Category Archives: Authors
I had the interesting experience of reading Anne Cleeves’ The Crow Trap (Vera Stanhope series book #1) while listening to the audio book version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Alcott and Cleeves are both superb writers, but what struck me was the contrast between the hope and optimism of the one set against the dysfunction and hopelessness of the other. Curiously, the circumstances ought to have brought out the reverse.
Four girls, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, along with their mother, are trying to survive in Concord, Massachusetts with their father away in the Civil War and having to make due with very little money. They live in an era before antibiotics or vaccinations when almost any infection could kill you and are in the midst of the deadliest war America has ever faced. Furthermore, it is long before the welfare state and the only help the very poor received, sprang from the generosity of others. Yet the March daughters had a strong faith, a profound sense of obligation toward others in need even if they weren’t family, a bright optimism for the future, and relationships with each other and their mother and father that made them want to spend time with each other.
Jump from 1862 to the late twentieth century and we have five women in England in the North Pennines. In contrast to the Alcott girls they live in a time of modern medicine, the welfare state, and a time of relative political peace where starving to death or dying from an infection is an almost unheard of event. Yet, one of the women has already committed suicide (Bella Furness), the three educated women conducting an environmental survey, are quite different, but each is beset with her own troubles that so consume her, that there is little evidence that she can care about anyone except herself.
Finally there is Vera Stanhope, a brilliant detective who seems obsessed with her own homeliness, loneliness and the poor relationship she had with her deceased father, Hector. She seems to take out her frustrations on her assistant (Joe Ashworth) who has a happy family life, or would have if Vera didn’t take such delight in calling him out at all hours of the day or night to help with some aspect of their investigation. She’s clever enough to know exactly how far she can push Joe before he quits, or Joe’s beleaguered wife insists he change jobs.
It may be true that Ann Cleeves is an accurate reporter on our times, but it still tells me how far we have fallen from the hope, optimism, and selflessness of our past, and how extensively hopelessness and relational dysfunction seems to color our world. Cleeves writes well, but it’s hard for me to spend extended time is such a world colored a dismal grey. I enjoy it in small doses and then read something more hopeful before I dive in again.
I once asked a friend of mine who reads a great deal of Science Fiction and Fantasy what he saw as the essential difference between the two genres. He thought for a moment and said that Science Fiction “could happen” while Fantasy “could not.”
I think I know what he meant. In Science Fiction, the writer is cognizant of the physical laws operative within the story. If an SF writer were to describe space travel, Newton’s Laws of motion and gravity would be obeyed. Even here one enters a grey area: some writers would insist on using the speed of light as a fixed limitation while others would imagine a way around it.
In my high school years, I grew up on this genre and my love of science, in large measure, grew out of that reading. Several friends had urged me to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I resisted for a long time. When I did read it, it was as if a new world had opened up for me. It recaptured for me what I had experienced as a child on first reading The Chronicles of Narnia. There was a sense of nobility, beauty, and “rightness” about those imagined worlds that I had missed in my Science Fiction reading, which instead, seemed sterile in comparison.
The longer I thought about it, it came to me that I was encountering an unspoken presupposition that was embedded in most SF literature, that of a materialistic universe where all that mattered was atoms and molecules; chemistry and physics. In addition, I found that the more modern SF also grew more cynical, growing increasingly hostile to the very things that I loved in Fantasy. As a consequence, I read very few modern SF stories (although I do try them once in a while) and spend much more time reading Fantasy.
So how has this impacted my writing? I think, in The Halcyon Cycle, I write Science Fiction that reads like Fantasy. I spend a good deal of time thinking about the physics and chemistry behind my imagined world (I think some of my readers would argue too much, in fact), but I also have many of the elements of a Fantasy story (swords, nobility, right and wrong which transcends worlds and physical laws for example).
Check out The Halcyon Cycle Books … http://bit.ly/2qzzi4P-Author
My book club is reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life; An Antidote to Chaos. As part of this reading program I have been listening to various interviews of Peterson and a recent one, taken from a talk and interview at Lafayette College , caught my particular interest.
