Theology and Fiction: Telling Stories of Order Amidst The Chaos

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IntoTheWoods

I just this week finished John Yorke’s book Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. It was recommended by a good friend who’s a director in theatre and is also now writing for television. She insisted that I read it before I began any more writing.

I’m really glad I did, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the book is excellent. Yorke is the creator of a number of very well known and highly respected TV series, and knows his topic inside out. I read Christopher Booker’s seminal tome The Seven Basic Plots some years ago; Yorke references it quite a bit, but his own book is more about application: why do we tell stories, and how should we go about creating great story-craft?

This is where the book became doubly interesting for me. As you may have read here recently, I have been awarded a grant by Arts Council England to write my next book. It was quite an arduous application process, with lots of stuff about proving artistic merit etc. etc., and there has been part of me that still felt out of place in it all, moving from – albeit tangential – works of theology to literary fiction.

So it was hugely reassuring to read Yorke arguing that the two projects I have been labouring at are really one and the same thing:

“Once upon a time ‘God’ was the story we told to make sense of our terror in the light of existence. Storytelling has that same fundamentally religious function – it fuses the disparate, gives us shape, and in doing so instils in us quiet.”

“Storytelling, then, is born from our need to order everything outside ourselves. A story is like a magnet dragged through randomness, pulling the chaos of things into some kind of shape and – if we’re lucky – some kind of sense. Every tale is an attempt to lasso a terrifying reality, tame it and bring it to heel.”

“Whether psychological, sexual or societal, each of our storytelling definitions is built around the same principle: an inciting incident blows a seemingly ordered reality into a thousand fragments, then a detective arrives to hunt down the culprits and restore things to their rightful place.”

Seen this way, religion – and theo-logy as a narration of it – is a very ancient, primal and vital form of storytelling. Each religion has inciting incidents – the fall, the exodus, the incarnation, Paul’s conversion, Mohammed’s visions – and the struggle to reorder the world in the aftermath of them is the task of a community that inhabits this story, a story that is examined and expanded in enormous detail, a little like a Dungeon’s and Dragon’s game, by theologians.

However, for anyone who has followed my writing for a while will know, I’ve come to doubt whether ‘terrifying reality’ can be lassoed, tamed or brought to heel. Radical Theology, as it has become known, is an attempt to re-narrate religion as a force that is perhaps an ‘unhelpful fiction’ in that it purports to have the power to do this taming, when actually it not only can’t do it, but often adds to the fragmentation. Far from being infallible sources of divine revelation, theologians and priests have always been unreliable narrators.

This, to be clear, is not a rejection of religion in the style of Dawkins or other New Atheists. Rather, it is a reinstating of religion to its original, primal form: a telling of a story to make order out of chaos. It is the hyper-elevation of religious stories to the level of unimpeachable, universal truth that has precipitated huge violence – both psychological and physical – as tribe and cultures and individuals have fought to impose their ordering of things. (Perhaps ISIS is no more than a group of people insisting that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not only true, but REALLY TRUE, and woe-betide anyone who doesn’t believe it.)

What I love about fiction is that, in being upfront about the fact that the story that follows isn’t true, it can get on with the job of being true. The power in Hamlet is not in the fact of it being true, but in the enduring truth that lies in its being fictional. The order it attempts is more limited, and temporary. It doesn’t pretend to be able to perfect the world.

It is perhaps then unsurprising that – like the Bible itself – Radical Theology has evolved a huge amount of story. Peter Rollins’ parables are an excellent example of this: they are true because they fictional. The order they attempt isn’t universal, but more local… even though their localised settings (a jungle, a bar in rural Northern Ireland) resonate with universal themes.

Yorke again:

In a godless universe, the abject horror of meaningless existence is too much for any individual to bear. The idea that we are here and then we die, that all circumstances are random and all achievements are finally futile, is too overwhelming to contemplate. [Yet] staring into the abyss, we find we are incapable of not ordering the world… 

I suppose what I want to bring from Radical Theology into the fiction work I’m going to be launching into shortly is exactly what I explored in the final chapter of Getting High: that a godless universe doesn’t have to mean abject horror or meaninglessness.

