Well, I finished Walter Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel yesterday, and I have to admit that I thoroughly did not enjoy it. I think that my major issue with Rauschenbusch is that, as far as I can tell, for R (my girlfriend and I have been calling him R because Rauschenbusch is a lot to text on a regular basis) theology has no actual basis in reality. He believes in the idea of God, but he sees theology as a fairy tale that can be rewritten and reinterpreted based upon preference. He believes in the historicity of scripture (i.e. that scripture is an actual set of historical documents that record the ideas of actual people) and the historical Christ, but Christ was divine because it is a belief that is convenient for R’s system, not because God is an actual entity that takes offense at sin, but chose to show mercy by taking the punishment for sin upon himself. R chooses theological concepts not because he believes that they are what the scriptures actually say, or because they best describe the reality of God, but because he finds them interesting or convenient. I find attitude very frustrating. Anyway, I started Tim Keller’s Ministries of Mercy today, hopefully I’ll have it finished by Saturday. I’ll also be starting Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics tomorrow. So, my life is certainly exciting. Anyway, here are the rules for today’s challenge:
Your challenge: Take a movie, book, short story, play (preferably something religious) that you love, and identify each character and significant plot point. Now, identify the three most significant, pivotal events in the story, and work your way back through the plot, but change those three events. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet you might change the death of Tibedo so that he lives. Now, work your way back through the story step by step and figure out how the characters would react to those changed plot points. How would they react (in character)? How does this change the overall events of the story? Feel free to use this as an impetus to write some up a new story entirely, but the goal here is to see how character’s themselves help to shape the plot of a story.
How much attention do you pay when you read? I mean on a regular basis. Neal Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death and the overall thesis of his work was that many of the problems of the modern age are caused by television media because it does not cause people to engage critically. Postman, in essence, argued that when we fail to critically engage what we are taking in, then we stop learning or growing intentionally and instead simply because passive components, allowing ourselves to be shaped by the entertainment media that we consume. I agree with Postman’s thesis here, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve discussed him in previous posts (though I couldn’t tell you which ones), but I think that it was a mistake to limit this to television. The truth is that any time we stop engaging critically and simply consume we are allowing ourselves to be passively shaped instead of taking an active part in our growth. This is true when we watch television, listen to music, sit in class, sit in church, or when we read. So, I ask again, how much attention do you pay when you read?
I actually had this very well illustrated for me in my small group tonight (for those of you who are not part of a Christian community, or not part of one that follows a small group model, a small group is a community building model that many churches use. A small group is a tighter community within the larger church body [generally about 5-20 people] that is based on the house church model of early Christianity, but functions under the umbrella of a larger church). In the sermon on Sunday morning the pastor made a simple mistake. In Acts 4:4 it discusses five thousand (that’s 5000) people converting to Christianity. The pastor, however, accidentally replaced this number with two thousand (2000) in his sermon (illustrations and all). Personally, I found this hilarious, and I heard a few other people in the church chuckling at the blatant error. It’s understandable. We all make simple errors sometimes, and typos can easily run away with a person.
However, in my small group tonight, we read Acts 4:1-4 and then immediately started discussing the verses. Even though we’d just read the verse, our discussion was partially dominated by a discussion of the two thousand people who were converted. This, however, isn’t the same as a typo in a sermon. The pastor was one man, and a fallible one at that. However, when a group of 11 people begin a discussion of a passage that they have just read and make the same error repeatedly (only two of us caught the error), it speaks to a different problem. We often check out when we read. This is as true of religious texts as it is of educational materials or fiction, and equally problematic. As Postman (should have) argued, when we don’t critically engage with what we are reading, we allow ourselves to be passively shaped by our unconscious assumptions about the text, or we allow ourselves to be shaped by what other people (whose words we also haven’t critically engaged with) tell us about the text.
This is an issue that I don’t think is noticed as often as it should be in our culture, or taken as seriously as it should be. This is an issue that certainly affects religious people (as I’ve just exemplified), but it doesn’t just affect religious people. Everything we come in contact with can potentially have a shaping effect. Many Christians have responded by running away from anything that doesn’t agree with their worldview (this is a mistake, but not one that I intend to engage in this post), and there are plenty of other people who do the same. However, a better approach is to engage critically with those things that we watch, read, hear, etc. Engage the world that you live in instead of simply passing through it. You might be surprised at what people are telling you.
