Rushdie’s Satanic Verses

satanicversesMy reading of The Satanic Verses has made it clear to me that the Moslem response to the book came from people who had not read it – they merely responded to hysteria whipped up by others. The majority would not have known whether Rushdie was guilty or not of the accusations of blasphemy against him.

How can I say that? Because the book is NOT one that the everyday reader would tackle, it’s not an easy read. It’s DIFFICULT and a struggle to get through. It’s not a book the average man-on-the-street (even the average Moslem) would attempt to read.

Moslems therefore seem very much like most Christians in their willingness to “follow the leader” without giving those leaders and their teachings due scrutiny; without holding their teachers to account. Without holding THEMSELVES to account for the things they accept as being true. In this case most condemned Rushdie on the say-so of others without conforming the facts for themselves.

Overall is Satanic Verses “blasphemous”? – I could see it that way, but NOT specifically against Islam. I’m sure Christians would find its representation of God to be blasphemous but what god is Rushdie portraying? I suspect he portrays a composite god based on various religious traditions and filtered through the author’s preconceptions of those traditions. I think my view is supported by the way Rushdie picks and mixes references from a variety of traditions as if they were all part of the one.

So what kind of damage could this book do to Islam or to their prophet, or to their god? Nowhere near as much damage to the public perception of Islam as that caused by the death sentence placed on Rushdie’s head, or the acts of violence committed in response to the book. Surely any god worth worshipping doesn’t need his “honour” to be protected by angry violent mobs. Christians should also take note. Maybe there aren’t so many violent Christian “angry mobs”, but there have been some very unwise, counterproductive protests against objectionable films and books that MOST of the “angry mob” wouldn’t have seen or read.

I don’t know how much Rushdie really knows about Islam, even though I understand he grew up as a nominal Moslem. If he knows as much as most nominal Christians know about the religion they claim to be part of, then his real knowledge would be minimal and any offence given to the Moslem world would be a result of ignorance and possibly arrogance as much as any intention to offend.

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Buy Less, Read More?

On the weekend I visited my parents. My mum was reading one of her books for the third time. She had read everything in her library at least twice and had nothing new to read.

booksI don’t have that problem. I have a few bookcases and two large cupboards with bowing shelves full of mostly unread books. When I got home from my parents’ place I tried to go through them to sort out things I’d be unlikely to read, but I found few I was willing to cull.

I WANT to read them all. I bought them over many years because they interested me. But I have a problem with time. I don’t have as many opportunities to read as I would like and yet I continue to find more and more books to add to my growing collection.

Why do I keep buying?
One reason is that I don’t want to miss out. Some of purchases are remaindered or liquidated stock. Others are second hand. They aren’t things you can put aside to buy at a later date. Their availability is limited. While I probably won’t read a new purchase immediately, at least it’s there for me to read when I’m ready.

A second reason is my wide ranging and regularly changing interests. For a few weeks I’ll want to read about the space programme and will find a few books about that subject. And I’ll read one or two before moving on to something else, leaving the rest of the books in my to-be-read-later pile.

books2That “something else” may be literature, and I’ll pick up a book or two that has alleged literary merit, fully intending to read something of “quality”, but then I’ll struggle through the first choice, quenching any ambition to read the others (at least for a few months). This also creates the disadvantage of slowing down my reading. It dampens my enthusiasm, ridding me of that “can’t wait to get back to it” drive that ensures I’ll read at every available opportunity. On rare occasions I’ll eventually put the book aside only half read – but that’s something I really want to avoid.

Why do I bother with these “literary” works? Because I’m hoping to come across a gem, something that makes the disappointments worthwhile and surely my own writing can’t be harmed by exposure to “the greats”. And even the books I struggle with usually have moments of recognisable quality.

As well as the above “reasons” for book buying, occasionally I’ll discover the author of a series of books. At Christmas I came across Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It’s a book I remember from childhood, not through reading it, but possibly through a TV or radio adaptation. I found a copy in a Wagga Wagga bookshop and enjoyed it so much I tracked down all of the sequels in the series. I’ve now read a few of them, but the rest have been put aside for later while I try to catch up on other things.

My current reading projects include Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind and At Risk by former MI5 boss Stella Rimington.

SVThe Satanic Verses is one of those “literary” books that I find a struggle to read but I’m determined to get through it. It’s a book I first started maybe 20 years ago and gave up on. This time I want to make sure I finally get to the end. I’ve past the half-way point and have given myself the luxury of taking a break to tackle something easier and more interesting: the Stella Rimington book, an authentic thriller (I naively assume,considering the author’s background) about British security services discovering and trying to prevent a planned terrorist attack.

