Writing that Crosses the Spiritual Divide

(Cross-posted, with some light edits, from my 12 June 2018 guest post on the Speculative Faith blog.)

The conventional wisdom is that authors shouldn’t read reviews of our own work.

If the reviews are good, they can inflate already outsized egos, and if the reviews are bad, well — egos don’t always just deflate. A hot-air-balloon-sized ego, pierced by a bad review, might slowly settle into a mass of hard-to-wrangle canvas, but a smaller, more fragile ego might burst into shreds that are impossible to reassemble.

Nevertheless, some of us are drawn to reviews like moths to flame. If we’re lucky, the flame is a gentle candle and we just get singed if we get too close. If we’re unlucky, it’s a napalm-spewing flamethrower and we get terribly burned.

Sometimes we just get confused, as I was at two contrasting reviews of my novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds. First, an Amazon reviewer gave the novel three stars and noted that it was a “good story” with strong character development but was “a bit bible-preachy [sic] for [their] tastes in hard science fiction.” Then the first issue of the Lorehaven online magazine included a brief, positive review that warned those seeking discernment that the story “only briefly referenced Christianity.”

Same story. Bible-preachy. Only briefly referenced Christianity.

I think this illustrates the fact that every reader brings their own experiences, attitudes, and expectations to the stories they read. Orson Scott Card told us in his writing workshop that whatever we’ve written is not the story, because the real story is in the reader’s head — and what’s in your head when you read a story is different from what’s in another person’s head when they read the same story. You might agree on some points, but you’ll disagree on others, and that’s okay.

In the case of my novel, someone who was not used to reading about believers and faith in the context of hard science fiction was put off by it. I have no way to know whether that person is a believer who was just surprised or a nonbeliever who was repulsed, and that really doesn’t matter. Their reading of the text is just as valid as anyone else’s — including the Lorehaven reviewer who might have been looking for more overt Christian themes. Was that person disappointed not to find them, or just surprised? I have no way of knowing, and again it hardly matters because however they read the story was the right way, for them.

Same story. Different readers. Different results.

It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, about the message of the cross seeming foolish to the lost, but representing the very power of God to those of us who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18). Same message. Different audience. Vastly different results.

Even within the body of believers, though, we can differ in our interpretations of Scripture. How much more should we expect to differ in reading science fiction and fantasy stories?


My friend Keith Phillips (Colonel, USAF, Retired), with whom I served in the 4th Space Operations Squadron, showing off his copy of Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work? Is it foolish even to try? I hope not, because in this age of growing doubt and disbelief I believe that Christian ideals, values, and themes still have a place in literature and art, whether science fiction, fantasy, or more mundane creations. And not just Christian principles, but Christian characters belong in fantastical stories — even in technology-heavy hard science fiction — just as surely as Christian people belong in every profession.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Christian characters in these stories end up being caricatures more than characters, reflecting the authors’ preconceptions rather than being portrayed as individuals, as people. I’ve found this to be true in stories by believers and nonbelievers alike, and it was something I tried to avoid.

That is, I tried to cross the spiritual divide by including Christian characters where they’re not always found — and by representing them as individual people with their own virtues and flaws, and even with different attitudes toward and expressions of faith. Some talk about it, some hide it, some deny it. Some ignore it, some sneer at it, some question it. That seemed realistic to me, and above all I tried to make the story seem realistic.

And maybe those two contrasting reviews — too much Bible to some people, not that much to others — show that I struck the right balance after all.

If you’ve read the story, I’d love to know what you think! And if you haven’t read the story, then now you know a little more of what you might find in it.

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Angel Call

Sometimes you need an angel. Maybe a guardian angel, maybe an avenging angel. Maybe just someone who can step in to help in a touchy situation.

But how do you call that angel when you need them?

In the “harebrained scheme” department, I first thought about this a year or so ago, when I was at a local watering hole with some old office mates. Simply, I wondered whether bars, restaurants, and other “date night” kinds of places, or even stadiums, might install simple alert systems in their women’s restrooms. They might not rise to the level of being “panic buttons” — then again, they might.

Maybe these already exist in some places — I don’t go in the ladies’ rooms, so I wouldn’t know. But I only found a couple of references to restroom call buttons on the Interwebz, plus a recent article on panic buttons being given to housekeepers in Chicago hotels, so I get the impression that this isn’t a common accessory.

