Saturday, June 28, 2008

Jefferson Scott's Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist

This is going to be a rather unusual review. I'm going to discuss a product I've been using: this is one of those little tools they sucker aspiring writers into buying because they're supposed to make us très awesomer...and I think I just decided Trace Awesomer is my new film noir detective name.

The product in question is Jefferson Scott's Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist, a system intended to help writers develop well-rounded characters. According to the website where it's available for sale,

Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist begins with a character center and then adds layers in a logical fashion, coming at character creation from a variety of angles--everything from how we perceive people in real life to how the character is (or isn't) impacted by the love of God. [more...]

As you can guess from that last bit, Scott is a Christian writer.

The system consists of three parts. The first part is a lengthy chart called the Character Creation Template, which asks a series of pointed questions about the character you are creating. They are good, sometimes challenging questions, and as the website promises, they come at the character from several angles and force the writer to think about the character in ways he may not have before. The chart is divided into several color-coded sections, twelve in all, that range from "Vital Statistics," including such basic info as name, age, and nationality, to such matters as "Interior Journey" and "What this Person Says and How S/He Says It," probably the most difficult section for me, which includes tough questions like, "How well can this person communicate an idea or story? If not understood the first time, how does s/he try to solve the miscommunication? Illustrate." Oh man, that's hard, especially since I don't know what a s/he is. Is that some kind of mutant?


After it's finished asking questions, each section of the chart demands a summary. The final sections demand a final summary, the composition of a definitive scene depicting the character, and a monologue.

Filling out the chart, Scott warns, takes approximately four hours per character, but I believe a thorough treatment actually takes around eight. I have found that filling out these charts is extremely taxing, partly because they challenge me to consider my characters in new ways and therefore demand a lot of imaginative input. In the process of completing the chart, I learn things I didn't previously know: for example, I'm currently designing a ten-year-old martial arts master with hypoglycemia; even though I already knew a good deal about him before, even though I already knew he had a romantic and melancholy nature and a pervading sense of inadequacy, when I began filling in data on the chart, it suddenly struck me that his life has been characterized by a complete absence of male friends or father figures, and suddenly I found myself exploring the implications of that. Had I not used Scott's system, I would have uncovered the importance of his relationships much more haphazardly, if at all.

The second part of the system is a set of pop psychology books the user will need to create the character, and which must be purchased separately. In his sales pitch, Scott only mentions one book, David Keirsey's Please Understand Me II, around which his character-creation system is structured. The book is a detailed description of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, which seem to have some faddish popularity. I'm not qualified to evaluate whether Keirsey's book is worth the paper it's printed on, or whether the Myers-Briggs system has any merit, but I admit that, so far, every time I dream up a personality for a work of fiction, I inevitably find that personality described with some exactness in one of the sixteen types outlined in Keirsey's book, even when I think the character is too larger-than-life to have a Myers-Briggs type.

When it comes to real life, I'm tempted to place personality-typing in the same category of junk science I place physiognomy and horoscopes, but as far as fiction goes, my only serious concern with Keirsey is his repeated insistence that these personality types are intact at birth and unchangeable. I find this unlikely, especially since the questions on his "Personality Sorter" are so vague, I could easily answer them differently on different days. A writer should give serious thought to how his characters change over time through the course of a story; the changes may be profound enough that even his personality type changes. The Myers-Briggs system might actually lend itself well to this, since there are four "core types" around which the sixteen types are built. If a character changes profoundly, such as by becoming more assertive and less reclusive over time, it might be a good idea to move him from one type to another while leaving his core type the same.

Scott doesn't mention it in the description of his product, but he uses two Christian works of pop psychology in his system as well, both of which the writer will need if he is to fully understand all the questions on the chart. The first of these Christian pop psych books is Gary Chapman's Five Love Languages. In filling out information on a character, Scott asks for a "primary" and "secondary love language." The writer would need to be at least remotely familiar with Chapman's work to understand what Scott means. Chapman's book has some flaws, but they appear to be outweighed by his insights, so it's not a bad idea to pick up a copy of this. However, rather than simply filling in the names of two of Chapman's "love languages" and moving on, it would probably be a better idea to give serious thought to how the character expresses and receives affection, and why. Since the major protagonists in the work I'm currently creating are all eleven and under, it feels a little weird to write about their "love languages," but The Five Love Languages often reads as if it were written to people eleven and under, so I figure it's okay. Besides, Chapman does have a chapter on children in the back of his book, which I found helpful.

It is probably best to use Chapman only loosely. Rather than merely marking down a love language for the character and moving on, I think it is worth the time to think in more concrete terms about how each character receives or shows affection. In doing so, I came to realize that a character may not necessarily prefer to receive and show affection in the same way. For example, one of the characters I'm designing, a pistol-packing fourth-grade girl, enjoys playing hostess, entertaining guests, and treating her friends to elaborate meals (in keeping with her ESFP "Artisan Performer" personality type), all of which Chapman would characterize as the "acts of service" love language. However, in considering the character, I realized she wasn't particularly interested in other people serving her, so I concluded that the "love language" with which she expresses herself, and the "love languages" (I'm beginning to hate that phrase) she prefers from others, are different. I distrust Christian pop-psych as a rule, but nonetheless, Chapman got me thinking about my characters in new ways.

Chapman's major deficiency is the same as Keirsey's. In the chapter on children, he appears to work from the assumption that "love language" is something a person is born with. The writer, however, should consider how life experience has shaped a person. For example, if his family was cold or even absent as he was growing up, a character may crave physical affection, or perhaps shy away from it. The writer should not only consider the character's attributes, but how the character developed those attributes. It would be a good idea to jot down some of that information in the "love language" space on Scott's chart.

Also, while I'm on the subject, I wish Chapman would either come to a final decision regarding the gender of my spouse or else stop writing in second person. As he writes, my hypothetical spouse keeps switching between him, her, him/her, and him or her. I feel like I'm married to Ranma.

The final book Scott uses is unfortunate and represents his only major flub. The book is Robert S. McGee's Search For Significance, which looks like an archetypal example of the kind of garbage that has done so much to reduce Evangelicalism from a real religion to a cosmic self-help seminar. Nonetheless, the questions on Scott's chart that draw from the book almost--almost--manage to make it useful. When Scott asks about the character's "wrong thinking" or "self-medication," he is essentially asking about self-reinforcing behaviors, about how the character rewards himself or treats himself when stressed, and about addiction. This is the section in the chart to explore a character's retreat into comfort food or comic books or alcohol, if he retreats into such things. Nonetheless, Scott's questions get off-base because he hews too closely to McGee: he asks, for example, "What is God's answer to that wrong thinking category?" and then presents four options, "justification, reconciliation, propitiation, or regeneration." The Catholic, of course, will scratch his head and wonder if those aren't more-or-less synonyms. Indeed they are, and in McGee's book, they essentially mean the same thing: talking yourself into believing you're fine and dandy no matter what you've done or what your life is like because you've received the alien righteousness of Christ. Though a writer might gain a little inspiration from McGee, using him too much could, I am convinced, harm an artistic work. McGee's solutions to "wrong thinking" mostly amount to flatulent pep talks that could be summarized as, "I'm fabulous, gorgeous, and darn it, Jesus likes me." If your characters' problems are that easy to solve, you're doing something wrong. Nonetheless, after skimming McGee to get an impression of what Scott is getting at in this section of the chart, I find it is quite easy to retool Scott's questions so they are meaningful.

