How do we determine when a person is, well… a person? This question has been around in one form or another for a long time, but it has developed a new level of urgency over the past few decades as it has become a key question in the debate over the moral legitimacy of abortion (and thus whether abortion should be legal). Life, defined scientifically, unquestionably begins at conception. This is true for all creatures that reproduce through sexual relations of any form. Thus, human life (again, defined scientifically) also begins as conception when a new living organism exists and begins to grow through cellular division.
However, many have raised the question as to when human personhood (or human life where life is non-scientifically defined) begins at the same time as human life. This has a strong relation to questions about human death as well. For instance, a brain-dead body can be kept alive for a time (sometimes an extended period of time) through advances in medical technology. However, does this mean that the person is still actually alive? A simple biological definition of life doesn’t really seem to account for what we normally mean by human life, and certainly if we define life so simply then we seem to have a moral responsibility to go to every possible length to keep a body a live even when the brain is clearly dead (or even mostly removed).
This has led many scholars to present and defend a wide variety of arguments about when human personhood begins. The most common placements are at conception, either because personhood and biological life are seen as synonymous or because the natural potential of future personhood is seen as equivalent to actual personhood (i.e. it is wrong to abort an embryo because it will one day be a fully functioning person, but it is not morally required to keep an ancephalic baby [i.e. a baby born without or with only minimal brain matter] alive through mechanical intervention because there is no possibility that it will every be a person); at the first sign of brain activity (as brain activity is seen to indicate internal life and personality); at birth (as the baby is no-longer dependent upon its mother and is clearly a living, conscious, independent organism); or at the achievement of certain designated criteria (i.e. speech, cognizance, social usefulness, etc). There are arguments for and against each of these positions. For instance, some have pointed out that the argument from human potential is flawed because we don’t treat an acorn like an oak tree, or a dog embryo like a beloved pet. Others have pointed out that the argument from designated criteria is flawed because it is easily possible to define personhood in such a way that most living humans today are not human persons. The argument for personhood at birth has been attacked by pointing out that the baby is actually still dependent upon its mother in a great many ways, and by pointing out the the baby has significant aspects of humanness (i.e. human appearance, brain waves, heart beat, physical behavior, communication, etc) long before it is actually born.
Further, some Christian scholars have rejected all of the above arguments as naturalistic and argued that the only significant criteria for human personhood is ensoulment (i.e. when a body becomes a living soul). Three major views have been presented along these lines: pre-existentism argues that human beings exist as souls long before they are born (some argue from eternity past) and that God implants these already existing souls into bodies at some point in the gestation process (normally some point between the first appearance of brain-waves and the birth of the child); creationism argues that every soul is specially and individually created by God and implanted in the body at some point during gestation (historically between 40 days after conception and 30 days after birth, but most modern creationists will argue that souls are created and implanted immediately at the moment of conception); Traducianism argues that the soul is ultimately created by God, but immediately formed through the blending of the souls of the parents just as the body is ultimately created by God, but immediately formed through the blending of the DNA of the parents, and that these are distinct but conjoined spiritual and physical processes such that the soul is not physical in nature, but that it necessarily begins its formation at the moment of conception just as the body necessarily begins its formation at the moment of conception. Each of these concepts of ensoulment has been attacked and defended on both biblical and theological grounds. It has been pointed out the creationism has little biblical support and that it presents problems for a clear understanding of how sin is transmitted from parent to child unless one resorts to a Manichean division of flesh as evil and sinful but spirit as good and pure. Pre-existentism has been attacked as having little biblical support and that it raises questions about the actual connection between soul and body such that murder seems to be wrong simply because of divine fiat and not because any part of the image of God is harmed (as scripture seems to indicate). Traducianism has been attacked as having little biblical support (let’s be honest, the bible doesn’t say a whole lot about ensoulment in the first place, so this criticism is universal) and as being prone to a physicalist reduction that denies the spiritual nature of man.
So, here is your challenge for today. Given everything presented above, what do you think a human person is? When does personhood begin and how can we tell?
As always, write a story of 1000 words or more that presents your response to the question.
