Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception is a short story (of 4461 words) written in the style of my current novel project, Simon Peter. It is meant to be a teaser for the novel, itself, showing the take I'm using for telling the story of Jesus, St. Peter and the origins of Christianity as being started by the same sorts of people that start cults in modern history: a group of religious fanatics, madmen, charlatans surrounded by a storm of sexual depravity, physical and psychological abuse.

"Immaculate Conception" is a story about the conception and birth of Jesus. The story contains nothing mystical, but offers a purely physical story about how it could happen. I am not saying it did happen this way. The birth of Jesus, even from Biblical sources, is confused. In one place Jesus is born in a house attended by kings, in another place he is born in a stable and attended by shepherds. I'm not sure I believe in the physical reality of Jesus at all. But in "Immaculate Conception", as in Simon Peter, I want to open a discussion about the nature of messiahdom, itself, and dispel the idea that Jesus as a historical person needs to be taken seriously as a social reformer, or rebel against Roman conquest or Jewish corruption. Most messiahs are charlatans, insane, or both. Most people who claim supernatural powers, in my readings, have backgrounds of neglect and abuse. For this story, and Simon Peter, I posit that Jesus came from such a family, and in "Immaculate Conception" I have written about his family as being typical of messiahs, born in pain and horror, leading to charlatanry and madness.

Warning: This story does have sex and violence. If you're offended by sex and violence, I advise either not reading it, or get prepared to be offended.

I am also thinking about putting a commercial for "Immaculate Conception" on YouTube and GodTube. See what that nets me. ;)

Now with video!

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday Writin' Update

The writing this week started well and ended with difficulty. Soon, I will probably be posting a short story written in the style I'm using for Simon Peter. Right now, it's called "Immaculate Conception" and it retells the story of Jesus' conception and birth. It probably won't be next week, but the week after that. But it is only 4200 words long, which means I did not spend all my week writing it (an average week for me is about 8000 words, in case you wanted to know).

I started part 3 of Simon Peter, which will cover the time period of Jesus' ministry. Part 2 was 51,000 words and I can't imagine part 3 being shorter because I have established a heavy presence of Peter's family and social dealings and I'll want to keep that, as well as work on all the things I want to say about the nature of apocalyptic messianic cults. I will need to do this within the rough narrative framework of Jesus' ministry.

Not that the Gospels provide a very good framework for that. Ignoring the variances between the Gospels to being with, the Gospels describe Jesus' ministry as little more than him going from miracle to miracle with a few parables thrown in, until the last week of his life where it does pick up a little bit, narratively speaking. Which is, I suspect, part of my trouble -- the Gospels, like most of the Bible, is simply very, very dull. The story drags in all ways. It has lifeless characters, pompous diction, dismal dialog and it is clear the author is trying to get across a "message" but lacks the narrative skill to do this with authority. But it is the task I have set out for myself, and I believe the task is worthwhile, so I'll stick to it.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Interview with me!

This is the first in a series of interviews that I'm making about the writing of Simon Peter. My interviewer is Tim "Santiago" Converse, who is a scholar and a friend that is helping me out with . . . well, a lot of things.

This is the introductory interview. We'll be doing more of them in the fullness of time, with the juicy, meaty questions like "why did you rape Jesus?" - but for now, we decided on a more measured and stately interview technique.

Anyway, I hope people enjoy it!

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ha, I Say, HA!

Part two of Simon Peter is done. It was about 25% longer than I'd planned for it to be -- around 51,000 words -- but I feel good about it.

Part three will be, I expect at this point, to be the longest of part, because it will contain the bulk of Jesus' ministry as well as his death. I'm half thinking of rather than diving straight into part three that I'll write a short story in the style I've adopted for Simon Peter and post it here when I'm done with it -- probably a week or so from when I begin -- and I'm curious if y'all out there have any thoughts on the subject. I know that most of you are here because I cut up about religion, not necessarily because I'm writing a book on Biblical characters, but most of you also seem to be pretty hip into reading, which pleases me immensely.

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Heroism and Writing

Very soon, I'm going to start posting on this blog excerpts and stories I've written. Most of them will have the protagonists doing fairly terrible things, and being really rotten people. Some people – mostly those that don't know me, but when I'm a successful novelist that'll include most of the people who have read my works – might assume that I'm this dark, brooding person that views the world as a dystopic horror, spiraling into nightmarish oblivion.

