Warning: The linked article opens with a photograph once featured on the cover of Time magazine, which many people will find disturbing. That doesn't mean you shouldn't look at it (you should), but it does mean you should be prepared.

Ever since I first read this article I've been wanting to link to it, but couldn't do so conveniently until now. The whole thing is well worth reading, but here's a relevant excerpt:

I was teaching my senior [high school] Philosophy class. We had just finished a unit on Metaphysics and were about to get into Ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments. The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies -- multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance. So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.

I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha. Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.

The picture is horrific. Aisha’s beautiful eyes stare hauntingly back at you above the mangled hole that was once her nose. Some of my students could not even raise their eyes to look at it. I could see that many were experiencing deep emotions.

But I was not prepared for their reaction.

I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.

They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.”

Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

My brother (yes, it is my brother who wrote the article, and I couldn't be more proud of him) goes on to make a number of important points about the failure of "character-based" education programs in a school system (and a society) that insists moral judgments are relative. Particularly here:

How can we claim to be forming character in our students when we refuse to commit to any moral position ourselves? If character education is to have any substantive value, it ought also to specify with what or whom we should empathize (or conversely, not empathize) and to explain why or why not. That said, there are areas in which we have been quite directive. In anti-bullying campaigns, homosexual rights assemblies, multicultural fairs, social justice drives and women’s rights initiatives, we do not hesitate to preach, admonish or dictate because we feel so fervently committed to our ground. But it is clear that the message of women’s rights had been, in the case of Bibi Aisha, outshouted by the metamessage too often embedded in these programs -- that there are no real standards, no certain moral truths, and no final ground to stand on; and that anyone who thinks there is, is simply naïve or a bigot. In this case, even the strong rhetoric of women’s rights could not survive the acid bath of universal tolerance.

G.K. Chesterton famously stated that "Tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions," and certainly the kind of tolerance expressed by the high school students in my brother's Philosophy class falls into that category. But what else can we expect from young people when they (and we) are told over and over, in the classes they attend and the TV shows they watch and the books they read, that making moral judgments about other people's behaviour is the worst kind of arrogance and self-righteousness, and that any views they might have about right and wrong ought to be kept strictly to themselves for fear of offending someone?
Over the last year or so I've been reading through the Bible at the rate of about a chapter a day. I just finished Jeremiah yesterday, which is a really emotionally tough book if you identify even slightly with Jeremiah*, and as I was reading the first chapter of Lamentations I was struck by a thought that's been creeping up on me for a while.

Grief is not a sin.

Well, duh, you may say. Of course it's okay to grieve. We lose people or hear terrible news or suffer disappointment, we feel sad, it would be monstrous if we didn't react that way. And I think most people would agree that this is the case.

And yet it's easy to fall into the trap of expecting that grief, or lamentation, should only last so long or go so far. Just a nice neat little grief, not too long, something you can swallow back and force a watery smile and then put your chin up and keep marching with a smile on your face. Especially if you call yourself a Christian, because Christians are supposed to be full! of! joy! and count themselves blessed when they suffer tribulation, etc.

And for this reason people -- especially religious people, it seems -- can be amazingly cruel and dismissive toward others who are hurting, by trying to pep them up with positive talk and encourage them to stop focusing on all that negative stuff, or even (the worst) condemning and shunning them if they go on grieving and lamenting past the generally accepted time period for such things.

Where does this come from? Not the Bible, that's for sure... )

Sin, and all the things that have gone wrong with our world because of sin, may be the ultimate cause of every grief we suffer, and it's true that one day all tears will be wiped away forever and that will be a very good thing. But until that happens, grieving and lamenting and suffering over sin and hardship are not just tolerable or permissible to a certain limited extent -- they're actually good and right.

So the next time you're genuinely upset over something terrible that has happened to you or someone you love, and somebody comes up to you and chirps, "Oh, well, praise the Lord anyhow!" You should feel free to punch them in the face** hand them the book of Lamentations.

* Actually, I keep thinking there has to be a YA novel in there somewhere, because God called Jeremiah to be a prophet when he was just a young teenager. I'll keep you posted if I ever figure the plot of that one out.

** See, that's why I usually talk myself out of writing serious blog posts without spending a week editing them first.

*** No belittlement is meant by the use of this term, believe me; I would gladly have used "Tanakh" instead except that some of my non-Jewish readers wouldn't have understood what I mean by it.
First, let's watch a video. No worries, it's short. If you haven't seen it before, trust me, it's well worth watching; and even if you have seen it, I think it's worth watching again.

Right. Is your mind officially blown? I know mine was, when I first saw this and realized just how unimaginably huge VV Cephei is compared to… well, basically everything else in the clip, and yet how that single star is only one among countless others in this vast universe. I mean, space is big. Really big (thank you, Douglas Adams).

