Monthly Archives: October 2014

How to Get Pluto Back as a Planet

I should begin by saying that I don’t think the International Astronomical Union should actually change their minds about what qualifies as a planet. I have never been on that side. I have a solution that gets around that problem entirely.

Here’s the conflict as I see it; astronomers and non-astronomers mean different things by the word “planet.” Astronomers have always meant “a large object that directly orbits a star,” but until recently didn’t have a clear dividing line between what is large enough to be considered a planet, and what isn’t. This was actually a big problem, because scientists need precise definitions. When somebody says, “I discovered a new planet,” they need a clear, standardized definition of what that means, so they can make predictions from that statement. They need to be able to apply statements about planets to everything that is called planets. When one scientist says, “I learned this new thing about planets,” the other scientists listening need to know exactly what the first scientist meant, so when they run off to try to disprove the new thing, they are actually disproving the same thing that the first scientist studied.

Non-astronomers, on the other hand, pretty much meant, “one of those things in our Solar System that I care about.” After all, who learns about the dwarf planets in elementary school? How many know the name of an asteroid, or a moon that isn’t ours, or a comet that isn’t Halley’s? How many people know the name of a star? We like outer space, in theory, but we also don’t have much to do with it. The planets were like little glowing ambassadors, close enough to home to be comfortable and familiar but distant and exotic enough to inspire the imagination. Even for people more literate about astronomy, for so many the planets were the first things they learned about, the gateway drug to a world of gloriously unprofitable contemplation of the heavens. We love the planets. Pluto, in particular, got to be the little brother at the end of the line. He’s popular for the same reason that everybody loves the runt in a litter of puppies. He’s a little different and really cute. Being told that he wasn’t a planet felt like being told to forget about him, and we didn’t want to do that.
So how do we reconcile these two different definitions? Simple. We don’t have to. After all, you’ve probably heard that tomatoes are fruit, but do you ever actually call them that? Not unless you’re a botanist talking about them in a scientific context. They are only fruit by the scientific definition, “part of a plant’s reproductive system that includes and contains the seeds.” In everyday English, we don’t care about which part of the plant a tomato is, we care about whether we can eat it and how it tastes, and it doesn’t taste sugary enough for the word fruit, so we call it a vegetable.

That’s not even the beginning of examples. Practically every science has some term that they use in a sense that is either more precise or completely different from how it is used in everyday English. These words are different because they serve different purposes in different contexts. Biology; koalas are marsupials, but sometimes we call them koala bears because they look like teddies, and glass snakes are part of the lizard suborder, but we call them snakes because seriously, they look exactly like snakes. Chemistry; an element is a pure substance made of only one type of atom, but it has half a dozen other everyday definitions, including “a part of something else,” “a natural habitat,” and “something the benders can manipulate on Avatar; the Last Airbender.” Sociology; did you know Americans don’t live in a democracy? A democracy is a system of government where the people directly vote on decisions. We only elect the people who vote on decisions but are rarely directly involved in those decisions themselves. That makes us a republic. Except, once again, everyday language blurs the line between republic and democracy and we use the two interchangeably.

So why is it that when it comes to planets, we are all sitting around waiting for scientists to change their technical language before we adjust our everyday, cultural language? Scientific words aren’t actually any more “real” than other words. They are just words. They are a way to communicate an idea to another person very quickly. Astronomers picked a jargonistic definition that worked for them, and that’s fine, they needed to do that, but we, as a culture, can come to our own decision about what the word means in the world of colloquial language.

I can think of two ways to do this. Number one, we just decide that we will continue to consider Pluto a planet. Pluto is a part of our history. We really like Pluto. Or, if you prefer, Pluto is culturally significant to us; culturally significant is just a way to say “we really like it” but with three extra syllables. This is probably the simplest route. In a sense, people are already doing it, the only change would be that anybody who is writing angry letters to the IAU can stop now.