Well, no. I'm actually a philosophical optimist. It is fairly clear to me that people today are healthier, freer, saner, better educated and happier than they were at pretty much any point in history. This isn't the same as saying that everyone is healthy, free, sane, educated and happy – far too often that is not the case, and I'm not using optimist as a justification for political nihilism or saying that the way things are right now don't need to change. As a libertarian consensualist with a heavy dose of socialist leanings and a total technophile (believing that social change is dragged forward by technological advances), I'm nearly the most radical person I know. I think that society needs to change a lot to get better. However, I'm confident it will get better. You look back a thousand, or a hundred or even fifty years ago – well, we've got a lot of problems, but we've also made a lot of progress, and I don't think that we won't continue to make progress.

But why don't I write about the world I imagine – freer, fairer, saner, healthier – instead of dystopic visions?

First, books about free, fair, sane and healthy people are dreadfully boring. There's a fair bit of literary work going on – mostly by academics – to try to “free” us of traditional narrative structures. It is not taking. Most movies, TV shows and books have very traditional structures in the sense that there's a heroic protagonist that overcomes a variety of threats to accomplish something. Whether it be Michael Corleone in The Godfather or Ofelia in The Labyrinth of Pan, the heroic protagonist existing in a dystopic world is part and parcel of narratives. It is equally obvious to me that the reason for this is it is exciting. A narrative is helped a lot if it's exciting and interesting. It takes a very advanced aesthetic – perhaps a hopelessly decadent one – to maintain serious and consistent interest in non-narrative books, movies and TV shows. They are not, in essence, interesting to most people. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly since I'm talking about me, they're not very interesting to me. No matter how many times I tried, I just couldn't summon the energy to give a damn about Joyce.

Second, well, I have a problem with the concept of “hero”. This is separate from the concept of bravery. I'm very pro-bravery. In modern language we mix bravery and heroism up – we say that brave people are heroes, particularly if they're doing something society judges as “good” (such as firemen rushing into a burning building to save someone). However, those heroes tend to be very short lived (how many of the firemen who died on 911 can you remember, right now?). We say they're heroes but we don't really honor them as such, in the sense that we remember them. No, the people we remember tend to be historical, mythological, literary and political figures. Especially if they have perpetrated violence.

So, a lot of people will regard Alexander the Great as a hero. He's so heroic we call him “the Great” without any sense of shame. What did he do that was so great? He conquered Persia, briefly, creating untold misery and suffering in the process. He was a drunken barbarian who murdered his close friends in fits of alcohol-inspired dementia. He was an egotistical bastard who dragged the men of a whole nation ten thousand miles into the wilderness, killing most of them in the process, and effectively depopulating Greece for a generation. That's great?

The same is true of most literary heroes, too. They're generally terrible people who do awful things – but that's generally covered up. So in The Lord of the Rings, the Southrons and Easterners aren't really described. They're just generically corrupt pseudo-Slavs and pseudo-Arabs that can be slaughtered at will, to add color to the valiant white guys list of automatically despicable enemies. (Yes, I know that criticizing Tolkien is a quick way to get flamed. Hey! A guy's gotta have a hobby.)

However, where this really starts to go wrong for me – I can look at literary and historical heroes in light of catharsis and distance; our admiration of Alexander the Great rarely includes wanting to emulate him or in allowing anyone else to emulate him – is that we, as a society, are still terribly addicted to political heroes.

In my view, modern politicians are (as a group) one of the most venal and cowardly lots of people alive. George Bush epitomizes just about everything that is wrong with political hero worship, and will be a useful example for that reason – but make no doubt that all politicians share this to some extent. So, rather than fighting in Vietnam, Bush joins the cushy Texas Air Guard, never bothers to get qualified for a plane (thus removing any chance that even, once in a while, he might be near combat) and takes a year off to help with politics in Louisiana (whether or not this was actually desertion is for the reader to decide). Way to go, Bush. Brave guy, right?

I mean, what did he did on 911? Hopped a plane to a secret bunker. Man. What a gutless fucking coward. Then he talks all tough – when it's other people's lives on the line. Bring it on, indeed.

You see this time and again with politicians. While some of them did display tremendous physical bravery – for all that I think McCain is reprehensible as a politician, it would be a lie to doubt his physical bravery, though I do have serious questions about his moral and intellectual courage – most of them took great pains, if they were in the military, to avoid actual combat. Most of them, of course, were too busy being lawyers or accountants to serve in the military or other dangerous job in any capacity.

Worse, when something goes wrong, people seek to create a hero, even if they have to do it out of whole cloth. Again, Bush provides the ideal example. After 911, we “rallied around the flag”. We gave Bush carte blanche. Why? His flaws as a leader were already evident. On September 10th, his approval ratings were in the low 40 percentile range. He was dithering and stupid on September 10th, and he was the same ditheringly stupid man on September 12th, still lacking in administrative ability, honor, intelligence or loyalty. Obviously so! On September 10th, it was pretty clear to the American people that a terrible mistake had been made on letting this clown take office.