Which leads me to another video narrated by Carl Sagan entitled "Pale Blue Dot", which many have found to be similarly astounding and moving:

(Or if you're tired of watching videos you can just read the text of the monologue instead.)

What interests me about Sagan's monologue is that so much of it is undeniably true – and yet there's one crucial point on which I would have to disagree. Sagan, as many others have done before and after him, looks at the sheer inconceivable size and scope of the universe and comes to the conclusion that it is simply too big, and we are simply too small by comparison, for us to believe that our lives have any higher purpose, or that there is a God who cares about us.

To which I say, wait, what?

Further thoughts... )

So while I view the video about the relative size of stars with open-mouthed awe and a chill running up my spine at the unbelievable immensity of it all, and while I am also moved by Carl Sagan's appeal for human beings to be good to each other because our world is so tiny and so alone, I can't mistake either of these things as evidence that there is no God, or that God is too big to be bothered with the needs and struggles of puny human beings.

Rather, I believe that because God is so great – so vast and complex indeed that the size of the universe is just a tiny picture of His greatness – He is also infinitely capable of noticing and caring about you and me, far more than we humans are capable of noticing and caring for even the people we love best in the world.

Which means I can watch those videos about the immensity of the universe and the apparent insignificance of the Earth and humanity in the cosmic scheme of things, and then, with no sense of irony or self-contradiction, I can tuck my children into bed and sing to them:

Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak, and He is strong.


Gacked from [livejournal.com profile] lizbee by way of everybody else:

Go here and look through random quotes until you find 5 that you think reflect who you are or what you believe. Repost in your journal.

1. The unexamined life is not worth living.
- Socrates (469 BC - 399 BC)

2. I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life's realities.
- Dr. Seuss (1904 - 1991)

3. There are two modes of establishing our reputation: to be praised by honest men, and to be abused by rogues. It is best, however, to secure the former, because it will invariably be accompanied by the latter.
- Charles Caleb Colton (1780 - 1832)

4. The truth is the kindest thing we can give folks in the end.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 - 1896)

5. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
- The Bible (Philippians 1:21)

And now I'm off to work on Chapter Ten...
This is a mega-cool idea for a meme, although like [livejournal.com profile] yahtzee63 (from whom I gacked it just now) I think I'm going to have a hard time answering it for anybody else. Still:

Pretend for a minute that the only contact you have ever had with me is through my fic. We've never exchanged LJ comments or emails, never hung out in chat or on IM, never talked on the phone or met each other at a convention, none of that stuff. The only thing you know about me is the kind of fic I write. Based on the way I write my characters, and the way they speak, think, and behave, what does that say to you about what kind of person I am, my attitudes and opinions about real-life issues?

And speaking of fic, I just finished the last chapter of "Galatea" today and it's off to the beta-readers, so I hope to have it up here in another couple of days. Yay!
Aha! Now I remember something interesting I wanted to post about. Months ago, Cheryl asked me in the comments of her blog:

What is your approach to Biblical interpretation? (I'm thinking mostly literal vs. nonliteral here, though I'm aware there are many more nuanced approaches and you have one of those. And feel free to direct me to a blog post on this, as I think you've probably written one on it...)

Well, as it happens, I didn't have a blog post written on it, so I had to file her question away for future reference, and now here I am, finally getting around to it (thanks for your patience, Cheryl!).

I do approach the Bible literally -- that is, I believe that it may be read and understood without a secret decoder ring or years of special education. This is not to say that a theological education has no value, but rather that I believe any person capable of reading, say, the average newspaper article should be capable of grasping the basic narratives and concepts of the Bible.

Of course there are difficult texts and passages which require thoughtful consideration before the reader can be at all confident of their meaning; and there are also parts which at first glance seem merely irrelevant or tedious and are hard to interpret in that sense. But I do not believe that the Bible is so packed with allegory, metaphor and figurative language that a reasonably intelligent child couldn't understand the gist of what it's trying to say. I believe that God gave us His Word in order to communicate, not obfuscate.

Note, however, that taking the Bible literally does not mean failing to recognize that it contains poetic language, parables, metaphors and the like. Jesus used all kinds of analogies and figures of speech in His teaching, for instance; and the writings of the Old Testament prophets are full of symbols and visionary language. However, it is generally quite clear in the context when a given passage is figurative or poetic in nature.

In that sense, I read the Bible as I would read any other book -- I begin by assuming that the author(s) of said book have a message that they wish to communicate to me, and that I will be able to understand that message if I read carefully. It may take me a long time -- even a whole lifetime -- to fully grasp everything that is being said, but that doesn't mean that I won't be able to understand any of it.

