Subscribe to Generate Magazine

genr8-avatarGENERATE Magazine is now accepting orders for their first, limited edition issue. You will want to get this issue, as it contains an essay by myself that will surely be a collector’s item some day. Subscribing before the end of September will grant you a lower rate.

For the one or two people who haven’t heard of it:

GENERATE exists as a forum to retell the stories of the grassroots communities and individuals who are finding emergent and alternative means to follow God in the Way of Jesus. We hope to create an artifact of this historical conversation. These stories will be transmitted through narrative, works of visual art, documented performances, verse, fiction, non-fiction, essays, and interviews.

The Violent Fantastic Imagination

I am a card-carrying fantasy nerd. Nerds such as I were highly anxious when we heard that Peter Jackson was adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s sacrosanct Lord of the Rings trilogy into movie form. The high praise given to Jackson’s adaptation from nerdy sources was largely due to relief that he hadn’t botched it like we’d feared.

I am also a fairly stereotypical fantasy nerd in that I harbour dreams (read: delusions, we’re good at those) of some day writing my own fantasy epic that will force me to modestly turn aside comparisons to Tolkien’s great work. Of course I couldn’t compare to him (but thanks for stroking my creative ego).

But, as I’ve collected notes and ideas towards a half-dozen or so possible stories, I’ve been increasingly stymied by the fact that most standard tropes within high fantasy (wizards, castles, etc.) are about redemptive violence. The truly good, just, and heroic in this regard are those who  wield violence against evil judiciously and courageously, as opposed to the indiscriminate and capricious methods of those who use it evilly.

Aragorn stands as an excellent example of a courageous wielder of the sword against evil. Unlike the corruptible Boromir, Aragorn takes no pleasure in violence and will only exercise his well-honed martial skills when righteousness and the greater good demands it. He seeks no glory for himself, as opposed to Boromir, who can think of little else.

This is all deeply problematic for someone such as myself who is committed to Christian nonviolence. I am highly critical that anything that justifies human violence in terms of righteousness, justice or holiness. I believe that the Cross is God’s final judgement on our sordid history of violence, as there we went so far as to attempt to destroy the very source of our being in the name of righteousness.

Now, the subversion of violence and the exaltation of self-sacrificial love in the mode of the Cross is not without precedent in the fantasy genre. Frodo defeats Sauron not through combat, but rather through a journey based on friendship, self-sacrifice, and a steadfast commitment to doing what’s right and true in the face of seemingly certain defeat. But this is after many battles and much bloodshed that is largely cast in an heroic light. Some subversion of violence is better than none, but why must nonviolence so often be portrayed as an option to be considered when all violent options have been exhausted and deemed ineffective?

To further compound matters, those who resist war and desire peace in the fantasy genre are largely portrayed as non-virtuous weasels who are weak and deluded at best, and—more often—collaborators with the enemy at worst. To stick with the Lord of the Rings examples, Wormwood is one who bewitches King Theoden to desire “peace,” but this is only because of his allegiance to the enemy wizard Saruman. In the fantasy genre, the virtuous are those who have the will to kill the enemy. The exception to this is the Hobbits, who are mostly romantically portrayed as those for whom violence is not an option that would be conceived.

I do not pretend to be an expert on all matters fantastical. I’m sure there are many examples of fantasy that call violence into question and present nonviolence as more than an option to be considered when all violent means have been exhausted. I commend them, wherever they may be labouring in obscurity. But they have not yet made a dent in the genre as a whole, and they likely will not, for it seems that the fantasy genre merely mirrors humanity’s pathological exaltation of violence as the right means for the right people. I will continue to do all that I feebly can to be a part of the people with enough imagination to dream—and write—otherwise, God help us.

The War Within

I desire light but sometimes
I desire darkness more

I am divided,
torn asunder

The devil on my shoulder
is giving the angel ideas

My narcissim imagines
a titantic battle of good and evil
within.

Perhaps the proportions
are more carnal than cosmic

My heart is a fiery tempest
and there’s too much gasoline around

Jesus loves me this I know
even though I’m thinking about this
within.

