Friday, October 25, 2013

How Seculars view the Church

Many Figures On The Market Square In Front Of The Martinikirche, Braunschweig - Cornelis Springer

The Church has had an interesting role in modern fiction; sometimes it preys on the innocent, and acts like the center of intolerance and spiritual tyranny. At other times, it takes the role of mercy, in the form of kindly priests or wise ministers. Mostly, it is a force of spiritual light which does not illuminate, cast against a force of spiritual darkness that darkens just like the real thing.

What are we seeing here in literature? It's complicated. The Western world has always had an arduous relationship with Christianity.  It has loved Her, and it has tried to use Her for it's own ends. In a fit of boredom it forsook her, and sampled other things. But post-Christian thought failed,* and now the relationship between the two is choked. The west looks back at Christianity with a mix of admiration and horror, and literature reflects this. Authors sprinkle kindly ministers in between radical Knights Templar. Christianity is good, bad, sane and crazy--sometimes all at once.

This is not entirely secular bias. Christians have been good, bad, sane and crazy; and we shouldn't react to their confusion by setting the Church up as a utopia--secular readers will assume that the real Church is a dystopia. Churches really are large groups of sinful human beings, some of whom have accepted Christ, and some of whom have not. It's bound to get messy.

*  It only took two World Wars, a cold war and the rise of global Islam to show us that. Aren't we quick-witted?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Heart and Head writing.

The blow to the heart - Rene Magritte

Sometimes when writing, I encounter a sort of quandary--do I write from my heart or do I write from my head? Both have their benefits. When I am having a bad day there's no question about it. I will write from my heart; lest the day poison me. But why does it matter?

Mind based writing often lends itself to comedy or speculative fiction. If I am trying to write something light, I will write it from my head. My heart is much too melodramatic to make people laugh.  I will write humor, mysteries and novels with complex plots: I will need a sharp sense of wit and situation, but not always empathy. 

On the other end of the spectrum is heart based writing. The tear jerker and the deeply affecting short story spring, weeping, from the heart. My heart is a serious place, and the deeper my emotion, the more serious my tone.  My work will flip from heart rending sorrow to divine joy. Heart based writing digs deeply into the meaning of things, and mothers vivid descriptions. Or at least it will try.

Head based writing tends to describe the bare minimum. A head-based writer will notice the ocean, but a heart-based writer will gasp at the moonlight dancing on the water. A lot of this has to do with taste. Some of us are emotional people, and many more of us are...well... completely mental. My favorite writing is a hybrid which pulls on both the heartstrings and the head ones. It often has the best of both worlds.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Studliness, Arete and Writing.

Achill - Max Slevogt

I have an awesome Western Civ professor. I have heard him refer to Xerxes, King David, Sappho, Socrates and St. Perpetua as 'Studly'. I will not comment on his use of a term generally reserved for a male horse on female historical characters--I am too tactful for that sort of thing. Usually, when he refers to 'studliness' he refers to a concept of general toughness. Cruder internet folk might have called this concept 'badass', but the ancient Greeks, who were refined internet folk, called it arete. 

We have a notion of being the best you can. This stems from the Greek arete, the idea of achieving excellency in every way possible. Arete donated a very helpful idea to the culture-- it proposed that writing is neither simply self expression, nor is it just a record. Writing is an art--and the very roots of that word tie into arete. We have to develop our writing to an expertise--a dynamic skill that we improve with practice.

Often we take this for granted, but back in the day, the idea of pursuing something so fully spread like the Plague: hardening writing and thought as it went. Since then its power fluctuated; for example-- it died a little when Rome fell, and resurged in the Renaissance. Over the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries we've killed it yet again as we allowed our culture's trust in absolute truth to decay. The advent of electronics shortened our patience and nipped our willingness to work. We need to protect (or restore) excellence, and in doing so, become excellent ourselves.

So that's your history lesson for the day.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Writing and Prayer.

St. Onuphrius - Jusepe de Ribera

How does our prayer life, our relationship with God, affect our writing?  Too often our lives are compartmentalized. But what is the point of a prayer life that doesn't affect our life?

Few Christians would actually admit that they don't pay attention to God in their normal life. It has become popular to see the Christian life in holistic terms. We want see how their faith affects all of reality more and more. That's a good thing. It adds to our testimony. However, we still struggle with compartmentalized baggage.

