Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Sloppy Beta Books

 SLOPPY BETA BOOKS

hoc melius esse potest


I have, through some minor miracle, managed to publish four books in the last decade.  Well, three, given that one of 'em kinda morphed into another one.

That's a great thing.  Three books, published by real publishers with editors and everything.  It's enough that I'm sort of an author now, sort of.  But I'm a writer, so I write constantly, meaning I crank out more than one manuscript every two and a quarter years.

I've produced sixteen manuscripts in the last ten years.  Sixteen.

Here, I'm not talking about the manuscripts that I start, only to realize they're a misbegotten mess.  I have lots of those half-wrought fragments, the bits and bobs of tales.  Some I may revisit.  Most are, well, terrible.  Those, I don't count. 

The sixteen books are completed manuscripts, ones I've edited and re-read and edited again.   The stories are complete and formed and ready for a real editor.  Not sharing them meant things felt unfinished, like I was neglecting my babies, somehow.  I want to be able to share those books with friends and family.  They are sloppy, and they're still in beta, sure.  But they're still readable.

Last year, I committed to self-publishing all of them. I'm using Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing service, which is quick and easy and, importantly, cheap.  It's far cheaper, when it comes to the physical books, than printing them myself.  Or photocopying them.  Should a real publisher ever come along that's interested, I can always unpublish with a click of a button.  It's not like it'd mess with my relationship with Bezos.

Every Sloppy Beta Book needs an edit.  Every one of them is not quite exactly finished.  There are likely spelling errors.  There is occasionally clumsy formatting.  There may be continuity errors.  The covers are stock images, or photos I myself have taken.  Or, in a couple of instances, images I've "borrowed" from the industrial subsidiaries of autocratic/kleptocratic states.  They aren't at all perfect, not even by my rather liberal standards.

Hence the Latin motto.  Hoc melius esse potest.  "This could be better."

Here's a link that'll get you to them.  And to my published work. Well, every work but one.

They are meant for anyone who wants to read 'em.

You're welcome to buy the paperback or ebook, but if you're short on cash, and want a free copy as a Word doc or PDF, all you have to do is email me at belovedspear at gmail dot com, and I'll zap one to you gratis.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Thoughts and Minds and Hearts and Prayers

If your

Thoughts

Don't change your

Mind

And

Your Prayers

Don't change your

Heart

Then you are neither

Thinking

Nor

Praying.


Monday, May 23, 2022

Growing

When I was a boy

When a day was an age and a week was forever

The apples on the tree

Growing

In Spring to Summer

Took so yawning long to grow

I did not could not

Notice their growing

But now that I am

Old

In Spring to Summer

Leaves unfurl

Growing their

Opening morning orans hands

Flowers burn

Growing

Fast as patriot sparklers

And the blossom's womb

Growing

Fat apple fat in an exhaled breath

Which is why

To my surprise

Being Old

Feels so very

Alive




Friday, May 6, 2022

Faith, Madness, and Multiverses

 

As a writer, I'm used to failure.  

Most often, it's just a publisher letting my agent know that "this manuscript doesn't meet the interests of Book Bookman and Siblings at this time, best of luck in your future endeavors, e pluribus unum, etcetera, etcetera."  This is ninety eight point three percent of the writing life, so I sigh, and move on.

Every once in a while, that rejection will be more pointed.  Not formulaic, or the welcome word of helpful critique, but actually the teensiest bit sharp.  Like, for instance, the tart response I got back in 2019 from an editor of renown at a major religion publishing house.  My stalwart agent had sent him the draft manuscript of a book about Christian faith and multiverses.  The concept of the multiverse, as drawn from speculative physics, is that the nature of reality is not just our linear spacetime.  Instead, reality is a functionally infinite array of universes, in which all possibility is made real.  

For years, I’d encounter this cosmology in conversations with atheist friends and conversation partners, presented as an alternative to God’s creative act in making our universe.  As I was listening to and not just yelling at them, I found myself fascinated by how that way of viewing reality interacted with my faith.  So I started writing about it, and a book materialized.

