Heroes Part I: The Champion

HeroA while back, I posted on the subject of dark fiction and expressed the hope that our collective obsession with it is coming to an end. One of the defining qualities of dark fiction is the absence of heroes. In a dark story, we find protagonists to identify with, and we care what happens to them if the story is told well, but we don’t admire them. All governments are corrupt, all religious authorities hypocritical, all warriors merciless killers, and at their best even basically decent people find themselves in situations where they have to act like monsters in order to survive or to protect those they care about. Or push comes to shove and all their values of honor and integrity and compassion go out the window in a storm of fury and rage. This is the lesson of the dark side: that under the skin, or when put to the test, we are all depraved horrors.

But of course, that’s not the only (or in my opinion, the best) type of story to tell, and while it expresses a partial truth, there are other truths to be told involving hope, compassion, and the achievement of something better than the ordinary. In a story like that, a special part is played by heroes: people we look up to and admire, people that save the day, people that sacrifice themselves for a greater good, and people who, by imitating their virtues, we use as springboards to make us better people.

A hero can be, but isn’t necessarily, a main protagonist. A protagonist hero has a little different dynamic in the story than one that is not a protagonist. The protagonist is a viewpoint character (whether the story is told in first or third person) and so the reader becomes intimately aware of his or her flaws, limits, and doubts. That doesn’t have to be the case with a non-protagonist (although there’s no particular reason it can’t be), and that means a non-protagonist hero can be (apparently, from the protagonist’s perspective) pure, fearless, invincible, and glorious. All of this means that the non-protagonist hero — let’s call him the Champion — calls for a little different treatment than the protagonist hero.

The Champion

A Champion is someone that the protagonist looks up to. He may be a great warrior, a powerful and wise magician, a cunning thief or spy, a noble and enlightened ruler, a spiritual teacher or leader, the protagonist’s parent or guardian, or really anyone in a position to help, support, advise, or protect the protagonist. During scenes when the protagonist and the Champion interact, the protagonist obtains important lessons on how to be a hero, on right action, and on virtues such as courage and self control. The Champion may also impart important practical skills — magic, use of the Force, how to sword fight, how to fly a space fighter, how to pick locks and scale walls — and serve as a fulcrum for the protagonist’s character development and setting  up the story’s main theme and conflicts.

Having this sort of figure in the story gives the protagonist a model to emulate and someone to believe in, but of course you don’t want the protagonist to be too secure and comfortable. It can’t be possible for the protagonist to rely on the Champion entirely; he must strive with his own efforts, suffer through his crises, and deal with the consequences of his decisions. There are several ways to accomplish this.

The Champion is gone when most needed. One device to put the protagonist on his own is to simply remove the Champion from the picture at a crucial juncture. Perhaps he’s called away for some vital task that takes precedence over helping the protagonist out. Perhaps he’s overcome by truly awful foes and killed or held prisoner. Perhaps the protagonist becomes annoyed with the Champion casting such a long shadow and strikes out on his own without telling anyone.

The foe is too much for the Champion alone. In this variant, the Champion doesn’t really disappear, but the enemy is so powerful or the challenge so great that it’s beyond even the Champion’s awe-inspiring abilities. Unless the protagonist steps up to the plate and applies crucial skills and insights and courage at the right moment, all is lost.

The Champion doesn’t believe the protagonist’s warning. Another way to remove the Champion’s protection is to give him a stubborn streak, a flaw in his character that keeps him from taking the protagonist seriously. The protagonist knows that something is amiss, but the Champion refuses to believe it, and so the protagonist must face the problem without the Champion’s protection and guidance, either because it must be faced now and there is no one around to do it, or because the protagonist wants to prove to the Champion that he’s someone to take seriously.

The Champion becomes the antagonist. A third, somewhat darker way to remove the Champion is to turn him into an antagonist. This can happen by many different roads. Perhaps the Champion was always corrupt, and the protagonist comes to see this over time and turns against him. Perhaps the problem is higher up, in persons or institutions to whom the Champion has pledged loyalty, and when the protagonist struggles against those persons or institutions the Champion sees the protagonist as a traitor. Perhaps the Champion was grooming the protagonist for some sinister purpose, and the protagonist figures this out. Perhaps the Champion began sincerely, but the habit of power and honor has turned him callous and arrogant.

Whether the Champion becomes the antagonist or just isn’t there when needed, the protagonist has to face the main challenge of the story without that protection and help — maybe even up against it.

A fine line needs to be drawn here, because before that happens the protagonist must learn enough from the Champion, from companions, and from facing lesser challenges that he will be up to the challenge of facing the big threat alone. In all cases, though, the Champion presents for the reader an image of what a hero should be and what we should all strive to become. Even when the Champion turns out to be flawed or becomes an enemy, that very flaw illustrates the ideal, as something the Champion fell short of, requiring the protagonist to do better.

Copyright: Prometeus / 123RF Stock Photo

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Book Review: Quest For the Simurgh by Marva Dasef (Faizah’s Destiny Book One)

QuestSimurghGenre: Young Adult Fantasy (Other World)

Blurb: The village magician, Wafai, has gone missing. His star pupil Faizah thinks he has left a clue for her on a page of the Magicalis Bestialis. With the page open and marked with an X, she believes Wafai is telling them to seek out the Simurgh, the mythical birds who possess all the knowledge of the universe. She convinces her three classmates that they must seek the help of the Simurgh to find their teacher.