After a lengthy and colorful introduction by the moderator, Peterson posed a question to the audience. I am going to tell you what I heard in my own words, but I highly recommend you listen to his comments for yourself.
In my paraphrase and summary, his preamble and question went like this:
So called “right wing thinking” is concerned about establishing hierarchies (which are necessary for survival and for society to function), while “left wing thinking” focuses on equality and fights for the bottom tier of the hierarchies that have been established (which is also necessary).
He went on to say that we know where “right wing thinking” crosses the line into extremism: when they claim one group (usually their own) is intrinsically superior to other groups. Peterson then asked the question: Where is the line for extremism on the left?
He went on to answer his own question. The line is crossed on the left when their zeal for equality for the lowest tier in a hierarchy causes them:
- To focus on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity
- To compel a certain kind of speech and thinking because it’s the only way to get people to comply with their demand for equality of outcome.
What Has This to Do With the Old and the New Testament?
Note: I’m not especially interested into entering into political discourse, important as that may be, but I am interested in how Peterson’s comments affect my thinking about the history of Judaism and Christianity described in the Old and New Testaments. I will confine my remarks to that subject.
I thought about the points Peterson made, and it struck me how this analysis parallels what I see in the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, when primarily describing God’s dealing with His chosen people Israel, he clearly sets up hierarchies: indeed he set up a political one and a religious one each of which acted as a balances to the another. This structure enabled the Israelites to survive despite encountering many enemies and suffering under the afflictions they caused whether it be slavery in Egypt or captivity by Babylon. Even under the heel of the Roman Empire, their identity and cohesion as a people was preserved. When I look at it, the hierarchies in their culture and in their relationship to outsiders contributed positively to their survival and cultural cohesion. However, there was potentially the possibility of crossing the hierarchical line that Peterson articulated.
When Jesus came, he seemed to turn everything on its head. He came in at the lowest tier—as many thought—the illegitimate son of a Galilean carpenter. Yet Christ, while not destroying the Jewish hierarchy, taught that to be a leader in His Kingdom, the leader has to be servant of all. This seems very much like fighting for the lowest tier.
Given Peterson’s analysis, it’s striking to me how Christ came to restore a sense of balance to the hierarchies and keep the Jewish people (and hopefully Christians as well) from crossing the line into extremism where “chosen people” comes to mean “as a people we are superior.” This has been helpful to me because it shows a natural progression in the Old and New Testaments and shows how hierarchies and fighting for the lowest tier are both essential for balance.
Disclaimer: I know Professor Peterson has delivered some lectures on biblical topics. I have not listened to any of them.
©Peter Kazmaier 2018
A short time ago my teaching pastor, Bruxy Cavey was teaching on Three Beautiful Words (God is Love) from I John 4:8 (if you’re interested in this critical message you can download the podcast for free).
After the message, as is the custom in our meetings, the floor was opened up for questions. A query was texted in by Peter (not yours truly) and from memory the gist of the question was:
A speaker on TV said that God being loving and being omnipotent was a contradiction. If God were loving, he would fix the world to take away evil and suffering. Since he doesn’t that means either he can’t (therefore he’s not omnipotent) or he won’t (therefore he’s not loving). This has bothered me a lot. How would you answer this?
Now when I encounter challenges like this, I like to think through them and this is the reason for my post.
Thinking about the definitions
Omnipotence is a theological term that describes God’s power as creator and sustainer of all things. I don’t believe it is ever used in the bible but rather is used by theologians to describe the sum of the teaching on God in the bible on the subject of His power and sovereignty.
Before one can examine the claimed contradiction, I think it is useful to understand the word “omnipotent.” The TV speaker and I likely agree that omnipotent means “all powerful” but does that mean that there are no actions that are inherently impossible even to an all-powerful being?
I think the answer to that question is “no;” there are actions inherently impossible even for the omnipotent.