How, I asked in the manuscript, does Christian faith encounter this understanding of the cosmos?  While multiverse cosmologies have often been presented as a counterargument to faith, they really aren’t at all.  In fact, they’re almost indistinguishable from faith, in ways that are both heady and delightful.

With the book completed, it was time to send it out, and so my longsuffering agent and I did. 

We'd dutifully waited the months and months it took the editor to get around to it.  His response, when it finally came, didn't beat around the bush:

"No one cares about this topic, and even if they did, no one would care what he has to say about it."

Well.  Alrighty then.

There's truth to the second part of that statement, to be sure.  As the hermit-ish pastor of a sweet little congregation in a rural town, I'm not a "name."  It's a fair cop, guv.  A publisher doesn't typically make back an advance, even a modest one, if they gamble on a relative unknown.  I get it.  Publishers do want a return on their investment, and that editor was right about me.

But he couldn't have been more wrong about the multiverse.


Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that multiverses are front and center in the cultural zeitgeist these days.  
Avengers Endgame, the final film in the sprawling Avengers saga?  If ROI is your crude capitalist metric, that alone brought in two point seven billion dollars of global box office, against four hundred million in production and distribution.  What's the theme?  Multiverses.  Spiderman: No Way Home managed to shake off the cinematic malaise of COVID this last year to reach actual audiences.  It also yielded one point eight eight billion dollars in box office, against two hundred million in production and distribution.  What was the schtick?  Multiverses.

Right now as I write this, the delightful action comedy Everything, Everywhere, All at Once?  It's an indy-ish film, with limited release, but it’s punching well above its weight, and it's all about the multiverse.

Coming out this Spring is yet another film from the Disney/Marvel superhero entertainment complex, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.  I’ve been looking forward to that one for years, as I find the mystic stories of Dr. Stephen Strange and his reality-bending magic both entertaining and excellent grist for sermon illustrations.

And that’s just film. It’s equally pervasive in literature.  The brilliant, entertaining  ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS by Elan Mastai?  Matt Haig’s bestselling blockbuster THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY?   A THOUSAND PIECES OF YOU by Claudia Gray?  All stories of the multiverse.  

In blockbuster movie after blockbuster movie, novel after novel, streaming show after show, our contemporary storytelling is pervaded by the idea of multiverses.  But there's more to multiversality than crass materialist profit seeking.  These alternate universe narratives have purchase now because they speak to something fundamental about our society.  

In the internet age, we human beings are being forced to confront a panoply of different truth claims and competing visions of reality, each rising from the ground of a variant culture or subculture.  Some of them can be reconciled with one another, but many claims exist in diametric opposition.   This has always been true, but the immediacy of new media concentrates that experience, intensifies it, and we find ourselves torn between wildly disparate visions of reality. It seems, frankly, like many of us live in entirely alternate timelines.  

 In a multiverse, in other words.

In a multiverse, after all, every single possibility is actualized.  Every version of ourselves, every timeline, every possible choice?  They're all made real.  While this might make for entertaining storytelling possibilities, it’s also more than we can wrap our heads around.  Human beings cannot handle everything, everywhere, all at once.  The cognitive dissonance that generates is too great, and our sense of self decoheres.  

What if we hadn't done X, but instead chosen Y?  Or Y1b.A-sub7?  How would we know what our "best self" means, or what our "true" self looks like, if every iterative variance is equally real, and equally "true?"  We can't do all of them, or be all of them.  For our sanity, our selves, and our souls, we must choose who we become in the face of the unformed churning yarp of being.  That choice can feel overwhelming, as competing visions of who we might be paralyze us.  Every decision we make precludes another, and confronted with the anxiety of choice overload, we can end up curled up on our old sofa, watching endless Youtube snippets, making no choice at all.

That's where faith comes in.  Faced with the irreducible complexity of a reality so wildly chaotic that our souls cannot bear it, faith gives us a ground on which to stand and imbues life with meaning.  That has always been the strength of faith, be it the purpose-driven life of Rick Warren Evangelical Christianity or the Ultimate Concern of Tillichian Christian existentialism. 