But on September 12th, his approval ratings were suddenly around 90%. Overnight – literally over night – forty percent of the American population changed their minds and created a hero out of Bush.

The things that were said about him . . . man, we must be trying to forget them. People were talking about his “gravitas” and “bravery” – the chickenshit ran to a hidden bunker for three days, people! – and spared nothing to attribute to him traits that, two days earlier, most Americans knew he did not possess. And it took years for Americans to remember that he's a corrupt and incompetent boob – it wasn't until a truly frightening counter-case of lies, corruption, downright stupidity and arrogance had been amassed that America turned the corner about Bush.

Bush isn't the only person this happens to. Almost constantly people attribute things to politicians that the politicians didn't do. So, for example, people will talk about how Lorenzo de Medici “built” a lot of Florentine Renaissance architecture. Uh-huh. The truth is, of course, that he didn't build anything, and all of that magnificent stuff was built by carpenters, masons and architects – but for some reason a politician gets the credit for what the workers did.

(To give a dose of militant atheism, too, I think this is what happens with messiahs. Much like Lorenzo the Magnificent is credited with doing things he had scant part in, messiahs are credited with equally magical powers. Most messiahs, like Bush, destroy their followings because of their ego, incompetence and cruelty – but if they die at the right time, their followers can immortalize their superhuman traits before the egotism destroys the movement.)

I shudder to imagine how many “heroes” have been created by these forces! That something traumatic happens and some mediocre person is elevated to the position of absolute power! Not because they have some superhuman power, but simply because they were in the right place at the right time. I suspect that most political heroes are like this. Most are vessels of the desires of others and can't live up to it in any capacity. Like Bush. History being what it is, we only remember the rare successful ones – and forget the failed ones (tho', thankfully, that is changing).

In short, I dislike how real “heroes” are made. That we forget the fireman who runs into a burning building, but lionize an incompetent moron like Bush.

This creates ambivalence in stories, for me. I want to write stories that have traditional narrative structures – protagonists duking it out with an antagonist – but I'm deeply suspicious of “heroism”, or at least how heroes are created and why.

I resolved this tension inside of myself by writing about my nightmares. Rather than write about the world I think ours will become, I write about what might happen if anarcho-capitalists ruled, or about religious messiahs. This also helps to make the protagonists horrible people, which means that I can view them as simply vicarious bastards doing terrible things, as catharsis, or maybe as a cautionary tale if one goes in for that sort of thing.

So, it isn't that I'm a depressed person living in a brutal fantasy, it's just that to write narratives the way I want to, I find it easier to write them about the figures that populate my nightmares.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Friday update!

Jon Stewart makes me laugh.

That said, I'm almost done with part 2 of Simon Peter. As opposed to part 1, which dealt with material that was, largely, non-Biblical, part 2 deals heavily with Jesus' involvement with John the Baptist, which receives some actual play time in the Bible. Simon Peter is only very loosely adapted from the Bible, but there are plenty of events that happen that people will be familiar with. It also deals with historical figures that have an existence outside the Bible, such as Herod Antipas, so I was able to draw on additional sources other than the Bible about these colorful people that populated Judea and Galilee at the time, as well as some medieval myths. As such, at times, it is a very exciting part to write. I plan on getting done with it today, but we'll see how that goes. I could be a thousand words from the end, I could be five thousand words from the end.

Also, over the next week or so I'll be slow to post and perhaps absent at posting altogether. Adrienne and I are going on a vacation to visit some friends in Arizona, and this involves trips to some various parks and camping. There will be pictures when I get back, almost certainly including some that I can turn into various icons for this blog. All the cool kids have pictures, after all, right? I've brought in a ringer or two for that time, but my posting will be periodic, at best.

In the works is an video interview I'm going to make with a a friend, Santiago. The subject matter will be, at least initially, Simon Peter and the reason why I made various decisions that I made. We're seriously thinking of posting it on GodTube because, well, it is relevant to Christianity and part of the work has always been to express myself to Christians as much as atheists, to open a dialog. We'll see! But that's also in the works.

Lastly, Santiago and I are also working on a secret publishing project. It's very hush-hush but we figure it'll make us some money and increase our exposure in a very constructive, productive way - it has nothing to do with our militant atheism or politics - and while I'm not sure the time is right to give details it is very exciting as well. There will be updates.

That's it for right now!