The Rimington is another purchase (second hand) that led me to buy more of her books, all taking their place in my to-be-read-later collection. And that is often why I continue to buy: one good book leads to another…

My Fictional Autobiography (part 3): The Alien Years

I recall writing to Arthur Shuttlewood in the 1980s. He was a one time journalist who became a kind of UFO guru. He had written several books about his home town’s relationship with UFOs, starting with The Warminster Mystery. Over many years Shuttlewood claimed that Warminster in southern England was an important hot spot for UFO activity.

I had been fascinated by UFO stories since the mid 1960s when England became the focus of a UFO “flap”. As an 8 or 9 year old during the time of the space race, the idea of alien visitation inspired a lot of excitement. I read many books from that time onwards including a few of Shuttlewood’s. Since I came across this topic at such an early age I can’t blame myself for maintaining a degree of gullibility for many years after. I lapped up the wildest claims with barely a degree of scepticism and a lot of my reading leaned towards things unexplained.

There was a strange tension in my life from trying to live with contradictory beliefs. In the late 70s I became a Christian, and yet I still tried to hold onto the interest in visiting aliens. To some extent I was able to do this by redefining the UFO phenomenon, moving from aliens visiting earth to an understanding that the whole thing was a demonic delusion. This view was not merely an idea permeating fundamentalist circles; some of the most popular and respected UFO writers were saying the same or similar things. The most well known that come to mind were John Keel (Operation Trojan Horse) and Jacques Vallee (Passport to Magonia). While these writers did not necessarily hold to the Christian interpretation of “demonic”, they raised the possibility that entities that had once been viewed as “demons” in some cultures were now being interpreted in terms applicable to the space age. Vallee saw the possibility that they were “Inter-dimensional” rather than Extra-terrestrial.

The 1980s was a boom-time for UFO books, aided by some highly questionable TV specials claiming Government collusion with extra terrestrials. I recall one that featured interviews with alleged CIA agents who described interaction with a captive alien (or “gray” as they came to be known). One of the major revelations provided was the flavour of ice-cream the entity preferred.
strieber
Books that were part of this trend included Above Top Secret by Tim Good and Communion by horror writer Whitley Strieber. The latter describing Strieber’s claimed abduction by “the visitors” was followed by several sequels such as Transformation and Breakthrough: the next Step. Strieber was another UFO writer who noted the similarities between his “visitors” and the demons of various religious traditions but his later books became more and more esoteric in content, making him seem more like a mystical guru than a serious contributor to UFO literature.

It was in the 90s that I woke up to my gullibility thanks to books by Jim Schnabel. Round in Circles examined the crop circle craze and Dark White looked at alien abductions. Rather than follow the tried and (not so) true path of examining countless witness reports, Schnabel turned the spotlight on the investigators who were presenting their own interpretation of the reports to the public. In my view he well and truly blew these phenomena apart, showing how much the investigators projected THEIR desires and expectations onto the evidence they claimed to have.

While the books and authors mentioned above would be classified as non-fiction, the borders between fact and fiction were clearly blurred by a lot of wishful thinking (both on the writer’s part and more significantly mine).

Hollywood returned to the UFO/Alien visitor arena starting with Spielberg’s Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind (in the 1970s) and later with his more popular ET.
Joe Dante’s Explorers starred very young River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke, while Cocoon directed by Ron Howard made an Oscar winner out of one of its aging stars (Don Ameche).

Starman one of John Carpenter’s less gruesome films was (like ET) part of the “alien as benign but threatened visitor” genre that contrasted significantly with the hostile aliens portrayed in many 50s SF films, when Hollywood had previously exploited an interest in things alien.

Some of the most popular films were converted into “novelisations”, of which I only recall reading Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I also owned the book version of Explorers but I don’t remember reading it.

Away from Hollywood’s exploitative inspiration, John Wyndham’s novels were favourites for a while, some of which had tenuous links to UFOs and/or alien visitors. The most significant being The Midwich Cuckoos, a story about a village that was temporarily cut off from the world by a mysterious force field (an idea that Stephen King has also used in his recent novel Under the Dome). In Wyndham’s book the temporary isolation is lifted and the entire female population of childbearing age are found to be pregnant. The story has been twice filmed under the name Village of the Damned. (Did I say I had moved away from Hollywood’s exploitation of the genre? Clearly that is not possible!)

One of the earlier and most well-known novels about alien visitors cannot be ignored. War of the Worlds has inspired films, radio plays and a musical extravaganza, and it was the latter that most closely followed H G Wells book. I read Wells’ novel many years ago and it’s one that I intend to read again when time and discipline permit. It is one of those science fiction stories that has taken on iconic status. A popular SF writer also wrote a sequel. Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine takes elements of War of the Worlds and another Wells novel The Time Machine and creates a story from a mix of the two ideas.