The second method is a little more complicated, but personally I prefer it and it’s going to be the one I push for. We decide that dwarf planets are still basically planets. Pluto is a planet, and so is Eris, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake. The IAU didn’t subtract a planet, they added four more! I’ve been reading up on the dwarf planets lately, and they’re no less likeable than Mercury, Venus or Neptune. Take Ceres. She’s the only known dwarf planet (or, you know, planet) in the asteroid belt, and also the smallest planet. Back in 1801, she was discovered, labeled a regular planet, and then straddled the line between asteroid and planet for about fifty years, before being officially dropped from textbooks. So if you think Pluto’s story is sad, think about Ceres, forgotten and lonely for over a century and a half.

Ultimately, though, it won’t be me making that decision. Cultural decisions are made collectively. We decide which words we use and how we use them. We create their meanings. If we decide we like a little trans-Neptunian ball of rock and ice enough to call it a planet (colloquially speaking) then we’re the only ones stopping ourselves from doing just that.


Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Seventeen

In this chapter, Screwtape describes to Wormwood a trick he calls the Same Old Thing. Humans naturally exist in a state of intermingled change and stability, and that is natural. We exist in a rhythm of the familiar and the novel, and because that is part of life, “the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since he does  not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence.”

The demonic practice, therefore, is to take the love of change and turn it into a horror of anything that is too familiar, a constant demand for things to be altered and updated. When I read that as a kid, I thought it was a very profound point that Lewis was making. Now, I don’t exactly disagree that too much focus on change can be unhealthy, but I also notice a strange omission. Screwtape says that humans are made to love both change and permanence, and it has been established that demons can twist all sorts of natural pleasures into an excessive obsession, so why isn’t he also instructing Wormwood on the use of the the Comfortable Old Thing? Why isn’t he talking about people who don’t want to challenge themselves, or mature, or let go of old prejudices and increase the level of equality in the world, because that would mean change and change is scary? You only have to look around to see that this is also a common flaw of human nature, but Screwtape never brings it up.

This omission becomes even stranger as he describes the social ills that the fear of the Same Old Thing brings on.

“We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding.’ Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.”

I think all of that is valid criticism. Often the vice that is most feared is the one that is least present. The family that fears seeming dysfunctional becomes full of Stepford Smilers. The person who fears seeming controlling is the passive doormat. The culture that despises sissies teaches a repressed, stifling machismo. But once again, I think it’s foolish to put all the blame for that on those who are forward thinking and fashion obsessed. Sometimes the attitude at fault is the one that says “this is the way things have always been, and it’s the way things should be,” ignoring the fact that they are lashing out against constructive or even benign changes, simply because they are different.

Screwtape’s final application of the Same Old Thing is to make sure people, when considering their choices, think not about whether a particular course of action is good or sensible, but whether it is in line with progress and the future.

“Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ then they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are of course, unanswerable, for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make… We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain-not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”

Again, it’s not a bad point, so far as it goes. I tend to be someone who thinks a good deal about the future, and I hang out a lot with people who are preoccupied with making the future more fair, more egalitarian, more liberal. And even while I support these values, I’ve sometimes had conversations where I slap my head, usually because I am talking to someone who has gotten so wrapped up with whether or not a particular idea is in line with forward-thinking philosophy than whether it’s actually good. I am thinking of someone who once chewed me out for referring to someone, approvingly, as “self-disciplined.” He thought I shouldn’t use that word because it was a conservative value, nevermind that it’s still often an objectively good thing to be. But if I may make the same point for a third time, this flaw cuts both ways. Obsessively consulting the past is reasoning as flawed as constantly forecasting the future. There is a reason things have changed over time. Sometimes the past was bad, and we changed because we figured out a way to make it better.