The third part of Scott's system is a simple computer program called CharPick. Its major purpose, according to Scott, is to randomly generate basic information for walk-on or minor characters. So far, I have found little to no use for CharPick. The data generated by the program include such things as a Myers-Briggs personality profile, wealth, cultural heritage, place of origin, and a number of other factors. The program is customizable, but I haven't bothered; I find it more useful to simply open the chart and fill in the CharPick information myself without using the program. I tend to think it would be too much trouble to customize the program to randomly generate information that, more likely than not, I already know about the character anyway. Certain sections, such as "disability," aren't worth customizing. The hypoglycemia "disability" of my aforementioned underage martial-artist, for example, is not built into the program, so I would have to add it myself, but I have no intention of introducing more than one hypoglycemic character to the story, so there would be no point.

The only real drawback to Scott's system is an inevitable one: a chart is stagnant, but a character, or at least a central character, should not be. The chart, when finished, will be a very thorough examination of a character, but it will be a thorough examination of that character at a single point in time, probably when the story begins. If a writer wishes to explore how the character changes over time, it may be necessary to fill out the chart twice or thrice. Considering that it takes eight hours to fill out the chart, that sounds daunting, but at least it should go more quickly the second or third time around, since much of the information won't change.

My only other complaint is a minor one: Scott's Character Creation Template is color-coded, probably so the information can be found quickly and easily. However, I like to print mine after I'm finished. Because a finished chart, thoughtfully and thoroughly completed, will fill over twenty pages, that's a serious drain on an expensive color ink cartridge. I usually switch to black-and-white printing before printing the chart, which of course defeats the purpose of the color-coding.

The writer will, of course, get out of Scott's system what he puts into it. I recommend spending extra thought and time on those questions that seem the hardest to answer or the least interesting; after all, those are probably the aspects of the character you've thought about the least, and which are therefore most in need of development. I am finding the system useful, and it is encouraging me to learn things about my characters I likely wouldn't have learned otherwise. If you're an aspiring writer who wants a systematized way to develop and keep track of characters, Scott's Character Creation is worth considering.

But even though I'm finished, I can't quit until I point out that some sentences in Gary Chapman's Five Love Languages read uncannily like R&B lyrics. For example, Chapman writes, "One of you comes home and asks, on a scale of zero to ten, how is your love tank tonight?" (p. 140). Now just imagine that set to a well-dressed, sweaty beat:


On a scale of one to ten, baby--
(Ungh!--)
How's yo luv tank tonight?
(How's yo luv tank tonight?)
I said how's yo luv tank tonight?
(How's yo luv tank tonight?)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Back In Action

I see no particular reason to continue this hiatus. The short stories I needed to kick out the door have been soundly kicked, and the whole employment issue has been taken care of, so I suppose it's time to get back to blogging. However, I notice the hiatus has been remarkably good for both traffic and discussion, so I'm thinking I should shut up more often.

Tomorrow, I'll try to produce a rather unusual review. If I find I can't finish it to my satisfaction tomorrow, I'll produce it on Sunday. We'll also update the reading and watching sections in the sidebar.

Yes, I have a new job, which I acquired approximately one week after losing the old one. That may sound like swift turn-around to some readers, but I work in cultural resource management, where a degree and a little experience can land anyone a job within a week or less if he knows where to look. I should warn that it is summer, which is field season in my line of work, so even though the hiatus is over, posting may be sporadic in the near future, particularly over the next couple of weeks as I'm settling in.

Having the job is nice, but I am perhaps best pleased to have these stories out of the house, because that means my creative plate is clear and I can dedicate myself to researching for and producing a comic book script I've been thinking a lot about. No, sorry, I can't tell you about it.

Oh, you're wondering what cultural resource management is? Well, that's a government euphemism for a certain kind of archaeology. I have a flow chart here that explains it. I don't know who created this chart, so I hope he doesn't mind if I reproduce it. It is, I'm sorry to say, quite accurate:

Monday, June 23, 2008

June Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour



Dear Blog Tour members and visitors,

Thanks for stopping by. This blog is currently in the hiatus position while the proprietor is job-hunting and his co-bloggers are too lazy to do anything without his constant nagging. For that reason, we have not prepared appropriate content for this month's tour. Again. Yeah.

I am unable to discuss this month's novel (though this time, at least, I have a good excuse). The novel is Vanished by Kathryn Mackel, book 1 of the Christian Chiller Series.

Christian Chillers, as we all know, are plastic tubes of flavored ice with Bible verses printed on the packaging. Because the weather is now so hot, and because anyone can use a good Bible verse, we deeply regret our lack of familiarity with Christian Chillers. But I hear their grape flavor is totally righteous.

No, seriously, the novel is about a terrorist blowing up a weird bomb that sends part of a town into an alternate reality containing a creepy jungle and monsters, or something like that. Based on the description, it sounds as if it has some relationship with Robert Charles Wilson's Darwinia, Eric Flint's Ring of Fire series, maybe Roy Rockwood's On a Torn-Away World, and of course Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" (1953), which remains one of the all-time best sf short stories I have ever read. If I remember rightly, that story can be found in the anthology Tomorrow's Children.

Even better, since Vanished is a "Christian Chiller," that must mean it's a horror novel, so by reading it, you can participate in what Michael D. O'Brien in A Landscape With Dragons calls the "cult of horror," which is defiling the minds of our children, though why exactly O'Brien defines horror literature as a "cult" is unclear to me. (Sorry, but I had to throw this in.)

Even though we're unprepared for the Blog Tour, that's not to say that Christian sf hasn't been on our minds. Christian fiction is the subject of our recent essay, "Sheldonism," which went up just before the blog screeched to a halt. This essay is slated for a revision that will be heavily influenced by reader comments, so feel free to read it and offer your own thoughts.

Kathryn Mackel's blog can be found here. The novel's official website is here.

Also, of course, don't neglect the other members of our Blog Tour:

Brandon Barr
Justin Boyer
Jackie Castle
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Beth Goddard
Andrea Graham
Todd Michael Greene
Katie Hart
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Mike Lynch
Terri Main
Margaret
Shannon McNear
Melissa Meeks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Deena Peterson
Rachelle
Steve Rice
Ashley Rutherford
Mirtika or Mir's Here
Chawna Schroeder
Stuart Stockton
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Linda Wichman
Laura Williams
Timothy Wise

(And our final joke for this post, offered by Snuffles the Dragon from across the room: "Gee, I hope 'Christian Chillers' don't make people cold to the Gospel.")

Friday, June 20, 2008

Whither Documents?

In the course of doing what must be done during this time of transition, I fell despondent upon the discovery that two of my best papers from graduate school had disappeared from my documents. However, upon a diligent search of my musty and disorganized office space (a.k.a. one corner of the living room), I discovered the delinquent essays residing on a dusty, undated, and poorly labeled CD, complete and intact. So rejoice with me, for I have found my missing files.