Anyway, the way I figured it, the button could send a discreet signal to the management (e.g., a light behind the bar at a pub, a security office in a stadium) so they could send someone to assess the situation and call for help, if needed. In general, it would be the same principle as the emergency telephone pylons installed on college campuses years ago, from which people can summon the campus police.


(Image from the Clemson University campus safety operations page.)

It seemed to me that something like that might be useful for ladies whose dates are becoming threatening, or who feel they’re being stalked. It might also be used by other women who see someone being abused but who aren’t prepared themselves for a confrontation.

It wouldn’t have to be limited to ladies’ rooms, but at the risk of being considered sexist I thought of it as primarily a ladies’ room addition because it seemed to me the need would be greater there than in a men’s room. Also, the potential problem of overuse and especially prank use (“crying wolf” or even trying to distract the management) would seem to be higher among men — and particularly young men.

Again, maybe this kind of “Angel Call” thing already exists. If not, I imagine it could be pretty simple to build and install — a one-to-one transmitter-to-receiver RF link would do the trick. Alternately, a wifi-and-app-based system, maybe like the “Rave Guardian” app, might be useful in large venues with multiple restrooms and a central security office (call it the “Staydium Safe” or somesuch).

Granted, I guess venues might not want to install something like that. Staff would have to be trained on how to deal with different possible situations — when to watch, when to speak, when to call the authorities, etc. — which could raise some liability issues. And since staff are there to do specific jobs, this kind of customer assistance would be “above and beyond.” Add in the difficulty of false reports, which might lead managers and workers to ignore the signals, and it might cause more problems than it solved.

Then again, it could be geared toward making certain nightspots “blind date safe.” In this age of Tindr and Match and eHarmony and whatnot, that might actually bring in a few customers.

I don’t know. It’s just another wacky idea.

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The Unsubtle Manipulation of Birthday Fundraisers

This past weekend, Facebook reminded me that my birthday is coming up* by suggesting that I set up a fundraiser for people to contribute to.

My answer to that is quite simple: No.

No, I will not ask you to donate to some cause on my birthday, even if it’s a cause I care deeply about and support myself. Why? Because I don’t think I’ve ever asked you to buy me a present for my birthday, so why would I ask you to spend money on my behalf for a charity?

The same goes for why I’m unlikely ever to support your birthday fundraiser, even if it’s a cause I might care about. Look at it this way: If I’m unlikely to buy you a birthday present, or even a birthday card — have I ever bought you a birthday present? — I’m not going to suddenly decide to spend money on your birthday just because you picked a charity fundraiser for it. And even if I usually get you a card or even a present, chances are I’d rather do that again.


(Image: “Charity,” by Nick Youngson, from Alpha Stock Images.)

I would never stop you from donating money somewhere for your birthday, or even from telling people that you’ve given your own money to help save the whales or save the seals or whatever. But this business of “here’s a cause that’s special to me, won’t you contribute to it on my behalf because it’s my birthday”? No, thank you.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s great that you want to support a charity. And if you have a cause that’s special to you, for which you’ve worked or to which you’ve donated throughout the year? Sure, tell me about it, and tell me why it’s important, and I might contribute. I might even help you recruit others to your cause. Not because it’s your birthday, but because it’s your cause. Tying it to your birthday just seems manipulative to me.

So I won’t do it. Even when it gets to be my birthday.

___
*Seems to come around once a year or so, and I’m okay with that.

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When Church is Less Like Home and More Like ‘a Home’

(Another sermonette, of sorts.)

We call it a “church home,” but sometimes it’s … not.

At least, not home like a family home: a somewhat secure and comfortable family place where we spend a portion of our time, sometimes relaxing and eating and pursuing interests that captivate us and other times doing housework and chores and routine maintenance. Not a home that is a central gathering place or a base of operations for the time when we’re not at school or the office or the gym or wherever.

No: too often it seems more like a “home,” a rest home, an assisted living facility where the good church people hang out with the good church people and do good-church-person things. At these rest-home churches, we don’t often look beyond the church walls to see what we can do to make the world a better place. (Stained-glass windows are hard to see through.)

We’re shut-ins, and too often we shut out the world.

