Friday, May 4, 2007

Media Representations, Violence and Response

A person on my friend's list on Livejournal, posted about violent media leads to violence. I didn't respond there because, well, you've got to choose your battles and I doubt I could have said anything to change her mind (and, as a matter of fact, since I originally wrote this, I did respond and, lo, I did not change her mind). I am also going to act as though the idea that violent media leads to real violence is largely a dead issue, because it is. At best, no bad research finds that amongst children under 12 years old that there's a weak correlation between media violence and real violence. Likewise, studies of actually violent people – or, at least, people who are violent enough to get put in jail or prison for their violence – massively underconsume media of all sorts, including violent media. When studying people who are actually violent, the correlation is between not consuming violent media and violence, and the general trend is the more media a person consumes the less likely they are to be violent. (For what it is worth, I think that the reason people who consume more media are less violent, or in prison less, is due to the fact that media consumption is a form of consumption. People who can afford to consume anything in quantity tend to be rich, and both have less reason to be violent and have better lawyers when it does happen.) So, in my book, the issue is largely dead.

What surprises me is how tired and worn out this argument is! Plato wanted to outlaw theater because writers and actors were “liars”. Augustus did outlaw theater, because it promoted “immorality”. The Roman Catholic Church forbade whole swaths of musical types – mostly things involving rhythm – on the grounds that music leads to sex (or, perhaps, that music leads to dancing that leads to sex). You take any time and you'll find people who want to stop other people from making the “wrong” kind of art – they'll want to shut up hip hop artists, burn Harry Potter books, stop kids from playing those new fangled video games.

In short, what they want to do is elevate their personal aesthetic tastes to the level of morality. As a sort of secular humanist, scientific materialist, atheist transhumanist, libertarian consensualist (read: as the intellectually autonomous person known as Chris Bradley) this sort of thing annoys me, and it annoys me because virtually everyone wants to do it, regardless of their political beliefs.

So, you'll have socialists railing against the injustices of capitalist media, you'll have capitalists wanting to outlaw socialist literature, religious folks wanting to forbid secular music, liberals wanting to stop those violent video games, etc., etc. The elevation of a person's person sense of aesthetics to the point of absolute morality is nearly ubiquitous!

I wonder why that is – why most people feel their own aesthetic choices should be universal. I KNOW there's a lesson in there, somewhere, but I'm having a devil of a time sussing it out. Of figuring out why art gets people so fucking pissed off, so pissed off that they feel the urge to engage in tactics ranging from emotional blackmail to legislation to burning books? Of why they feel that audiences are empty vessels into which artists do nothing but pour their own biases and ideals?

I don't know, but I want to know.

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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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Monday, April 16, 2007

The Screenplay of the Case of Charles Dexter Ward

This might be a bit of a cheat. I'm going to publish, this week, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's novella “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. And as an intro to this I'm going to write something I wrote three years ago when I was adapting the novella.

In tone, this is completely different from Ruthless and Defiled. Instead of a cyberpunkish neo-noir science-fiction, we've got a modern dark horror adapted from another form. It also represents an earlier writing style for me. Ruthless and Defiled was, consciously, fairly stylized. Before that, I was doing a “get back to the basics” program of working on essential story elements, like dialog, characterization, things of that nature. This dates to that period.

The screenplay has a lot of pages, but in terms of actual length, it's around 20,000 words – which is just five thousand more than Ruthless and Defiled. When you download it, don't be daunted that it's 120 pages long. The formatting of screenplays is designed so the movie based on that screenplay is about a minute a page. The whole thing can probably be read in far less than two hours.

Here's the introduction I'd worked up, back then, for the screenplay. Nowadays, it seems hopelessly pretentious:

I've been an admirer of H. P. Lovecraft's since I was a teenager. I had just discovered horror stories and Lovecraft's were the best, though I didn't have a good understanding at the time of why. Reading the occasional essay or foreword by an established writer didn't seem to clear anything up, either. They went on about the “fears of the unknown and unknowable” but that answer never seemed to really fit with me. Sure, we're all afraid of the dark for a while, but most of us get over it. Some of us, including many of the people closest to me, are dedicating their lives to the study of the unknown – including the very depths of space from which much of Lovecraft's horror comes.