Yorke’s book will, I hope, be an excellent guide in that process, because it so beautifully shows how the classic 5-act structure takes characters – and readers – on a journey from imagined order, to exploding of that order, through crisis and into a more mature sense of imperfect order. These are the woods we enter, daily – woods that contain our monsters, and yet – we find to our amazement – the understanding we need to be able to shrink them.

‘Faced with the ultimate crisis,’ Yorke writes, ‘the structure asks of the protagonist one simple question: will you revert to your old self and die, or change and live?’ This will be the ancient skeleton on which I too hope to build a drama.

So, this is a long-winded way of saying that, for now, I’m changing form: non-fiction to fiction. Always onwards. Change and live. Hope you’ll enjoy the journey too.


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Atheist Prayers – When ‘Thoughts’ Are Not Enough

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As the events of the horrible attack on Westminster unfolded, the journalist and activist Laurie Penny sent a tweet that read, ‘thoughts and atheist prayers with everyone in Westminster right now. What a horrifying situation.’ And with that, the twittersphere erupted. Atheist prayers?! Atheists and prayers united in a vicious chorus of righteous indignation at Penny’s turn of phrase. Vitriol was liberally poured, acidic comments hurled in her direction.

Twitter is the first, often unrehearsed, draft of what we are trying to get at. Immediate and curt, that it springs from the unconscious is why it can be both wonderful and maddening. I felt great sympathy for Penny, but more than that: in her irrational, fumbling attempt to reach for the right words to express the right things, I think she hit on something rather profound.
When something awful happens, what is the correct phrase to use when you don’t believe in God? It wouldn’t have been right to say that she was praying, but in the face of such horror, ‘thoughts’ alone seem so horribly inadequate. When people are in mortal danger, what possible good can it do if I am thinking of them?

As someone who used to pray a great deal, but now has no belief in God, I absolutely understand what ‘atheist prayer’ is trying to reach for. It is essentially about hope. Refusing any claim that there is a transcendent force that could – or should – intervene, there remains a very human part of us that longs for some force outside of our limited material selves to act. It hopes for a miracle: the miracle of action-at-a-distance, of someone stepping into a situation to help when we have no power to do so ourselves.

In so many of the prayer meetings I sat through there were a lot more of these ‘atheist miracles’ than many were prepared to admit. To exaggerate only a little, there was much beseeching the Lord to fix a sink when we knew there was a plumber in the room. To have asked for help outright might have been awkward; to ask ‘God’ and then have the plumber feel good about being an answer to prayer created a rather delicious kind of gift-cycle… but woe-betide anyone who questioned God’s primary place in all of this.

My hunch is that Penny’s hastily tweeted ‘atheist prayer’ perhaps betrayed more honesty than many of the atheists or the prayers would be willing to offer themselves. Prayer is really no more than focused hope; the real question is, on what does that hope focus?

For the true believers, to hope that God will step in is too often an abdication of any responsibility for action. We pray for the hungry, but refuse to offer them bread from our own loaded plates. When hope is located in the heavens, the earth is left to perish.

Seen this way, the atheist’s prayer is perhaps the only genuine prayer we have: it is sustained by hope, but a hope that understands that it is only human agency that can effect change in the world. In this sense, in the Westminster attacks all our prayers were answered: horrific though the injury and loss of life has been, what could have been a far more terrible situation was brought to a halt relatively quickly by some very brave individuals. Having been incapacitated, the attacker was then tended by NHS medics who tried to save his life. Emergency services showed great courage entering a theatre of conflict where no one could be sure if the last act had been played out.

We don’t have God to thank for that, but nor do most of us have our own actions to thank for it either. We put our hope in others. This was our prayer, and in praying it we commit to this creed: one day we might have to gather our courage, put our own lives on the line, and be the answer where others cannot.

So yes, last Wednesday an atheist activist prayed. I, for one, am good with that.