Also, for reasons now obscure, I discovered on the same CD that I had copied out John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14, probably because I fancied it and for no other reason:

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hiatus

Due to circumstances beyond our control, the blog will be on hiatus until further notice.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sheldonism

Many Christian readers of sf, apparently feeling burned by the bad output for which explicitly Christian sf publishers have become famous, have drawn the conclusion that religious content in a work of fiction ought always to be slight, referenced only in delicate, tangential ways. Usually, in their support, they cite J.R.R. Tolkien's well-known dislike for religious allegory. I used to be in this crowd myself.

I have since moderated my views, mainly because of the many good books with explicit religious content. Anyone who lays a blanket condemnation on allegory or preaching will be at a loss to explain The Pilgrim's Progress, which is basically a collection of sermons and ham-fisted allegories as well as an acknowledged classic.

The problem with Christian sf is, I'm inclined to believe, more complex. First, it's possible that its badness has been exaggerated, as there are some decidedly talented authors writing in the field. Second, it's possible we have judged a fledgling sub-genre with the standards of a fully developed one: sf in its early days was largely literary tripe; standards of quality improved over time as the genre developed. Third, while religious content, in and of itself, will not ruin a story, the content of the religion in question might: I am inclined to believe that pop psychology-influenced Fundamentalism does not make a solid basis on which to build good fiction, yet it forms the basis of far too many Christian sf novels. Fourth, some authors may approach their fiction in the wrong way, forgetting that good fiction must begin with certain aims, the first of which is to tell an entertaining story. A Christian author who forgets that may fall prey to what I have decided to call Sheldonism, the belief that storytelling ought to serve no purpose other than to preach a Christian message.

Sheldonism, the bad new term I'm blatantly trying to coin, is the tendency to write like Charles Sheldon, or more accurately, write according to Sheldon's view on writing. Charles Sheldon, a Congregational pastor, advocate of the so-called Social Gospel, and novelist, was fond of telling extended parables, called sermon stories, to his congregation in place of a regular sermon (Smith 2007:201). Such stories would also be published. In His Steps, Sheldon's most famous novel, is a collection of such sermon-stories, preached in 1896 and subsequently published (Tanner 1999). In it, he presents the question that would later come to adorn key chains and tee-shirts, "What would Jesus do?" or WWJD for hip young people who, unlike me, are not acronym averse. Sheldon's gimmicky basis for Christian morality is well meaning but inadequate, mostly because it's vague and almost entirely subjective. Nonetheless,

The answers in the novel exude Social Gospel confidence, suggesting that any "genuine, honest, and enlightened Christian" could figure out what the Savior portrayed in the Gospels would do. Sheldon's characters come up with the answers with a good dose of sociological analysis and a minimum of biblical citation. [Lovin 2006:35]

Sheldon's novel was a bestseller even though it has no particular interest in entertainment per se and even though it keeps going for about a hundred pages after the story is over. Though Sheldon certainly lays it on thick, his prose and characters are interesting, and the plot, all things considered, isn't too bad. To the modern reader, the heavy focus on the Temperance Movement may seem quaint or naive, but the novel is of course a product of its time and doesn't deserve to be judged by Americans who live after the period of Prohibition, when alcohol is well regulated in both production and sale, when people no longer speak of a significant "whiskey lobby" in Congress, and when the western frontier and its associated alcohol abuse are in the distant past. Sheldon did not write of social evils from an arid academic post, either; he spent a good deal of time with people on the streets and became an early Civil Rights advocate after discovering that racism was causing the poverty of the Black population in Topeka, Kansas (Armstrong 2005:45).

In His Steps has something to say not only to Christians generally, but to a few specific occupations in particular: pastors who preach the word, newspapermen who can expose the roots of society's evils, and novelists who can potentially write inspiring stories are all featured in the book. It is not surprising that the novelist holds a special place, for, according to Smith, In His Steps is one of a number of Social Gospel novels that appeared during the Third Great Awakening, all of which were "self-consciously about print culture, making clear that founding the kingdom of God here on earth depends on making appropriate use of books and literacy" (2007:194). As Smith describes, some other books of the period such as Mary Augusta Ward's Robert Elsmere, which influenced Sheldon, or Wiston Churchill's Inside of the Cup, depict books, especially books of biblical criticism, as a means of salvation from orthodox Christianity, destroying the faith of the orthodox but rebuilding them as social reformers and truer followers of Jesus (2007:195-199). By contrast, though some describe Sheldon as a "liberal," and though he held, according to Smith, unorthodox views on certain matters such as the Virgin Birth (2007:199-200), his novel is shot through with supernaturalism. Nonetheless, it avoids getting mired in the theological debates between liberals and Fundamentalists. The wide popularity of the novel is probably due in part to this self-conscious ecumenicism; the denomination of the characters is ambiguous, and they spend no time discussing theological matters, which are clearly placed in a subordinate position to the matter of "what Jesus would do."

Rather than describing literature as a means of liberation from Christian doctrine as some of his contemporaries did, Sheldon prefers to limit its usefulness; the really important thing is whether any written work inspires people to be more Christlike. Anything else is a waste. In the same vein, Sheldon generally avoided serious theology because of "the irrelevance of doctrine to his practice-based religion" (Smith 2007:200), a way of thinking that still characterizes some strains of Evangelicalism. This dislike for doctrine may explain why Sheldon's famous ethic consists of four words that defy interpretation.

Admirable as Sheldon's philanthropy is--and the call to social action in In His Steps is still powerful and stinging--his novel breaks down precisely because of this lack of doctrine. What, exactly, would Jesus do? The question is always posed as an intensely personal one, one nobody can answer for anybody else, one that has no objective answer. The question becomes all but useless, "What do I think is the best thing to do?" with Jesus slapped onto it. When all is said and done and the novel is over, we find that every man did that which was right in his own eyes: it just happens that in Sheldon's world, every man is noble and self-sacrificing (except the novelist, but more on that in a moment). The book has good intentions, of course, but is as unrealistic as the more liberal Social Gospel novels to which it might be considered an antidote. In the real world, behavior stems from belief, and people work to shape the world to accord with their ideals. Noble ideals inspire noble behavior: a gracious god incarnate who offers stern threatenings and great comforts, who says, "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me," is an ideal from which a Christian can readily work to improve social conditions or do anything else worth doing. But if the Christian believes nothing specific about Jesus, or if he believes Jesus is nobody particularly special, he has no basis for saying what Jesus would do or not do, and no reason for wanting to imitate Jesus anyway. In the world of Charles Sheldon, every man gets his own personal Jesus, and not only that, he gets to be his own personal historical Jesus scholar: you too can redesign Jesus according to your preferences, just like Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan, no arduous classroom study required. In our own age, we can see what this has devolved into: our liberals champion improving the lot of the poor even as they advocate murdering people by the millions. There is no telling what awful things Jesus might do if everyone gets to invent Jesus for himself.

