Tuesday, June 16, 2020

(M:tAs) Tradition Book: Celestial Chorus

Between this book and Reignofevil.com I think circa 2000 White Wolf may have been deep in its own cultural bubble. Christianity is a spent force and all the edgy young teens are into Satanism now. That's the only explanation I can think of for the "Why Would I Want to Play a Conservative Christian?" digression at the start of the Introduction. It asks us to take a good long look in the mirror and consider that we might be "prejudiced" against Christianity by associating it with "specious arguments that they tortured people in the Crusades or that they persecute people in today's society."

And look, I wasn't going to bring it up, but maybe I could direct you to the sidebar on page 75 which discusses homophobia and says, "Moderates are often too cowed by conservative elements in the Celestial Chorus to speak out." So yes, Introduction, you are right to point out that not all Choristers are conservative, or even Christian, but you're leaving out an important part of the story when you neglect to mention that those who aren't will have to tread on eggshells to avoid be harangued by those who are (not surprisingly, as a bisexual atheist ex-Mormon who lives in a 66% Trump county, this is kind of a . . . personal issue for me). That very same sidebar also takes pains to point out that "some of your players may have been at the receiving end of religious discrimination" and says "you shouldn't test your players' comfort levels without their permission," which is good advice generally, but also makes it kind of weird that the book scolded us for giving Christianity a "bum rap" as if we hadn't had a lifetime of experience navigating its expectations.

I suspect that a lot of this confusion comes from the fact that the year is 2001 and even a consciously gay-friendly company like White Wolf is still calling people "homosexuals" and framing queerness as an "issue" to be "debated." That's why the book can talk about "Queer Singers who aspire to lead the Chorus [having] to choose whether to stay in the closet or speak out" and not immediately see that it's an outrage of injustice.

Now, with that all said, I do, in fact, want to take the Introduction's advice and not tar all Christians with the same brush. But in doing so, I'm going to cut right to the heart of the book's greatest flaw - it's not nearly Christian enough. To give a rough benchmark, it's 100 pages long and there's not one explicit mention of the life, death, or teachings of Jesus Christ.

Not that I'd want to turn the book into a sermon or anything. It's just that if we're talking about Christianity, a tradition that dates back nearly 2000 years, spans every continent on the globe, and involves billions of people, both living and dead, maybe at some point you have to address the one thing they all have in common. But more to the point, once you start engaging with Christian ideas, you will inevitably start describing things in specific terms. That can be only to the good, because then you can start making choices about who the Choristers actually are and what you want them to be. Christianity as a whole has enough hidden corners, obscure doctrines, and bizarre folk theology to inspire dozens of potential Traditions.

As it stands, the Celestial Chorus was on both sides of every issue that ever divided Christian from Christian. They are both Roman Catholic and Orthodox, Calvinist and Lutheran, Puritans and Quakers. They were on both sides of the Albigensian Crusade. They are both Protestant Capitalist and Liberation theologians. They prosecuted the Inquisition and they were the heretics who burned in its fires. And through all of these conflicts, they never took a side.

Which is weird, you know. I wonder how this worked in practice. The boss of the whole Celestial Chorus would magically contact the Grand Inquisitor and say, "hey, maybe you could go easy on Bob, he's one of ours . . . oh, you already killed him? Oops. I guess accidents happen. It would be improper of me to sanction you in any way. That would be playing favorites."

I can't help but think that with a little more Christian theology, White Wolf could have made the Celestial Chorus into such a compelling faction that they wouldn't have needed an Introduction to try and shame us into liking them. If we'd seen a Chorus that consistently sided with the downtrodden, the enslaved, and the oppressed, which called out racism and sexism in its ranks and took seriously the idea that we're all just shards of The One, that would both give it a distinct identity and make it seem pretty damned cool.

I guess what we're left with is an examination of the Paradox of Tolerance. The Celestial Chorus' main idea is that all voices are equally precious and thus the only people to ever be excluded are the ones who never wanted to join in the first place. Perhaps the most amusing example of this is when a character tries to define "idolatry."
"The idols I'm talking about aren't just stone statues and the monotheism I mean isn't just saying that if you have many gods, you're wrong."
She goes on to make a fairly mainstream anti-materialist ethical argument, but it's a funny moment because the English language takes an absolute pummeling. The Celestial Chorus is so inclusive that it will accept you as an honorary monotheist, regardless of how many gods you actually believe in. And while you're not going to hear a word from me badmouthing the idea of being open-minded, this particular example is a benign manifestation of a deeper malady - they lack a vocabulary of exclusion short of labeling something "demonic" (even garden-variety racists are  "suspected of infernal leanings").

The upshot of this is that so long as an idea is not openly and nakedly evil, it must at least be entertained by a group discussion, no matter how antithetical it might seem to the Chorus' core beliefs So, polytheists can be monotheists and racism is "a symptom of the world's spiritual corruption," but "cultural chauvinism" is rampant. It's an incredibly toxic dynamic, but the authors don't notice because they're too busy reassuring the readers that these guys aren't the type of Christians who ban your favorite music and force you to go to church.

It's all probably a function of Revised Edition trying to make the Traditions do too much. The Celestial Chorus isn't just the Christian Tradition, it's the Jewish Tradition, and the backup Muslim Tradition, and the Tradition for non-Abrahamic monotheists who may have been grossly misrepresented by biased European ethnographers operating on a racist understanding of "paganism," but now White Wolf is bringing the game into the 21st century and recognizing that even orally-transmitted religions might have complex theological ideas. There's a seed here, an idea which might help bridge the gap. Maybe they really are people of different religions who share a common heresy and the Celestial Chorus is nothing more or less than "people who became universalists after they found out they had superpowers."

But if they are, they should probably kick out the Knights Templar.

One last weird thing is the three pages this book spares for discussing the True Faith merit. That was weird. True Faith lets you work miracles because of your faith in a deity. Mages can use magic because they believe strongly in their paradigm . . . in the Chorus' case, that's specifically a deity. What's the difference between faith and the uncommonly powerful beliefs that fuel magic? Um . . .

To Tradition Book: Celestial Chorus' credit, it does offer the suggestion that maybe Sleepers with True Faith should just be counted as mages, but it doesn't think much of the idea, saying that it "makes the game more internally contiguous" but it also "eliminates a wonderful little stumper." But . . . but, it's only a "stumper" when you ponder why two things with the exact same meaning have separate mechanical expressions. Let's just say it's a thing that bugs me and move on.

Overall, I'd say that Tradition Book: Celestial Chorus is a workhorse of a book. Less inspired than its 2e counterpart, but also less out on a limb (most of the sample characters were even Christian this time). There were two or three paragraphs at the beginning which annoyed me, but even then they weren't wrong so much as "trying to win a decades-old flamewar nobody can now remember." It's biggest flaw is that it tries to please every possible Celestial Chorus constituency and winds up being kind of bland as a result.

Ukss Contribution: Justice Blades. Each one is forged for a specific crime. The will cut the shit out of the guilty, but be dull and useless against the innocent. Not sure how I'm going to cope with a technology that will allow for the unambiguous identification of criminals, but I'm sure I'll think of something.

1 comment:

  1. Each Justice Blade could be forged for a specific offense instead of a general offense; i.e., this blade cuts they who murdered Bob, rather than anyone who murdered. This way, you don't have a Justice Blade of Treason used as a permission of entry into the capital building or something.