That’s not universally true, of course (but so little is). Some churches function fairly effectively as temporary refuges, where believers can refresh themselves before going back out into work and life and service. Some churches, though, appear to be permanent refuges, strongholds against the world, as if Christ had said “take yourselves out of the world” instead of telling us to be “in the world, but not of it.”


Stained-glass windows can be beautiful, but they’re not easy to see through. (Image: The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral. NASA photo.)

In a similar vein, we may call it a church “family,” but sometimes it’s not. Many churches do have a family atmosphere in which believers support one another and help one another through crises — even if it is dysfunctional at times, it’s still a caring family that does the best it can. Sometimes, in some respects, it can be better than a real family; sometimes it can be far worse.

But we don’t often mean a family like real relations in a household, in which — if we do it right — we encourage one another to grow and reach for the dreams that drive us, in which we learn right and wrong and discover our talents in order to make our way out in the world. As a church, nurturing young believers into mature believers — making disciples — we don’t always do so with the intention of preparing them to serve and live out their faith outside the church, in the real world. Often our attention is turned inward, as if serving the church and the church family is the single most Holy-Spirit-approved way of glorifying God.

But Christ didn’t tell his Disciples to stay in Jerusalem and serve only each other. And Christ doesn’t tell us to stay in the church and serve only each other.

Lord, forgive me when I prefer to stay safe in the cloister instead of walking with you in the wider world.

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The Disciples Couldn’t Stay Gone

Consider this my Easter sermon….

As I usually do, I spent part of Holy Saturday yesterday thinking about the Disciples’ sadness and despair and fear after Jesus’s crucifixion. I don’t think any of them actually expected or even dared to hope for the resurrection on the third day, and I expect that all of them were in shock to varying degrees. After all, scripture says that they “left him and fled,” which was, if not a fulfillment, at least a representation of Zechariah 13:6-7 (which Matthew tells us Jesus quoted at the Last Supper).

And if anyone asks him, “What are these wounds between your hands?” then he shall answer, “The wounds I received in the house of my friends.”

“Awake, O sword, against My shepherd, against the man who is My associate,” says the Lord of Hosts. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered; I will turn My hand against the little ones….”

So yesterday I wondered what exactly the disciples did on that day of despair.

I imagine that some of them had relatives in Jerusalem or in the outlying areas, and sought refuge with them. Perhaps they went alone, or in twos and threes, but it’s unlikely they would have roamed or lodged together as a group that first day. I imagine that they stayed hidden for a time, and when it became clear they were not being pursued they became comfortable enough to venture out.

I imagine that when they ventured out they probably saw other Disciples here or there. I imagine them looking furtively around, perhaps afraid to signal or greet each other openly. They would recognize one another on sight, of course: not only because they had spent many months together and knew each other well, but because each of them would be marked by the hours he had spent in abject grief.

Resurrection
(Image: “Resurrection,” by fady habib, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

But they couldn’t stay gone. They came back together.

We are not told who came back first, or what order they came back in. We are told that at one point Thomas had not joined them yet. But the main lesson, again, is that they could not stay away.

We, like the Disciples, may flee from certain troubles, may hide away for a time before we feel safe venturing out, and may glance about and over our shoulders to see if we’re being pursued. But if we fall away, may we find our way back as the Disciples did — and find the courage to live our faith in the open again.

Amen.

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Where Are You on the Killing Continuum?

So, here’s another oddball idea.

It seems possible to me to illustrate people’s comfort level with deadly force along a continuum, ranging from the unwilling — people for whom taking another human life is completely anathema — to the needing, whose desire to murder their fellow human beings has blossomed into a deep-seated craving, an urge they must satisfy. We might characterize it as being a continuum between “nihilicide” and “omnicide,” between the refusal to kill anyone and the compulsion to kill anyone, if not exactly everyone.

The unwilling, or perhaps the refusers, would not, under any circumstances, pick up a deadly weapon to defend themselves or anyone else. It may be that they would prefer to be killed than to kill. The number of people in this category is probably fairly small, but the best thing about them is that they pose very little threat to anyone else. (Originally I thought they might pose absolutely no threat, but accidents happen, so … no intentional threat, anyway.)

