Fiction as Theology Part 1: Is Fiction Theology and If So, What does this Mean?

waffles-vs-pancakesYesterday I started reading John Frame’s A Theology of Lordship Volume 3: Doctrine of the Christian Life. I bring this up because Frame makes the claim in his introduction that life is theology and theology is ethics, thus life is ethics. Now, he explains that by this he does not mean that there God is desperately interested in whether I have pancakes or waffles for breakfast in the morning, and thus my decision between pancakes and waffles is both a theologically significant and morally important decision. However, if I am to understand the purpose of my existence as being to glorify God (consider that Colossians 1:16 tells us that everything exists 1) because God made it, and 2) for God’s purposes) then the way I approach my decision about having pancakes or waffles (or perhaps sausage and eggs or a bowl of fruit) fundamentally changes. No longer am I considering this decision simply as a matter of preference, but I am considering how to best glorify God–which inevitably involves my own enjoyment of his creation, my health as a human being, the example that I am setting for others, the habits that I am forming as an individual, etc. Suddenly my decision about what to have for breakfast is no longer merely a choice of which tastes I prefer this morning, but it is a matter of 1) who I am as an individual and who I want to become as an individual, 2) what the likely results of my actions are, 3) what the intrinsic nature of my actions is, and 4) how my actions express the image of God that I bear. Now, all of this may sound unbearably and unnecessarily complex for those non-Christians reading this post. However, I might point out that this is not wholly dissimilar to Aristotle’s perspective, though with an eye towards the Christian God. More importantly, I might point that that any belief system requires a focus. For me this focus is God, for a Muslim it may be Allah, for an Atheist it may be their own good or some abstracted concept of the common good. Now, as a Christian I will argue that some of these foci are more intrinsically valuable than others, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a focus to each of them. Every action is performed for an end–even when that end isn’t consciously considered.

blind-beliefSome of you may also be wondering what in the world any of this has to do with writing fiction, and I’m getting to that, though this is only the first of three posts. Reading Frame’s argument got me thinking: is writing a theological practice? If life is theology and theology is ethics, then it must necessarily include that fiction writing is a practice of theology which is in turn an application of ethics. Thus, all fiction writing would be the practice of theology. How might this be so? Does this mean that Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a work of practical theology? Well, when practical theology is considered as a discipline, not so much. However, when practical theology is defined as the application of one’s beliefs about god, gods, or the lack thereof to some particular aspect of life in this world, then yes, in a sense it is. I must stress this in a sense because Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, while certainly a work of political philosophy, says little, if anything, about God. However, consider that everything we write is set on the basis of our fundamental notions*. A friend recently described Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series to me as ‘very clearly a Mormon fantasy,’ and he was exactly correct. Sanderson is a Mormon and this particular series is very clearly a fantasy (well-written and well-plotted) that is heavily influenced by a Mormon conception of god, life, and the universe. What we believe often has a much greater influence on what we write than we realize. Often, even when we go out of our way to write something that is fundamentally not what we believe, it still clearly communicates to others what we believe.

trust_me__i__m_ten___t_shirt_design_by_lantis_erin-d52yu6xSo, what do we do with this knowledge? What does this mean for Christian, Atheist, Mormon, Hindu, Agnostic, Wiccan, or generally confused writers? First, I will point out that it is fundamentally impossible to not have beliefs. As soon as we are exposed to something we begin to form beliefs and opinions about it. These may be more or less informed, more or less accurate, more or less consistent with other beliefs, etc. However, the only way to have no beliefs at all is to not exist, and the only way to have no beliefs about some particular idea or thing is to never be exposed to it. So, in my next two posts I’m going to focus on two questions: 1) how can my writing help me to explore my own beliefs and discover inconsistencies in them? 2) how can my writing help me to communicate my beliefs effectively to others?

I hope that you’re looking forward to them. I’m looking forward to writing them, that’s for sure.

* This is true whether one holds to a historicist, empirical, constructivist, etc theory of knowledge. Regardless of what knowledge inherently is or how beliefs are initially acquired, once we have established a set of consistent beliefs or biases the rest of our interaction with the world (both input and output) tends to be defined around these beliefs and to reference them regularly.

Story Challenge of the Week

19er4kk5px22cjpgRelationships can be difficult. They take a lot of work, and sometimes they can be very painful. Honestly, I think that this is something that we all know, but knowing it and experiencing it are two very different things. This is what I want you to write about in your story challenge today. Not the fact that relationships are hard work, though if you want to use that as a topic feel free to do so, but the idea that knowing something is very different from experiencing it. 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.