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Monsters vs Aliens | Immigration, Space Travel and Becoming Syrian

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Through a discussion club I run at school I got to thinking about the coincidence of two recent major news threads: immigration and space travel. I know, never a dull day in teaching.

In the back of my mind were good friends in a sea-side village about 200 miles from London who have been getting real stick from a vocal minority in their community. They are up in arms about my friends arranging for a Syrian refugee family to come and live in the village. The usual fears about terror and violence… all wrapped up in the core existential horror of all Daily Mail readers: THE EFFECT ON HOUSE PRICES.

One small story in an ocean of political wrangling and shifting seas of opinion about the movement of people. And here’s the absurdity: isn’t the anxiety about house prices connected to the right to move your family to an improved situation? Up the road to where it’s quieter. Into the next town where the schools are better. Closer to the city so I can get that better paid job. Away from Aleppo to save the lives of my children. To the UK where my economic outlook will be brighter. The right to move home is hailed as a cast iron principle of a free society… but this same right is then despised by the same people when applied to ‘others.’ We don’t want monsters moving in next door. No Blacks. No Foreigners. No Aliens.

And so to space travel. Next year Elon Musk will be flying people round the moon, and there are already plans underway to get us to Mars, and then onwards. The discovery of 7 potentially habitable exo-planets orbiting a ‘near-by’ dwarf star has led to great excitement about the possibility of a) alien life on these planets and b) us travelling to them as our own earth careers towards catastrophe. But, as we discussed in my classroom, if we travelled to those planets and found intelligent life there, we would be the aliens. We would be the ones making a perilous journey with no certainty of success, putting our very existence at risk as our home was destroyed to try to sustain a better life elsewhere. We, to put it differently, would be the Syrians.

What hope of welcome would we have? We surely would say that we ‘come in peace,’ simply looking for a place to thrive and – eventually – call home. But we would be foreign, and strange, and struggle with language and culture. We would doubtless feel nervous, even though those of us who had been fit enough and wealthy enough to make the trip would be some of our finest specimens. In the canon of science fiction, the plot tends to two poles: us encountering monstrous aliens, or us being encountered as monstrous aliens. Harmony rarely results.

My thought is this: our struggles with ‘otherness’ are still very very far from being resolved. The heated issue of the movement of peoples and the way in which we quickly brand others as ‘aliens’ tells us this. But something about the revealed unconscious in cinematic science fiction suggests that this runs very deep. Aliens are mostly monsters. They are either coming to colonise earth and destroy us, or we are going to colonise their planets – and we have to destroy them or make them subservient.

All of this has been resonating as I’ve read Charlie Fox’s book This Young Monster. His exploration of the culturally monstrous – from Buster Keaton to Leigh Bowery – forces the reader to come to terms with the root issue: the real monster lies within.

Our fear of the alien is really a fear of our own strangeness, a fear that we might not fit in, that we might be excluded. The monstrous within art helps us – in often uncomfortable ways – to confront this anxiety in ourselves. Because art should always be experienced within a cultural milieu, and thus within relationship to a community, this confrontation with our anxiety of exclusion can – one hopes – become part of the experience of our being accepted despite all our supposed imperfections and our differences. This, it seems to me, is the gift that all that is Queer brings, and why figures like Bowery have been important.

The aggression and violence of much of Sci-Fi – where the alien must be killed, or we must kill it – only feeds narratives of persecution of otherness, which can only lead to a strangling of our own fears, and thus to violence built up within ourselves.

Interestingly, last year’s film Arrival was a good corrective on this, one that gives hope that – as the prospect rises of us achieving long-distance space travel and becoming aliens ourselves – the cultural subconscious might be beginning to generate art that hints at a better understanding of what it means to be alien. District 9 is another example, and was inspired by the real events that took place under South Africa’s apartheid regime where ‘zoning’ of people was brutally enforced.

Perhaps subversive screenings of these might help a troubled minority within one village come to terms – not with the aliens coming to them – but with their own fear of what is alien.