Again and again, we put our prayers in the Prayer Box, and our writing in the Writing Box. To a certain extent this is right, prayer and writing can be different things. However, if we block God out of an area of our life, we steal from Him. We are His children, and He is loath to lose even one part of us. 

 So how do we let Him in? All relationships naturally affect our writing in some way, but the one we share with the indescribable Triune God has to rank the highest. The answer is simply to spend more time with God than anyone else. Then He will take precedence in your writing.

  Although it would be cool if God decided to split the sky and give us instantaneous, perfect writing, we will probably still have to learn the rules of grammar, style and character building. God didn't give us heads so we could make targets out of them.  Instead, prayer will make us more Godly writers. It will help us avoid worldliness in our writing-- and conversely--will help us avoid preachiness, which often comes from attempts to shove God into the story without relating to Him.

We can have the strongest prayer lives in the world, and still write stories that make William Shakespeare cover his ears and curse in his grave. Praying is not a magic token that we can exchange for anything we want. It is a conversation with God, who will do what is best for us despite our waspish complaints.

In the end, praying will give us satisfaction while we write. The Holy Spirit illuminates the dark portions of our hearts, the more we commune with Him, the more clearly we will see reality. Readers will pick up on that fulfillment. Think of Lewis, Bunyan or Chesterton, and what gave those authors the ability to affect so many with their work.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Originality Clones.

Original Sin - Salvador Dali

If writers try so hard to be original, than why is so much of their work identical? Answer: because they all try too hard to free themselves from the banal.

Here's a question; what is originality?  If we define it as a completely unique creation, sprouting solely from our heads like Athena from that of Zeus, then our pursuit of originality will prove disastrous.  We will all sound the same: like fangirls of our own supreme genius.

In the end, the man who looks outside himself for answers wins. We create the works of greatest beauty when we open ourselves up to God, other people and the our vast, wonderful world. Originality does not come from within. It comes from without. There are many ways we can get it, and only a few of them have to do with ourselves. Empathy trumps almost all else in writing. The moment "originality" squashes empathy, real value packs up and leaves, and disdain mars our work. Humility nurses great authors. Pride mothers great destruction.

"One sees great things from the valley, and only small things from the peak" - G.K Chesterton

"What moves us in writing that has regional or ethnic the sound of voices far older than the narrator's, talking in cadences that are more than ordinarily rich." -William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Friday, October 18, 2013

Enter the Guardsman

Illustration for poem The Picket Guard - N.C. Wyeth

Lets take a moment to salute the most unappreciated character in all of fiction--the humble guardsman. Stop for a moment in your vicious writing and consider this. The humble guardsman always gets the short end of the stick. An alien octopus or rogue assassin always targets him if he works for the good guys, and If he's working for the bad guys the heroes often kill him.  He has an unforgiving job,... and the audience doesn't even root for him.

As Christians, should we really treat our minor characters like that?  Every human being has a living soul, and even though our fictional characters are not real, they still represent human souls. Often we consider our tertiary characters as unimportant because they don't affect the plot; however, I'm starting to think that since Christianity claims that all people are made in the image of God, we ought to see our minor characters--who represent people--as valuable.

 Those guardsmen represent in a way the ordinary people that we meet every day. The people that you meet once, talk a bit to, but never really get to know. They're the unfamiliar faces we see every day, but still possess their own unique lives and their own unique stories. However, even though we encounter them for a brief period, they are human beings and deserve our respect. Treating tertiary characters like humble guardsman with disdain breeds disdain towards unfamiliar people. You do not have to put a long backstory about the guardsman in order to make them seem human. The moment you do that they cease to be a tertiary character. Rather, you should include brief snippits that show the guard's humanity.

Quis Custodiet Ispos Custodiet? 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dire Wolves

Attacked a goat gray wolves  - Zinaida Serebriakova

The train stops, and the rhythmic chugging of the train engine gives way to silence. Suddenly, you hear a howl in the dark. This happens in an excellent children's book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and it's amazing isn't it? You can't beat wolves for sheer spine chilliness. Other great authors, Tolkien, Stoker and Lewis all make excellent use of wolves as enemies. Perhaps that's because our ancestors had to deal with wolves on a daily basis. I have no idea.