She leads the boys on a difficult journey into the mountains in search of the elusive birds. A strange little man becomes their guide. However, they do not know he is a spirit leading them toward a battle between good and evil. Spirits, gods, and demons confront the four friends, who are being set up by the otherworldly forces for a much larger task than finding their teacher. The students were chosen to take sides in the battle which might spell the end of the world: a battle between the demons and the spirits.

 

Disclaimer: As with most of the books I review, I know the author somewhat on social media.

Quest For the Simurgh is the first volume of Marva Dasef’s YA fantasy series Faizah’s Destiny, in which we are introduced to Faizah and other characters. Faizah is a plucky, spunky heroine introducing a bit of feminist precociousness into a primitive world where it’s not particularly welcome, a not uncommon element in YA fantasy. She’s the daughter of a family that eventually intends to marry her off to someone boring, but in this story she breaks her family ties almost inadvertently and without actually recognizing the deed.

The goal of finding the mysterious Simurgh arises when Faizah and her friend discover their teacher’s disordered house and evidence of his abduction, and an apparent note in one of his books that they interpret as a message from him to seek the Simurgh in order to find the missing Wafai. The kids fall for it, despite holes in their reasoning one could drive a camel caravan through, and a series of arrangements and manipulations follows that lets each of the four escape their families and embark on the quest.

They’re being manipulated themselves, though, and end up caught in a struggle between War and Peace (not exactly Good and Evil as the blurb suggests, but close enough), with the gods maneuvering them into taking sides. The original problems are ultimately resolved, but not before the protagonists wind their way through the divine squaring off.

This book is quite well written, and the quality of the writing drew me in immediately. The characters are also nicely drawn, particularly Faizah herself, who is engaging and easy to identify with. On the basis of superior characterization and writing, Quest For the Simurgh merits four stars.

The one area where I felt it could use improvement is in the plot and story line, which was a bit difficult to follow at times and on occasion broke immersion for me. The protagonists were led on a snipe hunt, essentially, with the gods and the guide they encountered on the road leading them in a completely different direction than they originally intended. That’s not a problem in itself, but there were occasions when any character as intelligent as Faizah should have stopped to say, “Wait a minute. Why are we going this way? We should be going that way instead. What are you up to?” I felt this could have been better constructed so as to give the journey greater verisimilitude and make the fast one pulled by the gods and spirits a bit more believable.

Aside from that, this is a good read for young readers, and the stage is set for sequels, which apparently are in the works. I’ll add that the technical quality is quite high. The book is well edited, the cover is nice, and the blurb succinct and catching. Always nice to see an indie author who does that sort of thing right.

Quest For the Simurgh is available for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle Store and also available in print for $6.99.

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Dark Fantasy, Dystopia, Optimism, and Generational Shifts

villainFor some time now — although I believe (and hope) that the trend is reversing — science fiction and fantasy storytelling have trended towards darkness. Dystopia, post-apocalyptic visions, and fantasy featuring anti-heroes and non-heroes have predominated. These stories run the gamut in terms of subject matter and science fictional or fantasy elements, but all of them have something in common, and that’s the fact that no characters are to be wholly admired. That’s especially true if the character is an authority figure or someone who, in conventional thinking, is supposed to be admirable. Another common element is that pessimism is universal and optimism decried. A vision of the future must be bleak, with matters getting steadily worse, and any progress made either illusory or a temporary reprieve of the overall slide into awfulness. This is regarded as “realism” (never mind that, in view of actual history, it is completely counter-factual).

Dark fiction features no sharp moral lines. There are no good guys and either there are no bad guys or everyone is a bad guy. The best such stories have protagonists who at least have some redeeming features, but we are offered no one who could serve as a role model, no one whom we can admire without reservation, or only with the reservation that everyone has at least some flaws. There can be (and usually are) double-died villains, but the “heroes” must be no better, or only marginally better, so that the reader is inclined to say, “They’re awful, but the alternative is even worse.” This is fiction for cynics, for those who have believed in someone or something in the past, been disillusioned, and reached a determination never to get fooled again.

And in so doing, they fool themselves. But never mind that; fiction isn’t necessarily supposed to reflect the real world. But it does give us what we imagine that we want.

If I were to define “dark fiction,” I would say that it is fiction characterized by three essential characteristics:

1. Pessimism. The world inhabited by the characters in a dark story (whether fantasy or non-fantasy) is one that is bad and likely to get worse. Whatever social problems characterize it — income gaps and class differences, corrupt government, racism, environmental callousness, declining liberty, whatever — they cannot be solved and they’re going to get worse in the future, or at least never get better. The characters’ own personal problems may be solvable (although at least in part they’ll be just as intractable), but the world is plain screwed.

2. A dearth of heroes. The characters in a dark story aren’t just flawed (all good characters in any fiction have flaws), but they’re so flawed that we can’t admire them much, even when we identify with them. If the Star Wars story were rewritten as dark fantasy, Yoda and Obi-Wan would be revealed as opportunistic posers, self-seeking con artists, or self-righteous and judgmental pricks, as bad as the Emperor and Darth Vader (or at least nearly so). Dark fiction can have completely villainous and evil characters (although it need not do so and the best examples arguably don’t), but it can never have characters that the reader wants to admire, emulate, and feel confident about. Nobody wears a white hat. The protagonists are, at best, clad in gray.