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Language, Atheism and Christianity

When researching Simon Peter, I did reading about the three major groups of Jews at the time: the Pharisees, the Saducees and the Essenes. (Josephus mentions a fourth sect, the Zealots which get the most press, but he was writing decades after Jesus' death and it's historically ambiguous whether the Zealots had a real presence during the 20s and 30s – plus, the Zealots don't play a role in my book whatsoever.)

The Saducees were the aristocratic Jews, remnants of the Hasmonean priesthood, the Hasmoneans being the dynastic of the Maccabees after they threw out the Seleucid Persians. They taught a very stern and literal interpretation of the Torah.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, from which modern Rabbinical Judaism comes, were very interested in the Law. They were the guys who constructed the elaborate oral tradition – the Oral Torah – and had interpretations for everything. They were concerned with making sure that everyone followed the law in every way. (This was probably a result of the Hellenization of upper class Jews and an attempt to cling to specifically Jewish traditions to maintain the ethnic character of their people. It worked. Judaism still exists in the form largely set down by the Pharisees.)

The Essenes, on the other hand, were . . . well, right now, it's hard to say, precisely. The Nag Hammadi library, which contains a lot of Essene literature, shows them to be mystics without a unifying belief other than a general mysticism. Some scholars reject that the Nag Hammadi documents are Essene. Philo and Josephus talk about the Essenes as living in monasteries and practicing celibacy, tho' Josephus also mentions another “rank” of Essene that was allowed to get married. They owned property in common, it seems. Perhaps they were Jewish Pythagoreans. Perhaps they were the “legitimate” high priesthood rather than the Saducees. All these things were said about them. Who knows the truth? Not I.

It is possible that Jesus was either a Pharisee or an Essene. While the Pharisees do question Jesus about things, this was common amongst Pharisees – a lot of being a Pharisee was talking about the Torah, the prophets and related subjects. Perhaps the Pharisees questioning Jesus was an argument between different sects of Pharisees. Others have said he was an Essene because his teachings rejected the tightly argued qualities of Pharisaical doctrine and was more “spiritual”. What the truth is, I dunno. (For the purposes of Simon Peter, I take the point that Jesus of Nazareth was actually Jesus the Nazarene, which was one of the sects of the Essenes, and that this sect was one of the sects that nominally allowed marriage. This does not, however, reflect fact. There are no facts about which sect, if any, Jesus belonged to.)

One of the explicit reasons that Jesus does so well is because he rejects both the dry, very literal interpretation of Saducees as well as the niggling points of law demanded by the Pharisees, neither of which were terribly popular with the people at the time. The Saducees offered no hope of relief from their woes (and, indeed, were tight with the Romans and, as a group, quite Hellenized) and the Pharisees preferred strict adherence to points of law rather than ministering to the emotional needs of the people (or, at least, that's the idea – many modern Jews will reject such a characterization). When a person is wondering why Roman law was such a burden, the last thing people really wanted to hear it was because they hadn't kept their pots apart, that their god was a scribbling accountant who sent the plague of conquest because of trivial sins.

No, no. Jesus spoke the language of the common person. He hung out with fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, he dealt with Romans, slaves, the diseased. He had none of the literalism of the Saducees nor the legalistic worship of minutiae of the Pharisees. (Indeed, so stripped of specifically Jewish content was Jesus' message that he quickly gained a Hellenistic following – starting in the Gospels, themselves, with the Roman centurion who asks Jesus to cure his servant. The Book of Acts is primarily about the Hellenistic followers of Jesus against the Jewish followers of Jesus and the ascent of the Hellenist followers of Jesus.) It was accessible, indeed, designed, for the people.

In this post, in the comments, my friend Becky mentions how she likes my writing style because it is accessible. This is something I aim for in my writing, so it pleases me to hear this said. I have poor humor with people who use a Latin- or Greek-based word where a Saxon one will do the job, and do it better. I also, as a rule, dislike jargon.

Words based on classical languages and jargon are usually used for nothing less than classism. The use of pretentious language serves the immediate purpose of making a lot of discussions inaccessible to people without advanced educations. You can't talk about something if you don't understand the other person's words, after all. So if a person uses a word with a lot of subtle nuances, it becomes trivially easy for them to say that an less educated person lacks the depth of knowledge to participate in the conversation - simply because they don't speak with the same formalities as the educated person.

This has riddled the liberal arts since, well, probably forever. But it's trivially easy to find discussions where an educated person will try to dismiss an apparently less educated person by talking about details of words. This happened to me, recently, in the comments to this post where the relative value of Buddhism to the world became about the subtle meanings of the Sanskrit word dukkha, which is generally translated “suffering” into English.

