The Christian and the Dreaded M – Some thoughts on mature video games

ImageWhile the Bible was written for us, it was definitely not written to us as a culture. This means that there are some things, especially in our entertainment-obsessed culture, that seem to be grey areas. One of the most well-known and disputed grey areas is the subject of video games, namely the more violent or mature ones. Since the Bible doesn’t have a commandment that says “Thou shalt not play M rated video games,” this requires some thought and study to decide what is acceptable to play and what is not in the life of a Christian.

First of all, when we decide what games are and aren’t acceptable, we have to realize that the ESRB was not sanctioned by God to be the standard for what we should and shouldn’t play. It isn’t perfect. When a game has the dreaded “M” in the lower right corner of the box, it should raise a red flag. However, that red flag should give pause for thought and deeper understanding of why the game is rated that way, rather than instantly forcing you to place the game back on the shelf (or more accurately, click the back button on Amazon). Rather than going by only what is on the back of the box, it’s best to do some research on the positive AND negative aspects of the game. (A great site for this is Plugged In, run by Focus On the Family, which gives bible-based, family-oriented reviews of all sorts of media.) Many M rated video games, much like R rated movies, have positive aspects to them that aren’t covered on that black and white rectangle. There have been plenty of games that most people will believe were mis-rated, whether the rating was too high or too low.

By contrast, we also need to understand that the media we take in can have an effect on the way we live and how we think. This isn’t necessarily always true, which is the reason why some mature video games can be found acceptable. But if you’re blatantly doing evil in “choice” style games such as Mass Effect, you may find yourself drifting towards those choices in real life; or if you’re endlessly mowing down civilians in an open world game like Grand Theft Auto, you may find yourself with violent tendencies, or more disturbingly, viewing the people around you only as targets. Yet, as I said, playing a violent video game will not necessarily make you a more violent person or decrease your value of human life. This is because of the biggest aspect of choosing appropriate media:

Know thine enemy. And in the case of any human, our biggest enemy is the sin that is with us from day one of our lives. It’s our master unless we trust Jesus for salvation, and it’s still a huge temptation afterwards. But, as Luke 16:13 tells us, we can’t serve two masters, because “…either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” If our goal in choosing “appropriate” media is focused on seeing how close we can get to the line of “this is sin, and this isn’t,” we’re probably not truly devoted to Jesus, and we’re really just desiring sin.

When you’re choosing your next game, think about the sins that you specifically struggle with. If you have a tendency towards anger or hatred, you should avoid games centered around violence. If you struggle with lust, don’t play games marked with sexual content. If you’re a former or current drug addict or alcoholic, avoid stirring up those desires with a game marked by “drug use” or “alcohol.” If you are susceptible to making video games your idol, you may not want to purchase any at all (or if you really must, buy ones that aren’t deep and immersive or addictive).

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When deciding whether to buy a game, you have to compare both the content of the game and your own maturity. If you think a game will cause you to have intelligent and wise thoughts, such as “Is it ever okay to use violence for a good cause? Was XYZ a good choice? Are lies acceptable in any situations?” then it may be a good choice to play that game. If it may not cause you to have thoughts as deep as those, but the thoughts it does cause are mostly innocent, a la “Whoa! That was awesome! What a cool explosion!” then you may want to consider getting another game, but it’s not necessarily a bad idea to get this one. However, depending on your maturity level, these thoughts can be a slippery slope to cruel-spirited ones like: “Hahahaha! Killing civilians is hilarious!”

However, there are some games that I believe Christians shouldn’t play, period. One of these types of games is the game that blatantly glorifies sin. Games like Grand Theft Auto fall into this category: namely, games that glorify violence, generally in the form of murder, against the likes of innocent civilians, cops, and rival gangs. …Which, of course, you commit in bulk. Desensitization to violence or death is real, and should and can be avoided at all costs. We’re made in the image of God, and life is precious. (It is worth noting, though, that this is very different from a game that has military or justified violence.) Games that depict grotesque, horrid or demonic-looking creatures or claim to show actual demons should also be avoided not only on the amount of scariness, which may or may not apply to you, but because of the dark, false spiritual content that is frequently attached. While there may be some Christians that are probably solid enough in their faith that they can easily pick apart the false religions in these kinds of games, they sure don’t live up to the standards of Philippians 4:8, because dark and disturbing images have a way of sticking in your head, and the twisted spirituality will likely come along for the ride.
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So, all in all, it would be unwise to say something along the lines of “I’m never ever going to play or buy any M rated games.” We have to remember the inherent imperfection in ratings, the effect a game’s content can have on our spirit, and our own maturity and susceptibilities. If you follow these guidelines and select games appropriate for yourself (or your children), these games can become useful for entertainment, stress relief or fellowship with others.