3. Moral ambiguity. This may need some explanation, because moral ambiguity can take a number of forms and not all of these are properly considered “dark.” Confusion about the right action to take, or moral convictions on the part of characters that reflect poor vision and understanding or dogmatic thinking, are not in themselves “dark” qualities. The type of moral ambiguity that characterizes dark fiction is not just moral uncertainty on the part of the characters, but a situation in which there really is no clear moral difference between choices, so that characters can act on selfish and self-centered impulses without remorse, and never end up feeling good about themselves, no matter what they do.

I tend not to write dark fantasy at all, and although I have put out one dark science fiction novella (Robin), it’s not my preference. Dystopia serves a purpose in that it highlights a danger that may be arising and so gives us an opportunity to prevent it from happening, but there’s a difference between a story that says, “Watch out, we’re in danger of something bad happening if we don’t reverse course,” and one that says, “We’re just plain fucked and all we can do is survive.” There’s a difference between stories with realistic characters suffering from the usual array of human flaws, and one in which nobody is admirable at all. There’s a difference between stories in which the protagonists are faced with difficult moral choices calling for sacrifice on their part, and stories in which they are never called upon to do the right thing, because there is no right thing. I can enjoy a story like that once in a blue moon, but it will never make my favorites list. In this, I differ from some other readers, particularly those somewhat — but not too much — younger than myself.

What’s occurred to me recently is that the trend toward and away from dark fantasy may be driven by generations. Specifically, the rise in dark fantasy’s popularity is driven by Generation X, and the decline in dark fiction recently (as one can see from a perusal of the Amazon Kindle Store’s fantasy and science fiction best sellers, most of which are at this point not dark) to the maturation into their main reading years of the Millennial generation. Earlier periods in which dark fiction rose to prominence and then declined (because the current phenomenon is certainly not the first time it’s happened) were, I believe, possibly driven by the emergence of previous Reactive generations followed by Civic generations (according to the generational cycle theory presented by the late William Strauss and Neil Howe in their books GenerationsThe Fourth Turning13th Gen, and Millennials Rising).

My personal experience as an author reflects this. I’ve received my worst reviews from Xers and my best ones from Millennials. (As noted, most of my writing is distinctly non-dark.) Mostly, when I’m taken to task in a really serious way, and always when it’s in a way that annoys me, it’s because my writing is distinctly non-dark. There’s plenty of conflict, but it’s optimistic. The protagonists in my stories, at least some of them, are genuine heroes, people the reader is expected to admire and look up to. And moral choices are often clear. One person recently expressed a “sinking feeling” that the Andol (the “good guy” aliens in my Refuge series) won’t be revealed as secretly nasty and evil in future books. Now, I’m not going to give spoilers, so I won’t say whether he’s factually right about that, but I will say that if this causes a “sinking feeling,” then perhaps he’s not really in my target audience.

This sort of critique, in which I’m taken to task for writing stories that are exactly what I intended to write, infuriates me. I don’t mind legitimate criticism, and Gods know my work is not without flaws. I have written stories with too many characters that confused the reader. My dialogue, although I think it’s generally good, sometimes drifts away from believable speech into dissertations. I have trouble depicting romantic relationships that are deep and credible. I know all of this and deeply appreciate any critical help in improving all of these and other genuine problems in my writing, because that will help me to make it better — and I want to be the best I can.

But that my fiction isn’t dark fiction is not a flaw. When someone tells me that I need to write dark fiction as if that were the only kind of fiction that is any good, my answer is to simply say, “No. I won’t. I don’t want to, and I don’t have to, and that’s that.” If that means I’m writing for Millennials more than for Xers — so be it.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone who likes dark fantasy or any other dark fiction should’t read that stuff, or that people who want to write it shouldn’t be writing it. I’m against arbitrary limits on the arts — that’s the main point of this post, after all.

I’m just saying that we shouldn’t see darkness as synonymous with quality. And that consequently, the decline in the dark fantasy fad is a good thing.

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Book Review: Beastheads by Mike Reeves-McMillan

mrm-beastheads-eBookCoverGenre: Fantasy/Steampunk

Blurb: When the old shaman took Berry away from her home and family, she expected to become a shaman in turn. But after her oath shatters, she finds a new place as a Gryphon Clerk, helping negotiate a treaty with the beasthead people.
A beasthead shaman stands against her, fearing the loss of his people’s way of life and the corruption of their youth. As the Human Purity movement gains power in a nearby realm, though, the beasthead and the clerk must find a way through their differences before war destroys everything they value.

The author calls Beastheads Volume 0 in his Gryphon Clerks series. Other books in the series include Realmgolds, Hope and the Clever Man, and Hope and the Patient Man. All these stories are set in a fantasy world where human slaves rebelled against a tyrannical elvish empire in the past, and today the human nations live with the cultural and magical residue left behind by the elves. As with other stories in the series, Beastheads addresses a theme of racial bias and intolerance, as well as the tension between progress and conservatism.

A disclaimer before proceeding: I was a beta reader for Beastheads and know Mike Reeves-McMillan via social media. He also beta reads for me.