Your Challenge: The difference between knowledge and experience

Philosophical Story Challenge

screen-shot-2011-12-11-at-9-03-25-pmHey guys it’s Saturday again so it’s time for another Philosophical Story Challenge. This week I want us to take a step away from the ethical challenges we’ve been dealing with and instead focus on Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. Specifically I want us to focus on the Gettier problem. The Gettier problem comes from the Philosopher Edmund Gettier who published a short article called “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Prior to the publishing of this work it was commonly accepted that if you had a justified true belief you had knowledge. What this means is that you hold a belief to be true which actually is true and you are justified in believing it to be true then you have real knowledge; Gettier, however, disagreed with this and posed two scenarios which challenged this idea. The easiest way to explain the problem involves a man with a broken watch. His watch stopped working at a certain time without his knowledge and 12 hours later exactly he decides to casually glance at his watch for the time. He believes his watch to still be working so he believes the time that it tells and he is justified in this belief, and it happens to be true–is this real knowledge? Gettier didn’t think so and most philosopher’s today don’t think so either. Your challenge today is to write your own short story that portrays the Gettier problem of a justified true belief being true by chance alone (making it really an unjustified true belief that is only thought to be a justified true belief). As always please try to keep your stories under 1,000 words if you want to post them on here; otherwise feel free to write more!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

12477728534dlbjtcHello everyone, I hope you are having a good week so far! Welcome to Saturday. For this week’s philosophical story challenge I want to bring us back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and his most widely used phrase: “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing onto you.” The idea behind this is that water is constantly in motion and as such we are never stepping into the same water. Heraclitus used this statement to express the core idea of his philosophy; that the universe, like water, is constantly in motion. We are never in the same place twice. Even now, as you sit at your computer reading this, you have moved thousands of miles in space around our sun. Similarly, the cells in our bodies are constantly changing and moving throughout our lifetime. This week, I want you to write a story in which there are as few constants as possible and everything is changing from one moment to the next. How would we know anything? How would we communicate? What would we look like? Explore the idea of a universe that is in much more motion than even our own. As always, keep yours stories within 100-1000 words if you want to post them on here, but feel free to go beyond that for your own personal writings. Have fun!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

tumblr_liz8iqo5Pe1qbd1pdo1_400Well everyone, it seems another week has rolled around and its time for another Philosophical Story Challenge. This week the prompt is the question, “how do you know?” How can we really anything? If you follows Berkeley’s school of thought, the material world and all our experiences of it are really contained in our own heads. If this is true, how much can we really know of the external world? Descartes also wrestled with this and it led him to his famous quote “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes doubted everything he could doubt and it led him to the simple conclusion that he knows he exists, because in order to doubt, which is a type of thought, one must exist. From that standpoint he tried to base his entire system of knowledge. If we require 100% certainty on anything, we cannot truly say that we know it, which ultimately leads us to ask the question: “if we cannot be 100% certain of anything external, what is an acceptable level of certainty for us to claim knowledge?” There are many theories and ideas regarding this, so if you want to dig deeper for this challenge you might find it beneficial to do some research on theories of knowledge. As always, please keep your stories between 100-1000 words if you want to post them on here.

Philosophical Story Challenge

This picture was found here, along with a fun article on the Indian philosophy of knowledge.

Well, I had some fun coming up with an extra challenge post this week! However, I’ve been working for most of my day, so I’m going to keep this brief. Your challenge this week is to write a story, 1000 words or less, in which you answer the question: What does it mean ‘to know’? This is a foundational philosophical question, and is followed by the question: How do we ‘know’? There are many theories of knowledge, and whether you are a skeptic who believes that nothing can be known, you rely on justifiable basic beliefs upon which to found your knowledge, you found your concept of knowledge on the coherency of your beliefs, or you believe only what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste (or whatever you think knowledge is) you must present your beliefs in the form of a fictional story. Make sure that you avoid creating characters who are nothing more than mouthpieces for your own beliefs, and avoid the basic logical fallacies*. You want to write an interesting and compelling story that leads the reader to your conclusion, instead of explaining to the reader what your conclusion is.

*Here is a good website listing and explaining several of the basic logical fallacies.

A Little Bit of Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher who died at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Alright, Cassandra wasn’t able to write her post for today.  First official post on the blog, for shame…of course, I kid.  She’s busy covering for her boss, and so today you get a bunch of quotes from one of my favorite philosophers.  Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who said, well many things.  I’m not going into all of it right now, but the quotes below run from very serious, to roll on the floor and laugh.  I hope you enjoy them, learn from them, and have fun!

* All of the sayings provided in this post were taken from chapter 4 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil which is available here.

“Knowledge for its own sake,”—that is the ultimate snare which morality sets: with that one gets fully entangled once again in morality.

Man is most dishonest in relation to his god: he is not permitted to sin!

The charm of knowledge would be slight, if there were not so much embarrassment to overcome on the route to knowledge.

“I have done that” says my memory. I could not have done that—says my pride and remains implacable. Finally—my memory gives up.

Some peacocks hide their peacock’s tails from all eyes—and call that their pride.

A man with genius is unendurable if he does not possess at least two things in addition: gratitude and cleanliness.

With their principles people want to tyrannize their habits or justify them or honour them or abuse them or hide them:—two men with the same principles probably want them for fundamentally different things.