However you define it, faith gives us our integrity.  It allows us to act, to make that choice against a measure that transcends us infinitely.

I, for instance, try to make every one of my choices as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  Are there other choices I could make?  Sure.  There are so many other ways I could live that I could spend my whole life counting them. But faith is an orientation towards a defining purpose, one that integrates and gives cohesion to our souls.

What choice should I make?  What path should I take?  The answer, for the faithful Christian, is simple.  As Scots mystic George MacDonald so bluntly puts it, if you call Jesus Lord, you must do what Jesus would have you do.  “How do you call me Lord, Lord,” Jesus sighs, rolling his eyes at us in Luke’s Gospel, “if you do not do what I say?”  If we claim not to know what that means, we’re deluding ourselves.  Of course we know what that means.  Every day, in every way, striving to love God, love neighbor and enemy alike, and endeavoring to be in all things guided by Christ's teachings.

Make the call to that person you know is suffering.  Take that time to center yourself down with a prayer.  Spend a moment in study, or sort clothing at a local clothing closet.  Share a meal with a friend, or with a stranger.  Forgive the one who done did you wrong.  

Some days, the thing Jesus would have you do is simpler still.  Make that bed.  Sweep that floor.  Wash those dishes.  Weed the garden.  Do what needs to be done.  Those potentialities are right there, and how we actualize them is the measure of our faith.  This is true in a complex, linear spacetime, and remains true in the functionally infinite branching wildness of a multiverse.

But how do we know, our anxiety asks, that we're doing that thing exactly right?  How do we know that we're making the best possible choice, and that we're following Jesus in the best possible way?

The answer, again, is simple.  We don't.  Nor, if we've been listening to Jesus, do we need to.  Because that's where grace comes in.  Grace is, after all, both the heart and foundation of Christ's teachings.   Grace, which accepts our flaws and imperfections.  Grace, which understands our human limitations.  Grace, which forgives our imperfections, and shows mercy, and gives us the courage to strive again.

As a writer, after all, I am used to failure.  Failure, to paraphrase Dr. Stephen Strange, is an old friend.  As a writer, as a pastor, as a husband and father and human being, pretty much nothing I do is perfect.  Failure happens. But every moment shines with the grandeur of God, each offering up the promise of something new.   I dust myself off, remember my purpose and the grace of God, and then do what needs to be done, as best I understand it.  

No matter how dizzying and maddening the universe around us might be, we can meet that complexity with the hope that rises from faith.

Monday, April 18, 2022

A Eulogy for an Opponent

John Shuck was not a friend.

He and I interacted on several occasions, none of which were particularly amicable.  I'd gotten to know him back in the early, heady days of the internet, back when we all foolishly assumed that this new medium was somehow going to bring about peace and understanding.

John was a pastor within my denomination, which for a while meant we were part of the same general social network.  The algorithms thought we should be connected, and for a while, we were.  Sort of, in that way you interact with a semi-regular acquaintance.

As I perceived him through the funhouse filter of that medium, he was a fighter, a strong willed soul who aggressively called out anything he encountered as injustice.  Which meant, for a while, calling out injustice towards Queer folk within the church, which how I came to know him.  But his was a restless, quixotic spirit, and that emphasis soon faded.

John's activist energy turned then to his sense that atheists were persecuted within the church, which made no sense to me at all.  Wait, atheists?  Why would atheists even bother being Presbyterian?  He declared himself an atheist, rejecting all of the trappings of faith as a pernicious delusion, but continued to insist that he was perfectly qualified to lead a church.  I found this confusing, because fundamental cognitive dissonance is always confusing.   I honestly couldn't understand how a Presbyterian church could have a committed anti-theist as a pastor, any more than I would understand if the Freedom From Religion Foundation was led by a devoted and practicing Catholic.  I posted about my struggle with this, back when I was regularly blogging.  This started something of an online argument between us.  I tried to be civil, and to find connection, and explain why I found his position confusing.  He took offense.  I suggested that maybe Unitarianism was a better match for this stage in his journey.  He took that as an affront (it wasn't, Unitarians can be lovely), and the whole thing became a mess.