Moving along from there would be people reluctant to apply deadly force, but who recognize that it might be necessary in some circumstances. The idea of killing makes them uneasy, perhaps enough that they would be unlikely to purchase weapons or seek training.

Next would be the willing — those who have thought through the mental process of what it would take to apply deadly force and have become somewhat used to the idea. They might prefer not to, but have steeled themselves to carry it out if need be, and may have gone through some specific training in that regard. I would think most law enforcement and military professionals would fall into this category.

When I posed this question in my newsletter — to which you can subscribe using the form in the top right — a friend suggested that the boundary between the reluctant and the willing might be home to the reluctantly willing. (Perhaps we might consider them the grudging.) They may have had some amount of training, maybe from prior military service or from civilian security or police work, but their willingness to kill may not be quite firm. It might be a matter of caution, or conscience, or uncertainty, or religious conviction; or it might be something they cannot quite articulate. (For the record, this describes my position on the continuum pretty well.)

Moving further along the killing continuum, though, we find more problematic cohorts, beginning with people wanting to kill: people who are not only comfortable with the idea of killing others but who consider it desirable (for whatever reason). The fact that we are not overrun with murderers indicates that this group is relatively small; however, the boundary between this group and the preceding groups can be somewhat porous. Some people may shift into this cohort temporarily, for example, driven by extreme situations, and may occupy it only for a short time (perhaps not even long enough to carry out an attempt).

Beyond them, though, as we approach the omnicide edge, is an even more extreme and far more dangerous cohort: the needing group. Whether it is a matter of obsession, or sadistic pleasure, or devaluation of others, or some other driving force, people in this group intend to kill and may never be satisfied until they have done so. Thankfully, the number of people with such psychopathy is also quite small.

The first question, as stated above, is where do you fall on such a continuum?


The Killing Continuum. Mathematically, it seems the probability of carrying out an attack using deadly force would approach zero on the “nihilicide” end and unity on the “omnicide” end.

Perhaps that continuum is too simple, though. For instance, a friend suggested that it may be possible to add another axis and turn it into a killing matrix, with willingness on the horizontal axis (as above) and some assessment of “rightness” on the vertical axis. The rightness axis might cover a range of attitudes about killing, from its being always wrong up through being right only in certain circumstances (e.g., self-defense, defense of others, preemptive defense) all the way up to seeing homicide as being unequivocally right. On such a matrix, for example, there may be a population of people “willing” to kill who nonetheless believe that homicide is never right. (In the interest of keeping this post from growing out of all proportion, I won’t attempt that expanded version; you are free to work on it as an exercise, though.)

I started thinking about this in terms of whether it may ever be possible to identify people on the increasing-probability end of the continuum — those wanting and even needing to kill. If we could zero in on their intentions and predict their actions, I wonder whether it may be possible to stop them before they succeeded or even to pull them back from the brink, to help them shed the need and the desire to kill before they tried to satisfy it. Another friend pointed out that it probably won’t ever be reliably possible to identify people like that — many of us are able to hide our baser instincts, after all, though most of our baser instincts don’t present threats to our fellows — and that even if we could, we might come to regret the level of totalitarianism that would produce.

So to me the question then becomes, after we consider where we fall on the continuum, whether any manner of societal pressures can prevent a person who wants to kill — or even who thinks they need to kill — from doing so. And, if there are mores and norms and beliefs to counter the urges that lead to such deeds, whether our society has the will to exert such pressures, or even to endorse them.

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Only 10 More Days to Volunteer for LIVE SLUSH

Want to have your novel submission evaluated LIVE and nearly in-person?

A couple of years ago I did a series of workshops at science fiction and fantasy conventions in which I did just that: gave direct personal feedback to participants who brought in material for review. Now Baen Books publisher Toni Weisskopf has agreed to join me while we put on a similar workshop, live over the Internet — if we can get enough volunteers!

Here’s the official announcement that went out a couple of weeks ago (emphasis added):

See and hear a recreation of Baen’s Slushmaster General’s Face-to-Face convention workshops, wherein actual slush manuscripts are considered and sorted out loud by real live Baen editors. The mysterious process is made clear. All we need are some volunteers! If you have a manuscript under consideration, just send us the submission number at e-editors@baen.com. If you have a new, completed manuscript you’d like to be considered, submit it now and e-mail us the submission number you receive. We will keep the names of the submitters anonymous in all cases. We need 10 volunteers by April 1 — no fooling! — and will livestream the session in May. If no one is brave enough to volunteer, we won’t do it. Stay tuned for details about how and when to watch!

