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A Journal on Doubt

| 31.8.02
A Journal On Doubt, by Bennett Wade Kilpela

A Journal On Doubt, by Bennett Wade Kilpela leaves me profoundly ambivalent. While his openness allows us a sometimes touchingly intimate look into his personal demons as he struggles to make sense of his deep-seated doubt in conservative, evangelical Christianity, the longwindedness of his manifesto and the almost neurotic way in which he swings and leaps from one somewhat shallow conclusion to another left me wishing for less length and more depth. This work could definitely use a good editor who's willing to cut chapters and pages of repetitive entries, distilling and highlighting some of the truly moving moments of self-discovery within the text.

If you're looking for first-person narratives by people leaving Christian fundamentalism behind, there are much more well-written stories out there. (One that comes to mind is http://www.theheretic.com, which unfortunately is no longer online.) What drew me to Kilpela's story, however (and what kept me reading) was that he and I share a common background and a common struggle, although we've dealt with it in different ways.

Both Kilpela and I were raised in the ultra-conservative, pietist sect called the Apostolic Lutheran Church of America, and both of us left it for greener pastures shortly after confirmation. Both of us have struggled with extreme cases of doubt in the childhood version of the faith, trying to reconcile it with what we perceive as its deficiencies, brought to light by the modern worldview. While this seems very typical in the stories I've read online of people who've left fundamentalism, I think that it reveals a great strength and a great weakness in fundamentalism in general --it is able to inspire deep feelings of loyalty and commitment, but also creates a great sense of cognitive dissonance when confronted with compelling contradictory truths from the outside world.

What makes Kilpela's story unique is his unwillingness to ever make a complete break with the basic fundamentalist propositions he was raised with. While I actually self-identified as an atheist for awhile before having the existential spiritual experience that reconnected me with the Christian faith in a liberal-leaning, post-modern way, Kilpela hangs on by the edge of his fingernails, though despair, depression, divorce, bankruptcy, and more. While he doubts aplenty, Kilpela never repudiates --he's too afraid of hell-fire to do so. Thus his eventual transformation is lesser than it might have been had he actually hit rock bottom in terms of the inadequacy of his prior formulation of Christianity.

The bottom line of Kilpela's story is this: before his period of doubt he demanded nothing less than a religious formulation that was totally unassailable by any logical argument. Now he's willing to accept that no position is air-tight, and calls a truce with ambiguity by making a "bet" on what "makes sense" to him. This "modified Pascal's wager," while not eliminating Kilpela's doubts, makes them more manageable and easier to deal with.

WEBSITE: A Journal On Doubt, by Bennett Wade Kilpela http://www.msu.edu/user/kilpela/doubtpref.htm

The Devil

| 28.8.02
The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, by Jeffery Burton Russell

This volume is merely the first of four works that deal with constructions of the devil through history. I haven't yet read the other three (Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, and Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World), but if the subsequent volumes are anywhere near as interesting and insightful as the first, I have much to look forward to in the other volumes as well.

The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity takes a cross cultural look at how evil spirits (termed generically "the devil") have been perceived by various cultures in the ancient world, including early Christianity. Russell's main thesis is that constructions of the devil, like constructions of the god, follow a Jungian pattern of undifferentiated ambivalence, differentiation, unhealthy repression, and healthy suppression.

Simply put, Russell explains Jung's version of the psyche as follows: In children, according to Jung, there is no concept of right and wrong. Good and evil deeds are done with equal abandon. Later, as the child grows to adulthood, concepts of good and evil begin to differentiate themselves. At first the reaction is to repress the evil aspects of the personality (in essence, when tempted to do evil, the response is to say, "I don't do that because I'm not the type of person who would do such a thing.") This is unhealthy because by denying the urge toward evil the pressure just builds up in the individual over time, and can possibly be released dangerously and uncontrollably, to the detriment of both the individual and society. The answer: acknowledgment of the evil nature, and then the conscious suppression of evil inclinations. According to Jung and Russell this is more healthy than Freudian repression because it honestly admits that all people are capable of great good and great evil, but that through a conscious determination evil can be avoided and good chosen.