Well, I think I’m formulating an outline for one of the major research papers I have to write this semester, which is a good thing, because I only have a month and a half left to write it. So, I hope that all of you are doing well. I’m going to be doing a lot of driving today, so that will make things interesting. Anyway, it’s Wednesday, which means that you get a scene challenge. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene. Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction. If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit. If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.
Your rules: You task this week is to write a scene of at least 150 words that is all one sentence. If you’ve been following the blog then you’ve seen this challenge before. Remember to make sure that the scene is grammatically correct, and that it flows well. Again, you might want to give it to a grammar nazi after you finish to make sure that your grammar is solid. Your cue: “Paul’s eyes popped open…”
As I may have mentioned somewhere before, I love to dance. I regularly attend lessons and social dances for East Coast Swing (Lindy Hop), West Coast Swing, and Latin dancing (Salsa/Bachata/Merengue). As an introvert, I find that dancing is when I feel the most connected to people. I can be around large groups without freaking out because I’m only connecting to one person at any given time. At the same time, though, I get to dance with about 20-30 people at each event, meaning I’m spending time and getting in tune with multiple people over a short amount of time without exhausting myself. Dance keeps me sane; all of my other hobbies, including (or especially) writing, tend to keep me far too wrapped up in my own head to be healthy. And yet, I recently realized that one of the dance styles I love actually helps me with my writing.
All dancing tells a story (whether it’s an enjoyable/aesthetically pleasing one is up to the ability of the dancers) through the music and the musical interpretations of the dancers. East Coast Swing and Salsa definitely help me tell a story, but I’ve found that as they are more upbeat, fast, and based on established forms and patterns, the tale in my head doesn’t develop as much nuance and complexity as I would like. Faster dances (of the unchoreographed variety) don’t really allow for much time to think or react to the music, so it doesn’t help me with my stories as much. West Coast Swing, on the other hand, tends to be slower. There are a few basic steps and turns, but the majority of the dance is focused on improvisation: feeling the beat, listening to the lyrics and the various instruments, and then moving your body in a way that both fits what’s happening in the music and what your partner is doing. When I dance WCS, I continuously find myself not thinking much about the dance itself; rather, I’m creating a character in my head as I move through the dance, but instead of writing it down, I’m acting it out through my movements. Not only have I gotten some really interesting ideas for stories from this kind of dancing (particularly from dances to Maroon 5’s “One More Night” and the Civil Wars’ acoustic rendition of “Billie Jean”), but it actually makes me more creative and better able to write. If I sit down and write after an enjoyable and inspiring dance, the words flow. My creativity is awakened, and I’m far more in tune with my characters, the story, and my own mind than I am if I try to write normally. Obviously, I can’t go out dancing every time I want to work on a story, and I don’t always have the time to sit down and write after a WCS event. But it helps my creativity in general, and those golden moments when circumstances align themselves just right spark my imagination like nothing else. Even dancing alone in my room with whatever funky music comes up on my Spotify playlist can help. You’re telling a story through your body movements, and you’re relaxing your brain enough to let the creativity flow. So here’s some advice from that wise philosopher, Lady Gaga: “Just dance, it’ll be okay.” It will. And you may find that something good and creative comes from it.
I hope that all of you are having a wonderful week. If you haven’t been watching The Strain, I suggest that you get caught up (I know it’s available on Comcasts Xfinity) and start watching it. Thus far I thoroughly love the show! Anyway, you’re here for a story challenge. So, in case you haven’t done this challenge before, I’m going to post a picture. Your job is to write a story about what is happening in said picture. Feel free to flesh it out some, to add things to the picture (you’ll probably have to with this one), but make sure that your story is actually about the picture that I post. For example, if I post a picture of a dart competition in a bar, don’t write a story about slavers selling mermaids. If I post a picture of a sorcerer casting a spell at the top of his tower, don’t write a story about a fist-fighter competing in the ring. So, no that you’ve got a good concept of what your doing, here’s your picture. Remember, if your going to post a story here, keep it under 500 words. If you want to post a longer story on your own blog, feel free to post a link to it here.