So, in first century Judea and Galilee, most of the Jewish talk was very scholarly (as most Jewish discourse is, today) - either the learned discourse of the Saducees or the learned discourse of the Pharisees (the Essenes, living in monasteries, didn't interact much with the common folk). Jesus, on the other hand, spoke common language to common people. The Gospels are riddled with homey allegories about farming and fishing. Primitive church converts were, overwhelmingly, from the lower classes, too. For the first two hundred years of Christian existence, it was considered a “slave religion”.

(Christians, themselves, will fall back on the tactic of demanding an elaborate education in order to discuss Christianity, interestingly enough. When talking to prospective converts they'll use the sort of language that Jesus used – simple and clear. When talking to detractors, they get post-modern to the point of nihilism and basically assert if you can't give three quotations to support a given point then you're clearly an idiot who doesn't understand Christianity and, thus, are dismissable. For what it's worth, the way to counter this is to talk about the non-religious history surrounding Christianity – bring up Mithras, bring up Magna Mater, bring up Cyrus the Great, they don't know anything about the cultural influences that informed early Christianity. You don't even have to know much about it, yourself! Let their confusion do your job for you. So, “Oh, that's nothing that Magna Mater didn't preach centuries before Jesus. Jesus is just the Jewish Attis.” Freaking out ensues.)

So, when Becky said in her comments to me that Christianity does well, even today, because it speaks the language of the common person, I think it's fair to look at that. Christianity's early successes were because of the connection between Christians and the common folks, starting with Jesus himself, but obviously continuing with Peter and Paul and all the evangelists. (It took Romans to make Christianity palatable to the upper classes, such as Augustine of Hippo.) Christianity's continuing successes are also due to that. Christians speak very common language.

(F'rex, George Bush! Gore, Nader, Kerry, they're all way too smart for people to trust them. Which doesn't mean that they're particularly intelligent – well, Nader's very bright, and Gore is fairly sharp, but Kerry is a profoundly mediocre intelligence – but they speak in a way alien to many Americans. Bush, tho' an idiot, is an idiot who connects with people on the level of language. He talks like regular people. Clinton, too, who is a brilliant speaker. He can speak intellectually when the situation needs it, but his lasting appeal is that he can speak in a very regular way and do so confidently and easily.)

Atheists? Not so much with the simple communication. Take probably the leading spokesperson for atheism, right now, Sam Harris. In an article in the LA Times he talks about Rep. Pete Stark coming out as a non-theist going to a Unitarian church. Excepts follow:

Of course, one can imagine that Cicero’s handlers in the 1st century BC lost some sleep when he likened the traditional accounts of the Greco-Roman gods to the “dreams of madmen” and to the “insane mythology of Egypt.”

That's in the second paragraph and he's already talking about dead Romans.

The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things. As a result, Iron Age ideas about everything high and low — sex, cosmology, gender equality, immortal souls, the end of the world, the validity of prophecy, etc. — continue to divide our world and subvert our national discourse. Many of these ideas, by their very nature, hobble science, inflame human conflict and squander scarce resources.

Subvert, inflame, cosmology . . . cosmology? I mean, there's a lot of diction that's pompous, here, but . . . cosmology? Who the fuck knows what that is, really? Not precisely the language to connect with most people. (Okay, I know what cosmology is - and I know that different people study it in different ways. Theologians study cosmology as much as astrophysicists. It is a diverse and divisive field.)

Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal. Beyond them, one encounters pious multitudes who respect the beliefs of their more deranged brethren but who disagree with them on small points of doctrine — of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can’t be sure it will happen in our lifetime.

Pious multitudes?!

Everything that Harris writes is like this. It doesn't bother me most of the time, because despite not liking pompous language, I know a lot of big words and, really, after reading Marx and Hegel everything else is cake. But to a lot of people, their eyes will start to glaze over the minute they hit Cicero. They will get the classist clues that This is Not For Them. That to engage in this discussion, you've got to know classical politicians well enough to catch obscure references to them.

A lot of atheist talk is this way. A lot of atheists are educated people, as virtually every atheist will say, and brag about. There is a strong correlation between atheism and education.

However, we do miss a lot of people with our learned discourse. There are a lot of less educated people who have things to say – important things to say, and the ability to say them with greater poetry than Sam Harris, or myself. But they're all locked out of the discussion because talking like Sam Harris is almost de rigeur to be taken seriously by atheists – unless you wear your intellectual credentials on your sleeve, you're likely to be ignored.

