Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Don’t Just Be Writer (Part Three)

Last week I mentioned personal branding—figuring out three or so words that define who you are. That way you can determine the itch that writing scratches. 

This week I turn to related topics. The first one is the most important.

Write about what really interests you
If you want to have something to say,
Have other interests.
If you address what you love in your words, the general rule is that your enthusiasm will be infectious.
      I’ll return to this below, and it is indeed my big idea point. But first I have another.

Why you can’t just write
Don’t just be a writer. In fact, being “just a writer”—throwing down your latest novel and raking in the profits as your sole occupation—that represents a relatively new thing, historically speaking. Through most of western history people wrote as part of lives in which they did other things like teaching, or being a monk.
     What are those other things? I have a friend who’s passionate about cycling and God. And so he’s writing the connection of those two. Another loves the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the state of the soul, and the difference between final and efficient causation. An acquaintance is consumed with how to make your eight year old’s birthday party unique. Yet another is convinced he sees the connection between X-Men films and Christian theology. (Not all have the same size markets, but that’s why it’s important to have another way to make money.)

Going deep into your psyche
This implies something else. All this focus on personal branding and one’s “lust” from last week makes writing a very personal endeavor. You begin to go deep into your own psyche. (Or else you’ll just write tweet nasty things about other people to forget about the self-discovery.) So don’t be surprised that, when you write, you discover some weird stuff. 
      I’ll quote C. S. Lewis, who observed what happened when he—in a different context—looked inside:
“For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.” C.S. Lewis
When this happens, you might want to find a friend, a spouse, or a professional counselor to sort through this stuff.

The bad and the good
So definitely use your personal exploration in your writing. How you’re jealous about the terrible writing you read that’s somehow made it to the New York Times bestseller list. How Jello makes you irrationally angry. Why the saying, “the Pope is a trombone,” amuses you for hours.
      But I don’t want to suggest that the real me or the real you is all yucky. You might also find some good stuff. Like the fact that you really do love some learning about justice through reading every sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. Or that you love knitting blankets so you can give them to moms and dads of newborns. Or that you like playing Scrabble and pinochle with lonely people at a senior center. 

I close with a question or two
-->How do you start? What are you doing today? What’s planned for this week? What other kind of work do you do? What’s your favorite hobby? Find some of the activities that you can reflect on. And put them into words.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Something New and Fresh in the Multiverse (Another Soul Dialogue)

News flash: Andy Walsh is moderating an online book club about Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science (read an excerpt here). It's moderated through Joshua Swamidass's Peaceful Science, and you can sign up here.

Andy talking about his book with grad student
(The walk, and dialogue on the soul at Gordon College, continues...)

Bob (my imaginary friend): Greg, what do you think about Andy Walsh's new book?

Greg: Do you have a few minutes for me to spiel a bit? It's a fascinating book...

The best way for me to understand this remarkably different presentation of faith and science in Faith Across the Multiverse is to highlight that Andy Walsh is a “translator.” Why do I arrive at this? We found ourselves together at a lunch meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation in late July where he spoke to a group of graduate students from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF).  Andy commented on the book (and I quote from notes enhanced by memory): 
“This book is full of stories because stories orient us. Theology and science can be abstract, and so I fill this book with narratives from X Men movies. In many ways, Faith across the Multiverseis a translation.” Andy Walsh

(Full disclosure: Andy is a blogger for the Emerging Scholars Network, which received a STEAM grant for which I’m project leader. I felt like I needed to say that.)

Andy’s words reminded me of the one I call Saint Clive—Clive Staples Lewis—and how he viewed translation. As a boy, Lewis never forgot reading the fantasy fiction of a Scottish minister, George MacDonald. 
“In reading Fantasies, my imagination was baptized.” C.S. Lewis
As a result, in Lewis’s fiction and even his non-fiction, Lewis sought to baptize his readers’ imaginations, which implied translation into vernacular images and language. As he once advised Anglican priests and youth leaders, 
“You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular…. A passage from some theological work for translation into the vernacular ought to be a compulsory paper in every ordination examination.” C.S. Lewis
Though not an Anglican priest or youth leader—Andy works as a science writer for IVCF’s Emerging Scholars blog and the Patheos network (among other things)—he still could be earning a St. Clive Certificate of Translation. (To be honest, someday I hope someone will award me one.)

Not saving my quibbles until the end, let me verbalize that translation is hard work. When I comment that there are several pop culture analogies in Faith Across the Multiverse, I’m not overstating. The book truly is replete with X Men, Star Wars, the Justice League, et al. allusions. Though I don’t mind an action hero movie, I’m no fanatic, and sometimes the analogies seemed to me overwrought or simply repetitive. In fact, some I like much better than others, which represents one issue with pop culture—X Mendoesn’t do it for me, and so I preferred the topic of entropy addressed via Joker and Two-Face in Christopher Nolan’s Batmanseries (pp. 120ff.)

