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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Death's Dream Kingdom is Hard Supernatural Fiction at its Best

My friend Gabriel Blanchard, who blogs over at Mudblood Catholic, has recently released his debut Death's Dream Kingdom (the first in the Redglass Trilogy) with my publisher Clickworks Press and I am really excited to offer some thoughts on it.

The novel is unapologetic Victorian Vampire fiction. Blanchard takes us into Victorian England with all the style and eloquence one should expect. What first stuck me about the book was the fact that there is absolutely no hint of tongue-in-cheek. Those of you who share geekdom with me, will remember that Hollywood failed to produce successful, or at least blockbuster superhero movies until they stopped being embarrassed about the fact that they were making superhero movies. An audience of almost any genre will most enjoy a work when it is un-self-consciously itself. So too with the recent glut of vampire fiction, there is often a sense that the writer is, on some level, a little embarrassed to be writing about vampires. That insecurity, whether conscious or subconscious, always interrupts a readers ability to fully enter into the world of a novel. You can never quite get lost in a story when the author is forever apologizing for the sort of story it is.

DDK is blessedly free of this flaw. Blanchard clearly loves the genre and the period and brings the reader in with all the gusto he can manage (which turns out to be quite a bit). The characters speak, think, act, and react just the way they ought. The wit and humor are as Victorian as the setting. In short, Death's Dream Kingdom is a winsomely vulnerable, and tremendously crafted work of art.

The second aspect of the novel which I find particularly exciting is the rigor with which Blanchard has crafted the supernatural schema of the novel. Long time readers of science fiction will be familiar with the distinction between "hard" and "soft" sci-fi. For those who aren't,"soft science fiction" uses the future technology and environment of a future world as the vehicle for a story, the technology in question is generally unexplained and there is little to no attempt made at defending the plausibility of the world. "Hard science fiction" on the other hand, takes the technology seriously; it defends the plausibility of the future tech it utilizes, generally drawing on principles or theories of modern scientists. Death's Dream Kingdom is, among other things, hard supernatural fiction. The rules and mechanisms which govern the vampires of the novel are drawn from existing theologies and spiritual traditions so rigorously that it may be hard for readers to return to sloppier vampire fiction after immersing themselves in Blanchard's world. Reading Death's Dream Kingdom will give the reader the constant impression that Blanchard has got it exactly right about supernatural vampires to the degree that this series ought to claim a place next to Max Brooks' World War Z or Zombie Survival Guide as a field guide to encounters with the undead. If I were to ever discover that supernatural vampires exist I would expect them to follow the rules Blanchard lays out.

Finally it is important for me to say that DDK is above all, a delightful story. Blanchard has not cut any corners on his plot or his characters. There are developments and twists to please any reader, and the characters are, by turns winsome, infuriating, urbane, and horrifying. There are heroes to love and to be angry with, and Blanchard's villains can be grotesque (the vampires Dane and Tinsmith stand out here), charming (I still both love and hate Augustus), or both (but no spoilers).

So who should read the book?

Anyone who likes vampire fiction and/or period fiction. Death's Dream Kingdom is a slam dunk for all who love fully immersive supernatural fiction and are all in for non-stop Victorian language. If, on the other hand, you lean towards plain-spoken or contemporary style novels, this is probably not the book for you.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Confessions Part 1

Hey folks. As a heads up, I have started a series Confessions of an Amoral Ethics Teacher over at Pints and Prose, the creative laboratory which grew out of a longstanding writers/thinkers/questioners group. If you are interested in following the series which will autobiographically explore my reaction and rejection of ethical systems. I will keep this post updated as it comes out, and yes, C.S. Lewis will be much referenced and quoted.
For now the Introduction is here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Tim Keller's Anachronism - My review of his review

So Tim Keller recently released a sort of combined review entitled The Bible and same sex relationships: A review article about Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian  and Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation in which he dismisses their overall arguments. I am not especially well acquainted with Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church or his books but I know and love quite a few people who respect him deeply and up till now I have been generally impressed with the quotes and blurbs I have seen attributed to him. I have also seen his teachings generally have a good impact on people’s lives and I don’t think that my disagreement with him on this subject ought to undermine what are (so far as I can tell) the very real good he has brought to the world.