Well, it’s Sunday, and you know that means that we’re going to take the day off. Well… take the day off from blogging anyway. I have 100+ pages to read and a paper to write, so I’m not going to have much in the way of down-time today. Anyway, I hope that you’re all enjoying your day of rest, and hopefully resting a little more than I actually am. I did find you something pretty darn cool to look at though!
Welcome to the end of the week, everyone! I hope that you’re enjoying yourselves and that you’re all playing and working hard. I just started Leon Gautier’s Chivalry and Walter Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel. I have to admit that these are not my favorite books in my reading thus far. So, honestly, after these I’ll be reading Fletcher’s Situational Ethics and a book by Philip Ivanhoe on Mengzi (I can’t remember what it’s called). I’m looking forward to those, honestly. Anyway, we’re still working on fleshing out your world, so today’s plot challenge is a pretty basic one. I’m going to give you a very general idea for a setting, and then a few basic character archetypes to work off of. Feel free to alter things as you see fit.
Your Setting: A Fantasy World. You should already have a basic map of your world drawn up. Now I want you to focus on a particular nation. Identify and name landscape features (i.e. specific mountains, rivers, lakes, bays, forests, etc) and national borders. You might want to look at actual maps before drawing your own. Remember that the world is shaped the way it is for a reason. You can’t have a forest in the middle of a desert, rivers flowing away from the ocean, or mountains that shape into a perfect square. You should also name the major cities/counties/states/etc of this nation. It might be a group of loosely aligned city-states, a feudal land, or a democratic nation made up of voting states. Identify the key-working parts in the social, cultural, political, religious, and academic geography. Is there one city that is well known for its universities? Another that is a center of culture and political power? This is the time to figure these things out. You should also decide who lives in your nation. Demographics are helpful here. Different races, ethinicities, etc may exist in different proportions. List them out. If you want to get really involved, list out the demographics for each specific city.
A Child Prodigy: This could be a noble child who has been well-cared for and whose abilities have been suitably encouraged, or this could be an orphan child who’s used his skills to set up a criminal empire. This could be something completely different also.
A Court Wizard: This could be a conniving sorcerer like Jafar from Aladdin, a jester who dabbles in magic, a powerful alchemist who is loyal to the king, etc. You know you’re world so I’m sure you can find a place for him.
A Religious Leader: Perhaps this is a cardinal or bishop in some state sanctioned church, or a fearsome warrior monk who leads the nations armies on the battle fields. He could be a true believer, or someone who uses the trappings of religion to gain power for himself.
A Noble Romantic: This could be a wandering poet like Lord Byron or noble lady pining for a knight to come and rescue her.
A Bloodthirsty Maniac: This could be a serial killer like Jack the Ripper, a warlord like Attila the Hun, or a wicked knight like Raoul de Cambri.
Dystopias are all the rage these days. From The Hunger Games and Divergent to Elysium and Transcendence and everything in between, It seems like about half of all summer blockbusters and 95% of all popular young adult novels feature a post-apocalyptic or dystopian society in some form or another. I exaggerate, of course, but not by much.
Some may ask just what exactly it is that makes dystopias so appealing and long-lasting in our society. There could be a lot of answers to this question, but after taking a class on Utopian Literature and incorporating the dystopian trend into my Master’s thesis (currently in progress), I think I’ve learned at least some of the answers.
The great thing about dystopias is not the futuristic sci-fi action or high-tech special effects. In fact, dystopias aren’t necessarily even about the future. Sure, many of them are set centuries in the future in societies that have gone too far in some direction or another. But they’re really just projections of concerns, fears, or criticisms that we have about our present-day society. Dystopias look at the flaws and problems in society currently and ask, “What if this was taken to an extreme? What if humanity continues going down this dark path for however many years in the future?” And then they answer those questions, sometimes in very poignant or haunting ways.
In my experience, there are at least two major criteria that make dystopias; most dystopias include one or both of these in some form or another.
1. In a different or future society, some advanced technology is misused or overused.
Many dystopias involve or focus on technology, which is not terribly surprising considering the haunting implications that some modern technologies could bring about. One classic example is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which human beings are grown from test tubes, mass produced just like automobiles, and psychologically conditioned from birth. Another example is Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, in which people become so dependent on technology to perform all their tasks that humans become lazy and obsolete. The wrong or excessive use of some technological innovation can provide fascinating insights into human nature and why man uses things the way he does.