The problem with the view that the Bible merely "contains" truth or that it is primarily figurative in nature is that it postulates a God who plays favorites with the intelligensia. The more sophisticated a thinker you are, the better you are versed in ancient literature and languages and symbolic interpretation and so on, the more of the Bible you will understand; whereas a person without the same access to higher education and extra-biblical historical writings and so on will be left in the dark. However, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians explicitly stated that God does not give preferential treatment to the highly educated. His message is not merely for some, but for all.

As such, I believe that the Bible can indeed be profitably understood and put into practice by anyone who approaches it thoughtfully and humbly, even if they are not an accredited Biblical scholar; and that it is also possible for a highly intelligent and educated person to miss the interpretive boat, if they approach the text in a spirit of arrogance or with preconceived notions of what it will or should contain.

Mind you, the real difficulty most of us (and I include myself in this) have with the Bible is not that we read it and fail to comprehend what it is saying, but that we read it carelessly or not at all.
This morning I'm starting to wonder if I'm on a two-week schedule of rough, half-sleepless nights followed by a day of fatigue and breathlessness, or what. The lack of oxygen is making me light-headed and my legs feel wobbly. However, because I am a complete geek, I spent much of the time I couldn't sleep thinking of how best to reply to the comments made to my previous entry, and now here I am typing it up, since if I'm going to feel cruddy anyway I might as well do something productive with my time...

Both Paula and James raised the question of why sin couldn't have come into the world without a literal Adam and Eve and a literal fall in Eden -- why it couldn't be the result of evolved humanity exercising a God-given free will. Again, it seems a reasonable idea on the surface: but the moment you start to examine the details the whole thing breaks down. The ability to exercise free will is by no means evil in itself, to be sure, so God could give human beings free will without being the author of sin. But if we propose that sin has come into the world merely as the result of evolved humans choosing to do wrong on an individual basis, with no creatorial Head such as Adam represents in the Biblical narrative, we are left with the following very serious unanswered questions:

1. Why do all human beings, starting at the very youngest age, do wrong things without any coaching whatsoever, but have to be taught and encouraged to do good? Why is selfishness our "default mode", as it were, whereas good and unselfish behaviour requires conscious effort (effort that fails as often as not, or at least doesn't go as far as we would like it to)?

As a mother of two children whom I love dearly, as well as someone who vividly remembers her own childhood, I can readily attest to the fact that it is very easy for "sweet, innocent" children to be rude, unkind, disobedient to authority (even wise and compassionate authority), to harbor evil thoughts and say cruel things to each other -- and to do this knowingly and willfully, with no doubt in their minds that their behaviour is wrong. Even now that I am a well-brought-up and socially adjusted adult who knows better than to throw a tantrum in the street or hurl sharp objects at people who annoy me, I nevertheless still find it far easier to do evil than to do good -- I'm just better at hiding my sins from others.

If God created us (or rather, allowed us to evolve) with no innate tendency toward evil, only the basic power of free will, it should be an easy fifty-fifty proposition as to whether we do evil or good, and we should be readily able to choose good all or at least most of the time. But this is manifestly not the case, as anyone who tries to do only good and no evil, even for just one day, will soon discover. We read many stories in the Bible of noble and godly men such as Noah, Abraham and David, who did great things for God -- but they also committed great sins, with grievous consequences for themselves and those around them. As the psalmist wrote and the apostle Paul echoed in the epistle to the Romans, "There is no one righteous, no, not one."

The idea of human beings having evolved free will and choosing to do good or evil on an individual basis doesn't answer or even address this perennial moral problem. Only if humanity sprang from a single human couple created in a state of innocence (thus allowing God to declare them truly "good" in the beginning, not merely "potentially good if they choose to be") who then used their God-given free will to sin against Him and so corrupted both themselves and all their future offspring in the process, do we have an answer to the question of why we human beings are sinners by default, as it were, and why moral behaviour is such a concentrated (and frequently thwarted) effort by contrast. Only then do we have the necessary guarantee that human beings are not as God created them, and that God Himself is not responsible for nor is He indifferent to our present sinful state.

But there's another very important question left unanswered if "sin" is supposed to be just the result of evolved man exercising his God-given free will for evil instead of good, and it's this:

2. What about evil that is not the direct result of man exercising free will -- natural disasters, disease, "nature red in tooth and claw", etc.?

If we look around this world, we see much that is beautiful, much that is breathtaking, much that gives the appearance (misleading or not) of complex and intelligent design. But there is also much evidence of decay, suffering and death in the natural world. If God set evolution in motion in such a way as to produce the result we see in the world today, then He would be neither loving nor righteous. Only if God created the world in a state of perfection would He be justified in calling it, or Himself, "good".