As with all of Mike’s work, Beastheads is strongly character driven. The plot grows organically from the interaction of the characters like vines twisting about one another as they emerge from the soil. In Beastheads, the twisting vines include Berry’s shamanic destiny, interrupted and sidelined into the Gryphon Clerks; Breeze and Wave, each with an animal soul merged into a human body, but different animals (wolf and seal, respectively), their love seen as odd from the outside for this reason; Rain, orphaned and struggling to survive her childhood on the gang-dominated streets; Stone, gay in a sharply homophobic world; Grass Badger, irritated and irritating cattlehead shaman who fears any and all change; in each case a note struck of difference, alienation, difficulty fitting in. The beastheads themselves, who are the result of a weird elven experiment (humans with cattle, dog, or cat heads and some characteristics from the animals) sound the same note on a larger scale.

The team of misfit Gryphon Clerks is sent to negotiate a treaty with the beastheads, and must deal with their suspicions of outsiders and, eventually, the outside world’s suspicions of them, as well as its exploitation of their weaknesses. So many harmonic notes are sounded regarding the interaction of the alien that the end result is almost symphonic, and it is this rather than any conventional plotting lines that make Beastheads the story that it is. The conflict between Berry and Grass Badger, which encompasses her failed apprenticeship as well as his resistance to anything threatening to change the beasthead way of life, is particularly poignant.

For above-average writing and superb character development, along with detailed exploration of the theme of racism and intolerance in a fantasy setting, I’ll give this book four stars. The plotting and story line could have been tighter and more gripping, hence the lack of the fifth star. Beastheads is still well worth taking a look in my opinion.

Beastheads is available from Amazon Kindle Store for $2.99.

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Christianity Versus Jesus

24252623_sEvery religion emerges from two distinct and conflicting motivations: love and power. Love (and enlightenment, from which spiritual love arises) is, in my view, the legitimate element in religion. It’s the genuinely spiritual element. In service to it, a person approaches union and communion with God/the Cosmos, and through Its influence and the revelations that this union and communion bring, love grows ever stronger and spreads to embrace ever more of creation.

But because people understand these things only dimly at best — because people want guidance from a parent figure in these matters that are so inherently confusing — because that powerful motivation combined with that poor understanding creates an opportunity for those who wish to rule — religion is also about power, and has been since the first organized religion arose at the dawn of civilization. And so the two exist side by side, intertwined like corrupted lovers, in every body of religious doctrine and teaching. In no other religion is this more dramatically displayed than it is in Christianity.

Sometimes the two motivations are commingled in the religion’s founder, as is the case in Islam for example. Muhammad began as the Prophet of God and his message was all about love. But as events unfolded, he also became a political leader, a general, a diplomat, and in effect a king, and so out of necessity had to pay attention to power as well. But that isn’t the case in Christianity, whose ostensible founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was a homeless preacher until he was condemned to death and executed. Jesus’ teachings, or at least the presentation of them in the Gospels (which are not reliable historically but at this point that matters only to historians), were all about love, and in fact highly impractical. Sell all you own and give the money to the poor? Take no thought for the future, trusting God to provide the necessities of life? Yeah, right.

Despite this, the element of power in Christian doctrine is very strong. The claim that Christianity alone possesses the truth, and that Christians will be rewarded with eternal bliss while followers of other religions or of none will spend eternity in torment, is a claim of power, not of love. It offers a reward for obedience and threatens a punishment for disobedience, and that is the essence of power. (That neither the reward nor the punishment is real matters no more than the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Rewards and punishments are effective to the extent that they are believed to be real, not to the extent they actually are.)

In fact, the essential structure of Christian doctrine and the Christian model of salvation have no support in the teachings of Jesus at all, and in some particulars are directly contradicted by those teachings. We may, therefore, speak of a conflict between Jesus and Christianity.

Let’s take a look at that structure of Christian doctrine.

The Narrative of Christian Doctrine

The essential points of Christian doctrine, greatly simplified, are as follows.

1. All human beings are condemned by God to Hell, either for Adam’s original sin, or for sins inevitably committed by the individual in life (the standard being set so high that no one can possibly meet it), or both.

2. God became human in the person of Jesus, who was God in a human body.

3. By allowing himself to be tortured and put to death, Jesus/God took the punishment on himself that he had decreed for mankind. By rising again from the grave, he proclaimed that God would no longer condemn mankind to death and Hell, but would forgive sins.

4. Each person may avail himself or herself of this benefit, this stay of execution, by devotion to the religion founded in Jesus’ name, and by sincere repentance of any sins that (inevitably) still are committed. Those who do not do this, however, are still condemned to Hell.

Other interpretations of the significance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection may be found (mostly presented by Christians who are understandably appalled by the cruelty and crudity of the traditional model of salvation), but this is the standard version, accepted as revealed truth by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and most Protestant denominations. Nuances and minor additions may be found in various churches (for example, the Roman Catholic Church insists on the importance of performing the sacraments, while Protestants usually deny the necessity of intercession by human agents and see the whole process as between the believer and god), but these four points are common to almost all versions of Christian doctrine.