2001Perhaps the most cerebral book dealing with UFOs that I’ve read was Ian Watson’s Miracle Visitors, which dealt with the psychological nature of UFO encounters and gave a very ambiguous view of them. The cerebral approach to alien intelligence was also taken in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey created with Arthur C Clarke. I later read Clarke’s novel to see whether it would help me make sense of the film (which it did). In this story an alien presence has been alongside mankind from the very beginning of man’s development, following his progress and leaving clues of their existence that mankind will find at various stages of his technological journey.

Clarke was one of the most well known and admired science fiction writers and created various differing scenarios in which mankind came into contact with alien civilisations. Apart from 2001, the most memorable to me were Childhood’s End – which from memory gave an interesting spin to the alien as demon concept; and Rendezvous With Rama, a story dealing with the exploration and examination of a massive alien craft passing through our solar system. Rama was followed by a series of sequels.

I have only touched the surface of the ways in which human-alien contact has been explored in both fiction and “non fiction”, and all of it refers to aliens visiting US. There is probably far more about man visiting alien worlds stretching from early stories of men visiting the moon, through to Star Trek TV shows and movies and their various spin offs and imitations. The possibilities for stories about alien contact of various types are potentially limitless.

And here, on that cliched note, ends the latest part of my “fictional autobiography”.

My Fictional Autobiography (part 2): Mostly Fantasy

My later teens are nothing to be proud about. I refused to read the required novels for my English classes in High School (but passed my final exams anyway). And I read many books of questionable taste such as Stanley Morgan’s “Russ Tobin” series, commencing with The Sewing Machine Man (gratuitous sex), and Richard Allen’s Skinhead series (gratuitous violence).
Those books are best forgotten.

I also had my first real taste of horror fiction with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. It was the first time that a book genuinely scared me – something that the film failed to do, even though the book’s literary qualities are questionable and the film is considered a classic of the genre.

elidorSome of the brighter spots in my reading diet came through my interest in fantasy and I rediscovered books by CS Lewis and Alan Garner. I had some memories of reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe years before, but I’d never moved on to the sequels. I’m not sure when I first came across Garner but his fiction seemed more grounded in “reality”. Lewis and Garner both portrayed a crossing over between real and magical worlds. Lewis took his child protagonists from their familiar circumstances and placed them in a world very different from their own, but Garner turned this around and showed the world of magic and myth crossing over to our world, bringing conflict here instead of isolating it in the relative safety of somewhere else. Garner also had less “jolly good show” about him than Lewis, portraying characters more familiar to me than those created by Lewis.

Obviously any serious follower of fantasy fiction cannot avoid Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, but I have clearly not followed seriously enough because I’ve been unable to complete this revered trilogy. I’ve made multiple attempts, but have never made it to the end. It may seem irrelevant to others, but one hindrance to my progress has been chapter length. In my earlier attempts I found the chapters far too long to be tempted to read “just one more chapter” before I put the book down for the night. It’s amazing how much reading progress can be made through the “one more chapter” approach. When I read The Wizard of Oz as a child, I read the whole book in one sitting because I wanted to keep reading “one more chapter” before I was ready to put it down.

I recall very little fantasy fiction available for adults in the 1970s. That may be difficult to believe for anyone used to today’s abundance of fantasy titles. Almost everything I remember was written for children or ‘Young Adults”. The exceptions were Lord of the Rings and a couple of books inspired by it, like Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. Some see Brooks as being the one who inspired the rise of Fantasy fiction as a viable adult genre, being the first to break through the fear of competing with Tolkien. (see http://www.terrybrooks.net/novels/sword.html)

For some reason those first attempts to aim fantasy at the adult reader didn’t appeal to me and my own reading of fantasy remained with the books written for children and teens. To Lewis and Garner I would add Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising) and Lloyd Alexander (The Prydain Chronicles) as my favoured authors of that time. I even named my Collie, Bran, after a dog in one of Cooper’s books.
I know there were other books and other authors, but they haven’t stuck in my mind to the extent of those already named; and I’m sure that those I DO recall (Penelope Lively, George MacDonald, E Nesbit,) belong to a later part of my life in books.

My Fictional Autobiography (part 1): Childhood

In my early blogging days I wrote about the progression of my musical tastes through the different stages of my life. I have been thinking of doing the same with my literary tastes, but for some reason it doesn’t seem so easy.