Sheldon's view on fiction is similar to his view of doctrine: it is useful only insofar as it serves a practical purpose, which is "eliciting powerful emotions, changing people's hearts and minds" (Smith 2007:201) so that they may serve the cause of the Social Gospel. This is the goal of In His Steps, and in that sense may be seen as similar in aim to Dominique Lapierre's City of Joy, though it lacks Lapierre's finesse. It is in his view of fiction that Sheldon's ideas become visibly self-contradictory. Even though he strains against judgmentalism and tries to keep the question of what Jesus would do a personal one, he condemns novelists who do not serve the Social Gospel; apparently, Sheldon knows exactly what Jesus would do if Jesus were in their shoes. As Smith puts it, "Sheldon did not think most authors met their obligations to make the world a better place, one Christian heart at a time" (2007:201).

This is clear in Sheldon's treatment of his novelist character in In His Steps. To lay out the situation, we have a talented novelist, Jasper, who is in love with a talented singer, Rachel. Both of them, along with the other central characters in the book, have pledged, for an entire year, to do nothing before pondering that famous question, WWJD? In the relationship between these two, Sheldon presents the classic (or perhaps cliched) motif of the sensitive, idealistic artist in love with a cold woman who spurns him, thereby inspiring him to starve in a garret while creating his masterpiece.* This is the motif, oft repeated in both fiction and real life, of which Dante's love for Beatrice is the most commonly cited--and extreme--example, and which George Bernard Shaw parodies in Man and Superman. Sheldon gives this familiar story an interesting twist by adding a spiritual dimension--which doesn't bode well for poor Jasper.

Two passages in the novel are of particular importance to this discussion. The first is the one in which Jasper openly proclaims his love for Rachel. He chooses a bad time for this, at least according to Rachel's clock. In the scene previous, Rachel had sung at a tent revival meeting, the Holy Spirit had swept through the tent, and many of the city's most destitute and besotted citizens had given their life to Christ and a future of betterment away from the bottle. Shortly after that, moved both by Rachel's singing and his own passion, Jasper reveals his heart. The quote is long, but please bear with me:


"Rachel," Jasper had said, and it was the first time he had ever spoken her name, "I never knew till to-night how much I loved you. Why should I try to conceal any longer what you have seen me look? You know I love you as my life. I can no longer hide it from you if I would."

The first intimation he had of a repulse was the trembling of Rachel's arm in his. She had allowed him to speak and had neither turned her face toward him nor away from him. She had looked straight on and her voice was sad but firm and quiet when she spoke.

"Why do you speak to me now? I cannot bear it--after what we have seen to-night."

"Why--what--" he had stammered and then was silent.

Rachel withdrew her arm from his but still walked near him. Then he had cried out with the anguish of one who begins to see a great loss facing him where he expected a great joy.

"Rachel! Do you not love me? Is not my love for you as sacred as anything in all of life itself?"

She had walked silent for a few steps after that. They passed a street lamp. Her face was pale and beautiful. He had made a movement to clutch her arm and she had moved a little farther from him.

"No," she had replied. "There was a time--I cannot answer for that--you should not have spoken to me--now."

...

Rachel went up to her room and faced her evening's experience with conflicting emotions. Had she ever loved Jasper Chase? Yes. No. One moment she felt that her life's happiness was at stake over the result of her action. Another, she had a strange feeling of relief that she had spoken as she had. There was one great, over-mastering feeling in her. The response of the wretched creatures in the tent to her singing, the swift, powerful, awesome presence of the Holy Spirit had affected her as never in all her life before. The moment Jasper had spoken her name and she realized that he was telling of his love she had felt a sudden revulsion for him, as if he should have respected the supernatural events they had just witnessed. She felt as if it was not the time to be absorbed in anything less than the divine glory of those conversions. [pp. 81-82]

Ouch. Apparently, in Sheldon's (or Rachel's) world, God and love occupy separate spheres that are not to be intermingled; to profess love shortly after a detectable movement of the Holy Spirit is to do something profane in the presence of something holy.

Personally, I much prefer the depiction of the spurned lover in Caryll Houselander. Says Houselander, Jesus himself can be seen--


In the lover who, with his own hands, has laid his heart bare and shown all the subtlest tenderness of his sensitive mind and all the holy secret of himself, only to be scorned or met with indifference. Is not he Christ stripped of His garments? All that is holy looks absurd; all that is beautiful looks ugly: all that is secret is violated. He stands and bleeds. [The Reed of God, p. 117]

In Houselander's view, then, it would actually be Jasper who in this scene most resembles Christ, who is doing WJWD, revealing his love and in return receiving a scourging, which is given on a religious pretext, no less. Alas, Sheldon sides with Rachel in this matter, and from this point forward, the depiction of Jasper, when he is mentioned at all, is negative. So it always goes for the idealist romantic.

Alas, how easily things go wrong!
A sigh too much, or a kiss too long,
And there follows a mist and a weeping rain,
And life is never the same again.

Rachel's "revulsion" for Jasper and her and the other characters' subsequent badmouthing of him behind his back (prefaced with "I don't like to judge him but") make a fine example of where Sheldon's vague ethic leads. Though supposedly free from judgmentalism, anyone who holds to this personalized moral code can immediately turn it around and use it to whip someone else. Because Jasper doesn't have the same personal spiritual or emotional experience at the tent meeting that Rachel has, she decides he is base and unspiritual. With no sound objective truths to which they can anchor themselves, the characters of the novel find anchor in their own sentiments and experiences, which can be cruel taskmasters, especially when they are used to rule someone else. Many, many Rachels can be found at emotion-driven Charismatic churches.

In the next passage to be cited, Sheldon dispenses with Jasper completely. I beg your pardon again for quoting at length:


Early one afternoon in August, after a day of refreshing coolness following a long period of heat, Jasper Chase walked to his window in the apartment house on the avenue and looked out.

On his desk lay a pile of manuscript. Since that evening when he had spoken to Rachel Winslow he had not met her. His singularly sensitive nature--sensitive to the point of extreme irritability when he was thwarted--served to thrust him into an isolation that was intensified by his habits as an author.

All through the heat of summer he had been writing. His book was nearly done now. He had thrown himself into its construction with a feverish strength that threatened at any moment to desert him and leave him helpless. He had not forgotten his pledge made with the other church members at First Church. It had forced itself upon his notice all through his writing, and ever since Rachel had said no to him, he had asked a thousand times, "Would Jesus do this? Would He write this story?" It was a social novel, written in a style that had proved popular. It had no purpose except to amuse. Its moral teaching was not bad, but neither was it Christian in any positive way. Jasper Chase knew that such a story would probably sell. He was conscious of powers in this way that the social world petted and admired. "What would Jesus do?" He felt that Jesus would never write such a book. The question obstruded on him at the most inopportune times. He became irascible over it. The standard of Jesus for an author was too ideal. Of course, Jesus would use His powers to produce something useful or helpful, or with a purpose. What was he, Jasper Chase, writing this novel for? Why, what nearly every writer wrote for--money, money, and fame as a writer. There was no secret with him that he was writng this new story with that object. He was not poor, and so had no great temptation to write for money. But he was urged on by his desire for fame as much as anything. He must write this kind of matter. But what would Jesus do? The question plagued him even more than Rachel's refusal. Was he going to break his promise? "Did the promise mean much after all?" he asked.

...

...he turned to his desk and began to write. When he had finished the last page of the last chapter of his book it was nearly dark. "What would Jesus do?" He had finally answered the queston by denying his Lord. It grew darker in his room. He had deliberately chosen hs course, urged on by disappointment and loss.