The first thing to observe is that all of this flows from the motivation of power, not of love. Defenders of Christian orthodoxy say it’s about love, and to do this focus on the third point, quoting the author of the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.” (John 3:16.) But this ostensible great act of divine love and sacrifice was necessary or even possible only because of the first point: that the same God condemned everyone to perish and suffer forever in the first place. Simply put, the sacrifice of Jesus for mankind would be an act of love, if and only if the condemnation of man to death and Hell had been decreed by someone other than God. But that, according to Christian doctrine, is not so. For that reason, the entire business becomes an assertion of power: “I condemn you to suffer forever, but I’ll make you a deal. Worship me, do what I say, and I’ll let you off the hook and throw in an eternity in paradise. What do you say?” A plea-bargaining deal offered by a prosecutor to an accused criminal is not an act of love, and neither is this.

Now let’s take a look at the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and their relation to these four points of doctrine.

Jesus’ Teachings and Christian Doctrine

On the first point, the condemnation of man to Hell for sin, we find no support or even mention in any word of Jesus quoted in the Gospels. He does mention Hell a few times, or at least that’s a possible interpretation of several parable elements, and it comes out in “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:47.) But this translated term can be misleading. Jesus was Jewish, and was dealing with Jewish conceptions of Hell or Gehenna, not Christian ones. Certainly there is nothing in any of the Gospels that suggests Hell as a universal fate for all mankind. It isn’t even clear that Jesus was referring to either Hell or the Kingdom of Heaven as post-mortem states; in many cases what he said about the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God implied that one entered this place or state while still alive, and so the same must be true of Hell, in the context of this quote anyway.

On the second point, the divinity of Christ, the Gospels are even more clearly in the negative. Jesus is described in several passages as being neither omniscient nor omnipotent. A good example is the time he took two tries to heal a blind man, as described in Mark  8:22-26. Another example is presented by the woman with vaginal bleeding, who healed herself by touching Jesus’ robe as he walked in a crowded street, without Jesus’ knowing who had touched him (Mark 5:24-34). What’s more, Jesus implicitly denied being God in Mark 16:18 and in Luke 18:19, when he answered the person who called him “good master” with, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good, save God alone.” Clearly, the authors of the Gospels did not believe that Jesus was God incarnate and so did not try to present him as such, however great a prophet and holy man they did present in their narratives. The Gospels were probably written some time in the late first or early second century, and so obviously the doctrine of the Incarnation arose later than that. God’s son, yes — they called him that, but that was common currency for great men in the Roman world of the time (Augustus Caesar also claimed to be the son of a god), and God’s son is not necessarily or intuitively the same as God himself.

On the third point, the Gospels contain many passages in which Jesus foretold his death and resurrection, but none in which he gave them the significance that they hold in Christian doctrine. Not once is he presented as claiming that his death was a sacrifice appeasing God’s condemnation of man to Hell. In fact, he never clearly stated why he was condemned to die, and regarding the Resurrection presented it only as proof of the impermanence of death and the power of God to triumph over death. He called for repentance repeatedly and often, but in a decidedly different context than is implied in Christian doctrine.

And as the fourth point rests logically on the first three, there is no support for that in Jesus’ teachings, either. (Also, there is no indication that he ever intended his teachings to be the basis for a new religion. He was a Jew, and however unorthodox and unconventional his teachings were in the view of the defenders of Jewish orthodoxy of the time, he presented them in a Jewish context as what he considered a true interpretation of Judaism.)

In short, there is no support for, and on some key points clear denial of, Christian doctrine in the teachings of Jesus. The two are in clear conflict.

Where Did Christian Doctrine Come From?

If Christian doctrine regarding sin, Hell, and redemption didn’t come from Jesus’ teachings, where did they come from?

Christian doctrine emerged over the centuries between the time of Jesus and that of Constantine, so that by the early fourth century the essential points were in place, and the Council of Nicaea in 325 had only to iron out a few disagreements and issue official proclamations regarding them. During the same period, a structure of Church authority also emerged in the form of “bishops” who exerted theoretical authority over Christians in particular cities, with the bishops of the really important cities of the Empire (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, and later Constantinople) eventually being proclaimed patriarchs or archbishops. However, not all Christians recognized the bishops’ authority, and they had no way to enforce that authority as long as Christianity remained an illegal religion.

The doctrine of the Trinity, of which the concept of the divinity of Christ is a part, emerged in the second century, but was quite controversial. One may find the arguments in the writings of many of the Church fathers before 325, such as Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Origen. All of these men, however, were of the orthodox and authoritarian division within the church, and their positions reflected this; in fact, Irenaeus is most famous for his polemic against what he regarded as heretical views, especially those of the Gnostics. Thus, they represent only one view of Christianity among the many that contended during the post-Apostolic period.

Although they held no real temporal power and were particularly endangered whenever an Emperor or a local official decided to institute an anti-Christian persecution (this happened a lot less often in the pagan Roman Empire than many Christians believe, but it did happen), the “bishops” were, naturally enough, those men who were particularly motivated by power within the Christian community. Those who were not, did not seek to become bishops. The scholars whose writings they supported were, therefore, those whose views supported them and their desire for power, which rested on an authoritarian version of Christian doctrine. This version is the one that scholars today call “proto-orthodox,” and with a few tweaks is essentially the same as the “orthodox” version which emerged from the Council of Nicaea, and which I have outlined above.