Additionally, while I do not agree with his conclusions, and have some very real concerns about the way he handled Vines and Wilson, I understand Dr. Keller has a strong record of genuinely trying to love LGBT persons. I like that he opens his review with a nod to Wesley Hill who represents, together with several other awesome people, by far the kindest face of non-affirming American Christianity that I am aware of.

However, once he got down into the body of his review, I found Dr. Keller’s reactions fairly deeply problematic. Let me respond to the first three sections now, in order to keep the length of this post manageable, and then offer some closing thoughts:

  • Knowing People Personally.

Keller’s response here is that If Vine’s and Wilson changed their views on the biblical legitimacy of gay sex after getting to know gay Christians, then they probably did have non-biblical positions to begin with because knowing wise gay Christians is not (in Keller’s estimation) a challenge to a conviction that “the bible never forbids homosexuality1”.

The intellectual point represented here is, I think, accurate: There are people who know gay Christians and respectfully disagree with those of them who believe that God does bless gay sex in certain circumstances. However, this is actually very difficult to analyze since Keller fails to provide his own account of a non-affirming theology which is not challenged by the existence of Godly, wise, gay Christians.

  • Consulting Historical Scholarship

In this section Keller suggests that Vines and Wilson have failed to account for contemporary research into the cultural/historical context for gay sex in the 1st Century. He references a few historians and scholars in support of his contention that Vines and Wilson have done bad historical scholarship and then launches into an analysis of the Aristophanes account in Plato’s Symposium as evidence against their claims.

This is probably the section I found the most problematic. The fact of the matter is that Keller is committing the same error he is accusing Vines and Wilson of. In fact, contemporary scholarship is fairly thoroughly divided on the specific question Keller is addressing here (what actually would have been in the minds of 1st century people when they discussed gay sex - pederasty, slave rape, auto castration, and temple prostitution or committed, monogamous relationships). Keller cites the scholars who agree with him and makes an undefended, and frankly unwarranted, claim that they are the “best” scholars on the subject.

Keller’s treatment of the Aristophanes account in Plato’s Symposium is particularly unfortunate as it is first anachronistic (it was written more the 300 years before Paul was born and is at best representative of Greek and not necessarily Roman culture) and also deeply problematic as a source even for Greek culture in the 4th century BCE. Aristophanes famously despised Socrates (Plato’s hero in the Symposium  and in life) and the feeling seems to have been mutual. Since the Symposium was written by Plato, any theories put in the mouth of Aristophanes can, at best, be read as ridiculous to Plato’s audience. So while Aristophanes does present a theory that some people are naturally attracted to their own sex, the best historical analysis of that passage would be that contemporary Greeks didn’t take that idea seriously.

The best part of this section is where Keller suggests that the reader “familiarize themselves with this research”. I recommend the same. But in addition to Loader and Brooten (who are fine scholars) I also recommend Cantarella, Crompton, Cameron, Halperin, Coontz, and Hersch. I would recommend starting with Luis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization. 2

  • Re-categorizing same sex relations

This may be Keller’s weakest section. He spend a great many words trying to counter Vines’ claim, that the church’s view on homosexuality is analogous to its history with slavery and segregation - that the church discovered it had been misinterpreting the bible with respect to slavery and segregation and that it is therefore possible that the church has misinterpreted the bible with respect to homosexuality.  Keller argues that while the church never monolithically supported slavery, it has (until recently) monolithically opposed homosexuality. His response to Wilson’s claim, that the church’s reaction to homosexuality is analogous to its reaction to divorce, is a repeated claim that the church has monolithically opposed homosexuality.

The major problem here is the Keller seems to have forgotten about Church history between Jesus’ birth and the enlightenment. He fails to mention that the Church was effectively monolithic in its support for slavery and condemnation of divorce up till the enlightenment. For Keller’s argument to work here one would have to believe that the enlightenment (rather than Pentecost) marks the “true” beginning of the church.

