Game in 2018.
[some spoilers ahead!]

1. The Quality of the Story. 
When you play What Remains of Edith Finch, you encounter a quality story. As the publishers describe, the game as a whole is a “collection of short stories about a cursed family in Washington State.” The game even signals this focus as the credits begin to roll as it characterizes the game simply as “a story by Giant Sparrow.”

Most of your time in the game is spent from the point of view of a young woman named Edith Finch as she returns to her house she grew up in to piece together what became of her family. However, the game actually begins from the point of view of someone else. While the identity of this person is obvious after the game is complete, it is not immediately clear at the outset of the game. In fact, after the first few moments of the game, it’s easy to lose sight of these few orienting frames.

During the rest of the game, you play as Edith and then as you explore the memory or history of each Finch family member, the point of view shifts to a different person. Through a strong voiceover narration, though, Edith still anchors the player’s perspective, giving a cohesive experience throughout very different gameplay experiences. All of this to say, there are several rich narrative layers introduced into the structure of the game’s storyline that you encounter as you play.

You begin by seeing a young child holding a journal and flowers on a ferry. The child opens the book and starts reading, prompting Edith’s dialogue. At this moment, you immediately transition to Edith’s point of view walking toward the house. Later, once Edith herself eventually encounters a memory of one of the Finch family members, the player transitions further into that person’s past.

At the climax of each shorter episode, the transition back to Edith’s point of view is typically to pan out to Edith holding the object that prompted the memory, her putting the object down, and then her making a sketched entry in her journal. With this device, we are able to see Edith fill out her family tree. As Edith makes these sketches, the player is also able to see how far they have progressed in the game and in the story.

As Edith is recording each of her own stories in her journal, the player eventually realizes that what they have been playing/watching has been Edith’s own entry in that same journal. This of course is one the dramatic twists at the end of the game’s storyline, but it also skillfully ties together many of the threads that are explored earlier in the game.

Edith has been recounting and interpreting these stories in her journal; and it turns out, her own story is part of this short story collection. You as a player realize that the narrator you’ve been following is part of the narration. Your interpreter must now be interpreted.

The small narrative arcs that you play through with Edith produce a creative tension that gives you a bit of forward momentum as you walk through the house alone. This series of stories within a story set within a broader story setting gives the game a layered narrative richness.

2. The Depth of the Themes. 
A second strength of this game is the depth of its themes. As the individual stories unfold and as the broader storyline plays out, several deep and distinct themes emerge. The most pervasive theme in the game is death. After all, each of the memories that Edith recounts and the episodes that you play through end in the death of the main characters.

Much of the imagery of the game also reminds the player of death and the memory of death. From the mini-memorials that Edith’s grandmother sets up throughout the house, to the gravestones outside the house, to the sketches Edith makes in her notebook, the player is constantly prompted to contemplate mortality.

While this may sound overly dour, each episode has a voice and character of its own. Sometimes the mood is light, sometimes dark; sometimes comic, sometimes tragic; As varied as the lives and personalities of each of the Finches Edith recounts are, so too are the accounts of their deaths. Through these diverse stories, the theme of death is deepened and developed.

Not only the theme of death itself, but also highlighted here is the ever diverse responses to these deaths by those around them. This particular aspect is an example of how a primary theme of the game branches off into several sub-themes.

Death reaches into each corner of the Finch house, but that dark reality casts its shadow differently from room to room and from life to life.

Within this minor key, several subthemes contribute to the game’s thematic orchestra. Family dynamics. Loneliness. Fear. Relationships. Addiction. Happiness. Abuse. Marriage. Divorce. Psychology. Religion. Doubt. Faith. Mystery. Blessing. Curse. Beauty. Grief. Guilt. Memory. Maybe even Magic.

These types of subthemes are interwoven into the brief but gipping stories of the Finch family as they experience and respond to the vagaries of life and death. The depth of these themes gives the game a strong reflective quality.

3. The Web of Inter-connections. 
In numbers 1 and 2, we saw the quality of story and the depth of themes. In 3 and 4, I want to explore not just the presence of these aspects but the function of these features within the game. As you play through What Remains of Edith Finch, you experience a web of inter-connections. Some of these are visual and literary interconnections between the scenes that you play through. Physically, these are visual connections between rooms or places on the property you have been.