During the period when Christianity was illegal, the only way the bishops had to enforce their rule was through words and influence over people’s beliefs. They could (and sometimes did) “excommunicate” heretics from the church, but this held no more temporal significance than it does today, in contrast to the dire consequences that prevailed under the Christian Roman Empire or during the Middle Ages. Once it became allied with the state, the church could impose temporal penalties for disobedience, up to and including the torture and slaughter of “heretics” in the thousands, but in the post-Apostolic period that was impossible, and so a structure of belief that imposed non-falsifiable penalties for disobedience developed. The most important elements of Christian doctrine, from the perspective of power, are the promise of Heaven for orthodoxy and obedience, and the threat of Hell for the contrary. It is from this source — the power structure of “bishops” within the church, and their desire to rule — that Christian doctrine comes — not from the teachings of Christ.

Christian doctrine is in service to power.

The teachings of Jesus are in service to love.

The two are in sharp disagreement and conflict.

Anyone who wishes to follow the latter must, therefore, reject the former.

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A Scene to Share

13843867_sI have been very busy, very broke, and a little depressed lately, which is why this blog has been a bit neglected.

Unfortunately, this week is only a little better. So in order to post something, here’s a scene from my current work in progress, Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering. (You can find links to Refuge Volume One: The Order Master on the sidebar to the right.)

The main character in this scene is Claire Chang, who suffers from a magical mimic of bipolar affective disorder (also known as manic-depressive disorder). It’s a magical mimic of the disease because it’s caused by Claire’s astonishing and undeveloped magical talent rather than the genetic and brain-chemistry problems that normally result in bipolar disorder. The symptoms are the same, though. In this scene, Claire is sinking into a depressive phase, and I tried to capture the sense of that particularly in the early narrative where she’s struggling to do something as simple as take a shower.

I will get back into the swing of blogging hopefully at some point in the near future. Meanwhile:

 

Claire woke up after a while. She wasn’t sure how long. She was even less sure why it was important, but she rose mechanically and checked a clock, discovering that it was eight o’clock, which meant she had slept either four hours or sixteen. She supposed four was the more likely, although sixteen was not altogether impossible.

The basement room where she had slept had windows and through them she could see that it was dark. Evening, then, and she had slept four hours. That was good. On the other hand, she still felt lethargic. That was bad. It could be due to her injury or her depression, but in either case it meant something was wrong.

The basement had a bathroom, so she relieved herself and washed her face. Washing her face was a good sign. She even fished a hairbrush from her purse and brushed her hair. Examining her face in the mirror, she saw little to admire. Her Asian features, which some might have found appealing, seemed to her listless and devoid of expression. Claire got plenty of attention from boys and men, especially when she wasn’t depressed, so she supposed she was pretty enough. At least, reason said that had to be true. She couldn’t see it herself, though. She shrugged. It really didn’t matter. She wasn’t interested in Richard that way, or any of his friends, either. Anyway Richard was married. Actually, at the moment she found the whole idea rather pointless.

She considered fixing her makeup but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Then she considered taking a shower. Was that worth doing? Her hair really did feel pretty greasy. She ran her hand along the shower door handle and thought about it for a while. Finally she pushed herself into pulling her borrowed shirt off over her head and opening the shower door. Now she was already half-naked and would have to exert some effort before she could go upstairs, no matter what she decided. That thought motivated her enough to slip off her pants and her underwear. Now she was completely naked except for her bandages, if those counted. Should she take a shower with those on? They were supposed to be waterproof, Richard said, so it was all right, she supposed. Anyway they could be changed if necessary.

Shower or get dressed again? The idea of getting dressed again seemed absurd; it would mean that the effort of taking her clothes off was all wasted. All right then, shower it was. She stepped in, closed the door, and started the water. Brr! It was cold! But then it warmed up and felt all right. It didn’t feel particularly good, because she was already down enough that nothing did, but it didn’t feel bad, either.

Bright blue sparks shot up and down her arms. They tinted the water a shade of blue. Claire was used to that. The sparks didn’t hurt. She wasn’t sure what they were, and she thought she was seeing them with second sight rather than her eyes. Nobody else had ever seen them. They tended to come on during a depressive episode, although not always.

Richard thought her magic was connected with her mental illness. He might be right. He had been the one to give her some simple, basic lessons four years ago, after they had met when she went by herself during a lucid phase to pick up a prescription. Before she began meditating, doing breathing exercises, and using her second sight, her sickness had been worse. She had even been hospitalized twice.

Maybe it was like the pressure in an abscess. Her magic, bottled up inside her, pushed at her brain and wanted to get out. According to Richard, that was what caused her mood swings and hallucinations. If she learned more about it and gave it ways to come out, the pressure would drop and her symptoms should go away, or at least get better. That’s if Richard was right. Claire wasn’t totally convinced about that.

The sparks were kind of pretty to look at, too.

She found some shampoo, not her brand but it would work, wet her hair and lathered up, rinsed, scrubbed her body with a washcloth and soap, rinsed again, turned off the water, got out, toweled off, and put her clothes back on. Excellent. She was clean. That was an achievement.

She trudged up the stairs. Each step took an effort of will. Her legs and feet felt heavy. That wasn’t just the depression, either, because her side hurt with each step as well. Maybe Richard was right and she needed a day or two to recover before they hit the road. That thought almost sent her back downstairs, but by then she was already near the top, so she trudged on.