Furthermore, the claim that the church has monolithically opposed homosexuality is anachronistic since our very concept of homosexuality only dates back to the middle of the 19th century. Prior to that homosexual wasn’t a category the church had, either to oppose or to accept. Certainly the vast majority of the church has historically opposed gay sex where they ran into it, but to equate what they were opposing (largely gay sex outside the context of committed monogamy unless John Boswell is to be believed, and Keller doesn’t) with contemporary gay sex in the context of same-sex marriages is, again, frightfully anachronistic.

Closing Thoughts:

One final thing which particularly troubles me about this review is that Keller only barely engages with Wilson’s actual point in A Letter to My Congregation. ALtMC is built around an analysis of Romans 14 and argues that gay sex in the context of a same-sex marriage falls under the category of “disputable matters” and that as such, it should not be used as a litmus test or barrier to full participation in the church. It seems to me that any review worth its salt ought to at least engage the primary argument of its subject matter.

1. Throughout the piece, Keller conflates homosexuality - “being attracted to a person of the same sex” with gay sex - “gay sex”. In this section I suspect he means “gay sex”.

2.For a more thorough reaction to the type of argument Keller is making in this section check out Jim Brownson’s response to Gagnon.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Christian Defense of the Gender Identities of Transgender Persons - Part 3

This is the third in a series that began with this post. If you haven't read it yet you may want to go back just to get the full picture.

In this post I intend to address the Bible passages which directly pertain to the validity of the claims of transgender persons vis. their gender identities.

The Bible does not speak directly to the validity of the claims of transgender persons vis. their identities.

Well that was easy.

The closest I have been able to find is the prohibition in Deuteronomy 22 against a man wearing a women's clothing or a woman wearing a man's clothing. It is sandwiched between a command to help your neighbor if you see that his Ox has fallen down in the road and a prohibition against taking a mother bird along with eggs or young out of any nests you happen to find lying around.

However, even putting aside questions of Christian consistency in the implementation of Dueteronomical commands, the only way this passage would be relevant to Wanda would be if it were used to demand that she stop wearing any of her "Bob" clothing immediately  since Wanda's claim that she IS a woman would require her to avoid wearing any man clothes. I hope this point is clear; as I have demonstrated in the previous post, trans people are their identified gender for the purposes of Scriptural commands and Christian ethics. So from a Christian perspective, Wanda is not a man dressing as a woman, she is a woman who is finally able stop dressing as a man.

And that's about all I have. In researching this post I went and re-read the Southern Baptist Convention's recent Resolution on Transgender Identity and looked into the Scripture passages they use to support their wrong opinion. Their Scriptural support was decidedly sparse and when I examined the passages I found that they were essentially passages which could be used to support a gender complementarian theology but that they had nothing which actually directly supports a prohibition of recognizing the gender identities of transgender folks.

I will allow the brevity of this portion to speak for itself and in my next post I will offer an analysis and refutation of the common arguments Christians make against the recognition of trans persons in their gender identities.

In my next post in this series I will address the more oblique texts which bear on this subject.

P.S. I want to do my best to avoid making any straw man arguments in this debate so please do not hesitate to use the comments section to draw my attention to anything I have missed here.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Listen to Baltimore

Ashley and I had dinner with a bunch of our friends last night, and as we settled into chatting, we rather naturally turned to this last week's events in our city. We are all Baltimore residents, and as our conversation progressed, I noticed a theme emerging: Baltimore is being used.

Most of us are fairly active social media types and we have been inundated this week, by predominantly liberal and conservative analysis of the violence and looting that happened last weekend. Honestly that wasn't especially surprising. Did you realize we live in a politically polarized environment? What I did find noteworthy is an apparent deafness to the voices of Baltimore residents in general and Black Baltimore in particular.

I don't mean to say that these groups have been ignored. The "Young Black men of Baltimore" have been almost endlessly obsessed over this week. I am saying that these voices have not been listened to. At least not outside of the city. Even when and where these stories have been told, they have not been allowed to speak for themselves. Instead their stories have been co-opted to fit the political or social narratives which most closely align with the interests of others.