Russell sees this model in many ancient religions and texts, including early Christianity and the Old Testament. Drawing mostly upon the depiction of God in the books of Job and Exodus, Russell brings the darker side of God to light, arguing that in this early stage Yahweh is morally undifferentiated or "beyond good and evil." Only in the later stages (I suppose in later books in the series dealing with the New Testament) does good and evil --God and the Devil-- separate into two separate entities.

PUBLISHER: Cornell Univ Pr; ISBN: 0801494095; 1977.


| 23.8.02
Treason, by Orson Scott Card

While it isn't my favorite vein of work by Card, (that honor is split evenly between the Speaker for the Dead series and the Tales of Alvin Maker) Treason nonetheless brings us a striking example of both the author's excellent writing style and his originality.

In general, what has always been wonderful about Orson Scott Card is his originality, and his ability to tell a gripping story. I normally detest fantasy, because so much of it seems to be merely a retelling of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Conversely, I love science fiction, but my one constant critique of it is that it assumes a purely materialistic universe and seldom addresses spiritual or moral issues. Card is a master of integration in this respect, combining science fiction and fantasy as well as ethical and religious issues. Alvin Maker and Speaker for the Dead accomplish this the best, but Treason is still worth reading.

The major premise of the novel is that 3000 years ago an elite group of scientists and revolutionaries were banished to the metalless planet Treason as punishment for rebelling against the old Republic. As the generations progress, each of the abandoned members of the original group create a society based on his or her area of scientific expertise. The goal: to create trade goods of sufficient value to buy enough off-planet metal to build a starship and escape the planet.

The plot focuses upon a young aristocrat named Lanik Mueller who is disinherited from his father's throne and banished to distant lands. His society possesses the amazing ability to heal from any wound and regenerate lost body parts. He is exiled because of a genetic disorder in which he uncontrollably sprouts excess body parts. He can return when he has successfully divined the secret source of wealth of an enemy tribe, but in the process learns other secrets and befalls many adventures that make for interesting reading. Through the novel we see Lanik mature from impetuous youth into mature adult. Concurrently, Lanik must do battle with the forces of evil both within and outside of himself in order for a horrible secret truth to be revealed --an ending that comes as a shock, yet is strangely satisfying.

PUBLISHER: St Martins Mass Market Paper; ASIN: 0312921098; Reissue edition (April 1990)


| 18.8.02
'A Princess of Mars,' 'The Gods of Mars,' 'Warlord of Mars,' 'Thuvia, Maid of Mars,' and 'The Chessmen of Mars,' by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs' science fiction classic "Mars" series (including A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, Warlord of Mars, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, and The Chessmen of Mars) marked my initiation into three different yet equally satisfying worlds. It was my first exposure to Project Gutenburg. Secondly, it was the first time I had used my Palm Pilot to read an entire novel. Thirdly, it was my first and only exposure to any of Edgar Rice Burroughs original works.

For those not familiar with Project Gutenburg, its goal is to put full-text copies of literature on-line for people to freely download, read, and distribute. Since only materials whose copyright has expired are eligible for this treatment, you won't find any recent bestsellers here. However, there are still thousands of the classics available, from Mark Twain to William Shakespeare to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I'd been aware of these "e-texts" for quite some time, but had never been very interested in them, primarily because when I read a book I don't want to be chained to my PC, and hence my desk. Moreover, with paperbacks cheap, easy to use, and small in size, why purchase one of those expensive, clunky electronic book devices? If I'm going to have to lug around an expensive device just to read books, I might as well just lug around the book itself.