Having no desire to continue the conflict, I severed the few social media connections we had, but...as a parting offer a few years later...got Hemant Mehta at the influential Friendly Atheist blog interested in John.  If he wanted a platform to talk about being a Atheist Pastor, well, I was going to give him one.  Going the extra mile, offering up my cloak also, and whatnot.  

I'd check in, now and again, as John didn't seem entirely stable.  That instability deepened with the tragic death of his son, who took his own life.  His blogging about that loss was utterly heartrending, and I read every single entry he posted, feeling his anguish as a father who also loves his sons.  After that terrible, shaking experience, John spiraled into conspiracism. 

He fiercely believed that September 11th was an inside job by the CIA and Mossad, and became a Truther.  That lead him to connect with Iranian interests, and to Shia Islam, and for a while after a pilgrimage to a Shia holy site he would sing the praises of Mohammed's son Husayn, while also being a ferocious atheist who rejected all faith, while also being a Truther, while also being, somehow, still a Presbyterian pastor in good standing.  

When the pandemic struck, he became radically antivax, as some on the extreme Left are.  He was convinced that vaccines were a corporate conspiracy, designed by the fundamentally corrupt American regime and their oligarchic masters to force population compliance.  He publicly and repeatedly refuted the idea that COVID was a real issue, and declared that to comply with vaccine mandates was a violation of human freedom. 

Then, unsurprisingly, he got the Delta variant.  Back in October of last year, it killed him.  I discovered this when his name crossed my mind, and I did a simple Google search. 

His passing was most prominently marked by a website dedicated to gloating over the deaths of COVID deniers and antivaxxers.  The article on his life was relatively straightforward.  

The comments, on the other hand, were the comments.  They were a horrorshow of schadenfreude and cruelty.  To the commenters, he wasn't even a human being, and their glee at his suffering and death was, well, there's a word for it.

It was monstrous.  It was evil.

Human beings are good at that, particularly when it comes to those we oppose.  We return evil for evil as easily as breathing out and breathing in.  What is harder, when we find someone frustrating or false, is to acknowledge that their personhood matters as deeply as our own.

Jesus reminds us of this, of course, as we need reminding.  No one, not one soul in this world, is loved any less by God than we are.  That we forget this about our opponents is one of our most pernicious failings.  Because I didn't really know John Shuck, not as his friends did.  Or as our Creator did.

So to his family, and to his friends, my condolences at the loss of your loved one.  You knew his graces and gifts more than I ever could, and I hope that you are finding solace and comfort after his passing.  I equally hope you have been able to celebrate the places where he gave you joy in this fleeting life.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

On the Perils of "Climate Justice"

It was, I suppose, inevitable.

There I was, sitting in a large room, listening to a progressive bible scholar talk about their discomfort with the term "creation care."  You know, the idea that creation is this fragile, delicate thing, and that it requires us to carefully tend and nurture it.   It's a little baby bunny that we nurse back to health, or the delicate wings of a butterfly, or that first fragile shoot of a tomato seedling.  As a modestly competent amateur gardener, I know what it is to care for delicate living things.

I also know that the creation is so very much more than the small patch of land which I "own."

The bible scholar then suggested that, in the face of the climate crisis, the term had served its purpose.  Its time had passed, and I most certainly agreed.  In fact, I wrote a whole book on that exact subject. 

Instead, the scholar posited, we should be calling efforts around faith and the environment "climate justice."

To which I heaved a sigh, and not because slapping the word "justice" onto every single concept feels the teensiest bit prog-buzzword-lazy.

Applying a "justice framework" to the climate crisis means some very specific things.  It means framing climate action through the lenses of race and gender.  It means conceptualizing it in terms of systemic equity.  It means talking about the disproportionate impact of our changed world on Black and Brown bodies.  It means decolonizing and dismantling and reimagining will be earnestly discussed, and, again, oy gevalt.