Back when I was reviewing Chapter Nineteen, I talked about how Screwtape objectifies women, when that doesn’t actually fit his motivations and psychology. He wants to use everyone’s basic humanity against them, yes, but he’s aware of everyone as a person with desires and the capacity to take action. The whole point of his role as a tempter is to be aware of everyone’s needs and fears and desires, so he can make use of them, and so it would be actively detrimental for him to ignore the role women have as agents, in the use and misuse of their own sexuality. The way he talked made it clear that Lewis was speaking through him. This is another chapter where he comes across as a puppet, rather than a character. I can see Lewis moving Screwtape’s mouth, bobbing his head, and making Screwtape decry the flaws of liberal, forward thinking groups Lewis dislikes while completely ignoring more conservative groups that Lewis supports. This doesn’t invalidate his points, but it does weaken his message.

What To Do When All Your Characters Are White

Or perhaps I should call this one what I do when I realize all my protagonists are white. Nah, that’s less catchy, but I’ll clarify now that this is what I do. I’m hardly a Multicultural Writing Expert. These are the tricks I use for the kind of writing I tend to do. I’m putting them up here in part because I think others might find them helpful, and in part because I’m hoping other people will have some more ideas that I might find useful.

I should also go into a little bit into my rationale for caring in the first place, because that has a huge bearing on my process. I belong to the school of thought that says that stories play a role in how we form our ideas about the world around us. If those stories all have white protagonists and only have people of color as villains and one dimensional tertiary colors, that helps bolster racist ways of seeing the world, while being accustomed to hearing all sorts of stories told about people of all races makes racism untenable. I believe the stories we tell have more power to change minds than all the workplace mandated sensitivity trainings, for the simple reason that people come to stories open hearted, while they go through workshops watching the clock for a chance to escape. However, I believe that for stories to have their full impact, they must be believed. To be believed, they must feel real. For that reason, I think painstakingly ensuring every story has one black person, one Asian person, one Native American person, and so on is ineffective. At one point that approach was a step forward, but these days its just cloying and obvious, and nearly as easy for the audience to dismiss as those sensitivity trainings. Stories should not feel like I deigned to put some POC characters in, or like I grudgingly chopped out a space for them in deference to political correctness. Those should feel natural, so the audience hardly notices they are there. One day, we should get to a point where lacking diversity is as jarring and noticeable to readers as having diversity was to readers fifty years ago.

1. Think about the setting. Which races are germane to the setting, and which are rarer but still plausible? Something in the Medieval England countryside, probably doesn’t need any characters who aren’t white. Japanese characters won’t fit into any story outside of Japan, from 1635 to 1868. They had a strict isolationist policy. On the flip side, though, there are many settings that we think of as less diverse than they necessarily are. Note how I said Medieval countryside in the first example? The ports and major cities were a different story. Plenty of Spaniards, Italians and Moors made their way there, as merchants, diplomats, sailors, mercenaries, and so on. The American Old West also gets very inaccurately whitewashed. In the Southwest, much of the territory was recently acquired from Spain and Mexico, so a high percentage of the population was Hispanic, just as it is today. Furthermore, the new territories were popular destinations for freed or escaped slaves. A quarter of all cowboys were black.

2. Think about cultures. I have a basic rule; I don’t have to be intimately familiar with a culture to write a character who belongs to the race associated with it, but I do need intimate familiarity to write a character who identifies strongly with that culture. Real people exist along a spectrum when it comes to culture. We belong to many groups, and we usually identify more strongly with one group than another. You don’t have to know everything about Hispanic culture to write a person who is Hispanic; nobody will think its implausible if you write a person who happens to be Hispanic but identifies primarily as a tremendous geek. On the other hand, trying to write a culture without some experience with it is like trying to draw a portrait going only off of secondhand descriptions. No matter how great an artist you are, you never seem to end up with anything better than a caricature.

Those two steps together give me an idea of which races I should be looking to add into my story. That in turn helps avoid tokenism. Saying, “okay, if I add one black, one Asian and one Hispanic character, hopefully no one will yell at me,” looks contrived. Saying, “Cleveland really should have more black people,” is just being realistic. The rest of the steps help me decide which characters to change.