If you’re still a child, the odds are you are simply not able to accurately judge whether you’re mature enough to play certain games. This is why, even if your parents don’t force you to, you ought to continue to rely on them to make the final call on whether you should be allowed to buy the latest shoot-em-up. (After all, you may be just a tad bit biased.) If you’re a parent, don’t instantly drop the ball when you see that M on the box of the game your child is asking for. But, after you compare the game’s content with your child’s level of maturity, don’t be afraid to give either response to their request, even if it means they’ll be disappointed.

Like Wreck-It Ralph, we’ve gotta take it “one game at a time.”

Wait…Indie Metal Is A Thing? – “Assemble Dismantle Repair” Review

Assemble Dismantle Repair

Not to be confused with “Amadeus.”

It’s no secret that I have an affinity towards indie bands. While there may be a lot of less-than-interesting music to weed through, once you have, you find a goldmine of artistry, unhindered by producers or record labels. Independent metal band AmeDeus  (loosely translated from Latin as “Love of God,” or possibly “God of Love) is a definite example of that unhindered artistry, as shown with their latest EP, Assemble Dismantle Repairwith which they have definitely proven themselves worthy of a record deal.

Musically, this sixteen-minute, three track ride doesn’t let up in the slightest. (The tracks are aptly titled “Assemble,” “Dismantle” and “Repair.”) It hits you with grungy guitars from the beginning of “Assemble,” yet complements with almost solely clean vocals for the first 80 seconds, reminiscent of the style of Wolves At The Gate. However, when the screams kick in at 1:20, there’s a sense of raw emotion in contrast to the amount of cleans. The screams are not amazing, though they’re very similar to Mike Hranica’s from The Devil Wears Prada. Still, they’re decent, and as a result of the sparse use, I find myself excited for the next scream section.

The instruments of this band really have it all together. The solos and chords are very technical (which, contrary to popular belief, does not necessarily mean that it sounds good), and it works very well with the vocals. In stark contrast to bands like August Burns Red, breakdowns are also used sparsely, but when they’re used, they’re really, really good. Deliciously good. As in, you may grow a beard as a result. (Okay, maybe not.) The band doesn’t seem to follow much of a familiar structure (such as verse / chorus), but there are repeated sections so that you’re not completely lost. There are dueling harmonies and guitar licks aplenty, not to mention many other techniques I can’t name, that all sound extremely good.

Lyrically, these guys have written a masterpiece. In three tracks, it seems they have hit on many, if not most of the major points of the Gospel, most of it done through direct paraphrase of Scripture. “Assemble” tells the story of man’s fall, taken from Genesis 1-3. “Dismantle” shows man’s rebellion after being removed from Eden, inspired by 1 Corinthians 1:18-19. “Repair” tells about God’s sacrifice, and later, about how Satan will be removed from power and every knee will bow, taken from Revelation 1: 17-18, among other places.

Most bands who quote scripture, either directly or indirectly, come off dreadfully forced and cheesy. However, AmeDeus has managed to condense more scripture into a three-track metal EP than most worship bands do in an album, and still sound poetic and artistic. The lyrical influence of Oh, Sleeper is plentiful, as every lyric is from the perspective of one of three actors in the story: “Man,” referring to men individually or collectively, depending on the context, “Creator,” the voice and thoughts of God, and “Deceiver,” the voice of the serpent / Satan. (The band has helpfully provided lyrics on their Bandcamp page, including notations for different perspectives.)

Overall Opinion:

AmeDeus is definitely a band worth a listen. With Assemble… they’ve pulled off their own unique spin on the metal / metalcore genre, arguably better than many bands in the mainstream industry, Christian or secular. With musical artistry and excellent, scripture-based lyrics, this EP is definitely worth your money.

9.5 out of 10 stars.

Listen to / purchase the album for $3.00 here!