After a several years of thought on the subject, I narrowed it down to my own personal belief of how a writer invokes horror in the audience – through a feeling of helplessness and a feeling of hopelessness. We become horrified when we realize there is no chance and no hope. Many horror writers, however, don't seem to follow through – their heroes end up defeating the menace. This is the reason why many horror stories fall flat at the end after a rousing good scare the first half of the story. When the audience becomes aware that the heroes will win there's nothing to be frightened of, really, no matter how vile or disgusting the horror is. Furthermore, most horror writers never differentiate between the helplessness and hopelessness. They conflate them and as the audience becomes aware the heroes are helpless, there is also no feeling of hopelessness.

Lovecraft's genius was an intuitive understanding that a person can disjoin helplessness from hopelessness. Other horror writers have a sense of this – which is why at the end of virtually every horror movie ever made there's a hint that the horror is not gone, to try to pathetically dredge up a last scrap of hopelessness from the audience before finally fading to black – but none the same way Lovecraft did. So while in his stories the horrors are usually defeated or driven back, what remains is a feeling of hopelessness amongst the characters. The Great Ones were, the Great Ones are, the Great ones will be – and some day they'll awaken from their aeons of slumber and throw off humanity with a shake of their great bodies, the same way a dog shakes off water. Everything we are and everything we will be is, ultimately, irrelevant, much in the same way that an ant colony is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. So, while the heroes win against their horrors, they are forever changed; they are fundamentally robbed of hope.

And that's damn scary.

Thinking about this has had a tremendous influence on my writing over the years. I feel a tremendous obligation to Lovecraft for all the inspiration he's given me. But what to do?

For a while I'd wanted to try writing a screenplay. I'd written one, before, as a sort of test, and I liked it. It was corny and pretty bad, but the length of a screenplay pleased me pretty well. I've found the short story format to be constraining and I rarely have enough to say to fit into a novel that isn't padded more than my posterior – but screenplays are about the right length for me. I enjoyed writing the first one and decided to give it another shot. I was also interested in doing an adaptation of something. I've long wondered why so many adaptations were so, well, bad. One would think a great book or story would provide more than enough material for a screenplay. I suspected there was something going on and I was curious to see what. I toyed with various books for a while – such as The Count of Monte Cristo, which is one of my favorite books and I had several ideas of how to do it in a unique way – but the sheer length of the adaptation process put me off. Turning 1,000 pages of Monte Cristo into a 20,000 words of screenplay seemed a little much.

Then I thought about Lovecraft. I'd never seen a movie based on Lovecraft that I thought was really top notch. So I decided to give it a try, eventually deciding on “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” because, to my knowledge, it'd never been done before. (After I was done, I did learn that there was a movie based off of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. Such are the vicissitudes of fate. Still, I'm egotistical enough to think my screenplay is better and, besides, Lovecraft is in the public domain.) And I like the story.

I quickly learned why I had been so dissatisfied with so many Lovecraft adaptations. Lovecraft is essentially free of dialog! Movies are strongly dependent on characters speaking to each other, so this presented a barrier. A movie that was “faithful” to the story would be more like a documentary than a horror movie. While it would have been an interesting experience to try to write a good screenplay in that fashion, I decided not to go down that road and spent a fair bit of time putting words into characters' mouths. Fortunately much of the material in “Charles Dexter Ward” can fairly easily be conveyed through dialog – the characters talk to each other a fair bit, it's just that Lovecraft often doesn't quote them directly. The other thing I found out, about halfway through, is that if you were perfectly faithful to the story the movie would be something like three and a half hours long. I decided I'd need to prune a bit.

As exercises go, it was a complete success. I know feel I understand why screenwriters and directors make many of the decisions they make in adaptations. The method that books present information is much different than the way movies do. Something that requires two pages of description in a book can be covered in seconds in a movie, and some complex ideas are simply impossible to convey on screen in without becoming hopelessly pedantic. Plus, considering I had to trim away some material when adapting an 80 page story, I can only imagine the challenges that a screenwriter faces when trying to adapt a 400 page book. They eliminate broad sections of material that is often, quite arbitrarily, deemed irrelevant; they merge characters together, they change events from the story in a way so it conveys the meaning of the story better than a slavish following of the text ever could. In many ways, it was far harder to adapt “Charles Dexter Ward” than to write my own screenplay; finishing it was a trial because I had to keep going back to trim here and there, to re-write in a way I've never had to do when creating an original work.