Have I mentioned that I’m currently reading Dante’s Inferno to our child? I can’t remember if I’ve said that or not. Honestly, I spent a lot of time today (… …a lot of time today…) researching prenatal stimulation and communication, which was pretty cool. Apparently it’s not only good to talk/read to your child, but also to play a wide variety of different music for him/her and also (later in the pregnancy) to play tapping games with the child when he or she is awake and kicking. So, tonight the little wunderkind listened to Vivaldi and Inferno and tomorrow night it will probably be Johnny Cash. We want to hit most or all of the different musical styles during the next few months of the pregnancy… speaking of which, can anyone suggest some good Jazz artists? Alayna can cover the hip-hop, R&B, Alternative, etc end of things, and I can cover the classical, folk, traditional oriental etc side of things, and a very little bit of country, but neither of us listens to much in the way of Jazz. Anyway, without further ado, I have a writing exercise for you. 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: “Papa, I want…”
Writer’s block, as we have mentioned before, is a real pain in the…er…plot. Mine’s lasted for about three months. I’ve spent agonizing hours in front of my computer screen, trying desperately to write something, more agonizing hours plotting chapter outlines in the showers, and even more…less agonizing hours doing everything but writing as I pretend that I’m not working on a novel. However, someone has finally dipped the Bucket of Motivation (+5 to Stamina, +3 to Persuasion) into the Well of Lost Plots, and I find myself writing again, quite enthusiastically. Such a happy occurrence, is, of course, not due solely to sheer force of will (iron though mine may be) or a new influx of brilliant ideas (even though I’m sure those are en route). Rather, my new and improved page count is due to a potent combination of three motivational strategies that I thought I would share with you today, in the hopes that something in a similar vein may work for any of my fellow suffers.
I joined a Guild. Well, of sorts. We call ourselves that for motivational purposes and because most of us are writing fantasy stories, so it fits the tone of our works. That, and it just sounds cool. Anyway, there’s a group of six of us in a six-week program. We set individual goals and milestones for the duration of the program, public for everyone in the group to see, and let the coordinator know what kind of feedback we’re looking for. Each person is paired with two reviewers and two reviewees. I post what I’ve written every other week, and my reviewers comment on what I’ve written, using the requested feedback guidelines, after which I do the same for my assigned reviewees. I’ve been a little bit behind on my deadlines, but I’ve kept working at it, and writing is being done.
Why it works: Double accountability. General accountability doesn’t often work for me; just knowing I’m supposed to write a certain number of pages every week so I can show it to someone at the end of the week doesn’t put enough pressure on me to break the writer’s block. The Guild’s system, however, means that I have to comment on and provide feedback for other people’s writing, and that means terrible self-inflicted guilt when I don’t meet my own goals for them to critique. The threat of that guilt and (for me, anyway) embarrassment is enough to make me write, even if I feel like what I’ve written is crap.
Bargaining. As most of you know by now, I am an avid Star Trek RP’er. Tom and I both role-play on The USS Intrepid (now recruiting, if anyone’s interested) and the new Play-By-Email site Outpost Eden. Both sites are a great deal of fun, and I spend a lot of time writing for my various characters. Tom has even more dedication to the sites, and he has also been wrestling with writer’s block. So we made a deal: I can’t post on either site until I’ve written 500 words on my novel that day, and he can’t post until he’s written his 500 words. I let him know when I’ve met my goal, and he does the same (or, if I finish first, I pester him until he reaches his goal, because that’s what a good First Officer does).
Why it works: it’s the reward system, with (for me) high-stakes consequences. I’ve been role-playing for almost a decade, and this writing forum is extremely important to me. I love it very much. So knowing that I can’t do anything with it until I accomplish another task makes me focus very, very hard on getting those 500 words written.
General Deviousness (aka, Netflix). When I write academic papers, I can’t have any distractions. The only song I can bear to listen to is the 24-hour playlist version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Knowing this, I’d never tried creative writing with any background noise, thinking it would just distract me. However, this past weekend, I put on an episode of Suits, pulled up my Word document, and started writing. Lo and behold, I managed to get almost a thousand words written in the space of two episodes of one of my favorite shows. Repeat attempts at this strategy have proven successful (as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this blog post now), and so I’m rather happy to have discovered it.
Why it works: Distraction. Writing brings out two of my biggest neuroses: perfectionism and linear thinking (logical plot progression). My need to make everything perfect the first time and know exactly how each detail fits into the plot often makes my writer’s block the major problem that it is. I overthink. But when I turn on Netflix, my focus is split, and the perfectionist bit of my brain gets distracted. I write almost on autopilot, and my subconscious brain takes over. Writing gets done, and it may need a good bit of revision afterwards, but the important part is that the words are there.
In summation: Double-accountability, the reward system, and distraction. On their own, none of these three methods worked for me, but together? They’re magic. I’m writing. My characters are speaking. And the story happens. I encourage you to try combining methods, when you have difficulty writing. Find what combination works for you, even if it’s weird, and let it fuel your writing. What strategies work for you, and why?