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The Dark Side of the Summer of Love

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Researching for my talk at TEDx this year, I came across scanned pages of this superb article in Playboy magazine. Who knew what crazy stuff was out there on the Interwebs?!

Seriously, it’s a very fine piece that gets under the skin of what was really going on at the time, through the story of a doctor who opened a free clinic in Haight-Ashbury that acted as a kind of barometer of what was going down out on the streets beyond. Much of it was a very long way from the ‘peace and love’ ideal that has become the myth.

The Haight was becoming a giant behavioural sink of human guinea pigs living on top of one another and dosing themselves with a bewildering array of chemicals… but one drug stands out as the most destructive, a drug that then, as now, had a reputation as one of the most socially corrosive.

I’ve put them together into a PDF… nothing too explicit I promise, though if your boss would be offended by a few bikinis, it’s probably NSFW. Apologies – the resolution on the last page was a little poor, but the text still readable.

(Illustration by the award-winning Japanese artist, Yuko Shimizu)


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Robots Should Pay Tax | How Much Does a Stormtrooper Make Each Month?

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Chances are, your job is under threat. Chances are, in 20 years, you could be being replaced by a robot. Automation is coming, and it won’t look much like Star Wars.

The problem is, what happened to C3PO’s human predecessor? Or his 6 million predecessors – the highly trained, skilled translators to and from those languages that he (do we use human pronouns for robots?) claims to be able to speak.

The answer, history tells us, is that they went through tough times. Periods of automation bring periods of economic challenge as those whose skilled labour is deemed surplus to requirements – weavers, farm hands, bank branch staff, cab drivers – are thrown back into the pool and told to re-skill. As they do this, the state is expected to pick up the pieces. As this piece in The Guardian notes:

Conventional thinking says that the owners of the machines should reap the rewards, while the state picks up the costs of the ensuing human wreckage.

That doesn’t feel acceptable. This is not Victorian England. If Capitalism wants to rule the world, it’s going to have to do so a little more benevolently, because people are getting pretty fed up with the regime as it currently stands. People like Bill Gates, who has weighed into the debate, and sent Silicon Valley into apoplexy in the process, by suggesting that robots should pay taxes:

“Right now the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

That is, under the hood, one of the most radical statements I’ve heard in a while. It strikes at the heart of the economic assumptions being made about an technologically efficient future that cares not one jot about the people it will make redundant.

Wages are something you never hear about in Star Wars. How much does a Stormtrooper make each month? Does that include healthcare? Where do the Rebels get their funding from? Who supports the families of shot-down squadron leaders?

Hollywood has never liked to do sensible economics. (Just check out the incredible house the linguistics professor lives in in Arrival. She makes how much?) But that it doesn’t is resonant with our own blinkered view of the future: technology will progress and make our lives better and somehow it’ll all get paid for. Someone is paying for C3PO on Premium, because he never spouts ads after 3 hours translation work.

Gates’ intervention is timely and perhaps more important than we think.


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A White House Where He Is Adored

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Very interesting read here about Trump’s ‘Southern White House.’ 

‘He comes down here because he needs constant applause,’ one Palm Beach resident notes. ‘He’s adored within the confines of that club.’

What is becoming clear is that Trump is not adored among the worker-bees of the White House. His solution – flying off to where he really is the adored big man – is remarkable for its highlighting of his desperate need for adoration. 

On top of which we have this extraordinary, irony-free world where the man who campaigned to ‘drain the swamp’ flies off to a drained swamp where he has created a members club that offers access to him as President for a vastly wealthy elite…

There is no drainage in this administration. It stinks.


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A Theology of Human Machines | Solving the ‘Modest Problem of Death’

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A fascinating read in the latest New Republic, reviewing Irish writer Mark O’Connor’s new book, To Be A Machine – subtitled ‘Adventures among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers and Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.’ Anna Wiener writes:

O’Connell is less interested in evaluating technology than in the people who make it and its philosophical implications. As he places the quest for immortality under the microscope, he follows the individuals—tech visionaries, billionaires, and futurists—who are trying to eradicate, or dramatically postpone, death. “I wanted to know,” he writes, “what it might be like to have faith in technology sufficient to allow a belief in the prospect of your own immortality.”