I think this is a pretty big problem and I call on all atheists to speak clearly. Very little of what atheists need to talk about, about atheism, can't be said in simple language. For the purposes of spreading atheism to those most at risk for the Christian (and other popular religions) meme requires us to learn plain talking, because they're already experts at it and have been for thousands of years. Speaking plainly will drain the religious swamp.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Writing update - a better week

The SCA event I went to last weekend really helped clear me out. While I didn't write as many words as I might have wanted to write -- which I blame on blogging, hehe -- where I am going next is clearly laid out.

Also bolstering my spirits is that Santiago read the first part of Simon Peter and said it was good, and Becky read most of the second part and said that she liked it better than the first part.

I was pleased that she, in particular, seemed to latch onto the point I was trying to make -- about how a reasonably sensible person becomes, over time, to accept the absurdities of a religious nutjob against all reason. A lot of that stuff I took from descriptions of how rational, otherwise intelligent people would join and then stay in cults like Jim Jones' People's Temple or the Branch Davidians -- even after it became clear that the cult leader was a violent hypocrite. It's actually really fascinating stuff, but I've long been fascinated with how intelligent people can make horribly wrong decisions. It is, I think, key to understanding a lot of the world's ills. Not just religious, but political, economic, social, etc.

Next week I should be finishing part two, as well. I hope. I've already started doing the more detailed plotting for part three, which will focus on Jesus' ministry and last days. For those of you who have read any of Simon Peter to this point, I assure you that the sex, violence and intrigue of the first two parts continues quite unabated.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

My first troll!

On my post about liberal Christians I got an anonymous response that compared me to Bush and was so offended about Simon Peter that he wished me financial ruin! (I'm sure he was wishing ill on me in a most Jesus-like way.)

Yay! Troll!

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Why I Wrote Simon Peter

This is a rough draft of an essay that might end up as a epilogue to Simon Peter explaining a bit why I'd choose to write the book as I have. Y'know. Deeply blasphemous.

Why I'm Writing Simon Peter

Does the world need a book where Jesus is viciously raped, the our erstwhile hero is a violent, sexist, racist multiple murderer? Why would anyone feel the urge to devote the huge time and energy it takes to write a novel into writing this novel?

The book is directed, generally, at two groups of people. The first group is Christians and, more generally, anyone who is religious. I think everyone gets that. The second group of people I'm addressing is more subtle. It's atheists.

It is obvious I'm attacking Christians. There is a purpose to the attack, however. What I am trying to emphasize in Simon Peter is that to call oneself a Messiah really puts a person out there on a limb in the sanity department. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus was the Son of God and, therefore, things that would be crazy out of another person are perfectly sane coming from Jesus – because he's the Son of God. But what if he wasn't? Sure, Christians aren't supposed to think that way. There are hints of it in the Gospels, themselves, such as Jesus' doubts in Gethsemane and his cry on the cross that God had forsaken him – brief glimpses which suggest that maybe Jesus was a mortal man and in his last hours he doubted his divinity and, as he came to die, believed himself to be forsaken entirely.

So I ran with that. I said to myself that let us assume that Jesus is akin to other self-proclaimed messiahs. In addition to studying material about the Bible, I also studied self-proclaimed messiahs – L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, David Koresh and Jim Jones. I overwhelmingly preferred messiahs who existed entirely in history and those who lived fairly recently. In other contexts I've done study of Mohammad and Simon bar Kokhba, but with pre-modern messianic figures the texts are both sketchy and highly colored. The newer the research, the more likely the researchers were to try to learn about family details and be able to write about them in an open and honest fashion.

What I found was that, even in the case of Hubbard, money and power don't seem to be the real motivations. The messiah might get rich but that's almost secondary to what they actually seek. What they seek are followers, people who listen to them, who believe them and who love them.

Insofar as I can tell – and it is hard to learn even with these figures in many cases – they share certain childhood traits. All or almost all of them were abused as children or suffered difficult childhoods. At least two of them I mentioned (Jim Jones and David Koresh) were known to be sexually abused. All of them would later display behavior that I believe suggests deep childhood trauma concerning sex.

Indeed, more than any one thing, sex unites this group. All of them used their position to get sex. Hubbard not only used his position to seduce the wives of his followers, he eventually created a staff of preteen girls who would sleep with him (without sex, we are told) in order to replenish his energies. Smith and Young used their position to accumulate many wives, sometimes resorting to harsh means to separate a desired woman from another man (such as forcing the a couple to divorce or break off engagements). David Koresh eventually demanded that married couples don't have sex with each other, but that Koresh would have unlimited access to sex all the Branch Davidians. Jim Jones also used his position to coerce sex from his followers and used some of them as prostitutes to seduce government officials in Guyana. Each and every one of them had sexual habits that radically deviated from the norm that they used their religion to justify.