The lights were on upstairs. Someone was cooking or something had already been cooked. It smelled like chicken soup, or maybe roast chicken. Chicken, anyway. Claire thought about eating, although she wasn’t really hungry.

She heard two men talking and headed for the voices, which were just the other side of the door in front of her. The stairs opened onto a laundry room and the door of the laundry opened onto a dining room where two of her rescuers sat at a table with bowls of chicken soup and bread. One of them, a blond man probably in his thirties with beard stubble, turned to her and smiled. “Welcome to our hideaway,” he said. “I’m Jack. This is Peter. And I know already that you’re Claire.” He held out a great big hand. After a moment’s hesitation Claire took it and shook it.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” said Peter with a wave. He was black, short, and stocky, maybe in his early forties by the slight tint of silver in his hair. Both men were dressed in casual clothes, jeans or corduroys and work shirts. “There’s plenty of soup if you want some.”

Claire nodded. She stepped around the table and into the kitchen. Bowls were set out and a big pot of soup sat on the stove with a ladle hooked over the edge. Claire told herself she really ought to eat something. She ladled soup into a bowl, found a spoon, and made her way to the table where she joined the men.

“Is Richard around?”

“No,” Jack said. “He and the other brothers are making sure our families get here all right.”

“Oh, yeah. Because he thinks the Droon are going to attack your houses.”

“Right.”

“Do you think they will?”

Jack shrugged.

“They never have before,” said Peter, “but they’ve never had much reason to, either. This is different.”

“Just because you stopped them from killing me?”

“We also killed three of them doing it,” Jack said.

“They don’t worry about getting killed the way most people do,” Peter said. “That’s because they reincarnate, you see. When they die, it’s only temporary.”

“But killing three of them at once while stopping what they were trying to do, that they might have a problem with,” Jack said.

“Anyway, better safe than sorry,” said Peter. “That’s why we’re here and bringing our families here, those of us that have them.”

Claire tasted the soup. It was pretty good, not too greasy and full of rice as well as chicken meat and vegetables. She didn’t feel hungry, but told herself that her injury needed food, and made herself eat.

“So how long have you guys been part of this — what did Richard call it?”

“The Scourge of God,” said Jack. “Ten years for me.”

“Only one and a half for me,” said Peter.

“We had a revolution just before Peter joined us.”

“A revolution?” Claire said.

“Yes. It started when Mike Cambridge, the Order Master, invoked the Pact of War and got information from a Droon. Did Richard tell you about that?”

“Yes.”

“This Droon told Mike that the Droon are aliens, not devils from Hell, which is what the Scourge of God used to believe.”

“And some still do,” said Peter.

“Some people never learn. The Droon also told Mike about the Andol. Mike went looking for them and found one of them. He went off with her — with Amanda Johnson, that is — and fell in love with her.”

“Which is kind of kinky if you think about it,” Peter said. “I mean, she’s an alien.”

“Cute, though.”

“Tentacle sex.”

“What?” Claire looked from one man to the other, frowning.

“He’s kidding,” Jack said. “The Andol don’t have tentacles. Anyway, Mike passed on what he’d learned to the Chapter Masters.”

“And then all hell broke loose,” said Peter.

“Why was that?” said Claire.

“You have to understand that the Scourge of God was a very conservative, very devout Christian order,” said Jack. “What Mike told them was bothersome because he wanted to make alliance with the Andol. A lot of the Chapter Masters considered the Andol to be another kind of demon. They thought allying with them would corrupt the order away from its Christianity into some kind of New Age thing.”

“Which is pretty much true,” said Peter.

“I’m still Christian,” said Jack.

“You think you are. I think you are, too. Ask Jim Anderson and you might get a different opinion.”

Jack waved his hand. “Jim Anderson can go soak his head.”

“Who’s —”

“Jim Anderson is the Order Master of the hard line chapters of the Scourge, the ones that stick mostly to the old ways,” said Jack. “Anyway, Christians have been fighting over who is really Christian for centuries and we all lose when we do. Catholics against Protestants, both against the Orthodox, and then you have the Coptics, the Quakers, the Gnostics, the Mormons — it’s obvious God doesn’t want us to be unified, or we would be, so there’s no point in worrying about it. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who says he’s a Christian and tries to follow Christ’s teaching is a Christian, whether or not I agree with him about anything else. We can disagree with each other. Jesus never said different.”

“I see.”

Jack smiled a lopsided smile. “I guess it sounds like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, doesn’t it? I feel the same way. It’s what you have in your heart that counts, not what’s on your lips. But anyway, I was going to tell you about the revolution in the order. It started when Mike sent all the Chapter Masters a run-down on what he’d found out. Five of the Chapter Masters had a meeting and called a Council of Chapter Masters. The Council was supposed to consider the new information that Mike had found, but some of the Chapter Masters wanted to impeach him and execute him for heresy. It takes a whole Council to do that, you see. And it takes a two-thirds majority, too. So they called the Council to meet in New York. Mike went there to explain what he’d found in more detail. I don’t know all of what went down, but they did impeach him. But then somehow the Droon found out where the Council was being held, and they attacked it and killed almost all of the Chapter Masters.”