Identity Crisis – “Release The Panic” Review

Release The PanicOver the years, Red has floated in and out of that zone of Christian bands who are too hard to be called just rock, but aren’t really hard enough to be hard rock. Their debut, End Of Silencewas a gem, but their subsequent releases became increasingly generic. Before releasing their latest, Red promised a change in style, but whether they followed through is a topic of debate.

Musically, Release The Panic is fairly sub-par for the band. The singing is hasn’t changed much since the band’s inception, but goodness gracious, Michael Barnes’s screams have become awful! Rather than a unique, raw fry scream like End of Silence, or even his decent false chord scream from the previous two albums, it has been replaced with a lackluster yell / growl, which does NOT compliment his voice at all. His voice when singing is near perfect, which actually annoys me. I enjoy hearing the raw emotion of a singer’s voice, and it’s lost when there’s pitch correction, or when the singer sings different parts then edits them together, which seems to be the case here. I am a firm believer that the band should play the song through from start to finish when recording, rather than piecing it together.

But I digress.

The guitars and drumming, in general, have really not changed at all, which is frustrating considering the amount of change the fans (myself included) were hoping for. The differences that the band was referring to are not as apparent as they made it seem. The guitars sound grungier, but that’s about the extent of the change. The really strange thing is how split the album feels. There are heavy songs that are arguably heavier than anything Red has done before, yet the lighter songs sound like they’re made for K-Love. While some of these songs are good on their own, placing them all in the same album makes for a very strange listening experience. Unfortunately, Red has chosen to follow the stereotypical Christian rock formula for most of the songs, which consists of a sung chorus, screamed pre-chorus, and a screamed / sung chorus. While there are a few standout tracks, the music doesn’t stand up to any of Red’s previous records.

Lyrically, the songs are very generic. They cover most of the usual topics of Christian rock: Man is fallen, man needs help, man receives help. What’s worse is that there are very few references to God, blatant or vague. Not a great effort.

Best Tracks:

Despite the new screams, “Release The Panic” is still pretty good, especially the chorus.

While it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album AT ALL, “Die For You” is a pretty good song on its own.

“Hold Me Now” unfortunately is yet another ‘cry of desperation’ track, but is musically the best track on the album.

Weakest Tracks:

It’s hard to pick a weakest song from this album – not because they’re all good, but because most of them are mediocre.

However, I don’t like “Same Disease.” In addition to yet another song about brokenness, the song comes off as annoying.

Both of the remixes on the deluxe version are mediocre, and obvious attempts to cash in on the dubstep fad. (There’s a definite difference between the legitimate dubstep genre and the fad that it has become.)

Overall Opinion:

While I respect Red for trying to branch out, this album was probably their worst. I don’t think anyone would mind if they returned to their unique, post-grunge sound and refined it rather than changing heir sound dramatically. I doubt any of the musicians in this band were challenged at all during the recording of this album, which is what an artist should always stride for. Unless you’re a diehard Red fan, I’d recommend downloading the first three tracks and ignoring the rest. The best thing to come from this album? A re-release of “Breathe Into Me (Remix Acustica),” which was originally only found on the rare deluxe version of End Of Silence.

5 out of 10 stars.

High Expectations – “Vital” Review

anberlin_vital Anberlin has always been a good band, but when they created the album Cities, they became something brilliant. Their unique blend of alt-rock, synths and Stephen Christian’s unique vocals came together perfectly to make a positively amazing album. Then…there was New Surrender. It was still a decent album, but there was something missing. It was like the raw emotion of Cities wasn’t there anymore.

The explanation for this is that Aaron Sprinkle, the producer of Cities, did not produce New Surrender or the following album. When news broke last year that Anberlin was bringing him back as a producer, expectations were set high. REALLY high. As in, “could-this-album-ever-be-better-or-even-as-good-as-Cities?” high.

The answer is no. However, Vital comes pretty close.

When I put the CD in and was greeted with “Self-Starter,” I had mixed feelings, but I needed to remind myself that this album wasn’t Cities, it was Vital. The first thing I noticed was that Stephen Christian’s vocals have changed significantly. They’re still instantly recognizable, but some of his unique tone and pronunciation has been lost. This is not necessarily a bad thing – I know quite a few people who don’t like Anberlin because “the singer sounds weird.” (Their words, certainly not mine.) While I may not love the change in vocal style, it may not even be something that could be changed. Some singers sound very different later in their career than they did in the beginning.