All of them also engaged in a variety of self-destructive behavior. Smith and Young routinely flouted the authority of the US government and several times brought the wrath of the state down on their church, almost destroying it repeatedly. Jim Jones eventually lead his church into mass suicide and murder. David Koresh provoked the federal government into actions that lead to the destruction of his church and followers, as well. Hubbard was also expert at provoking governments and fled several countries and was chased out of several ports of call. Here is where Jesus fits the pattern more clearly. (It is easy to see Jesus as being kin to these other messiahs, because the Bible talks about Jesus' provocation of the authorities that leads to his destruction. It's one of the main themes of the Gospels.)

But very few novels or stories explore the idea that Jesus was a figure not too different than David Koresh or L. Ron Hubbard. They are either written with Jesus either divine or divinely inspired, or they are written with Jesus being a social revolutionary. To me, the first is impossible because I don't believe in any god at all and the second isn't well supported by the Gospels. Jesus doesn't do anything revolutionary except claim to be a messiah. In our day and age, someone who claims messiahdom is regarded as a liar, mad or both. Reading about messiahs I came to the conclusion that a historical Jesus either did not claim to be a messiah or he did and was a liar, mad or both. In terms of making the story more interesting, it is easy to see why I chose to make Jesus a madman and charlatan.

Then, making him a madman and charlatan, like so-called messiahs seem to be, when constructing Jesus' life I was guided by the messiahs I'd read about. Therefore, he had to have a difficult childhood full of abuse and neglect to justify his later grandiose delusions. He had to enact his childhood trauma in the present with bizarre sexual activity and self-destructive behavior. The character, ultimately, wrote himself and I just had to fit him into the narrative structure of the Gospels (which which I obviously took considerably liberty).

Even if Jesus was as mentally ill, a liar and self-destructive, he would be completely whitewashed by his followers. Of course, as failed messiahs neither Koresh nor Jones have many (if any) followers left to whitewash their names; thus the unusually good quality of information about them. However, Smith, Young and Hubbard all have official biographies that are promoted by their religions, and these official records read radically different than biographies written by people outside their faith. The only records we really have about Jesus that claim to be first-hand accounts are the Gospels, and they're so biased and it is so common for religions to whitewash their leaders that it is impossible to know the truth of any historical Jesus. It'd be like trusting Scientology to give an unbiased record of L. Ron Hubbard's life. I think that my version of events is far closer to the truth than the Gospels – even if you took the miracles and resurrection out of the Gospels, I suspect my story is closer to the truth.

My wild hope with the Christian audience is that they will start to view Jesus as a person, not as this idealized superbeing. I know that's fairly daft of me. Writing a book that has Jesus as a mad charlatan and Peter as a murderer isn't designed to win many Christians over. I can live with that, particularly because there is a second group to whom this is addressed: atheists.

In my experience, most atheists treat the figure of Jesus with fairly elaborate praise. Take Friedrich Nietzsche. Yeah. That Nietzsche. In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche glorifies Jesus as being this joyous person who fully lived his life and gloriously accepted his death. It goes on for eight pages – this despite Nietzsche's legendary hatred of all things Christian. Except, apparently, Jesus.

That sort of behavior is commonplace. When humanists and atheists write or speak publicly about Jesus, it's always with intense deference to Jesus as a person. So, while a given atheist might condemn Christianity they almost never seriously attack Jesus. Mostly, in my experience, they frame Jesus as this valid social revolutionary trying to transform society, struggling valiantly against the corrupt Jewish collaborators that ran Jerusalem and/or the Roman Empire.

This seriously undermines the atheist stance against Christians, particularly to outsiders of both atheism and Christianity. The Christians say, “Love Jesus! Join us!” And the atheists too often say, “Religion sucks! But, y'know, that Jesus guy is okay.”

Except that we don't know he was okay. At best, he's repeating things said better by other people, such as Hillel the Elder, and cribbing notes from Hellenic mystery cults and Mithraism. So, then, why do we go to Jesus as this important source of ideas that he didn't come up with? Especially in light of the behavior of real people who declare themselves to be messiahs? As I said, the odds are my depiction of Jesus is more accurate than religious accounts. It is also probably more accurate than secular accounts which always have Jesus being this intellectual revolutionary, a serious man about serious business, who was merely speaking in the language of his time. But there is no reason at all to think that way. If a person reads the Bible to find the “historical Jesus” what one comes up with is a simple preacher with an uncontroversial message and delusions of grandeur. But rather than taking the historical Jesus on those grounds, Jesus has become a vessel into which many, many atheists have continued to pour their hopes and dreams into even though they have rejected Christianity.