But even further, pop culture is not called “high culture” for a reason. It doesn’t always carry more substantive ideas. Do we need to limit ourselves as translators of faith and science issues to what popular media can provide? Do we need to take the scraps, or fast food, from their table? 

I couldn’t entirely suppress these questions. But then again, I’m at least a couple and half decades older than an important demographic. His use of popular media means has remarkable ability to speak to a population that I care deeply about, 18-30 year olds. In an email, Andy told me that the Faith across the Multiverse “might be particularly relevant to emerging adults, as there is also a significant pop culture element. Since both the science and theology can get abstract, I introduce each topic with a sci-fi story to help with accessibility.”

I’ve mentioned several points on presentation, and so I only have space to touch on a few topics.

Again from the email, 
“I find it helpful to think about God's grace using the idea of strange attractors from chaos theory. The hope is that believers might see new value to science in helping them get a fresh perspective on God & Christian teaching, while science-literate folks might find that Christianity makes more sense in these terms. (And, of course, plenty of folks may fall in both categories.)” Andy Walsh
I’d add to this the topics of mathematics, physics, and computer science all play a role. And several of these combinations strike the reader (or at least this reader). That belief in God is axiomatic is generative. His title for chapter 7, for example, that “The Genome Made Flesh” is arresting. His delayed approach to evolution (it doesn’t appear until page 243) is striking, in which he tells the reader that “I was just as surprised as you when I realized it, this entirebook has actually been about evolution” (243). That might surprise his more conservative readers. All in all and as a result, I suspect that most readers will end up learning quite a bit, about pop culture, biblical texts, theology, and a variety of sciences.

I close with this. Having been in the business of studying theology and science books for at least three decades, I find a freshness in Faith Across the Multiverse. It might even be, in the lingo of emerging adults, “legit,” “cool,” “tight,” “sweet,” or “ill.”

So there you have it. Bob, read it and see what you decide.

Bob: Super interesting! Hey, look over there--I see Josh, who's moderating the book club on Andy's book--talking with Steve Moshier. Aren't they both STEAM grantees? Let's head that way.

Greg: Let's do that, and why don't we talk a bit about what Scripture and positive psychology about the soul...

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Because it’s a "Lust"—that’s Why We Write (Part Two)

This week’s title comes from C. S. Lewis. When questioned about why we penned numerous books (as many, by some counts, as his 65 years of life): 
“Writing is like a ‘lust,’ or like 'scratching when you itch.’ Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I, for one, must get it out.” C. S. Lewis
But I want an audience!
Knowing how strong the impulse is to write, I realize how we also want people to read our work. Several years back, I heard Anne Lamott speak in midtown Manhattan. It was quite a combination—this left-leaning, openly Christian, seemingly ditzy, Northern Californian with dreads addressing an assembled group of New York sophisticates (with the sufficient proportions of men in black turtlenecks and women in sleek gray dresses). At any rate, she told us directly (and I quote, very loosely, from memory): 
“We write because we love to, but as writers, we also want to have an audience—that’s why we write.” Anne Lamott
So start there. Don’t write on a topic because it’s the “it” thing. I once mentioned to Lauren Winner—after a panel she was on put together by HarperOne—that I wanted to figure out how to write on a topic that would sell. Her response? “That’s boring.” 
If you’re stuck on what to write on, here’s a first step: take a quick look through what you’re reading. Do you see any key themes? I’m going to guess that there are probably no more than six key themes in your assortment of books, websites, magazines, and blogs.

Finding your voice 
So having found your interest, the next question is your voice. Where is your voice? How can you find it if it’s just a bit too muted right now?
I’ve written another, almost devotional, book on how to find your passion, your calling, The Time for Yes. 

One key exercise is personal brandingHere’s a quick overview—and you’ll more here.
Personal branding
Personal branding, as I define it, applies some principles of product branding to our individual identity and therefore our goals.
Begin by brainstorming. Write out every adjective, verb, or noun you’d use to represent you. How do others actually describe you? Then ask friends over a coffee and through Facebook message or email for five to ten words about you. What are they? Energetic. Hilarious. Spiritual. Committed…
Next, chart those on the top half with words that you’d like to describe you and with words others use. Take a moment to observe what you’ve written. How do the two lists line up?
I’m assuming you have about twenty to thirty words. Enjoy those words for a few minutes. But now comes the hard part. You start saying no.. Take a first whack at the list. Reduce your list to about ten words. Take time: Hang with those for a few minutes. Then let them sit, and come back to them later. When you do, then prioritize them. Look not only for descriptors that apply today, but also for your preferred future. Let the priorities determine the remaining three. The three you’ll say yes to. 