Holding Out Hope for Cynicism

I have occasionally been accused of being cynical, mostly by a bunch of jerks. I will readily confess that I have a tendency towards seeing what’s wrong instead of what’s right, and that the words coming out of my mouth are often called “pessimistic,” “negative,” and “gloomy”—especially by empty-headed optimists.

I recognize that cynicism (or its less resigned cousin negativity) is not a commendable way to approach the world, nor to endear yourself to people. Dale Carnegie would not hold me up as a role model.

But I do want to put in a good word for cynicism. I might even have the audacity to say that cynicism is nearly the same thing as hope. To (ab)use a tired metaphor, I’ll say that they’re two sides of the same coin.

Engraved on this metaphorical coin is the phrase “things are not the way that they should be.” This knowledge may spring from a reasoned critique or from that locus of intuition colloquially known as “the gut.” Usually it’s a mysterious combination of both. Those who are cynical and those who are hopeful recognize this wrong-ness-in-the-world.

Cynicism and hope therefore must be apocalyptic: they believe that there must be something great (and likely terrible) must happen to usher this world into the one it should be. I know that many are mentally begging to tell me the difference between cynicism and hope at this point, but I’m going to delay. Cynics don’t often get to stand up for themselves.

Now, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, cynicism and hope are apocalyptic, dreaming of a world laid on very different foundations than our own. This is why, for instance, it will be quickly shown that the “hope” peddled by Barack Obama is nothing of the sort. Obama’s “hope” is a drearily reformist affair, not daring to ask, for instance, if it might be better for the world if the USA did not exist. Real hope is always far too radical to run for office.

But I wasn’t speaking of hope as much as what hope and cynicism have in common: being deeply troubled by the world as we find it. In this sense, cynicism has much to recommend it over apathy, which couldn’t be troubled to be troubled by much of anything.

Now at last we can speak of that small difference between cynicism and hope: whether or not we believe that the world will actually change into what it should be. And even this important difference might not be as large as it appears on first glance, since we can look at cynics are frustrated hopers. Cynics therefore provide better material to work with than those flimsy apathetic people who don’t care enough to develop frustration—except perhaps in the people futilely trying to convince them to care.

If I’m right about this analysis, the presence of cynics should itself give us reason to hope. It’s heartening to know that there are many people out there who don’t take the way things are as a given. It’s encouraging to know that there are people who aren’t interested in bowing and scraping at the altars of the Powers That Be. It’s enough to make this cynic smile.

Well, almost.

Big is Bad

Big is bad, but small isn’t necessarily beautiful. It’s just that everywhere I look, I can’t see the end of what I’m seeing. Everything is too big and it should be smaller.

Perhaps the easiest place to make this case is in national electoral politics, which we in Canada recently sleepwalked through (a blessed brevity compared to the two year, three ring circus recently completed in USAmerica). National political elections aren’t a sideshow simply because of the mass media, but because the whole affair is so distressingly beyond the scale of human comprehension. Candidates are trying to represent people who will never have a chance of getting to know their character (or probable lack thereof), integrity, and the impact that their views will have on voters.

An even more obvious example of out-of-human-control-largeness (monstrous might be a suitable adjective) is the economy. That we even call it “The Economy,” is a telltale sign that we’re dealing with something so abstracted from reality that we have no other recourse than to name something that is no-thing with an abstract noun. “The Economy” is so big that even the so-called experts don’t have a damned idea what’s going on, other than a vague notion that it has demands which must be propitiated. A cursory examination of what the economic “experts” had to say before and after the recent financial system meltdown reveals that they’re all just pissing into the wind.

National politics and trans-national economics are merely two of the most obviously too-big things in a world rife with oversized everything. For instance, my city recently closed many community centres in favour of fewer mega-community centres. How exactly the “community” is served by this remains a mystery. Or take the education system, where classrooms and schools enlarge every year. Convergence, mergers and synergy are pursued in acquiescence to that insatiable capitalistic idol called “efficiency.” Efficiency is of course a euphemism for “taking away meaningful work from decent people so as to pad the bottom lines of modern capitalistic oligarchs.” It is difficult to imagine what this capitalist logic might have to do with education as such, since education is—quite literally—priceless.