But is it a good screenplay? I think so. While it is rough in some ways – I'm still not totally comfortable with the jargon used in screenplays and I'm sure I've made errors – I think that it is faithful and, if made into a movie, would scare the socks off of you.

It is, however, primarily my tribute to Howard Philip Lovecraft, who has been a tremendous inspiration on my life.


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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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

Reading Anne Rice's Christ the Lord Out of Egypt proved, at a glance, that I must hate myself on some profound level. All through reading this book I would come across something particularly bad and ask Adrienne, “Why am I reading this?” She would say, “So you can make fun of it with a clean conscience.” She knows me well.

For some background, when I'm writing a long project like Simon Peter, I try not to clutter my brain with too much outside literature. I generally read a lot less, and it tends to be about whatever it is I'm writing, if only tangentially. This helps me stay focused on a big project. The last thing I want is to get a really great idea in the middle of writing something that distracts me from what I'm doing. So, right now, I tend to read a books about various 1st century CE subjects, especially if they're dealing with Judaism, Roman Palestine and, of course, Biblical figures. Rice's book is very much the sort of thing that I read.

I've also planned on reading it for a while. I am not an admirer of Rice's work, but she's important to Simon Peter. After learning that Anne Rice had written a novel about Jesus it really dawned on me anyone could do it – and I fancy myself a much better writer than Anne Rice. So I started looking into it and, behold, I'm doing it.

As you can probably guess, I think the book is bad. The rest of this post is about how bad, and the forms this badness takes, and it'll probably be pretty long. It's the worst book I've actually finished in a longish time.

Also, for the record, I hold no particular hostility towards religious fiction. I am, after all, doing it, myself. I like a fair number of Jesus-fic novels such as Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist and Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff by Christopher Moore. Others, such as The Last Temptation of Christ I might not have liked, but I can see the craft and art that went into writing them. To me, a well written book about Biblical characters is akin to interesting fantasy, and I hold neither the books nor the writers in any sort of contempt. I say this because I didn't go into this hating it. While I'm not a fan of Rice's works, I did enjoy Interview with the Vampire, so I further know she's capable of writing things I like.

But Out of Egypt is just a bad book. It's so bad I am struggling with where to begin. So, after Carroll, I shall being at the beginning.

The book takes place when Jesus is seven or eight years of age. It takes place in the first person, as if Jesus is narrating things as an adult. The plot revolves around Jesus learning he is the son of Jehovah, immediately after the death of Herod the Great and the riots surrounding Herod's death.

The first problem is the narration, itself. Jesus is narrating the book as if he was an adult looking back, but the book totally lacks mature insights into the youthful Jesus' problems, personality or social interactions. Particularly lacking is mature insight into Jesus' social interactions, which I very much would have liked to see. But the narration, despite technically being recorded by an adult Jesus, comes off as being narrated by the child Jesus.

The book begins with Jesus striking another child dead while he lives in Alexandria. It was inspired by a scene out of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (Out of Egypt also mentions Jesus turning clay pigeons into real birds, also from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.) The inclusion of the striking dead scene is problematic and, I suspect, the reason it never even got seriously considered for Biblical canon. After all, murder is a sin, and Jesus is said to have lived a sinless life. Though, in Out of Egypt and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus undoes these acts, having done them, he had sinned. Just because you give back the money you've stolen doesn't mean you're not a thief – you're just a penitent thief, right? The first thing that Rice has Jesus do is sin.

Now, if it had been a book written in that fashion, I probably would have been pleased. A Jesus that went around withering people and striking them blind – based on various legendary sources – would have been a hoot. Heck, if I wasn't deep into Simon Peter I might have done it that way, myself. However, Rice intends to confirm the divinity of Jesus – which is not well served by having Jesus kill someone, even if he does repent of it. God is above that sort of thing, right? At least, that's the standard Christian doctrine – that Jesus is perfect. So the book starts out with a serious misstep.