Now write out those three essential, goal-defining words. That's your personal brand. It will direct your life and your writing.

And let those words define your “lust” for writing. Hey, maybe it’s even your lust for life. Next week I’ll get into why you need to love life. You’ve got to have something to write about. You can’t just be a writer.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

A Meandering Walk at Gordon College with Bob, My Imaginary Friend

(This continues my Dialogues on the Soul series...)

GSC: Hey, here we are now at Gordon College. It’s amazing how we get around!

Bob (My Imaginary Friend): Greg, what brings you here?

GSC: I’m at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (or ASA).

Bob: Isn’t Gordon beautiful?

GSC: Yes! Gordan College is incredibly well maintained. It definitely has that feel of a northeastern liberal arts campus. You know—beautiful brick buildings and well-maintained lawns. A large coy pond surrounded by forests and walking paths and a host of other small lakes. I might even take a run and a swim. But I digress…

Bob: What are you finding at the conference?

GSC: My overall impression of the ASA meeting is that people are both very committed to science and to their Christian faith. Almost everyone I’ve met are scientists, and their scientific credentials and insights strike me as well-nigh impeccable. If anything's lack, it's a deep integration with theology and biblical studies.

Bob: Anything else?

GSC: I've been inspired by some great talks on the influence of technology. Like Nigel M. de S. Cameron of Trinity Evangelical Divinity. He posed what is for me one of the BIG question for the 21stcentury: 
Can the individual flourish while technology expands?
And for me, it's got some specific payoff. I’m teaching a western civilization course this fall at Chico State, and it made me wonder: What will teaching humanities mean as we move to trans- or post-humanism?

Bob: Man, tech is a crazy critical topic!

GSC: No doubt. The talk by Timothy Opperman, who did his theological work at Regent College, addressed the seemingly insane idea of a “digital soul” with artificial intelligence (or AI). Here's my burning question: if an AI robots have soul and thus volition, will they have to pay taxes. Forget about Alan Turing, that’s my test for humanness.

Bob: Has anything surprised you?

Greg: Many here are much more amenable to (though not fully embracing of) Intelligent Design theory (ID). Some ID peeps were in fact at the conference, sprinkled among crowd. When former ASA Executive Director Randy Isaac gave a talk critiquing the ID book, Theistic Evolution (which argues against TE), one of the editors was there in the audienceOddly enough, this occurred while watching Expelled while I got dressed (etc.) in my room in which Ben Stein makes a satirical case for how "intelligent design"... without, I would note, really noting the particulars of ID theory as a paradigm. Stein argues those who seek intelligent design (really God) are being excluded, or “expelled,” from universities and the wider culture.

Bob: I’ve been thinking a good deal of time working on the question of the historical Adam and Eve and the implications of science. Did you touch on that topic?

GSC: In fact, I did! How did you know? I was on a panel for a workshop put together by Washington University professor of computational biology Joshua Swamidass. The historical Adam and Even is a huge topic for the evangelical world. Bottom line of the workshop? Science certainly doesn’t per se lead to an historical Adam and Eve—that’s what we get from the Bible and theology—but science, doesn’t disprove its possibility either.

Bob: The highlight of the whole event?

GSC: That’s gotta be the experience of hearing Francis Collins and the work
he’s doing with biotechnology. I felt as if I was hearing Louis Pasteur or Francis Salk. He showed a video of two year old’s cure form spinal muscular atrophy (like ALS for infants) using biotechnology. 

Bob: Why did it have an impact on you?

GSC: Collins wound this science together with a thoughtful presentation of Christian faith… almost like the double strand of DNA. In fact, after the talk, he headed to a room where we could all sing together and led us in a variety of spiritual and folk classics (and there was a DNA strand graphic on his guitar's neck).
Author Andy Walsh

At any rate, after his talk, I stood and simply took in what I heard. I found myself typing this into my iPhone Notes: 
“Profound. God is doing something through this man.” 
When I think about science and faith—hey, when I just think about life and thought generally—that’s about as good as it gets.

Bob: Hey, there's Andy Walsh, who wrote Faith Across the Multiverse, let's go talk with him...

GSC: Let's do that in the next edition of our dialogues.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Writing Your Book: From Fear to Confidence in Ten Steps (Step One)

1.    Don’t Think You’re Going to Become Rich And Famous
My first tip on writing is a negative. Put another way, I’ll start by saying a Yes to No

Don't think writing will make you a billionaire. In fact, one of the worst things you can do is that that it's your birthright to sell a million, or even a 100,000, copies of your book.

This mindset will freeze you for sure.

Don’t listen to stories like I’ve heard. Like from Paul Young. He was poor, living the Pacific Northwest, working three jobs to support his wife and four kids. On the way back and forth to work, he wrote a story, a tragic story of despair and redemption. In desperation, he prayed for God to help him print enough copies for his family and friends. 