Not because dealing those things is wrong, per se, but because, as a semiotic toolset, they fundamentally misrepresent the crisis we're encountering.  Those terms are part of academic and activist justice discourse, as human social systems are endlessly deconstructed, challenged, and critiqued.

If we want to talk about "justice," though, we need to understand the term with clarity.  Justice is how a society manages competing interests, how a particular social system balances out the claims of individuals and groups within it.  Justice rests on the application of power, on "might for right."  It's the scales and the sword.  If it's limited to the human sphere, that is, which it now very much is not.

The climate crisis is no longer a crisis within a system of government, or within the informal systems of human culture.   It's an existential crisis, one that has moved beyond the constructs of our society.  It is now, first and foremost, an imbalance in the natural order of our little world.  More significantly, it is past the tipping point.  It has become, due to our hubris, a self perpetuating process, a cascade, one beyond our control. 

Fools that we humans are, we have chosen to offend creation itself.  We have thrown our whole planetary system off kilter, and that means that the "person" offended in this instance isn't one group of human beings or another.  It's not human at all.  

It is no longer a matter of "social justice."  It's bigger than that.   It's the skies.  The seas.  The soil.  All of it.

Which means, quite frankly, that "climate justice" is not the sort of thing that we human beings should be so eager to encounter. 

When God sets things aright, and begins a return to balance, what does that look like?  When the imaginary worlds of our social constructs and synthetic economies are forced to stand before the Truth, what does that look like?  

God help us, we know what that looks like.  It looks like what we're seeing now.  Unprecedented fires.  The howling of winds.  Towns, shattered into matchsticks.  Floods, drowning us in our homes.  It looks like nothing homo sapiens sapiens has ever experienced in the 175,000 years our species has walked this little world.  It looks like the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.

Calling for "climate justice" reminds me of the words of the prophet Amos, who smacked down those among him who were eager for God to set things aright.  "Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord," Amos roars, and I hear his voice hard against us.  We claim to want the arrival of God's justice, as the people of Israel once yearned for the Day of the Lord.  

But that's because we are, as they were, fools.  Climate justice?  Lord have mercy, we don't know what we're asking.

Monday, March 7, 2022

The People's Convoy

 The traffic approaching the American Legion Bridge on the Outer Loop of the Beltway was heavy yesterday afternoon on my way back from church.  I was riding somewhere near the tail end of the People’s Convoy, the shambolic trucker protest of…something.  The mask mandates that have all been rescinded?  The pandemic restrictions that are now lifted?  The federal vaccine mandates that never existed?  Freedom is their cry, but honey, ain’t nobody free from traffic on the Beltway.


The convoy itself wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated.  Not a parade, not tightly organized columns, not the close formation of Rolling Thunder bikers.  Just scattered randomness.  Near me, a Gadsen flag flying Toyota SUV, covered in political bumperstickers.  Far ahead, a single truck, with signs I couldn’t read.  They weren’t in formation, but had been absorbed into the semi-solid particulate sludge of DC traffic.  The convoy wasn’t the cause of the slowdown, which had been caused by a minor fender bender.  It’s the Beltway.  There are always accidents.


It was stop and go, stop and go, but started to clear as I got nearer to the bridge.  The pace accelerated.  Up ahead, in the lane next to mine, I saw brightly colored debris in the road. Fabric?  A bit of carpet?  It wasn’t large, just about the length of a man’s arm.  Cars and trucks were running over it, treading it down into the tarmac.  It fluttered weakly.


At the moment I passed it, I realized what it was. It was an American flag.  Old Glory must have fallen from one of the flag-festooned trucks in the convoy, as insufficiently secured things so often do.  I felt the urge to stop and recover it, but I was past it before I could act, and leaping off of your scoot to run grab something in flowing traffic on the Beltway is a great way to cash in your life insurance policy.


I sighed into my helmet.  “Well, that meant something,” I muttered.