In general, though, the album is very good musically. For the most part, Anberlin seems to have refined their unique, heavy alt-rock style rather than deviating from it. There are a few tracks that aren’t standard fare (“Other Side,” “Innocent”), but they work well in the flow of the album. My only disappointments: There’s a lack of synths throughout the album except for one or two synth-heavy songs, and a couple that include them, And the vocals are frequently put through a filter, which is not only annoying, but when used poorly, can destroy an album. It thankfully doesn’t here, but it does bother me.

Lyrics, though, are where Vital is weaker. Anberlin has never been terribly up-front with their Christianity, but Cities made references to it (including some very good ones in their masterpiece of a closer, “(*Fin)” ). However, Vital is not strong in this area. I have trouble finding much meaning in most of the songs. (This is why I wish that every CD and every MP3 download had a booklet explaining the meanings behind every song). There are still a couple of references to God, but not many. Some lyrics sometimes seem to (almost) go against what the band believes, like:

“Don’t we all want to be loved,
Don’t we all write our own songs,
Don’t we all learn right from wrong…” (“Modern Age”)

If Anberlin is a Christian band, it seems they would have chosen to end the song (or change it) with the idea that God is the writer of our lives, and something to reconcile the line about right and wrong. Ironically, the best lyrics come from “God, Drugs and Sex,” the song with the title that probably steered many people away from this album. However, it’s a great song. The lyrics are about how a relationship between a Christian and a non-Christian is destined not to work, and how God, drugs and sex just don’t mix.

Best Tracks:

“God, Drugs and Sex” is the best song on the album, easily. Featuring great vocals without noticable filters, a softer side of the instruments, and great lyrics, this is not a song to be missed.

“Someone Anyone” is like the “Hello Alone” of Vital – the similarities are instantly apparent. However, it’s a unique, synth-heavy rocker that I really enjoy.

“Self-Starter” (which happens to be the opening track), is another great rock track, though lacking in synths, but I hope Anberlin makes more songs like this.

I really love the music of “Modern Age;” it’s definitely the best on the album, but it does have the aforementioned lyrics problem, which kind of reduces my enjoyment of it. However, the music still (mostly) redeems this track. Because it’s really, really good music.

Weakest Tracks:

“Innocent” is okay lyrically, and okay musically. In fact, that’s the best word to describe this track: “okay.” It’s too synth / filter heavy for my tastes.

Weird, abrupt section changes, uninteresting lyrics, and unnecessary gang vocals make up “Desires.” This would have been better as a B-side track

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Overall Opinion:

Going into Vital, you simply cannot expect every aspect of Cities repeated over again (which I made the mistake of doing the first time I listened to it). While it definitely doesn’t surpass Cities on my list, it’s an easy #2 for the band, and it grew on me the more I listened to it. Despite its imperfections, this is still a great album and an easy recommendation for any fan of Anberlin or good rock music.

8.5 out of 10 stars.

Acoustic Music at its Best – “The Weight Of Glory” Review

ImageHeath McNease creates a very interesting, diverse kind of music. Taken from his site’s biography:

“Growing up, his mom gave him The Carpenters, Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles. His brothers gave him gangster rap. Classic rock, blues, and folk would eventually collide with his love for hip hop and…yes…musical theatre.”

Heath makes good hip-hop, but I’ve always been drawn more to his acoustic music, which has always been really good. In August of last year, he undertook a project of high expectations: an album based solely on the works of C.S. Lewis, entitled The Weight Of Glory.

Lyrically, this album is VERY good. I haven’t read many of C.S. Lewis’s books (only the Narnia books) but from what I can tell and from what people have told me, Heath does an excellent job summarizing the key points of Lewis’s books, into 3-4 minute songs, no less. I personally like the lyrics in “The Four Loves” and “Surprised By Joy.”

Musically, this album is even better. Heath has definitely found his niche in acoustic music. That’s not to say his hip-hop is bad, but his artistry is shown better through his acoustic music. The Weight of Glory only includes one song with rapping (“Mere Christianity”), where it does fit pretty well.

While Heath’s acoustic guitar and voice are the driving musical forces throughout the album, they are frequently accompanied by other instruments, such as the piano, tambourine, xylophone, synth and occasionally, a lightly distorted electric guitar. Each song is different in its arrangement, and it works extremely well. Only a few songs are below par for this album, and even they aren’t tracks you’d want to skip.