"But Jesus said unto him, no man having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God." [pp. 137-138]

Did you get that, novelists? What you care most about are money and fame. Even if your work is decent, if you don't write in any "positive" Christian way, then to hell with you. Literally. In Sheldon's "most famous work, the one unredeemed sin is not drinking, prostitution, or a life of crime, but instead the writing of conventional, popular society novels" (Smith 2007:206).

There's something faintly absurd in what Sheldon says about what Jesus would write. We know what Jesus would write: nothing, exactly what he did write. There is little purpose in asking what Jesus would have written had he been a novelist because Jesus was not a novelist. Jesus has left the novel-writing to us.

This is Sheldonism, a view of writing into which a Christian writer must not slip: fictional works should serve only the practical purpose of forwarding the Gospel, with no particular concern for entertainment or artistic quality. It is this kind of attitude that has probably done much to damage Christian fiction; a Christian writer who holds the presentation of his personal platform, or the theology of his church, as the goal of a novel, is almost certain to fall into the kind of poor, preachy writing for which Christian fiction has become infamous. The Christian writer who places sermonizing first and artistic concerns second or not at all, is in effect condemning art as a justifiable pursuit and beauty as a good. He is perverting beauty into a mere means of conveyance, one he can dispense with if he finds it inconvenient or too difficult to master.

Sheldon's viewpoint is somewhat understandable, though extreme; Smith hints that Sheldon was reacting to Aestheticism, which championed art for art's sake (2007:201), insisting that "all art is quite useless," as Oscar Wilde put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray. These two viewpoints, that art should be useless and that art should be useful but nothing else, can be considered two extremes that the Christian author would do well to avoid. Many of the poorer Christian works with their preachiness, flat characters, and unengaging plots, appear to fall into Sheldon's extreme, but now in reaction, many Christians are falling almost, but not quite, into the other extreme, insisting that good books will have at most only bare, nearly undetectable hints of religion. This is the other evil, the view that morals or religion are somehow ugly and that truly beautiful art has little or no concern for them. In reality, many books have proven that it is quite possible to create works of high artistic quality with religious meaning, even explicit and plain religious meaning.

However, though explicitly religious works of good quality are possible, this does not mean that every book must therefore be explicitly religious. We have no clear reason to think Jesus would condemn a novel in which the moral teaching is "not bad." If the moral teaching is not bad, then it is good and therefore does the very thing Sheldon thinks fiction should do, though such a book would not beat its readers about the head and shoulders with morality the way In His Steps does. Every book, whether the writer wills it or no, will teach something. Every novel has a moral element that may be good or bad, that may uplift the reader or drag him down. Oscar Wilde himself demonstrates this; in his relentless pursuit of art for art's sake, he somehow couldn't stop writing Christian morality tales. There is a use both for the good book without blatant Christian themes and the good book with blatant Christian themes. Each can do its readers some good, each can serve a noble purpose. The key to constructing each is careful craftsmanship that gives serious thought to the key elements of writing, like characters and conflicts. Outright preaching should be kept to a minimum for the same reason infodumps should be kept to a minimum, but if the author finds that either infodumps or sermons are absolutely necessary, they must be good infodumps or sermons, well constructed and provocative. The reason pop-psych Christian novels are bad is not because they're Christian, but because their sermons drone and have little real content. To be quite blunt, the explicit Christian novel needs more content than In His Steps if it is to be a work of art.

REFERENCES CITED

Armstrong, Chris
2005 "Holiness of Heart, Life, and Pen," Christian History and Biography 85:44-45.

Lovin, Robin.
2006 "Faith Matters." Christian Century 123.20:35.

Smith, Erin A.
2007 "'What Would Jesus Do?': The Social Gospel and the Literary Marketplace." Book History 10:193-221.

Tanner, Beccy
1999 "More than a century after he first asked his congregation 'What would Jesus do?' Charles Sheldon's book on the subject is one of the best-selling novels of all time." Wichita Eagle 16 June.


*Incidentally, I remember WWJD merchandise being popular when I was in high school. I used to interpret them as "We Want Jack Daniels" or "What Would Judas Do?" (My animosity toward acronyms has been life-long.) I also heard tell of a tee-shirt that read, "What Would Jesus Do for a Klondike Bar?" I stopped mocking WWJD when a young woman, on whom I had an overwhelming crush, rebuked me soundly. I subsequently retired to my garret, as was fitting, though I have yet to produce a masterpiece, probably because I haven't done too well on the starving part; after all, poets and horses should be fed, not overfed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Post Tomorrow

Research for what was supposed to be a short post has taken me into unexpected channels. Hopefully, I'll have this steadily growing essay posted tomorrow.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fan Fiction Update

Looks like it's about time to put up the sixth chapter (of nine) of my Bone-based fan fiction. This is sort of an overflow chapter, so to speak, created because chapter 5 hadn't had room for all the cliches I wanted to play with.

What will become of Bone and Thorn's monstrous offspring? Will Rictus Bone stop Phoney's mad plan to bathe the Valley in pointless bloodshed? What mysterious force drives the bones on their ill-advised mission? Will Fone Bone escape the dire predictions of Taneal's prophecy? Will Bartleby overcome his predatory urges? Will that conversation between Astynax and Thintook have a point, or was it thrown in for the author's own amusement? Will Annie and Dietrich manage an intriguing relationship or will they force the reader to wade through pages upon pages of leaden dialogue? All these questions and more not answered in chapter 6. Because if they were, we couldn't have three more chapters after that, could we?


Led by Phoney Bone, the army of ne'er-do-well Bonevillains draws closer to the Valley's border while, hot on their tail, Rictus and Annie Bone lead a copiously armed group of grizzled human soldiers. But, as these adventurers will soon learn, there are monsters in the deep desert east of Boneville. Some monsters are already there, waiting, but other, more terrible monsters are travelling with our heroes...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: Space Vulture



Am I allowed to get the main characters confused?

Space Vulture by Gary K. Wolf and Archbishop John J. Myers. Tor (New York): 2008. 333 pages. $24.95. ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-1852-7. ISBN-10: 0-7653-1852-0.

See the official homepage here.

Science fiction is, supposedly, always looking to the future, yet much of it has a curious nostalgic streak. In stories such as Joanna Russ's "My Boat" (1976) or Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty is Five" (1977), authors pine, not simply for yesteryear, but for the science fiction, fantasy, and adventure stories of yesteryear, for the adventure stories they innocently enjoyed as kids before they, and science fiction, grew up. A novel like Space Vulture, then, should be able to find an enthusiastic audience.

Gary K. Wolf and Archbishop John J. Myers first encountered science fiction in Anthony Gilmore's Space Hawk, a serialized adventure from the early thirties, and both claim the work created their interest in science fiction. Later in life, however, they returned to Space Hawk and discovered that it was much, much worse than they remembered. A great many enthusiasts can probably sympathize with this; a few years ago, I discovered that the book that first hooked me on sf, The City Beyond the Clouds, was not nearly as wonderful as my memory made it (though the prequel On a Torn-Away World wasn't half bad). Director Kevin Munroe once commented in an interview that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Speed Racer, when he experienced them as an adult, were not as good as he remembered. And of course William Goldman's Princess Bride is a novel based entirely around the disheartening discovery that a book loved in childhood may appear less impressive in adulthood.