At Christmas time, an anonymous check of $100 arrived at his door. After buying gifts for his family, he took the balance and walked to Kinko’s where he made 15 copies of his manuscript. As he told me, 
“Making those copies—That was all I wanted to do.” 
People read them and passed them on. He found a publisher. It became viral, and ultimately The Shack: When Tragedy Confronts Eternity went on to sell something like 20 million copies and become a first-run movie starring Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington

Now that’s a story of faith and confidence.

An outlier
The reason we love that store is it’s exceptional. It’s an outlier. We love it because Paul is a remarkably humble person whom, frankly, it’s hard to dislike even if you're tempted to envy his success.

But wound within this tale is something dangerous: Thinking you’re writing to become rich and famous is ultimately demotivating for almost all writers. 
This will happen to me. Write it and they will come and buy.
Looking into my crystal ball
So I’m going to make a prediction—that won’t happen to you. It’s just basic statistics.

“The average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.” 
That's certainly what I've seen and heard.

Nevertheless, there is a positive
How’s that for negative? Let me assure that in it, there’s a surprising positive. 

I’ll give you hint. Next week I look at why you do publish: Because it’s an itch, even a lust.

What do you think? Please feel to tell me what you think. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Soul Dialogue: Animated Discussion with An Imaginary Friend

GSC: I like returning to the topic of the soul, albeit on a different continent. Man, we’ve walked a long way, and I feel like I’m with my friends who drink beer together and discuss theology (aka “the Quad”). But how weird it is that all three of you are combined in one person!

Interlocutor: Yes, it is a bit weird. Here we are at beautiful Mt. Hermon in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

GSC: At any rate, I’ll start with Meriam-Webster’s definition
The soul is “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.”
And so here’s my thesis: In order to have our souls become fully alive, we need to reconcile the inputs of our hearts and minds. Or as Jesus phrased it, 
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” Jesus, the book of Matthew 
This is being fully alive. This is happiness. This is the essence of Christian spirituality.

Interlocutor: Why do you care?

GSC: I know I’m not always “up,” and that if I rely on my feelings, it’s shaky ground. I’m disappointed with “spirituality” today in the U.S. It strikes me that there’s an overemphasis on feeling and excitement. It’s like we all have to be amped up and happy to be faithful Christians. 

Interlocutor: What makes think this?
 Anonymous? This amazing art?

GSC: First of all, I’ve been working on a book about the history of religion and science in our country. As a people, we have a strong thread of rationality alongside a deep search for spirituality. We’ve done much better when we’ve put those together.

Interlocutor: Didn’t the Harvard scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead say something like this in 1925? 

GSC: In fact he did! He commented that the future of our civilization depended, to some degree, on how effectively we were able to relate science and religion, particularly 
“the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.” A. N. Whitehead, scientist and philosopher
How did you know?

Interlocutor: Yes, remembering Whitehead, Kendrick Lamar, and Bugs Bunny references—that’s what makes me a good interlocutor! So, Greg, what about you and me? Have Christian believers forgotten anything?

GSC: In my own pastoral and professorial experience: people too often divide themselves between head and heart. So it’s also what makes sense in the church.

Interlocutor: What do you mean by “it”?

GSC: I mean the way that we bring together all we are—body and soul—under God’s care and in power of the Spirit.

Interlocutor: What about Scripture?

GSC: Let me end there: As you know, every summer, I go back to the book of Philippians. In that book of just 104 verses, I’m always surprised by Paul’s emphasis on the mind or the attitude as in chapter four:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think aboutthese things.” Paul in the book of Philippians
Our mindset directs our hearts. That's what makes sense according to the Scripture. And that’s how God made us.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Fully Alive

I’ve been musing about a new book. It builds off this conviction: In order to become fully alive, we need to reconcile the inputs of our heart and mind. Then we become whole. Or as Jesus phrased it, 
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Matthew 22: 37
This is happiness. 

This is the essence of Christian spirituality. This is life fully alive.

You may know this already, but the idea of being “fully alive” comes from Irenaeus’s words that 
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” 
To my mind, it’s a fully integrated life that pulls together all of who we are. We live into the purpose for which God created us.

It’s also in the Apostle Paul’s words, 
"So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush." Philippians 1:9, The Message

In this book (at least the one that's in my head at the moment), I’d like to integrate the insights from science that I’ve studied over the past few decades to help Christians take in what it means to be fully alive in a scientific and technological world. To give one example, this would naturally engage positive psychology's insights on gratitude and happiness. It would interact with the realities of the human being that emerges from reading both the books of nature and Scripture.

What do you think? What are some elements you’d add?