3. How clear is my sense of each character? When I write, I like the characters to feel alive in my head. Some writers complain about their characters taking over the story, changing its direction. I’m almost disappointed when they don’t. So if I have a strong character who has been very assertive about who they are, I’ve learned to avoid messing with that. For reasons I can’t fully explain, even changing a character’s hair color can make them lose a certain vividness in my mind. This can be a problem as I’m looking for characters to change races. On the other hand, it can also be an advantage. Sometimes my characters are being less lively than I want them to be. Either they aren’t coming to life, or they have come to life, but become characters I’m less interested in writing. These characters are the first on the block to change race. The new race doesn’t change who they are as people, fundamentally; rather, giving them a new face, and often a new name, also gives my own mind the flexibility to solve some deeper character problems. I come out with a cast that is more diverse, and also just better.

4. Deal with stereotypes. Obviously, if making a character a particular race would also make them into a stereotype, don’t make that character that race. However, this is most likely to be a problem if only the low ranking, tertiary characters are being made minorities, which itself is an issue. Major characters are supposed to be fleshed out and complex. A character whose only noteworthy traits are being smart and Asian is a stereotype. A character who was always good at school but particularly loves astronomy and lies awake stargazing and wondering about alien life, whose passion eventually took him to Astronaut Camp where he has begun actively wondering about his odds of becoming a real astronaut, because he really wants it, but so do many kids and only a handful become astronauts (but then again somebody will get to do it and why shouldn’t it be him?), and meanwhile he is having a summer romance with this girl who is allergic to peanut butter which is driving him crazy because peanut butter is his favorite food ever, which is leading him to wonder whether this is proof that he really loves her because he is making a sacrifice, or proving that he doesn’t because if he really loved her he could give it up without any trouble… that character isn’t a stereotype, even if he happens to be Asian.

Which brings me to another thing I think about. Just as in my previous writing about gender, a person’s race might not define how they behave, but it will affect how people around them think of them. So I don’t only think about how to avoid making stereotypical characters. I also consider which characters will interact in interesting ways with the stereotypes society might hold about them. Once, for example, I had a love interest who everyone thought was stupid and troublesome. He was considered a bad boy by nearly everyone. Part of the love story revolved around the protagonist realizing that he was actually a very nice guy, and intelligent. He had ADHD and some other learning disabilities that were diagnosed late. By the time they had, he had already gotten a reputation among his teachers. He, in turn, had developed a sense that his teachers would always be less patient with him, and had a certain distrust of authority at school, which is why he continued to butt heads with his teachers, but in other contexts he was actually very sweet and responsible. Initially he was white, but I realized that the stereotypes young black men often have to deal with fit very neatly with his backstory. I’ve actually seen this dynamic at work in one of the elementary schools I used to work at; the white teacher expects the black boy to be trouble, and so has less patience with him when he is trouble. He in turn realizes she isn’t expecting his best behavior, and so gives up trying to please her, which she takes as confirmation that she was right all along, and the cycle continues. So in that case, even though the character was fine as a white person, I changed him.

5. Top characters get changed first. While writing minorities of all sorts has improved over the years, an issue that remains is that even when non-white characters exist, they are almost never the protagonist. If I can change the protagonist’s race, I do. I also look to love interests and deuteragonists, characters who are the protagonists of major subplots and narrators. What I try to avoid is the black best friend problem, where everything important to the story is done by white characters and then the one non-white role is taken by someone whose role is just to listen to the white protagonist whine. Best friends might be important to the protagonist, but that is different from being important to the story. Characters important to the story are the ones whose actions significantly alter the course of it, or who are profoundly shaped by the course of the story. If a character’s primary role is providing commentary, or getting rescued, or giving aid in a way that doesn’t require them to put in real effort or make a significant sacrifice, they are really just ambulatory plot devices. If those are the only characters I’m changing, I’m not doing it right, and I need to take another look at my truly important characters.