So then, how did the world get from a state pleasing to God into the obviously imperfect state in which it now exists? Why do we have cancer, tsunamis, schizophrenia, colonies of monkeys who chase down other monkeys and rip them apart for sport? How did death -- something we all instinctively know to be an evil and seek to avoid, however we may try to whitewash it with various philosophies -- become an inescapable part of creation? Again, there is no satisfactory explanation for this if the world as we know it was simply set in motion by God and allowed to evolve to its present state. Only if at some definite point in history something went suddenly and cataclysmically wrong with creation do we have an answer, and Genesis 3 provides us with that answer.

Again, I am not claiming to have a timeline for creation, or to understand all the processes by which God worked and continues to work in bringing life into the world. Where the Bible specifically touches on these subjects I believe it to be factually and historically and scientifically reliable: but it addresses these matters primarily in the context of revealing God's character and expounding on man's relationship to Him, and so does not provide us with an exhaustive scientific explanation. Nevertheless, I can see no means by which the obvious realities of human moral weakness and a corrupted, decaying world can be explained apart from a literal father and mother of all humanity, a literal historical point at which innocent man was presented with the choice to do good or evil, and a literal fall into sin which affected not just human biology and spirituality but the whole of the created world of which humanity was Head. And that means reading and interpreting Genesis 1-3 just as the book itself invites us to do -- as a simple, straightforward historical account of what really happened.

I have more to say in response to Paula's comment in particular, but the reliability of the gospels and the question of whether Jesus actually spoke the words attributed to Him is another subject for another time.
Well, I did that handwriting analysis meme that's going around and that everybody so far seems to think is fearfully accurate, and -- guess what? Either I have no self-knowledge whatsoever or it's not very accurate at all. Or at least, not for me.

Check this out... )

On the whole, I'd say the analysis was only about fifty percent right; and in some cases, very badly wrong.

Next up: a report from Thursday night's Kalan appearance at Sherway Gardens, for the 1% of my friends list who might actually care.
Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] hedda62 for drawing my attention to a fascinating post by [livejournal.com profile] witchqueen:

Does anyone else have a story they can't let go? What's your template, what's the script that underlies everything? Or, if you don't have a story you keep telling, maybe there's a story you keep reading. Is there something that underlies all of your favorite fairytales and novels and television shows and fanfics?

Like [livejournal.com profile] hedda62, I agree that there are elements of Arranged Marriage and Secret Soulmates in most of what I write. But the one theme I keep coming back to again and again, in a variety of forms, is Sacrifice. The main character either makes a terrible sacrifice, or is the beneficiary of one, or has to learn to make sacrifices before he/she can find peace and resolution.

A similar and often connected motif in my writing is Cruel To Be Kind -- the idea that sometimes an act or an event that seems, on the face of it, to be terrible may in fact be the result of compassion, and ultimately key to a greater happiness.

What about you? What are the recurring themes or motifs in your work?
Just a quick heads-up for anyone interested in reading my blogback to this recent post by [livejournal.com profile] sff_corgi. I put it in the blog since that's where my non-fannish stuff goes... but feel free to comment here if you have anything to say.
Part I: The Sacred )

Part II: The Trivial )

If anybody has any more questions feel free to stick 'em in the Comments section; I'm game...
...that I am on Fic Holiday until further notice. That doesn't mean, by the way, that I'm not going to write anything. It's just that I've decided to stop pressuring myself to produce a complete, finished work as soon as penguinly possible (sorry, I've sat through too many readings of Rumble Grumble Gurgle Roar in the last few days) and write solely for my own pleasure, and at my own pace, for a change.

More details... )

I'll let you know how it goes.
Over the past few days Jemima, [livejournal.com profile] seemag and [livejournal.com profile] lizbee have been reflecting on whether it's arrogant (or inaccurate) to call one's fic a "gift". Jemima thinks "gift" is a perfectly reasonable term. Seema prefers some term other than "gift". And Liz has just amused herself by making a "My fic is a gift" icon, which produced this delightful response from [livejournal.com profile] ajhalluk.

I can see everybody's point -- I agreed somewhat with Jemima and even more with Seema -- but none of the descriptions I'd yet heard really seemed to quite describe the way I feel about writing. Then, just this morning, it came to me in a flash of inspiration.

I am a busker.

Here I stand on my little corner of the Internet, playing my fanfic tunes for anyone and everyone to hear, and hoping that some of them will be kind enough to leave some feedback in exchange. Some people pass by without stopping or sparing my fic a glance. Others hesitate a minute before deciding "Nah, I can't get into that old-fashioned het stuff" and moving on. Still more readers wander about in the background until the story is done, more or less enjoying the fic but unwilling or unable to FB. And then there are the few encouraging souls who toss a few coins of criticism and/or praise in the review jar and ask, "Do you do requests?"

Yep, that analogy suits me just fine.


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