You will hear people say that,  in real life, wolves don't actually attack, let alone eat, people. If you routinely go camping in the Rockies, this is good advice,  but not as good if you write in a medievalesque period. Wolves today do not carry the same dread that they did in the days of yore. The wolves in North America have grown to fear humans after centuries of getting shot by rednecks, and the wolves in Europe are too scarce to really pose a danger to anyone. But once upon a time, not so long ago, wolves posed a real danger. Wolves killed 3000 people in France alone. Half of those wolves did not have rabies.

Most of these attacks involved children, a few included lone women, or less often, a lone man; something many people forget when writing of wolves. No wolf would ever attack someone with a weapon. Wolves are opportunistic predators, and thus they only pose a real danger to the weak. They would never think of attacking an armed man... much less a train; however, you do not enjoy books like the Wolves of Willoughby Chase for their realistic descriptions of predatory habitats. You enjoy them for their stories.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


File:Gerson Assassination of Przemysł II.jpg

(This also could be titledhello! I'm back!)

In the last few decades we've glamorized assassins: with video games, such as Thief, Assassin's Creed,  and with the over-saturation and distortion of ninjas in our cultureThis sort of dramatic glorification is nothing new. The assassin stabbed his way into our hearts at his inception (and who knows when then that was?). I don't need to write a blog post on why we love assassins. It's obvious: we like pointy, stabby things with cloaks. Question settled. Instead, we will talk about how to do it.

Yes, I know this subject is getting morbid, but many writers show a manic delight in massacring their unsuspecting characters (take J.K Rowling, for example) so I'm sure you won't mind. We will now get into gory details. Assassination, sadly, is a lot easier then it looks. Assassins Creed persuaded us all that assassins would all fail without impressive combat skills. It lied. In reality, with the dubious exception of the Islamic Hashashin and the Japanese Ninjas, assassins often lacked finesse. In fact, the most important trait in an assassin is expendability.

Assassination is essentially a form of terrorism with low collateral damage. You pick a target and you try to kill him. Although some of these attempts fail, it's difficult to keep assassins out forever. They just keep coming: like the Terminator, a horde of zombies, or Mr. Darcy. Since assassins, unlike Mr. Darcy, fail: it's often best to keep sending one after another. They're expendable, remember? This is not to say that no planning or skill ever goes into assassination, but the average assassin doesn't live long, and as a result, you often don't spend much time training him.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Another break

Pere Melon Resting - Camille Pissarro

Again, this is due to health problems and needing a little time just to reorient myself. I probably won't be long. Probably be back and posting tomorrow night. Hopefully not longer. God Bless all of you and keep you.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hunter's Fragment: Part 2

Interior of an Inn - Adriaen van Ostade

Comfort... for a little while. A warm inn with warm food. At least it was comfort of the body. Lukas has not been entirely successful with comfort of the soul, but that was a different matter. In a way, it had been a very long time since had been truly happy. But what could he say? Life at the edge of the wild was hard, and happiness was in scarce supply. He devoured his stew. Not the best he had ever tasted. Not the worst either. It had just enough meat to keep him from being hungry later on.

 He was so absorbed in his meal he almost didn't notice the man who sat down across from him. The man was old, disheveled, weary, and weather beaten: like Lukas himself. Lukas found the food more interesting. He stayed silent.

"I take it you're hungry," said the man across from him. Lukas didn't look up from his food, he didn't tend to waste words on people who stated the obvious. There was a long silence. 

The man sighed, "I'm sorry Lukas." 

Sorry? The word bounced off of his mind like eastern rubber. Lukas was not the type of person to harbor bitterness, so he shook his head, "You did your duty Conrad, that's all. God knows I needed to get out of there." 

"I didn't know you believed in God," said Conrad. Lukas shrugged. He didn't know if he did either. Another long silence. Discussions of religion could be as dangerous as they were pointless. Lukas's spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl. What a pity that there was no more left. Now he had to go to work. 

"Are you ready lad?" Asked Conrad. Pointless question. Lukas was always ready. The sword on his back seemed to itch for black blood. Somewhere far away, something fell howled in the darkness. 

