Top 10 Books of 2016 (+1)

2016 has been a rough year for many of us; the election in the United States of an incompetent and misogynistic shag carpet beloved of white nationalists, and the intimidation and violence which followed it, loom large in any list of the year’s misfortunes, but I’m sure we can each add our own. Personally, thinking I might die in a fire was one of them. (The Beaverton‘s recent joke, then, hit close to home.) That said, for me 2016 has also been a very good year for books.

ampx71

Source: faungg at flic.kr/p/aMPX71

In reverse of order of how much I enjoyed them…

 

10. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, by Judith Skelton Grant

I have lately come to quite appreciate Robertson Davies’s novels (though the only one I read this year, the very CanLit Murther and Walking Spirits, won’t make this list), so when I saw this biography in Fort McMurray’s only used bookstore, I bought it. Two particular aspects of this book were particularly interesting to me: first, I am always interested in seeing how an artist’s skills and preoccupations develop over time, and when that artist is himself interested in the development of personality and artistic skill particularly, the topic begins to reflect on itself; second, I was fascinated by the depiction of arts and culture—and the relative lack of them—in the rural Ontario of a particular time. Perhaps my own biography made me enjoy the book more than I otherwise would have done: I had just moved to Fort McMurray from Stratford/Toronto and I saw myself more than a little in Davies’s sense of exile from artistic community.

 

9. Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone

To be frank, I far preferred Gladstone’s first novel in the Craft sequence, Three Parts Dead. Still, Two Serpents Rise is an enjoyable book if you like the general idea behind the Craft sequence: a legal thriller set in vaguely steampunk world in which magic and miracles are a) commonplace and b) structured much like modern high finance. In Two Serpents Rise, Caleb Altemoc, risk manager for the warlock cadre Red King Consolidated, tries to discover the source of a shadow demon infestation in Dresediel Lex’s water reservoirs; he also follows a cliff runner (think magic-enhanced parkour) named Mal who is ambiguously involved in the plot and tries to deal with his father, the last priest to the city’s old gods and a wanted terrorist. I found the characters less appealing and the religions less interesting than those in either Three Parts Dead or Full Fathom Five, but Caleb’s attempt to develop a working moral system that took honest stock of both the old religion and the new craft, was engaging.

 

8. Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted, by Richard Beck

(I already mentioned Reviving in a review of a different book.) I was expecting to like this book more, but unlike much of Beck’s work it lacked the grounding effect of peer-reviewed psychological research. It was a more colloquial book than, say, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality or The Slavery of Death; it was also more personal, framed as it was by his encounters with the more charismatic spirituality among the attendees of his prison bible ministry. Reviving Old Scratch mostly shares the moral impulses of progressive Christianity (that subset of Christianity which shares many priorities with social justice and leftist movements) and attempts to argue that progressive Christianity would be strengthened with a much greater focus on Satan and the demonic. As usual, Beck’s blogging-influenced style includes a tendency to repeat his points in various forms and an abundance of analogies and (mostly dated) pop culture references; he shows a real concern that the reader can grapple with a somewhat unfamiliar set of ideas, but if you are relatively quick on the uptake or are already aware of some of his argument, it can get frustrating. His stories about prison ministry are the best part.

 

7. Fort Chipewyan and the Shaping of Canadian History, 1788-1920s: ‘We like to be free in this country’ by Patricia A. McCormack

You might be able to tell from the book’s title that McCormack is an academic. As books of academic history go, I found it quite readable… but my gauge for readability is likely misaligned. As a history of Fort Chipewyan, the topic may seem too niche to be of general interest, yet I found it has informed my understanding of more than just Athabasca region history: the chapter on the fur trade mode of production helped add some nuance to my understanding of “modes of production” generally, while the chapter on the signing of Treaty 8 taught me a lot more about the Treaty process in Canada generally, mostly by contrast. Furthermore, it is an interesting case study in the creation and maintenance of national sovereignty: Canada’s attempt to claim and tame its frontiers differs from the American story we might be more familiar with, but I think you’ll find McCormack will challenge your assumptions about Canadian nationhood as well (if you have any). It is part one of two; the second, taking us from the 1920s to the present, is not yet released.