It is dreadful to die of thirst in the sea. Must you then salt your truth so much that it can no longer—quench your thirst?

Woman learns to hate to the extent that she forgets how to enchant.

Beyond Good and Evil, one of Nietzsche's seminal works

Behind all personal vanity women themselves still have their impersonal contempt—for “woman.”

We begin to mistrust very clever people when they become embarrassed.

Dreadful experiences lead one to wonder whether the person who undergoes them is not something dreadful.

Maturity in a man: that means having found once again that seriousness which man had as a child, in play.

To discover that one is loved in return should really bring the lover down about his beloved. “How’s that? Is this person modest enough to love even you? Or stupid enough? Or—or—. . .”

It is not their love of humanity but the impotence of their love of humanity that prevents today’s Christians—from burning us.

Once the decision has been made, to shut your ears even to the best counterarguments: a sign of a strong character. Also an occasional will to stupidity.

Sensuality often makes the growth of love too fast, so that the root remains weak and easy to rip out.

What someone is begins to show itself when his talent subsides—when he stops showing what he can do. Talent is also finery, and finery is also a hiding place.

One man seeks a midwife for his ideas, another seeks someone whom he can help: that’s how a good conversation arises.

By associating with scholars and artists one easily makes mistakes in reverse directions: behind a remarkable scholar we not infrequently find an average human being, and behind an average artist we often find—a very remarkable human being.

Apparently gods don't poop...

The lower abdomen is the reason man does not so easily consider himself a god.

What an age finds evil is commonly an anachronistic echo of what previously was found to be good—the atavism of an older ideal.

With individuals madness is something rare—but with groups, parties, peoples, and ages it’s the rule.

Love brings to light the high and the hidden characteristics of the person who loves—what is rare and exceptional about him: to that extent it easily misleads us about what is normal in him.

With hard people intimacy is shameful thing—and something precious.

Christianity gave Eros poison to drink—but he didn’t die from that. He degenerated into a vice.

“Not that you lied to me but that I no longer believe you has shaken me.”—

There is a high-spirited goodness which looks like malice.

Write What You… Part One: Write What You Know

Seriously, if you stick to what you know, everything will be easier.

If you’ve been writing for very long you’ve probably heard this phrase.  We all hear it, ninety percent of us choose to ignore it, and then we learn why we heard it in the first place.  I was part of that ninety percent.  I’d love to say that I wasn’t.  I like to be different, to stand out, but in this – I was right in the middle of the crowd.  There is a reason that people will tell you to write what you know, and I’ll get to that, but let me start off with a story.

It was several years ago, shortly after I started to get serious about my writing, that I decided it was a good idea to write a fantasy, horror, western.  I came up with a few really great characters, and a plot that was strong, yet intricate.  The fantasy part I was solid on – I write fantasy, always have.  The horror part I was also solid on; I even did a little bit of research about monsters from the American southwest.  However, the western part I was not solid on.  By fifty pages into the story it was clear to me, and everyone who read the short lived piece, that I had never lived in the American west, and that I had little interest in the historic American west.  I just made stuff up, I didn’t care enough about the ‘western’ part of fantasy, horror, western, to do the research that needed to be done, and the project quickly died.  That was when I learned to write what I know.

Hit the books people!

I said I would get to the reason that people tell you to write what you know, so here it is.  If you don’t know much about your topic, then it shows.  It distorts, or even destroys, the reality of your world – and this leads to readers who don’t bother to finish your book.  Not knowing much about your topic also makes the writing much more difficult.  I can make up stuff about living in the American Midwest, but the more I make up, the less confident I am in what I’m writing.  The more I make up, the more likely it is that I will get something important wrong.  For instance, did you know that there is abundant plant growth in the Sahara?  When we think of the Sahara we think of unending sand dunes.  However, while this is a part of the Sahara – dry, desolate landscape actually makes up only a small portion of the area that we refer to as the Sahara Desert.  There are also scrub lands, and even forests in the Sahara.  Something that most of us wouldn’t have considered if we were writing about the area.

If you don't know, then you can learn.

Now you might know a lot, and you can always learn more.  If you want to write a western, but know nothing about the American west then you can do some research.  Better yet, you can move out to Nevada and do your research there. You can always find ways to learn about most anything that you really want to write about.  However, if you don’t care enough to learn, then you won’t write a very good story.  It really is that simple.  For instance, my novel Among the Neshelim takes place in a desert.  I have never lived in a desert like the one that I describe in the novel.  However, I did a lot of research about the kinds of plants, animals, insects, people, and cultures that thrive in deserts.  Then I did even more research about the way deserts work.  Even then I got things wrong, but I asked a number of people to read the book and point out any problems before it was published.

If you stick to writing about what you are already familiar with, then you probably won’t write much – most of us have fairly limited experiences.  However, if you are willing to broaden your horizons for the sake of you’re writing, to do a little leg work to find out if what you’re writing is even remotely realistic, then you can accomplish some pretty great things.