"Yes " he said.  And his hand itched for his sword. 

Hunter's Fragment

Idylls of the King - Gustave Dore

The wind blew hard, loudly and ominously, tearing through the beleaguered countryside like so many fell ghosts. All around, ominous groaning emanated from trees that were only one hard gust away from crashing towards the ground.
            All in all, it was not the sort of scene anyone wanted to be in, when he had already been walking for a whole day and a good part of the night. The unforgiving cold sank deep into bone.
            But Lukas was a different breed; he had a temperament that years of training far harsher than anything this weather could bring had forged. The sinews in his muscles were so prepared that he could barely feel the cold stinging against his exposed hands. He was in his own element, certainly, but he was anything but calm,
            Why did every thought of her haunted his waking actions? He had been told never to feel: never to let an inch of sentiment cross his mind. And yet here he was. What would Epicurus say? He had no clue. It really didn't matter. Her face haunted him more than any teacher or instructor’s. Had he known this girl for how long? No. Two days at most. Still, all the education and lectures seemed like a pale haze compared to it. He wondered if he was falling in love. He hoped not, because he could be executed for that if it became known, but he felt sure that wasn't the reason. There was something about her that kept teasing the edges of his head. There was something important he had forgotten. He just couldn't tell what that was.
            He shook his head violently. There would be other times to face his personal demons, but now was not one of them. Tomorrow wasn't going to be one of them either. In fact, Lukas had learned from long experience not to face personal demons. It was best to let the demons be, and usually if he concentrated hard enough, he could drive the offending thoughts from his mind. Sleep was the only thing he truly dreaded. Long discipline had taught him to keep his doubts silent in his waking hours, but nothing kept them from his dreams.
            He forced himself to focus: on the path ahead, on the cruel, painful wind, on the distant sound of sheep bleating, on anything that kept her eyes out of his mind, but nothing seemed to work. Not this time. Nothing was able to rid his conscience of her eyes, those eyes that always seemed to remind him of what he could never remember no matter how his mind tried. He had just about given everything up for lost when he saw a small, golden chink of light half a mile up the road. An inn! Not a nice one by any means, but still, it was somewhere to stay the night! It provided a welcome distraction. His mind fixed on the ethereal glow of the candlelight, banishing his poltergeists  back to the shadowy corners of his soul. 

 - Brendan 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Death of History

File:The Anatomy Lesson.jpg

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there was a place where we did not regard fiction as something that materialized out of some inner self. Instead, she was seen as the product of learning, life experience, and reason. She grew wise and fruitful, taught by her ancestors. But no longer. Instead fiction became a work of the inner genius, and so she had no need of learning. But what she didn't know, was that without learning,  she cut herself off from the past, and so had no idea what the great writers who came before actually wrote.

We in the west are very future oriented. The inexorable, incessant advance of technology compels us to look ahead, not behind. The media ingrained the idea of a future Utopia so firmly in our minds, that the idea of searching in the past for any wisdom seems ludicrous. The past was the land of uneducated barbarians and illiterate brutes; real art, the media says, is found in the contemporary, the shiny, and the modern.

Now, the only time we look back is to try to peer into the past like it is a looking glass. We take antique authors who seem to have 'modern' ideals, celebrate them as progressives (even though almost all of them are very different from a modern mindset) and ignore anything to the contrary.

Let me be really clear here. The chronological snobbery of our culture runs deep. Although it has it's roots in secularism, it infested Christianity as well, taking a new form in virulent anti-traditionalism. For some odd reason, evangelical protestants, particularly American evangelical protestants, claim that by being anti traditional, they are acting on the ideas of the Reformers or the Founding Fathers. As they have not studied tradition, they usually don't know that nothing could be further from the truth. Both the Reformers and the Founding Fathers were avid students of history and tradition. They understood that the past holds the examples that are needed to build the future.

We as writers and as Christians need to develop a healthy respect for history and the past and realize its profound importance. Those that came before make who we are now. Alright now, end history rant. I digress

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Love corrupts

That was a shocking title, wasn't it? Perhaps a little much so, but oh well. I'm not bashing the concept of love. This is a Christian blog after all, and given that apostles of our Lord said 'God is love', it really wouldn't do to bash it. We all know (or at least we should), that love is an essential element in our heroes. What we sometimes don't realize is that love is an essential element for our villains.