Space Vulture is an attempt to create Space Hawk as it might have been if it were written better. The hero of the story is Marshall Victor Corsaire, who can be described as Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke stuffed into a silver jumpsuit and dropped into space. Corsaire is characterized by broad shoulders, a quick draw, and a strict moral code. As the story opens, he is hunting down a ne'er-do-well crook named Gil, but just as he finds his quarry, the infamous pirate Space Vulture sweeps in and captures Corsaire, Gil, and a hapless space colony. So the villain is a pirate but the hero's name is Corsaire. You got that?

To make a formulaic story very short, Space Vulture releases Gil, who ends up, against his will, babysitting a couple of boy geniuses who forcibly enlist him in their quest to find their missing mother, an adventure that gradually softens his heart. Corsaire escapes Space Vulture, gets captured again, escapes Space Vulture, gets captured again, and escapes Space Vulture again while finding time to develop a love interest and demonstrate his quick draw on some nefarious but expendable villains who happen along for the sole purpose of having quick draws demonstrated on them. Through it all, Wolf and Myers find cause to quote or paraphrase actual passages from Space Hawk, so they better hope that copyright has run out.

The real centerpiece of the novel is the titular villain. If a literary character can be said to chew the scenery, then Space Vulture devours it. It is clear that Wolf and Myers expect us to have the most fun with the bad guy in this novel, and we do. Long passages are dedicated to Space Vulture's superhuman good looks, his extravagant tastes in decor and diet, his dandyish clothing, and his extraordinary intelligence, in spite of which he makes all the classic Bond villain mistakes, including but not limited to killing messengers who bring bad news, toying with captive women, and failing to immediately murder an apprehended nemesis. And yes, as you see on the cover, he does carry a sword and raise one eyebrow.

Space Vulture is first and foremost a work of pulpy adventure fiction, and should be read in that light. It is PG-rated, featuring violence without carnage, seduction without sex, and, as Robert Louis Stevenson would put it, "pirates without oaths." It has a predictable plot, a touch of gross-out humor, and a habit of unnecessarily narrating the characters' thoughts, feelings, and life histories. It's a novel for people who like space pirates and ray guns. It will probably give many readers the impression it's intended for children, though the official website suggests otherwise. While reading it, however, I did get the impression that Wolf and Archbishop Myers were, shall we say, a little too eager to imitate their source material. The writing is not exactly first-rate (see the article at StarShipSofa for a good critique of the prose). Coupled with the poor writing is a certain carelessness in the story development: early on, for example, we learn of the high-tech processes Space Vulture uses to make himself superhuman. "Once begun, the processes could not be stopped," the book says, and "Once he entered this state, he could not be awakened" (p. 113). Later on, however, one of Space Vulture's minions interrupts the process to inform Space Vulture of an emergency. The inconsistency is minor and arguably unimportant in a novel this lighthearted, but it's still bothersome.

If we wish to understand Space Vulture, the story around the book is almost as important as the story within it. Wolf and Archbishop Myers grew up together and describe themselves as virtual brothers; in his preface, Archbishop Myers says, "My mother and father treated Gary as one of their own. His mother and father did the same for me" (p. 13). In their interview with BustedHalo, Wolf says, "I’m an only child, and John is as close to a brother as I have. And my mother treated him like her son." It is no surprise, then, that the novel contains a running meditation on brotherly love. The ne'er-do-well crook Gil thinks back on his mistreatment of his younger brother and the hero Corsair thinks back on the way his older brother mistreated him while the slightly annoying boy geniuses Eliot and Regin have a close, mutually supportive relationship, all gently conveying the idea that family members are supposed to take care of each other.

Although Space Vulture is not, according to its authors, a religious novel, there are a number of religious references. They would probably be less obvious if the word "Archbishop" weren't printed on the book's cover, but as it is, they stick out. A few characters off-handedly mention prayer and going to church, but the novel's moral and religious stance becomes most pointed when a character whose will is controlled by Space Vulture asks Corsaire to assist him in a suicide. This scene would probably work better if Corsaire's answer were somewhat sophisticated, but instead he ends up conveying little more than, "Gee, I don't like killing people if I don't have to." Of course, it would have been out of character if he suddenly launched into,

Man is made master of himself through his free will: wherefore he can lawfully dispose of himself as to those matters which pertain to this life, which is ruled by man's free will. But the passage from this life to another and happier one is subject not to man's free will but to the power of God. Hence it is not lawful for man to take his own life that he may pass to a happier life, nor that he may escape any unhappiness whatsoever to the present life, because the ultimate and most fearsome evil of this life is death, as the Philosopher states. Therefore to bring death upon oneself in order to escape the other afflictions of this life is to adopt a greater evil in order to avoid a lesser.

Still, I found myself thinking that if Wolf and Archbishop Myers were going to open that can of worms, they could at least address the issue in a complex or nuanced manner instead of offering a hero's queasiness coupled with a deus ex machina. The blog Toddled Dredge suggests that the "action is dictated by the external morality of the authors rather than growing naturally from a well-crafted character," and I'm inclined to agree.

On the whole, Space Vulture is entertaining, fun, nostalgic sf. It's a good summer read, exciting and family-friendly if imperfect. It's my hope that, with an archbishop's name on the cover, it might introduce sf to some Catholics who don't normally read it. Perhaps it may even introduce Catholicism to some who don't normally think about it.

Content Advisory: Contains action violence.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Space Vulture:

Myth Level: High (it's classic)

Quality: Medium (high on entertainment, a little sloppy on the writing)

Ethics/Religion: High (good clean fun, addresses some ethical issues in an unsuccessful but good-hearted way)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Metropolis and Science Fiction

The book review I have almost finished is taking a little longer to fact-check than I expected, so to tide you over for just a little longer, I recommend this thought-provoking little video, which will tie in nicely with a post Snuffles and I have planned for the near future.

Monday, June 9, 2008

StarShipSofa Interviews Ted Chiang

The site StarShipSofa has an audio interview with Ted Chiang, winner of multiple Nebula Awards, most recently for his novelette, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" in last year's September issue of F&SF.

You can hear the interview here.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Kung Fu Night! Kung Fu Panda



Wait...wasn't this already out this year? And wasn't it called The Forbidden Kingdom?

Kung Fu Panda, directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glen Berger. Starring Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and Angelina Jolie. Produced by Melissa Cobb. Dreamworks (2008). Rated PG. USCCB Rating is AI--General Patronage.

D.G.D.: I didn't quite know what to expect when we went in, but I was impressed with what I saw. It gets off to a slow start that made me worry that we were going to see incomprehensible action sequences like the ones in Arthur and the Invisibles, but midway through the movie, the excessively fancy camerawork settles down and focuses where it needs to.

Snuffles: Considering that it's a movie that is, more-or-less, about violence, it's also surprisingly wholesome. Other than a single guy-getting-hit-in-the-crotch joke, which is apparently obligatory in American animated films (P.S., Hollywood, it wasn't funny the first time, so it definitely isn't funny the five thousandth time), the humor is clean, refreshingly free of scatalogical references, and actually funny. I consider that a rare treat in an American "family" film.