 

6. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Lila is the third of three companion novels covering a small domestic drama between two neighbouring families in Gilead, Iowa, USA. Gilead is introduced in Gilead by Reverend John Ames, writing a letter to his son; Home is an uneasy re-writing of the parable of the prodigal son set in the Boughton’s house, next to the Ames’s. Lila provides earth-tone shading between Gilead’s ecstatic greens and reds and Home’s sombre blues and despairing greys. It tells us the story of Ames’s quiet wife Lila, a perpetual stranger and faltering convert (she tries, for instance, to wash her baptism off), and her inability to trust not just the world around her but also her own constancy. In my opinion, the last three pages are among the most incandescent and theologically acute passages in the Gilead trilogy, and this is saying something. Although the books can in theory be read in any order, I would highly recommend publication order.

 

5. Islam in the World, by Malise Ruthven

I have already written a reaction to Islam in the World here. I have little more to say except that I deeply appreciate it.

 

4. The Year of Lear: 1606, by James Shapiro

Man of Myth, above, was one book I read situating the artist’s work in a historical context. The Year of Lear was the other. It is in a sense the sequel to Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. In 1599, though, Shakespeare was just coming into his own as a playwright and a poet; in 1606, Shakespeare was a mature writer remaining relevant in a milieu which was starting to consider him passé. Therefore 1606 does not examine the genre-breaking (and –defining) struggle which Shapiro depicts in the 1599. However, what 1606 offers is a political and cultural environment surprisingly like our own: persecutions of religious minorities, arguments about the definition of torture, fear of politically-motivated attacks on heads of state and symbols of power, cults of nostalgia, and the threat of pandemics define London in the year Lear was written. Some of Shapiro’s claims seem a stretch or less certain than he makes out, but overall he is an astute critic who reads Shakespeare well and makes connections between the Bard’s images and his surrounding culture without rendering Shakespeare a mere political allegorist.

 

3. Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans

Like Reviving Old Scratch, Searching for Sunday is partly a plea for progressive Christians to go back to church. It is, however, far more personal. Evans is a memoirist more than anything, and here she offers her initial enchantment with evangelical Christianity, her difficult departure from it, and her well-researched and very public attempt to find a church that worked for her. It is also more than a memoir: each chapter offers a historical background on one of the Christian sacraments, a poetic explication of it, and various quoted material in addition to some portion of her memoir. Because her journey took place in conjunction with her popular blog and involved meeting quite a lot of people, it is also a thoroughly social book; Evans’s acute awareness of the effects spirituality can have on other people in the world means her own religious journey involves many interactions with strangers, friends, and whatever you’d call the people you know on the Internet, and many of those are recorded in the book. This book spoke to me in a way few books do.

 

2. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A recent blathering article about Hamilton and the purported liberal elite called Between the World and Me something to the effect of “that book by Ta-Nehisi Coates which you bought but didn’t read.” If you have purchased this book but haven’t read it yet, I insist that you fix this situation immediately. Perhaps you are not interested in its piercing insight into American whiteness (insights that are applicable north of the 49th, too); perhaps you do not care to learn what it is like to grow up black in Chicago; perhaps you do not want to appreciate the varieties and the extraordinary creativity of that American blackness; perhaps you do not wish to unlearn the middle-class illusions about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers which I know I held; perhaps you prefer to remain untouched by the story of Prince Jones; even so, you should read this book for its remarkable structure and remarkable prose. This is a glorious example of the art of creative non-fiction; this should be on creative writing syllabi as well as all bookshelves. Read this book.

(That said, read this review of it, too. Also, Between the World and Me is a strong clear example of a World 2 person trying to understand other Worlds, World 1 especially, failing to understand, and knowing he fails to understand.)