So, what do the rest of you think? How do you approach diversity in your casts?

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Sixteen, with Guest Writer!

All of Wormwoods efforts to make the Patient unchaste fail when he falls in love with the wrong sort of girl; a virginal, raised in the church bastion of holy spirituality. Chapter Thirteen is nothing but Screwtape chewing him out for his failure, while Chapter Fourteen gets into how to redeem the situation. They have failed to get church out of the Patient, so now its time to think of how to corrupt its influence.

Screwtape is a particular fan of using academia and politics to muddy religion. In the first place, he believes that academic study of Jesus can only produce an image that is contrary to the man who is taught in the Bible, and who therefore can only confuse the devotion of the modern Christian. Politics is a more difficult thing, as on the one hand, Christianity affecting politics he thinks is potentially deadly, but on the other hand, when Christianity becomes only an excuse for a particular political stance, the faith itself is diluted to the demons’ advantage. The two combined, the “Christianity and Social Cause” and the “Historical Jesus” phenomenons, can be used to great affect by Wormwood.

Chapter Fourteen is another one that is largely about Christians to Christians, and so I have very little to fairly say about it myself. However, some of his comments made me think my friend Rebecca might have some thoughts from a more liberal Christian perspective. In addition to being a fantastic human being, she is in the process of becoming an Episcopalian nun. She has her own blog about the journey here.

The following has been edited from a Skype conversation we had after I gave her the chapter to read. There was a lot of tidying up to do, as neither of us are exactly experienced interviewers, but we worked together on the result and I think it reflects the clever points we were trying to make at the time quite well.

Lane: What did you think?

Rebecca: I found it really thought provoking. There was some stuff I liked, some I really disagreed with, and a lot that made me think.

Lane: That’s my impression of the Screwtape Letters in a nutshell.

Rebecca: I agree, first of all, that the “border-line between theology and politics” is a very messy place, and definitely a difficult one to traverse, if you’re a person of faith.

Lane: Yeah. I think you have to agree with that one, even if you traverse it on a different trajectory than Lewis does.

Rebecca: Also, I loved this part: “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had-and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a “great man,” but against the old platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The “Gospels” came later and were written not to make Christians but to edify Christians already made.”

We try to learn from the Bible, but it wasn’t really written for that, I don’t think

Lane: Interesting. Can you clarify?

Rebecca: I can try! Easiest bit first: the observation that the Gospels were written to Christians who already believed. They’re… as I see it, not rule books but histories to us today. (And that’s not always a popular view, but it is a very Episcopalian one, i find.) So, we can learn from them in a broad sense, but the point of the Bible isn’t “read this and it’ll convince you”. It’s a record of who we’ve been as a religion.

Lane: Interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Rebecca: Like I said, I don’t think that’s a popular view. But think of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians; They are Paul’s ideas, and I’m sure he prayed about them, but they’re also very specific to his time and place. He personally knew the people he was writing to. I do think his views on gender roles are shitty, especially applied to today. But I also think that he wasn’t writing to us, and if he had been, he might have said some different things, because we’re a different church with different needs and different faults. If we accept that his writing is divinely inspired, well, that’s easily in line with the belief that God meets people where they are. What I am called to is not what you are called to. What the church in Corinth needed to shape up is not what we need to shape up. One of Paul’s letters includes a request for somebody to (and I’m paraphrasing) pop his cloak in the mail. “You know, the red one… that I left last time I visited.” I don’t see people rushing to recover the cloak and send it on. These are very clearly letters to actual people he really knew. They were saved because they’re important church history and some of the stuff he says is good and worth learning from, but they’re also personal letters.