D.G.D.: Let's get on to the plot summary--

Snuffles: Right. The story follows a panda, Po (Jack Black), who works in a noodle restaurant and dreams of becoming a great Kung fu master, just like his five heroes who live high above the valley in the Jade Palace. He gets his chance when the ancient sage Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) singles him out as the prophesied Dragon Warrior, destined to learn the secrets of the magical Dragon Scroll. This upsets Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who must train Po. Shifu devises various means of getting Po to quit, but Po survives on sheer determination and an apparent inability to experience injury.

D.G.D.: While that's going on, a former student of Shifu's, the evil and almost invincible Tai Lung (Ian McShane), escapes from a heavily guarded mountain prison and makes his way to the valley, determined to avenge himself on his old master and seize the Dragon Scroll for himself. Since Oogway, who previously defeated Tai Lung, has taken an ill-timed trip to heaven on a cloud of peach blossoms, Shifu's only hope is to train Po, as only the Dragon Warrior can possibly win against the apparently unbeatable enemy.

Snuffles: Watching a panda doing Kung fu really makes me wish someone would make a live-action Ranma 1/2 movie.

D.G.D.: Um...right. Anyway, I was skeptical about anthropomorphic animals doing Kung fu, but the martial arts sequences in the movie, though sometimes too over-the-top even for me, are pretty good. It's all bloodless to keep the rating down, but the action is fast-paced, exciting, and well-choreographed, if that's the right term to use for animated action. The script is quite funny even though it remains within the boundaries of the comfortable formulas.

Snuffles: I, however, take issue with the movie's moral message.

D.G.D.: You do? Why?

Snuffles: The message is, "Believe in yourself and you can do anything." That's the standard fall-back moral for Hollywood kid-friendly films. Now, there are certain things you can accomplish if you have self-confidence, such as public speaking, but this movie is about gravity-defying wire-fu. Besides that, Po the panda begins to learn Kung fu only after he discovers that, for him, the key to becoming a great warrior is his tendency to eat excessively. So the movie is telling us that if you just believe in yourself, you can defy gravity, and that your power lies in your tendency to eat excessively. I don't think that's a good message to send to American youth.

D.G.D.: Ah, c'mon.

Snuffles: Sorry, I don't believe in the message.

D.G.D.: Then ignore the message. It's a disposable message anyway. The really important thing is fuzzy animals kicking the snot out of each other.

Snuffles: Well, you do have a point. But I'm also annoyed at the way the movie delivers dumbed-down ancient Chinese wisdom. Someone actually says, "Today is a gift. That's why it's called the present."

D.G.D.: Yeah, I winced at that. I'm pretty sure I've seen it on a Crummy Church Sign. But that was a single terrible line in an hour and a half of movie, so I'm willing to forgive it. What I think is weird is the choice of voice talent. How many out-of-work voice actors are on the streets of L.A. because studios are casting big-name actors to voice cartoons? Who in his right mind hires Jackie Chan for voice work? And what is Angelina Jolie doing in this? Jack Black is pretty good as Po, and Dustin Hoffman is good as Shifu because Dustin Hoffman is good at everything, but the other choices for voices are bizarre.

Snuffles: Except the villain, Tai Lung.

D.G.D.: Ah, yes. Ian McShane's villain is good, but I hardly think that's McShane's fault. He's a menacing-looking character, his backstory is interesting, and his motive is unusually believable. He's a villain you can sympathize with and want to see defeated at the same time. But I don't think much credit for that goes to the voice actor. He doesn't have many lines.

Snuffles: That's it, then. Reasonably good family-friendly action cartoon. We mostly agree, for once.

D.G.D.: Except on the message part.

Snuffles: Oh, that's right. I guess you are still a moron.

Content Advisory: Contains cartoon action violence

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Kung Fu Panda:

Myth Level: Medium (the usual)

Quality: Medium-High (a well-made, reasonably well-written, highly entertaining film)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (nothing objectionable, weak but okay moral message)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Reading Survey at Critters.org

Critters, the on-line writing workshop, has a new survey on reading habits open to the public. The questions are too hard for me: they're questions like, "How many books do you read in a year?" I've never thought to count.

Friday, June 6, 2008

News from the Fish Bowl: Catholic League Protests Student Art

Zzzzz.... Wha...? Oh, somebody made some intentionally sacrilegious art? Well, that's big news. *Yawn*

Cooper Union, a school in New York, is hosting an exhibition of student artwork, which has the Catholic League upset, according to the Associated Press:

The target of the protest is a series of paintings by Felipe Baeza. One of them depicts a man with his pants down and a crucifix in his rectum. A Latin caption says, "The day I became a Catholic." Another painting shows rosaries with male genitalia, and a third a man with a halo and erection. [more...]
Poor Mr. Baeza must be hard-up for creative inspiration. Marian icons covered in elephant feces, crucifixes in urine, and now crucifixional sodomy...well, I'm bored.

After reading of Baeza's paintings, I asked the Deej for comment. He mused a while and then said, "The day I became a Catholic was a distinctly different experience from Mr. Baeza's."

Last time I read anything by a fantasy artist, he was complaining that his art school taught lousy modern art when he wanted to learn how to paint the real stuff, which he found he was free to do when he became a fantasy artist. Could it be, then, that genuinely talented artists are now taking refuge in commercial art? I don't know, but if you're bored like me, you can always get back the excitement with this.

Upcoming Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda

Sorry I've been away for a few days. One of the promised book reviews is underway, but events beyond my control have prevented me from completing it in a timely manner.

Specifically, one of my non-blog-related projects got me in recent legal trouble. It occurred to me a few weeks ago that everybody likes the smell of baking Tollhouse cookies, so I figured I could make a fair amount of cash by inventing a baking Tollhouse cookie-scented plug-in. The creation required a good deal of chemicals and equipment, of course, so the odors of my disastrous early attempts coupled with all the weird gadgets I was hauling in and out of the house convinced my neighbors I was running a meth lab.

The police arrived, confiscated my set-up, and took me and my roommates in for questioning. After examining my equipment, they discovered I was working with a chemical normally found in human gastric juices. As I explained to them, this chemical, which gives vomit its distinctive odor, is useful in fragrances because it can spread them rapidly through a large room. The officer interrogating me then suggested that I was, essentially, trying to replicate the smell of barfed-up cookies. I didn't think that was particularly funny, but the other policemen did. After two days, they suggested I label my new fragrance "Tossed Cookies," and then let me go.*

But now that my latest embarrassing ordeal is over, I'm ready to return to regular blogging. Snuffles, much to my surprise, is interested in seeing this movie, so we will be reviewing it together. And I will write that book review.

Yes, I made all that up.

Orphans of Chaos at Tor.com

If you haven't already signed up to receive free e-books and e-art at Tor.com, do it now. Right now. The free e-book this week is Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Follow-Up on Video Games

Previously, I put up a post linking to T. Joseph Marier's article on video games. Peter at With a Grain of Salt has written his own comments on the article. Peter doesn't think Marier is quite generous enough with MMORPG* games.