2. In a different or future society, some wrong practice has become the law or the expected cultural norm.
In this sense, dystopias are not necessarily about technology or the future, but more so about human nature and human society. Literary critic Northrop Frye described a utopia as a society “governed by ritual habit,” so it’s not necessarily technology that goes wrong, but just human behavior and government. There are a number of literary dystopias worth looking into that don’t contain much science fiction, including Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Similarly, some more realistic American novels about secluded societies have been considered dystopian, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Some dystopian stories take place only in the near future and thus don’t include many technological differences from today’s time, such as the comic books V for Vendetta and Y: The Last Man.
3. Some dystopias combine both of the above criteria. For example, in The Hunger Games and Divergent, advanced technology plays a prominent role in the plot and the setting, but it’s not the main focus of the dystopia. The stories are more about the government and its restrictions on the people.
So, if you’re looking to write a dystopia, you shouldn’t necessarily start with the setting itself or the finer details of advanced technological trappings. Start with an idea about society and something that it’s doing wrong, or that it could conceivably be doing wrong in an extreme way in another time and place. Then flesh out the specifics from there. What is this society like? In what ways exactly are the people and/or the government taking things too far? What are the people like who will dissent or disagree with the values of their culture? What will happen when these two ideologies come into conflict?
As an example, I’ll use a dystopian novel that I’m currently working on (and, by “currently working on,” I mean that I wrote two chapters some time ago and am totally going to finish the whole thing one day when I have more time to write). I didn’t decide from the beginning that I wanted to write a dystopia. In fact, I wasn’t even intentionally brainstorming for story ideas at all. Instead, I was just feeling frustrated by our culture’s attitude toward relationships (a topic which I’ve written about more extensively on my personal blog) and society’s overemphasis on needing a romantic relationship to be happy. And then I got to thinking.
“What if, in the future, there was a society where this obsession with relationships was mandated by law—or at least by strict cultural expectations? What if, for example, people were required on their 18th birthday, as soon as they hit adulthood, to choose a partner to spend the rest of their lives with? What if people who remained single were outcasts or exiles? And what if there was a teenage boy coming up on 18 who wasn’t that interested in relationships and didn’t want to be forced to choose a partner before he was ready?” Suddenly the central premise and conflict of the story began to fall into place.
I asked myself other questions about this society, too. If people are forced to choose their perfect soulmate at only 18, then does that system actually work to foster positive and healthy relationships? Or would there still be divorce, unfaithfulness, and unhappiness in relationships, despite society’s best efforts? I concluded that these negative elements would indeed still exist in this world. Often, that’s a hallmark of what makes a work dystopian rather than utopian: society tries something that is meant to keep everyone happy and in line, but ultimately the system still falls apart because flawed human nature keeps coming through.
Your challenge is to write a dystopian story, either a short story or the beginning of something longer. (Each presents its own set of challenges. In a short story, you have limited space in which do a lot of important worldbuilding for your society; in a novel, you have much more room, but it obviously takes much more time and effort to finish!) Either way, start by trying to pinpoint a few flaws in society or human nature that you’ve noticed, and then ask yourself what it would be like if those flaws were made law or taken to the extreme. Ask yourself what life would be like for people who didn’t go along with the values of this culture. If you can answer these questions and flesh out some more details, then you’re well on your way to writing a thought-provoking piece of dystopian fiction!
Well… I read nearly two hundred pages today of moral theology and Japanese history. It was fun… also kind of exhausting, but a lot of fun. Now I’m camping down to watch a move while I try to decompress and start a paper. So, I hope that all of your days have been as productive and enjoyable! Anyway, I imagine that you’re here for your scene challenge. If you don’t know the rules: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene. Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction. If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit. If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.
Your challenge: Go troll the web (preferably with a friend). Find something that strikes you as interesting and try to write a scene of at least 300 words describing the situation, scenario, scene, whatever. This could take multiple formats. For instance, you could write as though you were the one doing whatever you found. You could write from the perspective of a fictional character reading the story that you read. You could even write the scene as though it was an article or an incident report. The form is entirely up to you. When you’ve both finished your scenes, trade and read what the other person wrote. How did your perspective and personality affect the scene that you wrote? What did each of you focus on? What details are present in both stories, and what details are unique to each? Consider your particular viewpoints, attitudes, beliefs, and emotional connections. How did each of this affect your scene?