 

1. Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I read this book for the first time and for the second time this year. It is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion, which my friend Muir Pangolin gave to me as a “theological fantasy.” I remain ever grateful; Bujold’s Five Gods books, in the fantasy of manners genre, explore what an honest, struggling religious life would be like if a polytheistic fantasy religion were indisputably true. Curse is very good; I enjoyed Paladin of Souls much more. Ista dy Chalion—Dowager Roya of Chalion, middle-aged widow, former saint, and recovering madwoman—is a more delightful protagonist than I expected, and most of the supporting characters—the plump dy Cabon, a priest of the Bastard; the quick Liss, a courier girl; the dy Gura brothers, votaries of the Daughter; the sly Lord Illvin, sick abed—complement her well. Blogger ozymandias commented that Bujold is an expert at making protagonists likable, and this book is no exception. Furthermore, it develops the fantastic themes that began in Curse: where the first book explored the divine in this world, Paladin explores the demonic in a way that both gratifies curiosity and leaves enough unexplained that it remains evocative. The third book, The Hallowed Hunt, explores the shamanic, and while I liked that book I did not love it to absolute pieces, as I did this book. Altogether, though, the Five Gods books depict a very engaging theological fantasy world.
(I will also note that all of these books contain a romantic plot tightly woven into the main plot, and Paladin in particular is thick with a particular kind of heterosexual female desire. I don’t know if that’s a selling point or a detraction for you, but either way I figured I should mention it.)

 

0: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

I am adding this book not because I first read it in 2016, but because I re-read it at the very beginning of the year. Therefore it is the zeroth in the list. It is the sort of book I might pick up and read a random chapter out of during an idle moment. It was recommended to me by Melissa and it was well-recommended. Goblin follows Maia, a young half-elf half-goblin man who unexpectedly inherits the imperial throne of the Elflands after the rest of the royal family is killed. The novel follows his attempts to learn court politics and aristocratic etiquette, despite the racial and religious prejudices against him and the intrigues into which he has been thrown, while remaining true to what he thinks makes a good person and good leader. Goblin also has strong themes of social isolation and recovering from physical and psychological abuse. If you want to read fantasy but you don’t because so much of it is either a) straight male wish-fulfillment or b) straight teenage girl wish-fulfillment, then I strongly suggest you read this book.

An Uninviting Invitation: Susan White’s Liturgical Tradition

Susan J. White’s The Spirit of Worship: The Liturgical Tradition (1999) is the second book I have read from Philip Sheldrake’s Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series, and the second that I will review.

SINGAPORE-2010 YOUTH OLYMPIC GAMES-DIVING

Source: Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games at flic.kr/p/8v2w86

Mr. Hindley, my Grade 12 English teacher, told us that writing an essay is in some ways like Olympic diving. There are more and less difficult dives; a diver who performs a difficult dive well usually scores better than a diver who performs a simpler dive perfectly. Of course, a diver who performs a difficult dive disastrously scores lower than either of the first. Writing is much the same. An ambitious attempt performed well enough will get higher marks than an unambitious attempt performed perfectly. A mishandled essay will receive low marks no matter the attempt’s ambition—though an ambitious attempt may still fare somewhat better than an unambitious one. Bearing this in mind, I probably ought to appreciate Spirit of Worship more than I do.

White’s attempt is ambitious. In “the liturgical tradition,” she has chosen a rather nebulous subject for her volume, one which is quite difficult to define: “There is no single founder or founding document; there is not even an identifiable point in time at which we can confidently say the tradition was established” (14). Moreover, no one identifies as a member. Instead, White says, they are embedded within other traditions: “they are Cistercians and Benedictines, Dominicans and Franciscans; they are Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans and Quakers” (14-15). Instead, she has defined her tradition thus:

But they all have one thing in common: the liturgical tradition of Christian spirituality is constituted by those who say, clearly and consistently, that the primary source for the nourishment of the Christian spiritual life is to be found in the Church’s public worship. […] ‘We have given the name of “liturgical”,’ a contemporary representative of the tradition says, to that spirituality which … frankly adopts as its own the methods used by the Church when she celebrates the liturgy.’