In the original article, a commenter says this:

The problem with Video Games is more their addictive quality than their story line. World of Warcraft has some great themes running throughout yet it is highly addictive. WoW (World of Warcraft) steals much from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy yet if you see a teenager blankly staring at his computer while trying to "level up" you would hardly say that this video game is innocuous. This look is VERY similar to someone on a gambling binge and it triggers the same part of the brain. Gambling isn't addicted to everyone but I know it does ruin some people lives. That is not say playing to much WoW will cause you to lose your house, but I wonder how many hours some of these people are putting in.
Marier responds as follows:

...I limited my commentary to non-MMPORG games for the reasons you brought up. I've never played 'em myself, being too stingy with my time, and with my money. I think you're right that MMPORGs tend to tap into the gambling portions of the brain, but I also think the problem is lessened with self-contained games because you're not competing for resources against real people (in other words, you're not gambling). When it comes to your larger point about addiction: I can't say that it's not a problem for others (and if anyone reading this is consistently neglecting family/work duties for ANY reason, then seek help). I don't think that videogames are by their nature destructive forces, though. I've done some other writing on that subject, so stay tuned. [more...]
Peter then responds on his blog:

It seems that Christians are determined to tread the "Oh dear it's something new we don't understand so lets shun it because it MIGHT be evil" path. Closely followed by the "See? Some nut case plays that game and so it is necessarily evil!" and concluding with "OK we can't actually prove that this game directly causes Satan worship or violent crime, even though we've tried VERY hard to do so, so at this point we will have to reluctantly refrain from publicly denouncing it. [more...]
I think Peter may be a little over-excited about Marier's comments, which appear to me to be cautious and reasonable. He admits little experience with MMORPGs, agrees that addiction (to anything) is something to avoid, insists video games are not "destructive forces," and implies that gamers should be appropriately abstemious with their favorite pastime. Incidentally, I think if Marier played some MMORPG games, he would find them similar to the Final Fantasy games he praises.

I have no idea whether video games (MMORPG or otherwise) tap into "gambling portions of the brain," but it is certainly possible for people to fritter away too much of their time with video games, comic books, sf novels, or blogging, and to take them too seriously. Anyone engaging in such activities ought to recognize this. Even if MMORPG-playing is a lot like gambling, that doesn't mean the games are forbidden; it merely means players should limit their playing to what is healthy. Here's what the Catholic Catechism says about gambling:


Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becomes an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant. [par. 2413, emphasis in original]
In other words, gambling is acceptable if it is moderate enough that it does not harm people or carry serious risk, and if it is not indulged in to the point of becoming an addiction. This can be reasonably extended to any number of other things, including MMORPGs.

*Another of those hated acronyms, but I think I can decipher this one. I already know an RPG is an acronym for the Russian name of a rocket launcher, but does not, as is commonly believed, stand for "rocket-propelled grenade." MMORPG in all likelihood stands for "My Mother Of a [Russian rocket launcher]." In other words, MMORPG represents a really, really big Russian rocket launcher. Games featuring MMORPG are undoubtedly quite violent, so Marier's hesitation regarding them is understandable. [Yes, I know it actually stands for Massive Multiplayer On-line Role-Playing Game, but you have to let me have my little jokes.]

Monday, June 2, 2008

Follow-Up

Some of you know that in my day job I'm an archaeologist. Field season has begun, and that means long hours for me, with the unfortunate side effect of giving me less time to post. Let me reassure you, however, that book reviews are coming: we have Space Vulture in the near future, and Snuffles and I have just finished reading and watching for a joint project we think you'll enjoy.

In the meantime, I will present a brief follow-up to yesterday's post, which included a lengthy quote from J. F. Bierlein's Parallel Myths. This quote, I believe, nicely captures the two major Christian viewpoints on mythology, which parallel the two major Christian viewpoints on fantasy literature. As Bierlein correctly notes, the divide here is not between liberal and conservative Christians. Both views are held by conservatives.

Readers might expect me to side entirely with the second viewpoint and to condemn the first one, but I don't intend to do so. It is my opinion, rather, that the two seemingly incompatible viewpoints need to be wedded. The first view is too fearful; it finds refuge in ignorance, and it cannot withstand close scrutiny of scripture, which reveals mythological borrowing. However, the second viewpoint is, at least potentially, too naïve. Comparative mythology and comparative religion have their uses, but they often stress similarity while ignoring important differences. In the realm of comparative mythology, for example, we have Joseph Campbell, who in The Hero with a Thousand Faces tries to cram everything into his Jungian interpretive scheme, including some things that won't fit.

The great sin of pluralism, which sometimes underlies comparative religious studies, is that it will not allow the religions to be the religions. It will not allow them to stand on their own as unique institutions with distinctive theologies. The problem with Jungians like Campbell is that they will not allow the myths to be the myths, which stand on their own with their distinctive characters, narratives, and meanings.

I think many Christians are guilty of something similar. It has become fashionable among Christians to imagine every hero in every story as an image of Christ, so every story, no matter what it's about, becomes a story about Jesus. This may be exciting at first, but eventually it will run into the same problem every other such interpretive scheme has; I once met a professor who expressed it something like this: "It's really exciting to read every story as a tale about men oppressing women or the rich oppressing the poor--for about five years. After that, you begin to wonder why you bother to read stories at all." If we read every story as a messianic parable, we may eventually begin to wonder the same thing. A well-rounded Christian way of interpreting stories, whatever it looks like, must be able not only to recognize parallels, but also differences. It must be able to point out good elements as well as deficiencies in a myth. It must be able to use the myths to show how Christianity fulfills universal human needs, but must also allow the myths to stand on their own as important stories in and of themselves. In must incorporate the positive aspects of the second viewpoint described by Bierlein, but must also recognize, as does the first viewpoint, that pagan myths are pagan.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Bierlein on Christians and Mythology



I recently finished J. F. Bierlein's Parallel Myths and found it a fine little introduction to comparative mythology. Of most interest to readers of The Sci Fi Catholic will probably be Bierlein's essay in the final chapter on the relationship between myth and the three major monotheistic religions. Bierlein relates the following:

Some years ago, I attended a Christian conference and had occasion to speak to two women with dramatically different reactions to their experience in the study of myth.

The first woman had nothing whatsoever good to say about myth or mythology. The subject matter, she pointed out, exalted false gods. For her, the study of myth was merely a "tool of the devil" in the hands of "secular humanists" in a wholesale effort to devalue Christianity and excise its influence from society. The study of myth caused her to doubt her own faith. She did not want her children to study mythology in the public schools. She had even gone so far as to throw out her books on the subject in order to make certain that her home, her children's minds, and her own mind would never be contaminated by them.

The second woman drew the opposite conclusion from her studies. Lest you think that she was a "liberal" Christian, a New Age adherent, or anything but orthodox in her beliefs, think again. She was from Alabama, the heart of the American Bible Belt, and described herself as "born again" and "spirit-filled" She could not even remotely be construed as a "secular humanist." She had just completed the third of three classes in comparative religion at her local university and was enthusiastic about the effects on her religious life. The parallels between the myths of distant cultures and the stories of the Bible intrigued her and led her to see her faith as the satisfaction of universal human needs. She was fascinated, not threatened, by parallel virgin births and resurrections. For her, these motifs persisted in myth--and were expressed in Christianity--because they are true. [pp. 308-309]