The book has a lot of missteps. It's like Rice doesn't know what she's doing from one chapter to the next. So, in one chapter, Joseph tells Jesus not to do violence. He is clear. Joseph says, “Never lift your hand to defend yourself or to strike.” Then, a chapter later, Joseph and his relatives kill a man who is attempting to rape a woman. Which is it, Joe? Never lift your hand, or is it okay to kill in self-defense of third parties?

Another misstep is the . . . well, the Jewishness of Jesus is a complex subject in the book. Clearly, if Jesus lived at all he was Jewish. We don't know what kind of Jew – we know very little about him, as a person, and it is often contradictory or outright silly – but certainly a Jew. Christianity largely de-emphasizes Jesus' Jewishness. Some of it is outright racism on the part of Christians, certainly, but there is a larger point to it – Jesus is not a Jewish messiah but a universal messiah. By emphasizing Jesus' Jewishness, it weakens Jesus' universal appeal, which clashes uncomfortably with the rest of the tone of the book where it is emphasized that he's a universal messiah.

Those are the three major missteps I can think of, right now. Now I'll start to address the further horrors of the book.

Keeping on with the Jewish character of Jesus, the book dwells on things in a truly comical way. The characters mock Egyptian Jews who study the Jewish Bible in Greek, unlike Jesus and his family who do it in Hebrew. Which struck me as reasonably cruel, to mock someone's ignorance. It further struck me as comical – Jesus and his family of super-Jews. (Not to mention that it isn't like most Christians learn Greek and Hebrew to study the Bible. Rice, herself, had to do her Bible study in English. It seems a bizarre standard of mockery, given the lack of importance American Christians give to learning the languages the Bible was written in.)

The Jews, in general, are treated in a cartoonish way. So, in Sepphoris, Jesus notes the absence of prostitutes for the Roman soldiers to fuck, vis-a-vis Alexandria. As if Jewish women didn't know how to prostitute themselves? The Bible is very explicit on the extent of prostitution amongst Jews. Apparently, it was nigh ubiquitous. At several places in the Old Testament – such as Ezekiel 16:15 . . . oh, to at least verse 38 – the author shows a pretty profound knowledge of the ways of prostitutes. And, of course, famously, Jesus hung out with prostitutes. But in Out of Egypt, it's like the Jews are too moral to engage in prostitution, which is laughable.

(Interestingly, the book seems to praise Jewish women for wearing the veil, which protects them from the Roman soldiers. I don't think that Rice was praising the veil as effective against sexual assault – when a person gets it into their head to rape someone, a piece of cloth is unlikely to stop them – but trying to suggest that Jesus would have been for the veil because it's modest. Still, there is also enough in the Gospels to suggest that Jesus wouldn't have cared about veils or the conservative social modesty of the Jews. He broke a lot of Jewish social rules, such as traveling with women (Mary Salome, Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene – by the social rules of the time, they should have been escorted by a male relative) and associating publicly with prostitutes. But she chose to have Jesus praise the veil, which isn't necessary given the further life of Jesus nor particularly sensitive to modern issues.)

And the Pharisees are SUCH GOOD PEOPLE. They're so learned and holy and . . . ugh, it's childish. They're not just good people, as humans can be, but they're these smiling, sinless people who never lose their temper, who never get developed beyond their smiling, one-dimensional caricatures. And there's the wise old woman who is so old and wise! And the crotchety uncle with sage advice! None of the cast (who aren't walk-in characters, generic threats) had, it appears, a single bad impulse in them – even when they do something that is bad (such as Jesus striking someone dead) it's never because they possess a sinful thought; Jesus acted impulsively, without thought, Joseph and his cousins acted to save someone else. Humans without some measure of bad in them, of course, are caricatures. They aren't believable. Thus, none of the characters in Out of Egypt are the least bit believable.

Going hand in hand with the cartoonish, one-dimensional nature of the characters is the awful writing. There are some examples that will help illustrate this. Be warned. It is bad.

Elizabeth lowered her voice and spoke on.

“We have brethren with them, grandsons of Mattathias and Naomi, who went out long ago to the desert to live with them, and I've spoken with them, and they will take him, even now. It's their way to take children and bring them up strictly, abiding by their rules of purity and fasting, and strict community, and all these are natural things to my son. And he will study with them. He will learn the prophets. He will learn the word of the Lord. The desert is where he wants to be, and when I'm gathered to my ancestors there he will go until such time as he is a man and decides for himself what he will do. I have already provided for John with the Essenes and they wait only for my word, or for him to come to those that live on the other side of the Jordan and they will take him far out away from here to where he's to be brought up removed from the affairs of men.”