And as a privileged resident of the city - maybe for the first time - I caught a brief whiff of what it is like to have your suffering used to further someone else's agenda. We do this all the time though right? A transgender kid commits suicide and the religious right folds her death into their narrative of sin at work our nation and the natural consequences which grow from a false hope of sexual depravity; the liberal left points its finger at the intolerance, systemic ignorance, and reified religious abuse which deprived her of hope and drove her to take her own life. And a torn, broken family weeps over the death of a child.

An American is killed in the middle east, and the hawks scream that the tragedy could have been avoided if only we had been willing to kill more Muslims, while the doves coo out a tale of developing nations driven to violence by the economic and military hegemony of a paternalistic, self interested, imperial west. And a torn and broken family weeps over the death of a child/husband/wife/father/mother.

Baltimore Tuesday morning
So this really shouldn't surprise me. Our national media and political machine have a long history of adapting the experiences of individuals as fodder for their particular agendas. Did you realize the national media sources have their own agendas? So what stood out to me this time is that at least here in Baltimore, there actually has been a significant effort to listen.

On Monday night last week, the nation was screaming that there is a race/class/violence/reverse-race problem in America and Baltimore was everyone's proof. Some of them are probably right. But in Baltimore, we cried and prayed and watched our city burn and crack as her long  ignored wounds - the wounds into which we have been pouring salt - split open. On Monday night thousands around Baltimore cried out to God, and on Tuesday morning, we reached out to one another. While the nation focused on the violence and inhumanity which was/wasn't a result of systemic, long term injustice, Baltimore picked up brooms, organized food drives, opened spaces for out-of-school children, and began the hard work of listening to our neighbor.

Stories are to be listened to
So do I think that the events in Baltimore are part of some larger socio-political narrative at work in modern America? Of course I do. All stories are chapters in the great story which is being lived and being told after all. But maybe I am wrong about what that story is. Maybe, that story isn't a story we can know the details of ahead of time. Maybe, if we want to pursue peace and walk in justice, we need to begin by listening to the voices of the hurt, the bleeding, and - yes - the angry. Maybe the story isn't there for us to tell, maybe it is there for us to hear.

My two favorite Facebook reactions this week came from two incredibly different sources. One friend quoted H.L. Mencken: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." Another friend Steven Leyva, a poet and teacher, and Baltimorean called out "Now more than ever Baltimore needs it's poets speaking up, seeking justice, giving out Balm of Gilead one line at a time." Baltimore will tell her story, it's messy and painful. It's full of rage and injustice, hurt and rebuke. It is complex and human, and deeply beautiful. Please listen.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hubris Towers is Big News

So I'm really excited today.

Hubris Towers: A new comedy series for fans of P. G. Wodehouse and <i>Fawlty Towers</i>.
This is our story! We wrote this thing.

My friend Ben Y. Faroe who blogs here, and I have been working on a "side project" which has proved so much fun that it has been consistently edging out a whole bunch of our other creative work. Hubris Towers is an episodic story which we will be releasing in regular novelette sized chunks (episodes) which build to a series of eight episode seasons.

The entire series is contemporary comedy. Ben describes it as a comedy of manners meeting a comedy of errors. I see it as the inevitable result of our collective obsession with P.G. Wodehouse (think Jeeves and Wooster), Terry Pratchett (think Johnny and the Bomb), and Monty Python (think everything Monty Python has ever done) crashing headlong into our shared bemusement with modern life.

And now I get to tell you that it we are finished with the first episode and are getting ready for an official in the tantalizingly near future. Get ready to meet a host of ridiculous, endearing, provocative characters straight out of our collective insanity.

If you want to get on our mailing list for neat updates and offers and such click here

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Meanwhile in Another Part of the Web

This is Luke,
with glasses
This is me,
with a pipe
In case any of you have been wondering about my take on the first three letters of the LGBT acronym, I have been discussing that in a conversation with Luke Geraty (a far more orthodox member of the Vineyard - our shared Christian tradition) over at his site Think Theology. We are currently at the halfway point in our six post series A Conversation on Homosexuality & the Church, so it seems like a good time to point it out. The three posts are:

Framing the Conversation

Arsenekoitai and Malakoi

Romans One

We are always thrilled when more people enter the discussion so please don't hesitate to comment on any of the posts or if you prefer a slightly smaller audience, leave a comment here.