One of the surprising things about considering the music in my life was how complete I was able to make the list. Of course I didn’t refer to every group, artist or recording that I liked over the years, but I was able to recall all of those who had an important influence on my tastes.

Applying the same approach to my relationship with books is much a more complicated process, but I’ll do what I can.

My mum taught me to read long before I started school. I have vague memories of two “Ladybird’ books, one about the alphabet and the other about farm animals, which must have played a part in my introduction to reading.

At school I remember Janet and John books that were used as a basic introduction to reading in class. Among the books available later were the Thomas the Tank Engine series and Topsy & Tim books.

A significant part of my reading journey began with a nose bleed that started on the way to school one day. I spent some time out of class with huge wads of cotton wool to soak up the blood. Eventually the school staff decided it would be better if I bled to death at home rather than on school premises and they contacted my mum who took me home.
I was very upset about missing class that day because I would miss the story broadcast via radio each week. As compensation my mum arranged my membership at the local library and selected a few books for me to read.

bobbsey twinsApart from those few details I have no memory of specific books in those early years, but as my time in Primary school progressed I was a keen reader of the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. I also enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books prior to the TV adaptations and Doctor Dolittle was a friend long before Rex Harrison played him in the original film.

dr dolittlePart of the problem in recalling the books of my early life is the fact that there were so many of them and their significance to this project is merely due to the fact that I can remember their titles or parts of their plot.
Dodie Smith’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians is memorable partly because of the animated Disney film and also because my family had a Dalmatian for a pet. And there are similar Disney links for Emil and the Detectives and The Incredible Journey.

In my final Primary years the class library had a series of novels about wildlife. Each book focused on a different animal, creating a storyline out of its natural day to day experiences. I don’t remember any details of authors or titles but I loved them at the time. Those stories inspired me to write my own contribution to the genre and I spent hours filling an exercise book with the improbable exploits of a wolf cub and his family. I must have included drawings to illustrate my story because I remember one of the wolf pack in a deadly fight with a herd of buffalo (though the image I recall looks more like a cow).

My early high school years brought on an obsession with James Bond and Modesty Blaise; books with content intended for readers much older than myself. Years later I wrote fan letters to Peter O’Donnell, the author of the Blaise books and was excited to receive a reply to each typed on special “Modesty Blaise” letter head. I regret not keeping them. They could have been a valuable part of my current autograph collection.

The most memorable short story I wrote in my teenage years was a James Bond tribute. After an accident my protagonist woke to find he was the “guest” of various Bond villains, and had been mistaken as Bond himself. While I regret not keeping the story, I recognise that my memory has perhaps given it qualities that I would find lacking if I had the chance to read it again. Sometimes memory might be a kinder literary critic than reality

How Fictional can “Christian Fiction” Be (while remaining “Christian”)?

[subtitle: Can a Christian Write Non-Christian or Even Antichristian fiction?]

I’ve been writing about my early writing ambitions, the study I did and the stories I wrote. Those ambitions never came to fruition but I haven’t given up on them. However things have changed significantly since those University days. Back then there were few restraints on what I wrote – I could tackle any topic, any style and any genre without too much concern. But now I see things differently.

At that time I was going through a spiritual crisis, battling with the beliefs I’d held throughout the previous decade or more. It was a time of questioning and the pushing of boundaries, trying to come to terms with what I did or did not believe and what I SHOULD believe.

My spiritual condition could be summed up in this (paraphrased from memory) description of a character in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: “he could not worship a God in whom he could not wholly disbelieve”. To me this describes someone caught between two camps. On the one hand not certain enough of the reality of God to fully devote his life to God; on the other hand not certain enough of God’s non-existence to cast aside all restraint to live a totally God-less life.

It was several years afterwards that I emerged from that crisis with a renewed faith, a development that has consequences for any writing ambitions that I’ve retained. I feel there ARE now restraints on what I write and how I write. There are responsibilities that twenty years ago I didn’t feel were relevant. There are types of writing that wouldn’t be appropriate for me to tackle, to state the obvious: pornography.

But the “restraints” go further than personal moral convictions and extend to the type of spiritual reality that a story portrays. A good friend of mine suggested that there are serious problems with any story that leaves God and the gospel of Jesus out of the equation. To my mind this doesn’t mean that every story a Christian writes (or reads) should contain specific references to these important spiritual realities, it just means that a Christian’s fictional world should remain consistent with the foundational spiritual truths they claim to embrace. The framework of a fictional world created by a Christian writer needs to have Christian realities at its core – even if that core is not specifically mentioned.