Who speaks like that? C'mon. It's a parody of the sonorousness of the King James Bible. This passage isn't a particularly bad one, either. It's all like this. Very portentous, very pretentious. In other passages, I swear I can also hear the nasal New Yawk twang, too. How can a person take this seriously?

Another bit that I found amusing:

”Oh, yes,” said a woman who saw me look at them. Her eyes were red, and her clothes covered with ashes and dust. “And days ago they massacred us, I tell you, and sold off anyone in sight to the filthy slave merchants who descended on us to put our loved ones in chains. They took my son, my only son, he's gone! And what had he done, but gone out to try to find his sister, and she took for what? She was trying to go from my house to the house of her mother-in-law?”

Rice, especially with female characters, has them say things like “I tell you” and repeat themselves – the slavers sold off anyone in sight and put their loved ones in chains – in a way that makes me wonder if this was proofread at all, by anyone! And sometimes, again largely with female characters, I swear I can hear a New Yawk twang with all the “I tell yous”.

Rice also does that annoying thing where when she wants to emphasize something, she puts a particular sentence as a sole paragraph. This is also pretty juvenile, I feel, and vaguely insulting to the intelligence of the reader. Like we're not clever enough to figure out what's important.

Over and above this, however, the book's biggest problem is it is painfully dull. It took a bit, but since I was stuck on the road a lot over the vacation, and there's only so many cacti a person can look at before they all blend into a Platonic form of cacti, I figured it out. Jesus and most of the main characters of the story are, well, canonical figures. Because nothing is really known about Jesus' childhood – a few spurious infancy gospels aside – and because Rice doesn't want to do anything to blatantly contradict the Bible (tho' she fails in this in a couple of places, as said above), the characters must be static. They can't do anything really noteworthy, else she would have to explain why this wasn't included in the Bible, itself.

Particularly static is Jesus. Because she is, in large, trying to write him as the perfect child, and because Joseph and Mary are protective parents, this means he obeys his parents. And when you're seven years old, well, you're not allowed to do very much. A fair bit of the book is Jesus asking to do something interesting, being told that, no, he's not allowed to do that, and then him obeying. After all, he must! He must honor his mother and father, right?

And because the extended family of Jesus included in the novel are equally holy, they are equally dull. For a moment, there is a brief bit of tension because Jesus' brother James (the Just, eventually, who is patriarch of the Jerusalem church and a martyr in the fullness of time) resents Jesus because James knows that Jesus is the messiah, but what could have been actual tension is resolved instantly, so it means little. And the rest of Jesus' family, who know he's the son of Jehovah, also have no problem with it – they accept it wholly and without any problem at all. Again and again, there are places for actual conflict, but Rice never really capitalizes on this. I suspect she does this because, well, the messiah can't have a fucked up family full of people who doubt Jesus is the messiah, right? Even though there is Biblical evidence that his family didn't accept his mission!

Even when Rice suggests that the larger Nazareth community doesn't believe the stories about Mary and the virgin birth, but it's kept very distant. Mary is never confronted, and neither is Jesus. The tension is hinted at, but nothing is ever done with it.

Satan also makes an appearance in one of Jesus' dreams (though uncredited, it's obvious who it is). Now, Satan is one of my favorite literary characters because it's so easy and fun to deconstruct Satan. Other writers have really had fun with Satan, from Milton to Kazantzakis. He's a fun guy! Rice's take on the big S seems designed to be as bland as possible. The child Jesus easily beats off whatever temptation that Satan might have been trying to do – compare with the Satan out of The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus on the cross came very close to succumbing. Satan, the greatest villain of Christianity, is treated as though he was a punk ass bitch. Again, when given the chance to really create some tension, for something interesting to happen, Rice flubs it. One could even say that, as a child, Jesus would be vulnerable to Satan's charms. Apparently not. Yawn.