Waiting is difficult. I feel like I’m waiting on a lot of things right now. I’m waiting to hear back from Ph.D. programs. I’m waiting to hear back about the articles that I submitted (I mentioned that, right?). I’m waiting to be a father. I’m waiting to find out if we need to move. Waiting can cause a lot of anxiety, stress, fear, etc. It can be emotionally and physically draining. Further, often the more important the thing you’re waiting on, the more fear/anxiety/stress/etc. you have concerning it. All of the things that I’m waiting on right now are… important… life-changing important. I like to think that I’m handling it fairly well, but I have to admit that it gets to me sometimes. If find myself looking for distractions rather than living up to responsibilities (or some times as well as living up to responsibilities), having trouble sleeping, turning inward at times when I probably should turn outward. I’ve generally developed fairly healthy stress management habits over the past decade, but I still struggle with some very unhealthy ones (especially over-eating and binging on video-games and bad anime). These are things that I’m trying to avoid at the moment. Anyway, I bring this up because it’s your topic today. I want you to write a story about how waiting is hard. So, you know the rules. Take your subject and run with it. Write me a story of 1000 words or less and stay on topic. As before, if it’s in any way applicable, you should use this to try to develop your world a little more :).
Your Challenge: Write me a story about the hardship of waiting. This could be a story that describes a personal experience, focuses on the emotional trials of waiting, or focuses on the physical outlets that we often pursue. You could focus on the challenge of waiting for something important, or you could try to show how the difficulties of waiting can force us to stretch and grow. In some way though, your story needs to have a strong focus on why waiting is hard.
Well, in a comment on Tuesday’s post Wayne made an excellent point, and while my series this week hasn’t been focused on his point, it is one that I believe is extremely important and that I want to address. In Christian theology, and I am utterly convinced in all truth, the Holy Spirit is active and works in the life of every believer, even before that individual becomes a believer. Every biblical theologian with a lick of sense (including Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Arminius, etc–my point here is major figures from each of the significant camps of Christian soteriology) accepts the doctrine that the holy spirit works in the life of the believer both after they are saved, to guide them in (as Paul puts it) working out their own salvation in fear and trembling, and before they are saved in initiating within them the ability to respond to God. In John 15 Jesus tells his followers that if they abide in him he will abide in them, and many theologians take this to refer to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the human soul. H. Richard Niebuhr, in his book The Responsible Self, makes the excellent point that a Christian should imagine the world around him as under the control of a sovereign God, and thus respond to every action as though it were an action in God’s design. This is not an argument that the believer should respond to sinners as though their sins were God’s perfect will for their lives, but that the believer should respond to sinners as though God allowed them to remain in their sins, and allowed those sins to affect the life of the believer, and thus should respond to those sins primarily as though he were responding to God’s hand in his life, and only secondarily respond to them as though they were sinful actions performed by sinful men.
The Holy Spirit is what Christians believe guides us towards and in this response. That if I am abiding in Christ then I can respond to all things as God would have me respond to them (i.e. as though responding to God’s hand in my life), and thus live out his calling to be holy, or wholly set apart for his worship through the of bearing his image to the world. Now, there are many mysteries here, not the least of which is that which has occupied Calvinists and Arminians through several centuries of sometimes vicious debate–the question of how the salvation of any individual may be both God’s choice from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1 and 2, etc) through which the individual was crucified with Christ, buried with him, raised with him, and ascended with him into glory, and be the individuals own efficacious choice (1 Peter 3, 2 Timothy 2, Matthew 23, etc) to repent of his/her sin, confess Christ as Lord, and submit to Him before which he/she cannot be saved. There are actually two mysteries here–1) how salvation can be both man’s own efficacious choice and God’s preknown, predestined will before creation, and 2) how man may both have been crucified, buried, raised, and glorified with Christ either after the individual’s own death (for those who lived before Christ), while the individual yet lived (for those who were contemporaries of Christ), or before the individual was born (for those who were born after Christ’s death), and not be saved until the individual repents of his/her sin and confesses Christ as Lord. These are things that don’t seem to work together, and yet we are told that they are true. Some have tried to reconcile them in various ways (which often leads to heresy of some kind as you must deny one truth to justify the other); attempted to use them to dismiss Christianity as illogical, unreasonable, or ludicrous (which only works if you have already dismissed on other grounds the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent, personal deity that is not bound by time); and some have accepted them as mysteries that are fundamentally true, but beyond our current understanding and thus knowable only to God.
So, here is your question: given these ideas 1) the indwelling of the holy spirit, 2) the unity and mystery of the faith, 3) the individual’s response to God in every action, and 4) the aid of the holy spirit in doing so, what does it mean to write fiction as a Christian?