Lane: I didn’t remember that verse. That’s really funny

Rebecca: Shockingly, that doesn’t come up in church. There are some very ordinary parts of the Epistles. [So I agree with] the idea that Paul’s writing is to teach people who are digging in deeper, rather than to be the basic stuff that converts somebody. “Women should be silent in church” is sure as hell not converting anybody I want to share a pew with. But we learn about the old church by studying why Paul said that (that’s another discussion) and about ourselves by deciding how to live out such a thing- from literally to not at all. And Lewis is totally right that in the very earliest days, people were converted on the strength of “There was this dude- Jesus of Nazareth- and you should hear the amazing things he did. Hey- God will take you to heaven. You know that? God actually loves you.” Which, if you find a church that interprets that in a universal, loving way, is a really powerful thing. And also an incredible weapon in many hands.

Lane: Good weapon or bad weapon?

Rebecca: Bad weapon! “God loves everybody- and you make him sad.” Is basically the most awful thing a church can say and too many of them do.

Lane: Gotcha. So, does that sum up the “ooh, that was a good point” stuff?

Rebecca: Yeah. The whole “Historical Jesus” thing… I had a bunch of thoughts on that.

Lane: That was that part that really made me think, “I should get Rebecca’s perspective.”

Rebecca: Before we start that- I liked that he referred to other great minds as being sent by God to remind people that there’s goodness and light in the world. That’s right in with my own philosophy.

[quote; “For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them. We make the Sophists: He raises up a Socrates to answer them.”]

Anyway, first of all, he says “The documents say what they say and cannot be added to.” I hate that argument. You know what that’s like? It’s like Tumblr, where people just go, “You suck, educate yourself!” Like there’s only ever one way to view each issue and *obviously* if you’re not a *complete moron* you’ll see it “the right way” which is, naturally, their way, and disagreement just means you’re deluded and stupid, because you could never possibly have your own opinion on the exact same facts. So, no, the documents do not “say what they say” that simply.

Lane: I just broke out into a grin, because wouldn’t Lewis be the worst tumblrite ever?

Rebecca: The worst!

Lane: He would be the master of the “wake up sheeple” flame war. That’s a recurring problem I’m having with him. He doesn’t like to consider that people who disagree with him are not necessarily wrong.

Rebecca: So here’s what I think. A few things are very clear- “Jesus is the son of God, sent down here by God, God incarnate.” The resurrection is pretty clear, too. He died, he rose. Some of it is just stated facts, but plenty is not. How you interpret Jesus feeding the 5,000 is entirely up for debate. There is no “lesson” there except that Jesus can do very cool stuff and that he wanted to share dinner. Water into wine- is another one with no great lesson. I mean, he just quick-fermented grape juice for a wedding reception. So, whatever Lewis thinks the Bible “clearly says” about Jesus, he’s wrong. And he lists the “reductionist views” people hold (holy quotation marks, I really hated this part) as though that’s somehow a bad thing. People do understand Jesus differently, and those views are not new! They don’t go in neat cycles. Jesus as a rabbi has always been the view held by some people. Jesus the social-justice activist is another one, and a very prevalent view. So, there’s no putting aside interpretation and getting the “real, correct” Jesus out of that. We all bring our own baggage to the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and that influences how we view him. Heck, look at art- he’s so frequently depicted as a light-haired white dude. I really like the view of him as looking very normally middle-eastern. The idea that Jesus might get stopped by airport security is comforting to me. Jesus himself said, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword”. He wasn’t Buddy Christ- in *my* reading, Jesus asks us to do things that so far humanity has found totally impossible. Loving each other, being forgiving, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor. But lots of people are very comfortable without making any big changes to get those things done.

I don’t get the impression, from Lewis, that he’s comfortable with Jesus being multi-faceted. He thinks that whatever Jesus was (according to Lewis) that Jesus was probably very easy to understand. I don’t think so. I think even as a human, he had some really rough spots. He was God incarnate, but he was human while he was here. He never really caught on in Nazareth, because they’d all known him when he was a kid. He got mad at people who were using the temple to do business. If flipping tables and yelling at people isn’t an extraordinarily awkward scene to imagine, I shudder to think what your social life must be like. We all think, “oh, he was obviously in the right and totally righteous” and we’re not uncomfortable with that story at all. But imagine if you had to watch that go down!