Of course, I should clarify my terms here. What do I mean by love? Obviously I'm not using the Christian definition of agape, or selflessly putting one's neighbors above yourself, but neither am I  using it to describe eros, since what I'm trying to describe is not necessarily sexual (although falling in love and sexual lust could fall into this). What I'm going for is a more common term: anything the character has a passion for--an obsession.

Every villain has a obsession: something they love above all else. Without it they wouldn't be motivated to act. A villain with absolutely no emotion is a rather dull character, since nothing drives them to cause mayhem. The fact is that villains love, in a twisted sense of the word: sometimes they love themselves, sometimes they love security, sometimes they love the hero, but whatever their love is, it's always corrupted.

The main difference between the heroes' love and the villains' is that the villains' is myopic. The villain takes one good thing and stretches it to the point where it starts to create havoc in the world. So much havoc, in fact, that the thing he loves is deeply hurt. The Hero's love is Divine, it stems from God himself, and thus desires self sacrificing service. Even in non-christian books, the characters that love often come very close to Christianity in their ideas. The villains' love is a diabolical love, that is ultimately rooted in idolatry. This sort of love is corrupting. Both the hero and the villain are subjects of passion, the difference is in the passions' nature.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

And they did not marry...

The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets - Frederic Leighton

No, this blog post is not a vent about personal, deep, romantic heartbreak. Your suspicions were apt though. Writers have an annoying tendency to weave their personal lives, especially their love lives, into their writing (Dante anyone?). No, this is more about exploring the Christian fiction's addiction to the 'married happily ever after', as if that was the be all and end all.

 We should have some fiction where we have a happily ever after married couple.  I think it's a great idea, for three reasons: firstly, because it's relevant to the millions of married christian couples out there, secondly, because the mysterious union that symbolizes Christ and the Church can be appreciated by anyone, and thirdly, because western idea of a 'happy ending' is a highly christian idea. But we must be careful that we don't go too far.

Here's a radical statement--the guy doesn't have to get the girl. Here's another--the girl doesn't have to get the guy. I can feel all you romantics cringing right now, but please just hear me out. Real life contains a lot of different stories, and not all of them include romantic happiness. Many Christians in our sex obsessed age react by trying to make marriage sound more appealing. There's nothing wrong with this, per se. Marriage is quite a lot better then mindless sex, however, in some Christian fiction, we've fallen into the trap of advertising.

We've gone from saying that marriage is good, to holding it up as a reward for being a good Christian. It isn't. In writing, we have to walk the careful line between affirming its goodness and advertising it. Making it a guaranteed gift only cheapens it.  Instead, we should realize that marriage is what it is: a calling from God. Just as some people's story ends with blissful marriage and happily ever after, other people have a different calling--one that is just as good in its own way--and we, as Christians, should write stories in which some get married happily ever after, and others don't.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Greeks and Star Wars.

Parthenon. Temple of Athena Parthénos. - Vasily Polenov

No, that wasn't a typo. I said Greeks and Star Wars, not Geeks and Star Wars. Yes, the guys who wore white and liked philosophy--that's right. I'm going to talk about two Greek philosophers and their relation to the Jedi and the Sith.

I kid you not!

You see, back in the days of ancient Greece there was once a man named Zeno, who taught his students a vaguely platonic philosophy called stoicism. He taught that everything in the universe was bound to a logos, an ultimate order of the universe; that the logos surrounded them, penetrated them and bound the galaxy together. Their ultimate goal was to sync their lives with this logos. They always valued composure over passion. Order over emotion? Sound like anyone you know? Exactly! It's the code of the Jedi; or rather, the code of the Jedi is repackaged stoicism in a more palatable form, so the Christians would hardly blink an eye.

At the same time as the stoics, there was a competing school of thought called epicureanism.  They were complete opposites; they believed that pleasure was the ultimate good, and that pain was the ultimate evil, and that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain was the way to true happiness. That is exactly what the Sith teach, only the epicureans were nicer. The Sith seem like a stoic caricature, not an accurate picture of epicureanism.

So that's my random thought for the day! You may all carry on with your lives now.