The tradition White has identified is thus vast and varied. While many Christians these days do not attend church, and thus are likely not part of her tradition, it does not seem like many Christian traditions (that is, Cistercian, Benedictine; Lutheran, Quaker) are excluded.

If in reading that you were worried that theological and attitudinal differences between, for instance, Methodists and Roman Catholics would make such a tradition hard to describe with anything like consistency, White notes that theology is not particularly her concern:

Despite this rather ‘functional’ approach to the spiritual resources of the liturgy, the liturgical tradition is not preoccupied with how the liturgy ‘works’ or ‘what it means’, but rather how it nourishes, sustains, influences, enriches and enlivens the relationship between the Christian believer and God (29).

And this could be a very interesting topic: what precisely are the effects of corporate worship on its participants? White, alas, does not deliver. Despite her early warning, her work is plagued by a madcap patchwork theology, making strange bold claims which most readers, I think, would find hard to swallow; at the same time, she repeatedly asserts that liturgy has particular effects on its participants without giving any reason that anyone should believe her. Here’s a random example:

[The author of the Ancrene Wisse]’s argument is that in the sacrament Christ comes to dwell within the believer, and that Christ and the Devil cannot occupy the same dwelling. […] Or, as the fifth/sixth-century visionary Pseudo-Dionysius says (in a less anthropomorphic view of evil): ‘One cannot participate in contradictory realities at one and the same time, and whoever enters into communion with the One cannot proceed to live a divided life. He must be firmly opposed to whatever may sunder this communion.

Lacking any empirical backing for this claim (or even prima facie plausibility), White would have been far better off explaining “how the liturgy ‘works’ or ‘what it means.’” I did let Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance off the hook for this (he has a whole chapter entitled ‘It Works, Just Don’t Ask Me How’), but I at least had some sense that I could test Bartlett’s claims; most of the book was engaged elsewhere and he was talking about a tradition I could investigate myself. White’s tradition is too slippery for me to look into and she offers absolutely nothing else.

In fact, the whole book is made up of the following sort of argument, repeated over and over in different permutations: a) White describes in brief an aspect of liturgy—its relationship to time, or place, or community; b) she tells us that that liturgy invites us to change our lives in some way; c) she quotes a well-known dead theologian or an unnamed “contemporary representative of the tradition” affirming her claim; d) she moves on. Causal relationships are never clear. In fact, she sometimes muddies the waters by noting that the liturgy alone isn’t enough to effect the change, but rather the person must really live out some virtue (often charity and equality) before the liturgy works. But even if she doesn’t introduce this sort of confusion, I’m left wondering what the relationship between liturgy and the renewed attitude is. Does she think all people who participate in liturgy benefit in this way? That seems implausible. What does she think is happening when people participate in liturgy but don’t see these benefits she claims that liturgy offers? Are they doing it wrong? Only once or twice does she acknowledge this possibility, and she never indicates what causes the disconnect.

I am starting to wonder if White’s claims aren’t really claims at all. Although the sentences White writes are declarative and are therefore on a grammatical level assertions, perhaps it is better to imagine them as a different sort of utterance. At first I was wondering if these were promises more than assertions, but on reflection I do not know if there is much difference between the two. White uses the word “invites” so often, however, that I wonder if that’s what she’s writing: a book-length invitation. If so, I do not find it either an attractive or clear invitation. Without some denominational stakes, I do not know to what she’s inviting us; without some concrete reason to believe her descriptions of liturgy’s riches, I do not find her invitation at all compelling.

There are two ways White might improve her book.

White could be much more personal and rely much more heavily on anecdote. How has the liturgical tradition affected her life? How has it affected the lives she’s known? This sort of writing would necessitate an attention to detail that could only help the book: she would have to look at particular rites and practices in their specificity. The book’s best parts already do this; I especially enjoyed the section on East Orthodox wedding ceremonies.