Lane: So, in short, you think Lewis has a very simple idea of who Jesus was, and doesn’t want to consider any other angles. So when people turn to psychology and history and archaeology to try to deepen their understanding, he dismisses them, because he doesn’t want to challenge his own ideas about who Jesus may have been.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s exactly what I think. I can go on at length about my view of Jesus, but I bet Lewis’s view was super different. And we got those ideas from the exact same book.

Lane Brown: Yeah. If I may jump in for a bit, I was bothered in general by the attitude that in this one area, academia is absolutely forbidden to add its voice. That there’s just this mystical understanding that is complete and if you consider looking anywhere else for improved understanding, that urge is from the devil. Lewis talks a good talk about logic and knowledge and real study, but then when it comes to logic or education that disagrees with him, he will say, “well, obviously this is the bad sort of education that gets in the way of good old fashioned common sense.”

Rebecca: “Good old fashioned” usually is code for “I’m putting my fingers in my ears now.”

Lane: Pretty much.

Rebecca: See also “old-fashioned family values.”

Lane: I suppose it’s not surprising that the sort of Christian who practically venerates him is also the sort with this attitude towards education and learning; good up to a point, that point being where it challenges what we already think.

Rebecca: Yeah- he has good things to say, but I’d venture that he’s very uncomfortable with change and any pushback against authority.

Rebecca: The other thing I think is that different people really do just see different things in the Gospels, and that’s okay. I don’t think that’s inherently wrong. If you’re Christian, there’s a basic expectation that you will believe in Jesus the Son of God, God incarnate, who rose from the dead, but if you need the story of Jesus who fucked shit up when people were being shitheads, that’s a lens that gives you power? I think that’s okay. If you’re me, and you need Jesus who knew what it was like to try really hard and love everybody and hang out with the unpopular kids, that’s okay. If you need Jesus who will be perfect and strong and always there for you, and who always has the exact right answer there in scripture and was never vulnerable even on the cross, that’s okay. I think Jesus can be all these things, and can mean different things to different people, according to what people need. I think Jesus is bigger than the letters Paul wrote, and bigger than Luke’s memory of everything after the fact. He was lots of things while he was alive, and if your reading of Scripture takes you in a different direction from me, maybe that’s because you need a different kind of support or something different to believe in. I think Jesus is big enough to handle all that. We can have these conflicting views and all be Real Christians ™ and all be real followers of Jesus Christ, and all be good people. We don’t have to need the same thing or find the same thing when we go looking. And *that* is my truest objection to Lewis’s idea that Jesus was a static character.

Lane: Where there any other parts that you wanted to respond to? Other thoughts that were provoked?

Rebecca: The question of why to believe, and what’s a valid reason to believe. That actually rang kind of true with me- the question of whether to believe because you believe, or because you can get something out of your belief. I think there’s something wrong with deciding, in an academic way, to practice a religion because it’ll get a result you want. I don’t actually think that constitutes real belief.

Lane: Aka, why I really hate Pascal’s Wager.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m not a big fan, either. It’s a very cold, calculating thing. Not good for religion or for the individual. I mean, I certainly am not going to question the people at church every week. That’s absolutely a matter for your own conscience, why you practice a religion. But I think if you really do believe, there’s just this knowledge in you that what is true is true. Some people take that and bludgeon the people around them with that knowledge they have. Whereas I tend to feel like, “I know this to be true. And I am equally certain that you know it to be false” and then I piss everyone off by not having a problem with that. [A mutual friend] said something once about how, for her, Jesus is the answer to the question she’s asking. But if you’re taking a different metaphorical test, you may get a different answer. And to me, that’s something God understands and He just goes on loving everyone regardless. I also think God touched off the big bang, so I’m not ever going to be fun at fundamentalist parties.