Heath’s voice is also top-notch. He’s got a great vocal range, singing high notes for songs like “Screwtape Letters” and “Surprised By Joy,” and singing lowly and intimately for “A Grief Observed” and “The World’s Last Night,” and a mix for most of the other songs, most notably the album’s closer, “The Weight Of Glory.” On only one song does his voice become unpleasant: “Edmund,” where there’s a frequent cry of “Edmund….” but it ends up sounding more like “Wuhhmuhhh….”

Best Songs:

“A Grief Observed” is a great track, featuring only Heath and his guitar, singing “Mercy on my soul…”

The incredibly catchy “The Problem of Pain” is unique lyrically, and is stuck in my head…a lot. Did I mention it’s catchy?

Weakest Songs:

“Edmund” has the aforementioned problem, plus it just doesn’t stand out that much. It’s the only track I skip.

“The Great Divorce” has a drum pattern that sounds a little strange, and a little too upbeat compared to the rest of the album. Still a good song, but not a great one.

Overall Opinion:

The Weight Of Glory is a great album. Anyone who is a fan of Heath McNease, C.S. Lewis or just good music should pick this up immediately. 9 out of 10 stars.

…which leads me to the best part. This album is 100% free to download from NoiseTrade.com or Heath’s BandCamp page, as are all but two of his other albums. If you like this one, I’d recommend downloading his older album, The House Always Wins, or if you’re interested in his hip-hop, The Nintendo Thumb Mixtape.

What Makes A “Christian” Band?

Music is an amazing gift. It can uplift us, it can sympathize with us, and it can tell us stories. Many bands are created by Christians, ranging stylistically from praise and worship to death metal. Yet, this question is asked of almost every band: “Is __________ a Christian band?” The truth is, there’s no one definition for a “Christian band.”

Many people have taken positions on what makes a band Christian, but I would consider a lot of them to be wrong. One interesting quote was made by Lacey Sturm of Flyleaf:

“I don’t know what you mean by a ‘Christian rock band.’ It’s hard to say that because people all have a different definition of what that means. If it means that we’re Christians, then, yeah, we’re Christians, but if a plumber’s a Christian, does that make him a ‘Christian plumber?’ I mean we’re not playing for Christians. We’re just playing honestly and that’s going to come out.”

A lot of people seem to have taken this idea to heart – similar comments can be found all over the internet. The problem is, Lacey’s comparing apples to oranges. When you call a plumber, you’re not asking him to do anything related to your mind or soul. It doesn’t affect your beliefs when he says: “Well, I unplugged your drain and toilet. That’ll be fifty bucks.” However, when you listen to music, something unique happens. The music transports you to the viewpoint of the songwriter, and if the music has a Christian message, that’s probably what you’ll be thinking about while you listen. The same is true for secular or even evil messages – your mind will dwell on those while you listen. (I would consider Flyleaf a Christian band – keep reading for why.)

Another popular viewpoint is that the idea of a “Christian band” is just silly. A frequent comment goes along the lines of “LOL. Christian band. When DC Talk died, it didn’t go to heaven.” This argument just doesn’t make sense, though. It’s attacking a position that doesn’t even exist. No one (I hope) thinks that bands have souls and go to heaven when they “die.”

The most frequent mistake people make, though, is when people over-label bands as Christian. Many people seem to assume that if a band puts out a mostly positive message and doesn’t cuss while doing it, then the only explanation is that it’s a Christian band. It REALLY irks me when someone labels a band Christian because they have one vaguely faith-related song, or one or two of their members are religious. Linkin Park is not Christian. Seriously.

So, how can you define the great line between secular and Christian music? (Underoath fans, see what I did there?) Like I said before, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition. Like many things, you just have to take it on a case by case basis. The main thing you have to look at are a band’s lyrics, which should show where the band’s heart is at. This is the best indicator, because it tells you what message the band really wants to get across. Not every chorus has to be shouting “HALLELUJAH, GLORY ON HIGH!”, but the way you judge a band’s Christianity is similar to the way you judge a person’s – the Gospel doesn’t have to be pouring out of their mouth constantly and awkwardly, but their life and words should show that that’s what they are truly centered around.

So, in the end, whether a band is Christian or not is really up to the interpretation of the listener. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or even bad to listen to non-Christian music. It’s fine for entertainment, or for a glimpse into what they believe, but if you’re looking for something to nourish your soul with, it’s best to listen to something that centers around the most positive message of all: the Gospel of Christ.