“Wow.”

“Yes, it was a mess. Mike got away. Our Chapter Master didn’t. The Droon killed him. When we got word of that, we had an election and Richard became the new Chapter Master.”

“He and Jack are the only ones left who were in the order at that time,” said Peter.

“What happened to the others?” Claire said.

“After Richard became Chapter Master, the Andol found him and talked him into allying with them. When the rest of us found out, everyone but me turned on the Chapter Master — on Richard, that is — and tried to kill him.”

“You’re kidding!”

“I wish. They weren’t supposed to do that. They should have reported him and gotten the Order Master and three Chapter Masters to authorize the killing. Those were the old rules, but it was a chaotic time.”

“Even those rules aren’t in force anymore,” said Peter.

“No, that’s true, we don’t kill people as much as before. Only in self-defense or defense of others, like we killed those three Droon to protect you. But anyway, even by the old rules they shouldn’t have done that, but they did.”

“What happened?” said Claire.

“We won. They lost. Andol training helped a lot.”

“In other words,” said Peter, “they’re dead. That left some vacancies in the chapter and Bill and Tom and I filled them.”

Claire made herself eat some more soup. A few minutes later the front door opened and several people came in. Richard was one of them. The two other members of his chapter, Bill and Tom, were with him. Two women, a boy, and a girl completed the party. One woman and the boy ran to Peter, who jumped out of his chair to embrace them both. The other woman and the girl were connected to one of the other guys, Claire decided, not to Jack.

“Where’s Linda?” she said.

“I don’t know,” said Richard. “She wasn’t home and I can’t reach her by phone. I’m worried.”

At that moment, Richard’s cell phone rang. “Maybe that’s —” he began, but then stopped. He answered the phone. “Hello?” He swallowed. “What do you want? I see. I’ll call you back. Do anything to her, anything at all, and you’re all dead. I swear it. No, it won’t. I’ll call you. Give me half an hour. Very well.” He hung up the phone and sighed.

“What is it?” Claire said.

“The Droon have Linda.”

A minute of frozen silence, and then Jack said, “Who was that?”

“Jennifer Olson.” He looked at Claire and said, “She’s the Droon administrator for the Pacific Northwest.” He closed his eyes. “Dear God.”

“What do they want?” said one of the other men, Tom or Bill.

“I know what they want,” said Claire. “They want me.”

Richard nodded. “That’s right.”

Copyright: _ig0rzh_ / 123RF Stock Photo

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Thoughts on the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

Others have commented succinctly on the inadequately-known details of the dispute between Hachette and Amazon over a new contract to sell the publisher’s books online by the retail giant. But there’s one thing that has seldom been mentioned, and that is what I believe to be Hachette’s (and other publishers’) real problem with Amazon.

My thought is that the real dispute isn’t over what discounts Amazon wants to offer on the publishers’ books, or who controls the pricing, or how much Amazon will charge the publishers for preferred marketing. All of these are important issues to be disputed, but this sort of thing arises between publishers and booksellers all the time, and doesn’t result in the kind of high-profile dustup we’re seeing in the media today. If it weren’t for a completely different issue that makes publishers regard Amazon as The Enemy (albeit also a necessity of their economic survival), these arguments might (and probably would) still be taking place, but we wouldn’t hear about them. Amazon and Hachette would resolve them quietly and there would be no battling author open letters or media storms of protest.

What I believe Amazon’s great sin to be, the thing that sends Hachette and other publishers into a frenzy of opposition, is self-publishing.

Ebook pricing disputes threaten to shave off some profits from one side or the other. But self-publishing threatens the big publishers with extinction.

The problem lies in the way that publishing houses, especially the Big 5, operate or historically have operated. The publishers have, in the past, held control over distribution of books. Authors who wanted a chance to sell their books sought a publisher to publish them because there was no other choice. Publishers could dictate terms to all but the biggest and most successful and popular authors, because they had the authors over a barrel. Sign the contract or fade into obscurity — that was the choice.

To a somewhat lesser extent, the publishers could exercise similar dominance over consumers. They were the only source of books, and readers had to pay what the publishers charged or do without.

Self-publishing with print on demand and ebooks has changed that, and although Amazon isn’t the only company offering that service to authors, it’s by far the biggest, and the main reason why self-published books have become a significant and growing part of the book market.

The reality in today’s literary world is that publishing houses are unnecessary, and none more so than the Big 5. Smaller publishers often deliver a genuine service to writers in exchange for a cut of the proceeds, but the Big 5 act like entitled mandarins or Medieval chartered monopolies, so entrenched in the attitude arising from the choke-hold on distribution that they used to hold that they cannot innovate or adapt, nor can they humble themselves to offer authors genuine value for what they ask.

When readers can buy excellent, well-reviewed books for a fraction of the price the big publishers ask, the publishers lose readers. When authors can enjoy superb distribution of their self-published titles, and retain complete artistic control and a high share of royalties, publishers lose writers. And without readers or writers, they will cease to exist. Because they have always been middlemen, not producers.

More than any other company in the world, Amazon is responsible for this change in circumstances.

Publishers regard Amazon as the enemy for this reason. It’s not because it’s the biggest book retailer in the world. That’s the reason given, but it’s disingenuous in my opinion.

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