Lane: Well, that depends who you’re asking. To me you’re loads of fun at fundamentalist parties.

Rebecca: Hahaha right up until we both get clocked with Bibles and thrown out

Lane: We will wear our bruises proudly.

Rebecca: Let’s maybe have our own parties.

Lane: Yeah, for me part of the reason I don’t follow a religion is that for me, I was raised in an extremely fundamentalist and frankly ridiculous sort of religion, and when I had faith, that was what I had faith in. When that faith was broken, I looked at other religions, and other types of my own former religion, and on a moral/philosophical level they made various levels of sense to me, but that was not the same as having faith. Then I got into atheism and questioning whether faith was even something I needed to be a good and complete person, and I came to the conclusion that no, I didn’t, and the only thing I could do at that point that had any integrity was cop to being an atheist.

Rebecca: I have a blog post coming about that

Lane: I will so be plugging your blog.

Rebecca: Back on topic, I think that one of the reasons I stayed faithful was that the God who I was brought up to know was gentle and loving, and I went to a church where it was okay to ask questions and bust myths if you found them. And if you were doubting, that was okay. I took it all in and believed it the way kids believe what they’re told, and as I got older I started doing some of my own reading, and thinking, and praying, and basically forming a relationship with God (which feels hokey to say, thanks junior high Revivals!).

Also, I want to make it really clear that when I say that I don’t think you just “decide to believe for Reasons” I’m not denigrating people who are doubting and want to believe and are struggling with that. That’s normal, and acceptable, and I’m in no way looking to run that down. I think that’s different from coming at belief with a thing you want accomplished. “I’ll believe because Jesus was pro-social justice” is very different from somebody who wants to believe because belief makes sense to them in whatever indefinable way belief does.

It’s hard to be in that position of wanting to believe and trying to hear God and connect with God and feel God’s presence and love. Whereas practicing religion with an end goal, without worrying about your relationship with God, does seem problematic.

Lane: Yeah, I think I liked that point as well, even without something similar in my life to relate to it. It seems to me, though, that as an atheist, the last thing I should be saying is, “I think you should really believe because you believe, not because you think Jesus has good shit to say and that Christianity furthers your particular crusade,” because I’m not part of that group anymore, so who the hell gave me a vote?

Rebecca: I get one, though, and I think if your cause has nothing to recommend it but “God says!!” and you sticking your tongue out, it’s proably a shitty cause.

Lane: I suppose in a similar way I think you should be an atheist because you really don’t have faith, not because you believe that atheism is the way of the future, for example.

Rebecca: Don’t be atheist to be edgy.

If your cause really is good, people of all faith traditions and no faith tradition at all will see that it’s good, because the world is full of good people who want good things for this place. You won’t have to scare them with hell to get them to do good.

Lane: Or convince them that hell doesn’t exist to get them to do good.

Rebecca: Yup!

Surgery and October Updates

Hello, dear readers,

Today I’m in Ohio, to get my top surgery done. The procedure went well, and I’m feeling woozy, yet satisfied. Hopefully this won’t mean a stop to the blogging. I’ve got some first drafts of the next several Screwtape blogs, including one with a special guest writer, and one about my method for fixing the problem of discovering that despite thinking of yourself as a progressive enlightened writer you’ve once again started writing a book with an all-white cast.

I feel incredibly lucky right now, to have so many supportive people in my life. My coworkers have been very understanding and helpful in accommodating my leave. My best friend drove me up here, through some really awful weather, and is taking great care of me. My boyfriend is also coming to help take care of me and to drive me home next week. They’ve all been awesome, so I’m thanking them here, because who doesn’t want to have their awesomeness recorded publicly? Hooray awesome people!

Hopefully our regular blogging schedule will be resumed shortly. Take care, y’all!