As mentioned in #2, though, each of these spaces and places are embedded with story and thematic content. So, a well-placed visual becomes a reminder not only of a different room but of an entire story and that story’s overarching theme. Some of these connections are obvious. Some of them are signaled by the voiceover narration and demarcated by the words that suddenly materialize in many of the scenes. Some of the connections, however, are subtle and only bear significance after playing later sections of the game.

The opening sequence of the game illustrates the web of interconnections that await you when you play the game. The first thing you see is the child holding Edith’s journal with the flowers in his hand. This child and Edith represent two layers of the story and the gameplay. The child’s hand and the cast on his hand represent one of the first visual connections between these two layers. As the player, one of your first actions will be to directly reach for the journal as the child, placing the hand in your direct field of vision.

As Edith’s point of view begins, you will walk toward the house and see a mailbox. One of your first actions in this part of the game will involve a prompt to open the mailbox, once again placing a hand in your direct field of vision. This time it’s Edith’s hand, and her right hand is covered by her sweater in a similar way that the child’s hand is covered by a cast. This visual echo of physical detail and physical movement creates an interesting bit of resonance between the two scenes.

This subtle visual connection is of course echoed at the end of the game as the relationship between that child and Edith becomes paramount. The relationship between these two hands is no longer inferred by the player but directly asserted by the story. Furthermore, those flowers we saw the child’s hands holding return at the end of the game after the big reveal, and now they are laid at the grave of Edith herself.

So, right there at the beginning of the game, the first thing you see as a player are striking visual images that capture the core themes that the game will go on to explore at length: death and the relationship between Edith and the family members that she can only communicate with through memory and the written word.

Another image you see straightaway on the path to the house is a large deer. You come upon this buck right in the middle of the path. The deer looks at you and then runs off into the woods. This visual encounter also introduces a major theme of animal life that runs throughout the game. Toward the middle of the game you play as Edith’s grandfather Sam, on a hunting trip with Edith’s mom, where the entire episode revolves around hunting a deer. Finally, one of the last sequences where Edith recounts the memory of her grandmother’s vision, there is an image of the same buck that Edith sees on the path at the beginning of the game. By this point in the game, this image echoes both the memory of the grandfather’s hunting trip and also the opening sequence of the game. This type of connection is direct and difficult to miss.

Some connections share a similar mechanism but are more subtle. For example, early in the game, you explore a brightly colored pink bathroom. One minor detail of this scene is a small rubber green frog sitting on the vanity beside the sink. If you have played through the rest of the stories, you know this foreshadows one of the most disturbing accounts in the entire game. The placement of this type of simple detail is one strand of the web of connections that makes the game feel rich and full. The first time I played the game I didn’t even really notice this little hopper; on my second time through, It’s all I could see when I walked into the room.

Whereas before, all I heard was thin narration and awful interior design; With eyes that had seen the rest of the Finch home and heard that part of the Finch story, now, that little water closet was fraught with background and loaded down with emotional weight.

4. The Blend of Gameplay with Story and Themes. 
Something that enhances the experiences of playing this game is the way the story and the themes blend with the gameplay mechanics. In each episode, you encounter different types of movements and gameplay elements that you have to figure out in order to move the game forward. These aren’t overly technical and none of the mechanics are difficult. However, they are different enough to make you concentrate.

As a player, by the time you figure out what you’re supposed to be doing with your controls to open a door, slide a hook, turn a crank, or grab a ladder or a tree branch, you’re already moving on to the next bit of the story. Typically, once you have figured out a transition mechanism, you trigger the next part of Edith’s voiceover narration.

In each story, you take the perspective of a different person at a different life stage. Sometimes you’re an infant, sometimes a child, sometimes a teenager, sometimes an elderly woman, and in one case, a collection of animals. The quick shifts to new characters give freshness to the story but also keep you engaged as a player. Though you essentially are simply walking through the Finch house for the duration of the game, it feels like a varied and wide-ranging journey.

These transitions are interesting, but it’s within the stories themselves that this feature truly comes into focus. In order for the story to continue, you as the player must set certain actions in motion. In each of the stories, the unique gameplay element blends into the account that is being enacted. This technique engages and draws you into the story.

This also feature showcases one of the ways that video games can tell stories that other mediums cannot: interactivity. You yourself are tasked with carrying the story along. Your movements have meaning, even if you are not changing the content of the story. The fact that you are participating in the forward momentum generates an effect and impacts the way you experience the story.