Alternately, White could have been much more psychological and sociological. She could have investigated what is going on at such a level when people engage in corporate worship. She writes, for instance, that liturgy forms a spirituality which enables the creation of true community “by setting out images which shape a holy imagination, an imagination that can envision a joyful and humane future under God” (74); if she drilled down to explain why and how this is so, I’d be more convinced. If she focused on far fewer benefits of liturgy, but developed them more thoroughly, I’d be more excited about. Her ambition makes her scope impossible, and the whole project suffers.

Those two hypothetical improved versions of the book come very close to Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church and Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted, respectively. Evans recommends that disengaged, doubting Christians return to church and corporate worship, drawing on her own experiences, and those of people she has met, with a wide variety of Christian traditions (including Anglicans, Quakers, and Benedictines); her careful descriptions of different ways the sacraments are performed, including the East Orthodox wedding ceremony, are both beautiful and compelling. Beck, meanwhile, recommends that disengaged, doubting Christians return to church and corporate worship in order to strengthen their commitment to the Jesus-led social justice that attracted them in the first place. Beck makes a strong case that church, worship, and spiritual warfare are necessary to the development of virtue and the advancement of social justice and other forms of the progressive vision. He looks in particular at how these strengthen our relationships with other people and strengthen our allegiance with Christ.

I recommend that you read Searching for Sunday and Reviving Old Scratch instead.

That said: if you have read or want to read The Spirit of Worship and make a case for it, let me know and you can guest post.

Index for the Widespread Hunger series

Anglican Reason

If you’ve read the blurb associated with Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition, you might have noticed something that I’ve so far neglected to mention, something that is entirely out of character for me to neglect:

Highlighting their complexity, fallibility, humility but also passion Bartlett suggests that Anglican spirituality and theology are not only resilient enough to survive the present malaise but have the potential to be a most effective ‘post-modern’ expression of the Christian faith (emphasis mine).

wenceslas_hollar_-_richard_hooker_state_1

Richard Hooker by Wenceslaus Hollar.

Part of the reason I haven’t yet mentioned it is that explicit discussions of postmodernism are rarer in the book than the blurb suggests. The most detailed and extended discussion, however, comes at the beginning of “‘God-Given Reason’,” the book’s fifth chapter, concerning the Anglican cord’s third strand. Here Bartlett gives a history of reason in the Western tradition, from Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker’s Thomist Christianity (“Reason is received as a gift from God within a God-shaped universe”) through Locke’s Enlightenment thinking (in which “what was believable was what was reasonable”) and modernist reason’s specialized disciplines, up to the postmodern moment:

But now, in the postmodern West, where society is emerging from the modernist world view, belief in the objectivity of the human mind has been severely criticised and confidence in science has been battered. We can add to this the swamping of human minds by a tidal wave of information and complexity, and also a recovery of the sense of people as whole beings, shaped by body and emotion and psyche as well as ‘pure’ thought. (146-148)

In a bit of characteristic understatement, Bartlett concludes, “In this context, the meaning and status of Reason is much more slippery” (148).

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Anglican Orthodoxy

My mother always said you don’t have to believe much to be an Episcopalian.

—Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

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Source: MyEyeSees at flic.kr/p/7XaWYk

I should admit from the outset that the very idea of orthodoxy makes me squirm. I do not think this is an unusual response these days. At any rate, Paul Tillich’s idea of the Protestant Principle—that all symbols for God, including doctrines, must be subject to replacement—is very attractive to me. I worry that any commitment to specific doctrinal content (that is to say, orthodoxy) is in fact a form of error: in intellectual terms, immature epistemology; in relational terms, unfair expectations; in spiritual terms, idolatry. At the same time, however, a church does need to be organized around something. I am beginning to see how practical it is to make that centre a set of doctrines; indeed, perhaps all organizations, religious or not, need some common convictions to function.