I think this needs to stop. We're atheists, fer crying out loud! At the best we should be saying that Jesus was a uncontroversial preacher with a god complex. More generally, I think we should say that Jesus was probably of a piece with other self-proclaimed messiahs. That he was as nutty as Joe Smith or Jim Jones. And in any event atheists should stop treating the person of Jesus like he is someone we're obligated to respect. We're not! He's not worthy of our respect, in any case.

By writing about Jesus as I have, I hope to undermine the respect that atheists have for Jesus, and allow atheists to re-examine how they feel about Jesus and why we far too often accord him elaborate respect.

I, of course, think that this reasoning can also be applied to any self-proclaimed messiahs of any religion. Rather than trying to think about them “seriously” as serious people struggling against oppression or whatever, try thinking of them as self-proclaimed messiahs are: very strange, abusive and usually terribly abused people who are constructing elaborate, self-serving fantasies to address the trauma of their lives even as they spread that trauma to their followers. I want to spread the knowledge that insanity and charlatanry is the normal method for all so-called messiahs and, thus, I hope, help stop people from regarding them as holy or even serious. As a group, they're damaged goods, playing out their madness on emotionally vulnerable people – and this is true even of the successful ones.

There are other reasons why I am writing this as I am. Certainly part of it is I like books with sex, violence and intrigue in them. I'm a sucker for the sort of drama that making Jesus a psychologically damaged false messiah and Peter a violent thug create. I am also experimenting, to a lesser extent but with fullness of what I am doing, with trying to write a book that has characters who are sexists and racist but that is not, in itself, a sexist and racist book by presenting the sexism and racism as absurd and ugly – though I am unsure that I don't step, occasionally, into glorification of the things I despise I still feel compelled to try. Some of this is, undeniably, a catharsis. I have complex feelings about religion and it occupies a complex place in my life, as it does for many atheists who were raised religious. While I've worked out my own personal feelings towards religion, the multi-faceted way that religion is important to our society presents an atheist with a constant supply of social and political challenges that must also be addressed. Lastly, I write anything I write because I love the art and craft of it.

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Friday, March 9, 2007

Writing update - a hard week

Writing was pretty hard for me this week. I got virtually nothing done. I feel like the second part of Simon Peter isn't going as well as the first. I'm feeling out of control of the events, as if I'm putting things in just to swell the second part to the length of the first, and I'm feeling as if the drama between the various characters is contrived and unconvincing. I'm trying to buck up. Stephen King (who isn't really an artist I much admire, but he can clearly finish projects) has said that when he feels out of control he just pushes on and that many of this best books have been written this way. So rather than abandon the project - which would be almost insane after 70,000 words of it - I am going to press on. I hope it does work out.

In other news, I'm about to leave for an SCA event. I won't be back until Sunday afternoon, likely, so you won't be seeing any updates until late Sunday or Monday. I already have it written I just won't be here to publish it.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

"Why did you rape Jesus?" - sex and religion

A friend of mine was reading a draft of Simon Peter and asked, "Why did you rape Jesus?" Not really a question you hear every day, but I had an answer. I said that in studying messiahs that existed in history that many of them had histories of verified sexual abuse (like Jim Jones and David Koresh) and they all acted in ways that, to me, suggested such abuse even if it wasn't verified (after all, it's hard to verify sexual abuse, especially for historical figures who lived in a time when no one talked about that sort of thing) and each and every one of them had serious, deep and serious issues with sex.

Enter a story about Ted Haggard and the layoffs at his church. Ted Haggard - I guess I should say Rev. Ted Haggard - used to be the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a body that has thirty million members. He was involved in a sex and drugs scandal. I'd summarize, but the quotation is too darling for me to pass up:

After initially denying the accusations, Mr. Haggard confessed to buying drugs from the former prostitute, Michael Jones, and admitted to what he termed “sexual immorality.” Mr. Haggard has since gone through counseling, and was declared “completely heterosexual” by a member of a panel of ministers appointed to oversee New Life.

Well, he's now completely heterosexual! Phew. For a while there I was worried.

Anyway, this guy had a three year gay sex relationship with a male prostitute from whom he bought crystal meth. Then he denied it and only after massive evidence was clearly available did he admit, if mincingly, to "sexual immorality". THEN he gets declared totally straight by a panel of ministers. If this whole process - the hidden gay sex, the initial lies, the retraction and then being "declared completely heterosexual" - isn't profoundly perverse, I don't know what is.

This is why I raped Jesus. All of these guys are like this.

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