So folks only have 10 more days to volunteer! If you want your manuscript included, send us a note to let us know — and if you know some writers you think would like to volunteer, please share this blog post and encourage them to sign up!

Thanks, and have an awesome day!

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An ‘Interstellar’ STEM Scholarship

No, it’s not a chance to study at the Vulcan Science Academy or anything, but it is a genuine $2500 scholarship sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop!

TVIW is now taking applications for its 2018 Scholarship Program, sponsored by Baen Books and Rob & Ruann Hampson. TVIW will award two undergraduate scholarships and one graduate scholarship. All scholarships are merit-based, and require applicants to complete an essay with the application.

Applicants for the undergraduate scholarships must be high school seniors in the southeast United States (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina Tennessee, or Virginia). They must be accepted to or enrolled in an accredited college or university, pursuing a degree in a STEM-related field. Applicants for the graduate scholarship must be full-time college or university students majoring in a STEM-related field, and seeking a STEM-related graduate degree.

You can learn more about the scholarships at this link. The deadline for all applications is May 15.

Share this out and spread the word!

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A Hard Teaching

I’ve come to think of responsibility as, at its most basic, the ability to respond. That presents a high bar to clear, in light of this hard teaching about following the example of Christ:

In carnal wisdom, in earthly wisdom, it is height of responsibility to take responsibility for your own actions. But in God’s economy, in God’s new world, we are called to take responsibility for what we did not do….

I need to think more about the implications of that.

Lord, help me to understand.

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The Pride of Doing

Pride sometimes gets a bad rap. Often its bad rap is deserved. But sometimes pride is important.

For those of us raised in the Christian or Jewish traditions, or even marginally aware of some of the Old Testament’s aphorisms, pride’s place as a “deadly sin” is solidified in the book of Proverbs:

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18)

That usage, as I interpret it, is related to hubris, i.e., excessive pride, the kind of pride that exudes from puffed-up ego rather than solid character. In contrast is a lesser degree of pride, the type that is useful and necessary to everyday life and especially important to success in everyday life: the pride of doing something well.

This is not the pride of being — being good, being smart, being beautiful, being talented — but the pride of accomplishing, the pride of making, creating, discovering. The pride of doing is the pride that derives from building up the world. The former pride, the pride of being, only builds up ourselves.

The pride of doing, and doing well, is vital. If we had no pride in our work, for instance, we wouldn’t show it to others for their evaluation, their approval, or especially their purchase. When we have worked diligently and produced something of which we are proud, our degree of pride is likely to be proportional to our work’s value — if we have judged it properly. Not that we don’t see the flaws in it, but that we are rightly proud of having produced something of quality. That is, we are more likely to receive recognition or compensation in the open market for work we are proud of than for work we disdain. It only makes sense that if we are not proud of what we have produced, chances are others may not find much value in it.


(Image: “Vulcan Forging the Thunderbolts of Jupiter,” by Rubens, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Working hard and producing something of which we can be proud, then, is an important component to being successful. It doesn’t guarantee success — nothing does — but we increase our chances of success if we judge our own work fairly and honestly and our level of pride reflects its value.

In truth, being able to distinguish between things that are shoddy — things of which we should not be proud — and things which are excellent — things of which we should be proud — is an important skill. Unfortunately, not everyone possesses that skill because the only way to develop it is to have enough pride in our work to show it to someone who will give us honest feedback about its strengths and weaknesses, and then to be willing to listen to the feedback and make adjustments.

In my professional life I regularly see the work of writers who seem unable to distinguish good work from bad as it pertains to their own results. Whether they make the distinction when it comes to others’ work, I have no idea; but like those who suffer from the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” these writers display inordinate amounts of self-confidence and pride, having produced relatively mediocre work. In contrast, many of my writer friends — even some of the most successful — are actually quite humble about their own work (even work of which they are justly proud).

So, pride of doing is important in that we want to produce things that make us proud; however, that pride should be informed, accurate, and truthful. Otherwise, our pride will go before our destruction, at least so far as our work is concerned.

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