All of which makes for a fascinating review… though perhaps an incomplete one. Wiener notes that, “it is tempting to see transhumanism […] as merely the latest rebranding of a very old desire”… but goes no further to explore that ancient drive.

It’s this very point about the deep and dogged roots of this desire that I take aim at in Getting High. I haven’t read O’Connor’s book yet, but I hope he does too because it strikes me that until we are clear about the essential ‘why’ of transhumanism, we are unlikely to create technologies that have a postive impact on all in society, and very likely to do great harm.

Avoiding death has long been a project powered by the twin engines of religion and technology. As I argue in my book, what this boils down to is that they are, in fact, thus one and the same thing: the technology of religion is the religion of technology.

But this throws up some interesting questions. Those of us exploring theologies around the ‘death of God’ are basically encouraging people who have grown up with a hope for perfect eternity to abandon that, and accept life as imperfect and finite.

Yet what this piece makes clear – and what I argue passionately in Getting High – is that our task cannot be limited to the traditionally religious sphere. Why? Because the technologists are now promising exactly what priests once did, so our death of God thinking has to now apply itself to the machine age, to the cyborg era. As I write:

In our desperate drive to get high, technology and religion are one and the same. ‘Be perfect,’ the gospel says, ‘just as your father in heaven is perfect.’

The pomp around temple rites is done in the name of the Most High, but is, in reality, performed to sustain the status of his Royal Highness.

Fundamentalist and extremist versions of this model continue to blight lives across the globe, but even where traditional religious belief has waned, Nero remains strong. With acid and Apollo done, the big technology companies continue his game, shoring up their stock valuations by assuring us that we are slowly being lifted up to powerful godhood, that death will soon be put to the sword, that even if the sun dies a new utopia is coming.

It is not.

Promising life and no death, these technologies – just as religions did, and still do – actually suffocate what life we do have. And Wiener recognises this:

A quest for immortality may be the ultimate example of overpromising and under-delivering…

This over-promise is precisely what religion has prospered on for so long, because the promise concerns what happens post-mortem… and thus tends to have very few returning to get their money back. The promise of technology has to function in a different way, and does so via the culture of permanent upgrade: this iPhone, this new iteration, this — the big glossy tech companies insist — is what is leading us onto perfection, and those who refuse to buy into it will be left behind.

Left behind. Recognise that phrase? Wiener’s conclusion is important:

As transhumanism gradually alters the length and quality of human life, it will also alter political and cultural life. If the average human life were to span 100 healthy years, then society, the economy, and the environment would be drastically transformed. How long would childhood last? What would the political landscape look like if baby boomers were able to vote for another 50 years? O’Connell’s foray into transhumanism comes at a moment when our democratic institutions look weaker than ever.

With weak politics and very strong leaders in technology, it is more vital than ever that our theology of human machines is spot on. We need to face this ‘modest problem of death’ with more courage than simply facing the death of our inherited religion. We need to face the potential death of labour as we know it, of our environment as we know it, and of political systems as we know them.

In a future such as this, smart theologians should not waste their talents on the small matter of religion. Ray Kurzweil, one of the most radical transhumanists, who wants to upload himself as a digital consciousness, says ‘people ask me if God exists… and I say, “not yet.”‘ How will we go about saving ourselves from this new divine power? How will we insist that overcoming our fear of death might well be what saves our lives?

 


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A Gandhi for the West?

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I watched Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi this week.

I remember being taken to it by my parents back in 1982. There was an intermission half way through as the reels were changed. I was 10 years old and as the film opened with his assassination, then jumped back in time, I remember being blown away by the power of this mixed up chronology.

Now, all these years later, watching someone break the hold of an oppressive economic elite through radical, inclusive, non-violent empowerment of the poor and dispossessed… it struck me how the West needs him now as much as India needed him then.


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