When things are too big, it’s impossible for an ordinary person to reasonably understand the effects of a vote for a certain person or the lineage of a consumer product. Largeness is therefore the enemy of anyone trying to live a life of virtue, morality and integrity. It is not accidental that the cult of moral relativism has arisen in a time such as this, because it is quite factually impossible in the context of The Big to take morally considered action.

I am fully cognizant of the irony of this anti-Big jeremiad’s dissemination through that torrent of babel known as the World Wide Web. If there is anything that has proven to big for anyone to manage—much to the consternation of the RIAA and Chinese communism—it is this decentralized data deluge called the Internet. I think that the Internet is neither messiah nor anti-Christ, but I also think that we would be fine without it. Its chief benefits appear to be in the decentralization of power and influence away from other traditional Big Powers, but this means that it, too, has the potential to create its own outsized oligarchies. Why else would we need a OLPC? Or a watchdog over Google?

We’ve had more than enough incredulity towards big narratives (and not nearly enough unsexy work with small, local projects), so let us not reside in the abstract. Let us return to the second sentence in this essay: everything is too big and it should be smaller. This is a simple maxim with profound implications, many of which are complex. This is not a project for the timid, but rather for those willing to engage in a life of increased difficulty. To live small is to be vulnerable, weak, and possibly exploited. These are the meek, poor in spirit and persecuted spoken of by Jesus in his oft-ignored beatitudes. But to live small also means severing your reliance on the Big System, something that looks increasingly prudent in economic times such as these.

The problem with talking about big is knowing where to stop, because the topic could stretch on forever. Lest this essay stretch on ad infinitum, I shall simply bring it to a close with a counter-intuitive maxim: think small.

On Valedictions

Valedictions are those little things that people put at the end of messages they’ve written, such as a letter (do these ever get written anymore?) or an email.

I’m seized with a bizarre mixture of dread and apprehension every time I get to the valediction, often switching to something else entirely (such as writing this) so as to avoid that crucial moment when I have to decide on which particular valediction to use in this instance. This reveals both my neurosis and the complicated, norm-less cultural milieu in which we live.

We’re confused and not sure if we’re sincere about much of anything these days, so sincerely just won’t do in most instances. And saying yours truly is fraught with the distinct likelihood of not wanting to offer myself up to this person, so traditional valedictions must give way, in all sincerety.

We are therefore left in a precarious postmodern space of make-it-up-as-you-go. Here is a chance to tell everyone who I am! Maybe I’ll even convince myself. Christians such as myself often succumb to the temptation to insert a benediction of sorts, using valedictions such as blessings, peace, peace be on you, etc. The particularly ambitious may also cite a verse (either as a reference or in full text) at this point, to prove their spiritual mettle. My sarcastic tone obviously reveals my shallow spirituality on this point, as I can’t quite believe that I am doing any of these sincerely.

Then we work our way into that zone of banality known as regards (and its kissing-cousins best regards and kind regards). These are the realm of the politically correct, who want to be cordial without offering any real inkling of any position in this whole sordid affair. They want to be neither stodgy traditionalists or religious-types in their valediction, leaving them with this limp-wristed handshake of a valediction to close their correspondence.

I can see only two solutions to this problem, one of which I need to quickly decide upon, lest I succumb to ever having to write anything like this again in a moment of valedictory angst. One solution is to embrace a summary rejection of the valediction altogether, simply placing your name (possibly preceded by a dash) after the last paragraph. The elegant brevity of this solution has much to recommend it, but it also can be read as somewhat cold and impersonal.

A second solution is to simply standardize myself upon a single valediction that will henceforth be used in all of my correspondence, removing the anxiety of having to make a decision every single time. The trouble here is that the aforementioned anxiety is collected and intensified into this single decision. I’ll save you, dear reader, a trip through my neurosis and say that using shalom as my valediction is probably the most attractive possibility, although it does make me seem like I’m trying too hard. But I do love the simple, hopeful invocation in that one little word, the calling-forth of a peace that is so much more than the absence of war; the promise of a world where valleys are lifted and mountains made low, where there is a state of general flourishing for all.

For now, at least, I leave you with:

Shalom