For example, the following actions are inherently impossible or necessarily limit the scope on omnipotence:
1. Actions that violate the law of non-contradiction: God can’t make it rain and not rain on the same spot, in the same sense, at the same time. Choosing to make it rain means He has already chosen against making it “not rain.” The decree and its complement come as a single package.
2. In any creative process, full omnipotence is limited to the first decision. After that, all future decisions are constrained by what has already been chosen. Often subsequent choices are impossible because they violate earlier choices.
3. Omnipotence tells us what God can do, not what He will do.
Allow me to elaborate on points 2 and 3.
In any creative process, full omnipotence is limited to the first decision
As a writer I see this principle in effect whenever I start a novel. When my page is blank I may write anything I like. Perhaps:
“In a galaxy far, far away …” or
“He found the body after midnight on the moor.” or
“When Dolores opened the letter, she knew her life would never be the same again.”
After the first line, my omnipotence as a writer has shriveled enormously. I can no longer do what I want. Everything I write afterwards has to be consistent with what I wrote before. I think God faces the same limitation of particularity. When he chooses a certain course in creation, the contingent choices have to be self-consistent. When He steps into time, what He can do now, is constrained by the choices already made.
Omnipotence tells us what God can do, not what He will do
Omnipotence argues that God could lie. What prevents Him from doing so? He could put the lying words together, but choses not to because of His character. We have the same kind of power: we can all formulate a lie, but in our better moments we chose not to. This argues that there are some things God could do, but does not do them because they conflict with His essence or character.
Okay so why doesn’t God end all wickedness and suffering right now?
I think this is really the heart of the question that bothered the texter, Peter, and I don’t have a full answer. Here is what I have: what would God need to do to fix all wickedness and suffering right now? I think we would have to change the role we currently play on this planet and wrest from us all impulses and desires contrary to His will whether we want to give them up or not.
One of my favorite fantasy book series is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time®. In it a group of gifted people, called channelers, have enormous powers over their fellow humans. One power they have is called compulsion. With compulsion they can make subtle changes the thinking in the ungifted or even the gifted they have overpowered. For example, a channeler might compel a highly competent general to make subtle mistakes in a battle that to lead to disaster. On the other hand, compulsion can be used to completely take over a person’s mind so that the compelled must worship the compeller and be willing to kill or give up their lives for him. In the books, compulsion was rightly seen as a great evil in all its forms because it turned humans into automatons.
If my memory serves me correctly, there was a vision in the last book in which all people were compelled to be kind, productive, generous etc. But their humanity was sacrificed to make them that way against their will. They were no longer human. The protagonist saw this compelled change as a great loss to evil.
I think this is the fundamental flaw in having God fix things right now—it would have to be done against our will and our nature and that action itself would be an evil even if the end were good.
So where does that leave me?
I believe God is fixing things (perhaps it might be more correct to say He has fixed things in Christ) but the full effect of the cure has not fully spread through the system yet. The need for the means and the end to be true and good means the process will take some time, but it encourages me enormously that God in Christ came down into creation as a man and suffered right along with us. He was born into a poor family, of an oppressed people. His father likely died when he was a young man. Finally, he was crucified as an innocent man, while dying for His enemies who did not value His death at the time. This gives me great hope that God deeply cares about our (and my) condition in this flawed and marred world filled with flawed and marred people.
One of my favorite pictures is the one shown at the head of this blog taken of a framed print in my home. In Michelangelo’s fresco of The Creation of Adam, God is seen as touching Adam’s finger ever so slightly. Through this lightest of touches, He is communicating His love, but also His gift of independence and free will. The touch is there so Adam can choose to move toward Him or away from Him. Alas, we have moved away. He pursues us, but the touch continues to be light to preserve our free will. It is always my choice whether I move toward the touch or away from it. If I have to choose between becoming automaton or having God work the process to bring us home when we are willing to move towards Him, I choose His timing and process.