According to Bartlett, L. William Countryman, another author in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series, argues that Anglicanism is defined by its historical community, not by its doctrine. In A Passionate Balance, Bartlett disagrees but, perhaps anticipating people like me, he also tries to show how Anglicanism can make orthodoxy a liberating, life-giving thing, not a stifling and idolatrous one.

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A Widespread Hunger: Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series Index

Nowadays, in the Western world, there is a widespread hunger for spirituality in all its forms. This is not confined to traditional religious people, let alone to regular churchgoers. The desire for resources to sustain the spiritual quest has led many people to seek wisdom in unfamiliar places.

So Philip Sheldrake begins his preface to each of the books in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series in the early through late 2000s. Sheldrake laments that Christianity, with a few exceptions, is not seen as such a resource. I think for many of us, the lament is more that we ourselves have trouble seeing Christianity as such a resource. That is part of why I began reading some of this series.

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Photo mine, 2016.

The first book of the series I’ve read is Alan Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition. I will be posting about it on 2 October 2016 and each Sunday after that through the month. I have a lot to say about Bartlett’s Balance; I can’t promise to have as much to say about the others.

In the meantime, I’d like to remind you that I’ve posted a schedule already and that I would be happy for guest posts, if anyone wants to join in.

Index

Alan Bartlett, A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition

  1. “The Golden Mediocrity”: Bartlett’s Anglican Tradition
  2. Anglican Orthodoxy
  3. Anglican Reason
  4. Anglican Aesthetics
  5. Anglican Crisis – Postponed until I have something worth saying

Susan J. White, The Spirit of Worship: The Liturgical Tradition

  1. An Uninviting Invitation: White’s Liturgical Tradition

Michael L. Birkel, Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition

  1. Open to the Light’s Leading: Birkel’s Quaker Tradition
  2. TBA
  3. TBA
  4. TBA

Steven Chase, Contemplation and Compassion: The Victorine Tradition

  1. TBA

John Anthony McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: The Byzantine Tradition

  1. TBA

Esther de Waal, The Way of Simplicity: The Cistercian Tradition

  1. TBA

C. Arnold Snyder, Following in the Footsteps of Christ: The Anabaptist Tradition

  1. TBA

David Lonsdale, Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality

  1. TBA

Ruthven’s Islam in the World and Christianity

Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World (Second Edition) is an excellent survey of Islam for those who are not yet well-read on the subject. What I have read of it so far (six and a half of its eight chapters) is well-researched and balanced, neither alarmist nor falsely flattering; Voltaire Panda lent it to me specifically for this reason, in contrast to some of Karen Armstrong’s writing. Further, it offers information I have never seen offered by any of the Muslims who have taught me about Islam (ie. acquaintances, university professors): the Quran’s historical, religious, and literary influences. It has also done a good job discussing the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, though I would have appreciated a summary in table form, and has a more textured, less rose-tinted description of Sufism than I have seen anywhere else. Ruthven also shows an informed and intuitive understanding of human spiritual needs and therefore does not rely on the political, material, or philosophical explanations of Islam’s development that most secular commentators privilege, though he also puts these kinds of explanations to good use as well.

SONY DSC

Source: Cristian Viarisio at flic.kr/p/7fmue7; the Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox basilica which was later converted into an Ottoman mosque and is now a museum

As with any survey, it covers quite a lot of ground and, alas, it can be hard to follow for this reason: the sheer number of movements, terms, approaches, factions, dynasties, and individuals can make it feel like one of those novels with innumerable similarly-named characters with shifting loyalties—Russian literary, high fantasy, or airport spy novels, as you prefer. The glossary at the back helps with this, but is far from sufficient.