So, all the action of the book takes place from a very limited perspective. Of a young child that has no real verve, an obedient child, a completely dull child. The other characters are equally dull, because they have to be worthy to be the family of the Christian messiah. Even the passage through the riots following Herod the Great's death are without impact – they are never really threatened. The book is very explicit about this, that Joseph wouldn't have been ordered to return to Galilee if the way hadn't been made straight. So, no real threat! They are protected by GOD HIMSELF.

All of this combines, of course. It isn't just that the characters are one-dimensional parodies, and it isn't just that the writing is bad, and it isn't just that nothing really happens. All of these things are happening at the same time.

The book is dull and silly, it says nothing original in poor language. It isn't even bad in an interesting way – it plods along, boring and pretentious, not even letting the audience thrill in how truly awful it is. It's bad in a pedestrian way. I recommend giving it a miss.

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Monday, April 9, 2007

Ruthless and Defiled

I'm starting to post stories on the old website, and I'm starting with Ruthless and Defiled.

Ruthless and Defiled is a fifteen thousand word short story that was, basically, proof of concept for Condotierri. Ruthless and Defiled has a lot of the same themes – anarcho-capitalism, corrupt security corporations and class struggles play crucial roles in both stories. Ruthless, though, also contains a heavy element of racism which isn't present in Condotierri because Condotierri is more science-fiction than Ruthless. People in Condotierri can, functionally, change their appearance at will, so attributes of race are hidden and not considered as important – thus, there is less overt racism. I wrote it, however, to see if I could, as an author, write something so sustainedly grim and uncompromising. Dante Wakefield, the protagonist of Ruthless, is the moral opposite of an action hero. He does everything that an action hero does – he's a go-it-alone maverick that uses violence to get what he wants ostensibly in the Dirty Harry mold – but while most of those rogue cop stories justify the cop's brutality and criminality by saying that it was somehow necessary, that you have to break the law to save it nonsense, Ruthless presents the corruption and violence as ugly and unnecessary, putting a lie to the notion that a go-it-alone superman does any good in this world at all. Or, at least, that's some of the backstory, here. That, more than anything, that corruption and violence amongst police is always detestable, that it isn't justified and doesn't make the world a better place, is shared with Condotierri.

Ruthless is also a more graphic story. Or, perhaps, it is better to say that Ruthless has a greater density of truly horrible things happening to people. I needed to pull out the stops because I had to know if I could write in this way, to write about horrible people doing terrible things to each other. I didn't necessarily write any of it to shock people, except to the extent that I felt it necessary to convey the significance of the violence being done. Violence in stories is exciting, yes, but at the same time a great many stories lessen the impact of the violence – all the deaths are clean and swift. There is also a literary whitewash that goes on with the characters, too – the idea that a character can kill and torture and, in some capacity, remain a moral person (indeed, in many stories, the protagonists kill and torture in a way not too different than the bad guys, but are held up as moral exemplars – the best people kill and torture, but they have a reason and that makes it alright, which is an attitude I find contemptible).

On the whole, though, I like the story. It contains some good imagery, has a solid plot and good characterization. I wouldn't say that Dante Wakefield grows during the story, but he certainly changes, and I think in ways that are interesting and contain verisimilitude.

Comments are very welcome. Plus, spread it around! The more who read it the better.

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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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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Condotierri and Anarcho-Capitalism

The book I wrote before Simon Peter is Condotierri. “Condotierri” is an Italian term for mercenary, generally with a deeply negative connotation. Nowadays, we don't get the absolute insult calling someone a mercenary was in earlier days – as people who profited off of war, they were regarded as total scum. But Condotierri sounds cooler than “mercenary”. This refers to the protagonist, Caesar Mailleux, who is a corporate police officer in a futuristic metropolis. He is deeply corrupt – or, another way, he's a mercenary.

In the book, itself, I take an almost retro look at the technological end of science-fiction. I find futurism to be difficult – not to consider, but to write about without become preachy. I mean, hell, I've got a blog to be preachy. I don't need to put it in my novels. And by retro, I mean that the technological infrastructure is basically the stuff we have today, just better. I don't, for instance, go far down the roads of transhumanism, or explore the significance of artificial intelligence.

However, socially, it's a little more up-to-date. I won't give away the mystery, but I will talk a little about where the background comes from.