Enter the Palm Pilot. I bought it primarily as a way to check E-mail when away from home, and as a way to keep all my information organized. Because of its small size (roughly the size of your wallet) and long battery life (with the backlit screen on I get about one weeks worth of use out of two AAA batteries; with it off the batteries only need changing once a month) it has become an indispensible part of my daily routine, and my constant front pocket companion. Since it is always with me, and it performs all these other indispensible functions, using it to read books (and thus saving me the trouble of carrying the books with me) is just the icing on the cake.

That said, on to the review. Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Mars" series is great fun for anyone interested in a fast-paced romp of an adventure tale. All the stories feature John Carter, a southern gentleman and Civil War veteran who mysteriously finds himself transported to the Red Planet Mars --known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. There Carter's physical strength and mental prowess (as well as his warrior skills) are put to the test as he must slash and hack his way to freedom, both for himself and for the beautiful Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris.

I found the series wildly entertaining, despite the Victorian writing style and first person narrative. Part of the series' charm is the breathtaking detail and care with which Burroughs paints us the portrait of the Martian landscape, its peoples, and their cultures. It is truly a tale of epic proportions --I hope I don't sound too cliche when I say that.

One thing that surprised me was the amount of violence and sexual innuendo. I guess I had subconsciously bought into the conventional wisdom that things were much more innocent in "the olden days." I always thought that it was just our generation that enjoyed such blood and gore. While not quite as explicit in the details as today's action movies, these classics nonetheless have more than their share of slaughter. The hero, John Carter, literally hacks and slashes his way across the moss covered hills and plains of Mars to find and rescue his beautiful red princess, Dejah Thoris. While sex is never explicitly mentioned, chivalry and romance abound. Coupled with the fact that everyone on Burrough's Mars waltzes around without wearing any clothing, the story is not only charged with violence but exudes a latent and primal sexuality as well.

The entire series are available for download below. I highly recommend them as entertaining reading on both the Palm Pilot, and in their own right.

The 'Mars' Series, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

PUBLISHER: Project Gutenberg; 1911-1941

Finding Myself

| 15.8.02
'Finding Myself', by Brenda Cooper and Larry Niven

'Finding Myself', by Brenda Cooper and Larry Niven (which appeared in the June 2002 issue of Analog), is actually the continuation of a storyline first developed in the January 2002 issue short story 'Choosing Life' which traces the post-mortem survival of the protagonist, Christa, who dies but whose memories and personality are saved into a virtual reality computer generated afterlife to exist indefinately with like-minded cybersouls. While 'Choosing Life' does set the stage, quite frankly I found it rather unremarkable, and only remembered it after enjoying the thought-provoking questions raised by 'Finding Myself.'

The main story line in 'Finding Myself' is simple --someone in the world of the living has restored a backup copy of Christa's persona for nefarious purposes. Since the laws that regulate this cyber-heaven prohibit two of the same person being active at the same time (upon pain of permanent erasure of both copies!) Christa enlists the help of a hacker cyber-friend to track down the 'Rogue Christa' as well as the flesh and blood perp.

Eventually Christa does find her other self, the criminal is brought to justice, and the issue of the two Christa's is resolved satisfactorally. However, the most interesting thing about the story is the questions it raises about individualism and identity. What makes 'me' me? If there was an exact copy of me walking around, but exposed to a slightly different environment, how long would it be before we become two distinct individuals? Are we merely the sum of our memories? What if getting rid of a bad memory was as simple as deleting a file?

While the technology to save souls on to a hard drive is a long way off, Cooper and Niven's vision of personas existing after death in an ideal and actualized state reminded me a lot of today's internet. The web is increasingly becoming a domain in which we can reach out and connect with other people who share a common interest but may be halfway across the globe, or of a different age, sex, or race. I sometimes think of this ability to interact through bytes and photons as akin to an extra sense, and the net as another layer of reality superimposed upon the so-called 'real world.' Maybe this small sense of transcendance through technology has fired my imagination enough to make eternal life via hard disk seem plausible.

PUBLISHER: Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding); Dell Publishers; ISSN: 10592113 (January 2002 and June 2002)

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