A final comment on theologically-skeptical snipers
I must end this blog with a protest about theologically-skeptical snipers. I can’t directly complain about texter Peter’s TV speaker because I never saw the program, but I have seen many others like it. The speaker, in criticizing theism or Christianity trucks out some challenge and then leaves it hanging. In my experience, they never go on to say: “This is my world view and this is how I answer this question that I have just asked.” That would reveal that their own answers are at least as problematic as the Christian’s and thus leave them open to challenge. In other words, these skeptics are often not skeptical enough because they don’t challenge their own views along with the Christian’s.
In my mind, these speakers are like snipers who are happy to lie hidden in the brush taking pot shots at their opponents. As long as their own position is undiscovered they can happily fire away without taking any return fire.
If you are interested in these kinds of questions and you find the musings of a non-theologian, Science Fiction author helpful, why not check out my book Questioning Your Way to Faith? In story form, it discusses questions I have wrestled with, in the context of a respectful conversation between friends who profoundly disagree on the answers. ©Peter Kazmaier 2018
I recently read G. K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World. He wrote this book in 1900. Although some of the later segments are not directed toward questions that are not under consideration today (for example: Why would women want the vote?), the very first part, the part that gave rise to the title, I found very helpful in guiding my thinking and proved very relevant to the questions that seem to confront me at every turn.
His discussion focuses on mistakes made by those who advocate for some the elimination of a perceived ill through social change.
Chesterton begins by pointing out that those who advocate for some social change explicitly or implicitly use the metaphor of a physician treating a disease. This is a false assumption because in disease we all know what health looks like and so the only dispute is about the nature of the disease and the proper treatment to return the individual to health.
However, in discussing social ills and their cure, we give little or no consideration to what health looks like and if we did we would likely have broad disagreement on the goal. Chesterton says:
But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World (p. 3). Kindle Edition.
Chesterton going on about this point:
The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World (p. 3). Kindle Edition.
I think Chesterton would say the first step in this discussion would be to talk about our private ideal of social health and defend why everyone should want to get there. We might agree that the current situation is bad, but that doesn’t mean the proposed change won’t make things worse.
The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World (pp. 3-4). Kindle Edition.
What Chesterton Taught Me
So how do I apply this? When I read about the identification of a sociological problem along with a proposed solution, I’ve come up for a series of questions that I think Chesterton might have asked:
If I applied this proposed solution what would our society look like? Would our freedoms be enhanced? Would I still be able to speak freely and follow my convictions? Would my freedom to choose what I think is best for myself, my family, and community be unimpaired? Would there truly be equality of opportunity? Would competence be recognized and rewarded?
Is the proposed solution tyrannical or draconian? Would I be setting up a new kind of oppression? Am I restricting people’s employment or their ability to go into business for themselves? Does the solution implementation consist of convincing people by argument and example that the new proposal is a better way to a worthy end or am I legislating and punishing to get there?
These two clusters of questions have been most helpful in thinking about these social remedies that I see on Twitter, Facebook, in the news, or spoken about over coffee. They also help me as a science fiction writer.
How Chesterton Impacts My SF Writing
As I write my novels I am often confronted with painting, using words, a future world. One way to get the painting right would be to use the Chesterton questions to extrapolate into the future. If I do that, I can often see how these questions illuminate the difficulties in the proposals and lead to dysfunction and unintended consequences.
If you have any thoughts on this, I would appreciate hearing from you.
Peter Kazmaier is the author of the science fiction series, THE HALCYON CYCLE. His books can be found on Amazon, Chapter/Indigo, iBooks, Google Play, and at your local library through Overdrive.
After Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is my favorite fantasy series. In The Eye of the World I particularly appreciate the wholesomeness and goodness of The Two Rivers society. The principal characters are unique, yet show a strength when faced with great adversity. They are clearly on the side of what is good and oppose evil. It’s a world in which I want to spend my time.
The plot is fast-moving and the characters grow as they face adversity. This story keeps bringing me back to read it again and again. I see something new each time I read it.
This anthology consists of seven short stories set in Estcarp, the Witch World imagined by Andre Norton. I don’t normally enjoy short stories because I prefer longer tales that allow me to get to know the characters, but this collection worked for me precisely because the imagined world was familiar. My favorite short story in the set was The Toads of Grimmerdale.