David Friedman wrote a book, Machinery of Freedom, and I haven't read the whole thing but I did read Chapter 29, the text of which is online. I stumbled upon this by accident. I don't even remember what I was looking for but this excerpt really got to me. I continue to be absorbed by it, because it's so . . . stupid. I'm not even talking run of the mill stupid, but so deeply and profoundly stupid that it beggars the imagination. Go on, read it, if you want, but I'll break it down for you.

In this chapter, he proposes, seriously proposes, that there should be no state run law enforcement, or state criminal laws. Instead, what we'll have is security corporations. Law will be replaced by the policy of the security corporations. Courts will be replaced with non-binding arbitration between those corporations.

Think about that for a couple of minutes. I can wait.

Wow, right?

I read this and several things occurred to me. The first was, “What about the poor?” Then I thought, “Fuck, what about the rich?” Lastly, “What about . . . corruption?”

The official anarcho-capitalist line, touted out by Friedman, is that corporations are honest brokers because dishonestly leads to decreased profits. Which is a proposition so absolutely stupid, contrary to facts and bizarre that I have trouble wrapping my head around it. Of course, in a world without laws, it took me a while to figure out what corruption would be – for employees of the security firm, it would be violation of corporate policy. But without a (theoretically) transparent government looking at corporations, well, wouldn't corporate policy be nothing but a PR trick? Corporations, with no transparency whatsoever, not beholden to anyone whatsoever, would internalize corruption. We don't have to imagine this. Just think of the big scandals in Enron and Chase Manhattan to get an idea of how this might work – but take away the possibility of them being caught (because there would be no one to catch them) or being penalized if they were caught (because there wouldn't be anyone to enforce anything). Getting freaked out, yet? I did when I started coming on this point.

And what about the poor? Let's face it. They're fucked. In our system, which gives at least lip service to the idea of equal rights, the amount of justice a person has is largely determined by their wealth. However, there are still limits. This sort of system would remove those limits. Poor people would be fair game for rich ones – why not? Even if they could afford police coverage, their coverage would be much weaker than a rich person's. Crudely, let's say I'm a billionaire and I get drunk, wander into the poor part of town and shoot a person with no coverage. No coverage, no crime, even if it was caught on camera and there were a hundred reputable witnesses and they had the gun that did the deed with my fingerprints all over it.

But what if they have less coverage? A lot less? Well, economically, how much effort is a corporation put into pressing a case against someone who can afford to stretch out the process for years and years? What they'd do is a risk assessment. They'd weigh the costs of the litigation process against the money lost through bad advertising and whatever – and if the cost of the litigation is more than the losses, fuck 'em. Rich people could even have, y'know, “murder insurance” clauses – they murder someone, the insurance kicks in and makes sure the process is dragged out, or resolved through other means (such as corruption, or finding a patsy for PR purposes – remember, there's no one checking these guys, who's to say what really happened?).

Let's get tricky, now. What if the victim and the murderer have the same insurance corporation. With whom does the security company arbitrate? Itself? I submit that how that goes – a living rich policy holder vs. a dead poor one – is pretty obvious.

Trickier, still. What's to prevent a rich person from having several policies? That way, the security corporation persecuting the case will always be the same one defending it, too.

Even tricker, yet. What does a rich person even need a security corporation for in the first place? Why not just make a little fortress. Let them try and come and get you. The risk analysis becomes much easier if to get the perp you've got to fight a mercenary army, especially if victory isn't assured.

The short answer: the rich can get away with murder.

Right now, of course, the state controls this by maintaining a monopoly on violence. Not even Bill Gates can afford to do battle with the US government. Not even General Motors. The government would stop them from developing the military infrastructure to fight the government long before it occurred. So, even if the people over at GM wanted to, they couldn't just . . . level a neighborhood regardless of who's in it because they know that the police insurance firms for poor people aren't capable much less willing to try to fight the GM security force.

The anarcho-capitalist answer is that, y'know, they wouldn't fight like that because it isn't profitable. Because we know that corporations haven't encouraged and fought wars before, or something. Let's face it, war is profitable if you can win it.

In Condotierri, the premise is that society has moved very far towards an anarcho-capitalist society in this fashion, and it explores the idea of corruption in such a society.

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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

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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