Normally I would ask you to write a story of 1000 words. However, I have a feeling that 1000 words may not be enough for this topic. So, I’m going to ask you to either write a creative, non-fiction essay on the topic or write a short story of up to 20,000 words on the topic. Please don’t post these in the comment, but feel free to make shorter comments or to post links to your longer responses.
Welcome to Friday! Are you tired? I’m fairly tired. This has been a good week though. I’ve gotten a lot done, and that apartment is actually (mostly) clean for once, which is a nice thing. Alayna has the weekend off, so we’re going to get some good, quality time in and enjoy ourselves. Anyway, I have a plot challenge for you today. I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to develop a part of your world based on what you see. It should be a setting that is believable in your world, and that has potential for stories in it. Here’s you’re picture:
It’s interesting how little we often understand about ourselves. Everyone believes that they know themselves, know what they believe, know what they feel, know what they need, etc. And yet, when we are put to the test, we often find ourselves incapable of putting our beliefs into words. I see this with students all the time. A student will state a firmly held belief, and I will respond with ‘What do you mean by X?’ The almost inevitable response is ‘Umm… I don’t know,’ or ‘I’ve never thought about that,’ or ‘Well, I think what I mean is…’ followed by an often convoluted and/or contradictory explanation, or perhaps the more defensive and hostile, ‘It’s obvious, any normal person could understand what I mean! Why can’t you? Are you some kind of idiot?’ I’ve heard all of these countless times in response to very simple questions such as ‘what do you mean by good?’ Or ‘what do you mean by duty?’ Or ‘what do you mean by faith?’ The truth is that all of us have significant blind-spots in which we fundamentally don’t understand ourselves. Generally speaking, the more confident we are that we know ourselves very well, the less we actually know of ourselves, and the more likely we are to lash out at anyone who risks exposing that fact.
As authors, we should avoid that risk. One of the purposes of writing (whether fiction or non-fiction) is to explore our own inner worlds, discover what is there, and determine to change the things that need to be changed. I can easily give you a very personal example. In my own novel, Rise of the Neshelim, one of the issues that I dealt with was the nature of a god. This began as a minor side-notion in the book, something that was meaningful to the main character, but as a matter of idle curiosity. However, in attempting to present his own answer to the question, I realized that I wasn’t actually sure myself. I could give my own specific conception of what I meant by The God, or the triune Christian God. I could explain, as well as possible, the nature of the trinity, the attributes of Yahweh, and the roles of each person of the trinity. However, the main character of the book wasn’t a Christian. In fact, Christians don’t exist as such in his world. Thus, what I meant when I spoke of The God couldn’t be the character’s answer to what a god was, and further, I didn’t actually know how to answer that question myself. I believed in powerful spiritual forces other than Yahweh, in fact scripture speaks of a number of such entities, but simply saying that a god was a powerful spiritual force seemed insufficient. Thus, this question captured my mind, and in capturing my mind it captured the main character’s mind as well, and together we worked our way to a solution. In so doing, this question became more central to the plot of the novel than I had originally intended, but it also enhanced the major aspects of the novel with a deeper degree of meaning and understanding. It also helped me to understand how to answer my own question: what is a god?
This aspect of fiction writing is, I suspect, more important than I am able to express here. In every novel, and especially in every early novel from any particular author, I believe that it is likely that we see them working out in many ways their own understanding of themselves and their beliefs. This is especially true of theological and spiritual beliefs in the writing of fantasy, as gods, magical forces, and spiritual powers are important aspects of any work of fantasy. This does not mean that everything we learn about ourselves should be published. This is what editing is for: if you self-edit you will need to have a keen eye for areas where you have learned about yourself that do or don’t enhance the main story of your work (I suspect that I may have been poor at this myself), and often it will be better to have many other sets of eyes on your work, willing to point out areas where you should excise things that are personally important, but are not important to the story that you are telling.
Well, yesterday was my first day off in quite a while. Too bad it didn’t last longer :), but now it’s back to work. However, I got to spend about four hours yesterday reading comic books. I honestly can’t remember the last time I sat down and read through a comic book. I asked Alayna, and apparently it was before I met her, so it’s obviously been a while. All in all, it was a good day. Anyway, I have a scene challenge for you and you all should know the rules, but just in case: 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: Choose one of your favorite scenes from a novel. After reading the scene a couple of times, rewrite it in your own style and voice. The characters and basic elements of the scene should remain the same, but the way it is written should reflect your voice and style of writing, rather than the original author’s. This can be very challenging, so don’t be too disappointed if you need a few tries to go it well.