Sometimes this movement is delightful, and you do not want it to end. Sometimes this movement is disturbing, and you don’t want to have to do what you know you have to do to move the story along. Sometimes this movement is repetition, and you are not sure where it will lead to next. Sometimes this movement is confusing, and you are not quite sure where to go. Sometimes this movement is mesmerizing and monotonous, and you find yourself getting pulled into another dimension entirely. 

Let’s briefly look at the way story, theme, interconnections, and gameplay blend in one of these short stories. The first story Edith explores showcases some of this interplay and sets the expectations for the rest of the game. Up until this point, you have been exploring the outside and inside of the house, hearing Edith’s voice-over narration, but with Molly’s story, the game is on!

After Edith picks up Molly’s diary from years before, you immediately take on Molly’s point of view from that night, and hear the child’s voice. You’re now in the house years ago as Molly is in her room at bedtime. She’s hungry, looking for something to eat, and as she approaches the window, she sees a bird; Molly reaches out for her, and you hear her say, “And suddenly I was a cat!”

At this moment, you as the player have become the cat. You control the cat pouncing across the branches outside the house in pursuit of the bird; You get closer to the bird, but Molly’s narration draws you back into the uneasiness of her story. Is this Molly’s imagination, or is she really outside climbing the tree? She mentions that she was now in the big tree where her Dad had told her not to climb, but all she could think about was eating that momma bird.

As a player, this creates a baseline tension that shows up in each of the stories. Molly’s sweet narration clashes both with the fact that we know she dies at some point (does she fall? You might suspect other causes: does she die of hunger? Does she die of food poisoning?).

In the latter half of the dream sequence, the tension is caused by the sweet voiced narration and the violence of the actions, as Molly becomes hungrier and more willing to plunge in for the kill. As she says at one point later when she is eating a momma rabbit, “I started choking, but I couldn’t stop eating.” So as the cat gobbles up the bird and falls off the branch, Molly exclaims, “And suddenly, I was an owl!”

You then soar around for a bit, but then you must soon pounce and kill a rabbit. Then, suddenly you are rolling down a mountain as a shark. You finally plunge into the ocean; Now with a different set of controls, you must swim and hunt the seal and kill and eat it; you then turn into a slithering snake creature that now hunts, kills, and eats a boat full of sailors!

This feast does not satisfy Molly at this point though; she’s only more hungry; She smells something across the water, and you quickly realize that what the monster has smelled is Molly sleeping in her bed. The monster finds an opening through some pipes to enter her own bedroom through the bathroom toilet where Molly had just eaten the toothpaste. You’re now back in Molly’s room, where you slither over to her sleeping in bed. At this point she wakes up and the dream ends. As the nightmare ends, Molly finishes her diary entry recounting this vivid tale of a hungry child.

As Molly’s diary entry comes to a close, this becomes the seamless transition sequence back to Edith’s point of view, and you see Edith sketch Molly’s name, date of birth, and date of death in her journal. In this brief dream sequence, the player shifts gameplay mechanics several times, plays as several animals, and must quickly adjust to a variety of different moods and atmospheres. The entire sequence mimics the stream of consciousness of a dream state, with the underlying theme of hunger.

As you play these wildly different animals and scenes, you quickly try to figure out what ties them. You realize it’s eating and insatiable hunger: in each scene, Molly imagines that she is on the hunt for something to eat. Anything to eat. This of course echoes the opening scene before the dream starts.

This theme also anticipates a tension that features throughout each story and through the larger story as a whole. The sense that something is not quite right. On the one hand, Molly’s story is light hearted and enchanting. Rabbits, owls, animals, the outlandish dreams of a child. It’s all delightful and intoxicating.

But it’s also jarring as you play through the sequence and begin killing the prey; and as you think about this question, Why is Molly so hungry? Molly eats the gerbil food, the toothpaste in the bathroom, and plastic berries from the bathroom decorations. She’s hunting anything she can around her room. As she says, “I ate a lot of things that night.” Her door is also bolted shut. Why is she locked in her room? Why hasn’t she eaten? Why has her mom sent her to bed without dinner? 

Taken by itself at the beginning of the game’s story, these details might have a positive interpretation. The tragedy coming is an accident? There is nothing sinister here. Or is there? In light of the game’s continuation and Edith’s exploration of the rest of the house, we can see in Molly’s story the underpinnings of the deeper and darker themes that we will soon encounter in the game. Something is not quite right here. That much is for sure. But what is it? We need to keep exploring. Edith must keep going if she wants answers. And, now, at this point, you as the player must keep going if you want answers as well.