As usual I’m not especially interested in writing a book review. I’ve learned a lot about Islam from the book, but instead of talking about it I’d be more inclined to just recommend the book. But I’ve also learned a bit about religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s these insights that I’d like to share. Continue reading

Tzimtzum and Inherent Vice: A Personal Myth of Pattern

The last time I wrote about the pattern-based worldview I’m trying to work out, I got on the topic of afterlives and religion, in a way very brief, casual, and personally unsatisfying way. I do not have a strong sense of my audience yet, so I can’t say whether that’s something that would bore or bother you; nonetheless, I’m going to be talking about my personal religious attitudes for at least a few more posts while I talk about living and thinking in this world I’m working out. For this post I’m going to pick up where I left off when I was talking about digital phylacteries: if resurrection is “easy,” why would Christianity suggest that it is difficult for God to effect?

q37UpB

“Order. Chaos. Order.” Source: Mike Mahaffie at flic.kr/p/q37UpB

But first I want to make something clear: what follows is on the order of myth. I do not mean to offer it as a complete, literal cosmology, not even of a highly speculative variety. Certainly it is no replacement for physics as a description of the cosmos. Moreover, I am open to correction on how compatible this myth is with other bodies of knowledge; if you see problems, let me know.

A second thing I should make clear is that this account is stitched together from Richard Beck’s “Warfare and Weakness,” a series of posts on his blog Experimental Theology, in which Beck looks to combine the insights of John D. Caputo’s The Weakness of God and Greg Boyd’s God at War to create an invigorating, enabling warfare theology that will rescue progressive theology from its doldrums.1 In particular, I am drawing on “Part 5, The Weakness of God,” “Part 6, Let There Be Light,” and “Part 7, The Victory of the Lamb.” I have also layered it with my own views on emergence, reality-as-reliability, and other pattern-based worldview work, which don’t appear in Beck’s version nor, as far as I know, in Caputo’s and Boyd’s books.

Without further ado, the myth:

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Digital Phylacteries and the Simulated Afterlife

If I’m right to endorse the Hofstatderean idea of the self (that is, that self is a pattern, and any instance of that pattern is an instance of the self), then I probably have to support the idea that if my pattern were replicated in a computer, it would also be a version of myself. Again, as always, it might be a poor-quality or imperfect version, but it would still be a version (instance? copy?). As a consequence, a person might want to extend their lives after death by uploading their consciousness to a hard-drive. If you believe in some sort of essential self that is not contained in any pattern, or if you require some historical continuity in order for identity to persist from one instance to the next,1 then you might not identify with a copy of your consciousness (and sub-consciousness, presumably) on a computer. But if you ultimately accept Hofstadter’s idea, then you should accept that the simulation on the computer really is you, to the extent that it is a faithful representation of your pattern.

So let’s talk about afterlives.

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Christian Hendriks 2015; detail of a diorama at the Field Museum

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Monthly Marvel: Pizza Effect

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I’m sharing the pizza effect, which concerns the creation of “authentic” cultural artifacts abroad.


PIZZA EFFECT

This week’s idea is the pizza effect.

Image source: Jeffreyw at flic.kr/p/f57dsm. Jeffryw has a large number of high-quality creative commons photographs of pizza, in case that’s a resource you’ll need some day.

Image source: Jeffreyw at flic.kr/p/f57dsm. Jeffryw has a large number of high-quality creative commons photographs of pizza, in case that’s a resource you’ll need some day.

The pizza effect refers to a phenomenon in which an element of one culture is transformed or embraced in another culture and is then imported back into the culture of origin in this new way. You could also think of this as the way in which a culture or community’s self-understanding is influenced by outside sources. A term from religious studies and sociology, the pizza effect gets its name from the idea (possibly false) that pizza was mostly developed by immigrants from Italy in the United States and exported from there to Italy at a later date, where it was interpreted (and became) a specialty in Italian cuisine. Hindu monk and anthropology professor Agehananda Bharati coined the term in the 1970s to address issues of Indian culture: for instance, the popularity of yoga and several gurus which developed in the West led to their adoption in India, and the Bhagavad Gita which, while always important to Hinduism, became even more exalted when Western anthropologists and orientalists interpreted the Gita as Hinduism’s Bible.
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