I became even more convinced of this yesterday when I read the following on the blog of a Christian author where he describes a major plot-point of his first published novel:
“…a man who’d been used by God to raise someone from the dead was sacrificed to a pagan deity. His soul was effectively imprisoned and the Land was cursed. That curse was maintained by each successive generation. One of my protagonist’s goals becomes to “free” this healer and return his soul to God.

Several reviewers pointed out that, in the real world, this was impossible.
And I pretty much agree.”

Further into his article he decries what he labels “the Theology Police” (a term he “wield[s] with lotsa snark”) who would criticise his story’s premise.

I have a very serious problem with the attitude the author is conveying. He seems to suggest there is absolutely no responsibility on Christian authors to remain true to even the most basic of the spiritual truths their alleged faith upholds. As if they can cast aside foundational truths to portray an alternative spiritual worldview all for the sake of story. As if the story takes priority over truth.

I’m sure many will agree with him and disagree with me – pointing out that he is an author writing fiction, that there are no limits on what he should be able to write in his own created fictional world.

Of course any fiction writer can create whatever reality they think suits their story – but whether that fiction writer can still legitimately refer to themselves as a Christian writer, or by the more flexible label of “writer who is a Christian” is debatable. For the writer (and reader) with no strong religious conviction all of this wouldn’t be an issue. But to someone believing in a genuine spiritual battle in which there are personal eternal consequences the situation ought to be entirely different.

In the case mentioned above, the author himself recognises the problem with the scenario his novel presents: as if the “soul” of a Godly many could be imprisoned after death and need to be freed to return to God.
What kind of spiritual “reality” and God is that portraying? And does it really matter as long as it’s entertaining?
I’d say it is a false reality and a false God, and YES it does matter.

Personally I’d prefer to read a well written secular novel by a non-believing author than one written by a Christian that protrays a counterfeit spirituality and a false God.

At least with the non-Christian author I have no false expectations about what I’d be reading

Stories What I wrote III

I tried a few different genres of writing but found I was getting the best response with “horror” stories – or at least those that leaned towards horror. These were especially successful when I read them at monthly “poetry readings”. I still recall the squirming, uncomfortable laughter of one of my lecturers when he realised where the story was heading. Seeing that honest response in person was far more satisfying at the time than reading a few complimentary comments he’d written on some of my assignments.

I don’t want to go into the sordid details of the story. It’s not something I’d write today, but I will say something about the inspiration that led to it. It came from a Stephen King short story I’d been reading. I thought I could see where the story was heading but found I was wrong. His conclusion was totally different from the one I’d anticipated, so I took the ending that I’d assumed would happen and worked backwards to create a completely different story from the one King had written.

To conclude this little trilogy of articles I want to mention two of what I considered my best stories of that time. The first came out of a suggestion by a fellow student. He said when he was stumped for ideas he’d look to bible stories for a spark of inspiration. He’d do that with no more religious intent than anyone doing the same thing by referring to Shakespeare for an idea.

I thought of the story of David and Bathsheba, how David’s sight of her bathing led to all kinds of trouble. My story started with the protagonist seeing his new neighbour lying beside her swimming pool. I read the first draft to the class and found myself under attack from the group’s feminists who objected to a story beginning with a man’s lustful gaze. Maybe referring to the bible for story inspiration backfired.

After revisions and editing I had a story I was happy with – a kind of obsessive love story that included references to my interest in film-making and my experience with animation. It has no happy ending. The romance comes to a sudden end when the woman discovers her feelings for the man may have been manipulated through “supernatural means” and she turns the tables on him.

The other story came from a memory of my grandad. When I was a young child he was often very sick and spent a lot of time bedridden, sometimes becoming very confused about where he was and WHEN he was. At times he thought it was still the time of WWII.

During one of these confused episodes he held a conversation with the faces he could see in the rose pattern of the wallpaper. And that was the initial inspiration of my story of a bed-bound man being nursed by his wife. But his experience goes far beyond conversations with imagined faces. He finds himself taken into a world contained within the wallpaper pattern. There he meets a seductive but dangerous woman with thorn like claws. He wakes and realises it’s all a dream, until he finds some physical evidence that the woman might not be a mere product of his sleep induced imagination… or maybe something else is going on. Could his wife be tormenting him, fuelling his imagination with drugs? Is it really prescribed medication she is giving him or something else?

That’s the end of this little exploration of my past fictional writings. It might be something I come back to at another time. I could write about the plans I had to write stories (and even a novel) based on my experiences in church, but those ideas are something I am more likely to put to use in the future and I don’t want to give away too many of my ideas before I have the opportunity to write those stories.

The other things, those that I’ve written about in these three articles are well and truly in the past. The actual stories are dead and buried with no hope of resuscitation.