As Edith moves on, she exits Molly’s room by climbing out the same window that Molly climbed out in her dream. This is another visual connection. As she walks along the roof, she voices a memory about how her Mom never spoke of this particular tale, but that when they found a stray cat some time afterward, they named her “Molly.”

This window exit and bit of dialogue is a good example of how the game is constantly reminding you of the web of interconnections that you’re entangled in as you explore the Finch home. You move back and forth in time. Back and forth in Edith’s memory. And back and forth around the house as a player. The initial story about Molly prepares you as a player for the rest of the game. After playing this otherworldly section, you are ready for just about anything.

This blend of gameplay with the story and themes is memorable and easily one of my favorite parts of the game. I think this particular aspect is one of the ways that Edith Finch transcends other games in its category and leads into our final point.

5. The Lingering Effect of the Gaming Experience. 
The final reason why I think What Remains of Edith Finch won Best Game in 2018 is the lingering effect of the gaming experience.

In the final analysis, what remains of What Remains of Edith Finch is the effect it has on its players.

If you read user reviews of this game, you’ll typically read anecdotes. In addition to people talking about the game itself, you’ll also hear people telling about themselves. Something about the story of this game prompts players to tell their own stories.

First, they’ll tell about how they were playing the game and which parts impacted them the most. But, second, you will often hear them tell further stories about their own life. Something about playing through these stories evokes strong associations with the lives of the people playing the game.

This is no accident. It is through the (1) quality of the story, (2) the depth of the themes, (3) web of interconnections, and (4) the blend of gameplay that pulled these elements together that created this type of experience. This, of course, is the most subjective aspect of this whole discussion. Everyone experiences art and media differently. But, for many players, playing this game will be an experience that will linger with them.

It may at first seem like this is the case only because these stories are personable and various people will connect with different stories in unique or special ways. Perhaps a particular story will resonate strongly with someone. They experienced something just like that, for example.

While this is almost certainly true, again, I think that it is the carefully crafted story, gameplay, and the tight interconnected pattern of themes that has achieved this effect for most players. The game as a whole has a way of making these touchpoints with a wide variety of people but also drawing those experiences together into a shared experience for those who have played the game.

What Remains of Edith Finch allows you to explore the stubborn beauty of life and the relentless mystery of death with Edith as she seeks to understand the curse that seems to rest upon the Finch family. In her pursuit of meaning, you are drawn into the quest. You imperceptibly begin to ask these same questions yourself as you invariably detect touchpoints with certain aspects of the characters you encounter. How has death touched you? How have you responded? How do you grapple with this reality?

The message of the game is not overly didactic. Edith does provide a voiced narration at the end of the game that gives her perspective on the deaths that she has recounted. And, throughout the stories, she has made comments that have sought to make sense of all that she is remembering. However, as mentioned before, there is a meta-structure that bookends Edith’s point of view. The bulk of the gameplay and all of her voiced narration itself is one of the stories in her own journal.

This leaves you the player at the end of the game standing over Edith’s own gravestone, placing flowers at her grave, journal in hand. There you stand. The house, the graves, the story-world of the game in front of you. In your hands is the journal that contains a narrative framework that “houses” the memories and stories that are represented by the stones and structures before you. Edith’s point of view has given you an interpretive framework for understanding death, life, sorrow, grief, and the nature of endurance in the face of inexplicable hardship.

The drama of the final moments of the game’s narrative is this: “Will the child accept Edith’s answer? What will he make of her story?”

The genius of the game’s design is that these questions linger with you as well: What will you decide?

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Saber the Moment!

I recently stumbled across a forum where a guy was "explaining" that Darth Vader's "Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, director" wasn't a pun but a "word play."

First off, OED much?

Second, it's not only a pun, it's a double pun!

  1. "choke" (metaphorically experience a downfall // physically experience suffocation), and
  2.  on your "aspirations" (metaphorically, overreaching ambitions // physically, the breaths that one "aspirates")

Due to the force of Vader's double-coded discourse, I believe we should saber this particular moment in the film (and not sully its interpretation with ignorance of the nature and scope of paronomasia).

Side note: It's usually at this point of my disputation that my wife poses the question, "Is this really worth thinking about?"

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