Religion

Holiday reading

By
10
January 9, 2012

We’ve just enjoyed a week away in the Snowy Mountains (which is why it’s been a bit quiet around here lately, my apologies.) One of the best things for me about holidays is the unfettered reading time, so I thought I’d share with you all what I’ve been reading over the Xmas/New Year break and our recent week off.

Firstly, there were a couple of contributor copies of things I have work in that I hadn’t got around to yet. Apart from the obvious joy of getting published and sharing a Table Of Contents with some seriously talented other writers, having a story in a publication usually (and should!) means that I get a copy of said publication. Free reading material – one of life’s highest pleasures.

ME6 Cover small Holiday readingMidnight Echo 6 – I’ve mentioned this a few times recently, so I won’t bore you again. Suffice to say that it is a bloody brilliant issue of the magazine, and I don’t say that only because I have a story in it. The standout story for me was Joanne Anderton’s Out Hunting For Teeth. But every story is great and there’s extra interviews and all sorts of stuff. This is the sci-fi horror special and you’d think that might make for saminess. (Yes, that’s word, so get fucked.) But it doesn’t. There’s a great variety here and as the issue also includes the winners of the AHWA Flash and Short Story competitions, there’s a couple of non-sci-fi horror stories too. Great bang for your buck.

AbE cover for blog Holiday readingAnywhere But Earth – This is another contrib copy for me, as it features my story, Unexpected Launch. However, mine is only one of 29 stories in this 728 page epic tome of a sci-fi anthology. I think this book will go down as a must-read in modern science fiction. The scope of the stories and the talent of the contributing authors is astounding. It really is a fantastic array of ideas and style. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll dig this book. If you’re not, it’s a great place to start. And if you know someone who says they don’t like sci-fi and you want to try to convert them, buy them this book. There were a handful of stories that didn’t really work for me, but that’s the case with any anthology. And this one has 29 stories, so there’s definitely something for everyone and I would bet that the majority of people would really groove with the majority of stories in here. Probably the standouts for me were Penelope Love’s SIBO, William R D Wood’s Deuteronomy, Robert Hood’s Desert Madonna, Damon Shaw’s Continuity, Brendan Duffy’s Space Girl Blues, Angela Ambroz’s Pyaar Kiya and Steve Cameron’s So Sad, The Lighthouse Keeper. Although the real star of that last story is a secondary character. In fact, a brick.

bluegrass symphony web Holiday readingBlue Grass Symphony – This is the debut collection from Canadian-born Australian writer Lisa L Hannett. It’s an outstanding achievement. A selection of tales of magic, darkness, intrigue, mystery. Hannett’s style is clear throughout, even though the stories cover very different ground. There’s a brilliant vampire story here that’s worth the cover price alone. Seriously, if you thought vampire stories had been done to death, buy this book and read From the Teeth of Strange Children. There isn’t a bad story in this book and it’s a superbly dark and twisted exploration of life in mythical Blue Grass towns and counties. Great characters, great stories. Lisa is a friend of mine, but this isn’t just mate’s favours. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

TNBoysV9MockUp Holiday readingThe Boys, Vol. 9: The Big Ride – Garth Ennis is one of my favourite writers and I’ve been loving this series. The Boys is about a world where superheroes exist and they’re a bunch of dangerous, narcissistic prima donnas and The Boys exist to keep them in line. If you like your graphic novels to be powerful, irreverant, digusting, offensive, thought-provoking and just downright fucking brilliant, you should read The Boys. In fact, you should read everything by Ennis. And volume 9 knocked me sideways. The end of the book just takes your guts and wrenches them out. Stunning. And for the comic book nerds out there, check out the cover and think about The Dark Knight Returns. Classic.

prophecy Holiday readingProphecy by Joanna Penn. You may remember I was talking about Joanna Penn’s first book, Pentecost, a while back. This is the new one, a sequel and the next ARKANE thriller. It’s a short book, around 65,000 words I think, and rocks along nicely. It’s a religious thriller, with a kick-arse female protagonist called Morgan Sierra. Sierra is a bit like a female James Bond/Jason Bourne/Indiana Jones hybrid. In this book she’s in a race against time to unravel a mystery before a powerful international health and wellbeing company can destroy a quarter of the world in accordance with the prophecy of the Four Horsemen. Penn’s ability as a writer is improving and her characters are developing well. There’s clearly going to be a series of ARKANE books (the next one is touted at the end of this one) and I think they make for great reading. Penn has a degree in theology and her knowledge and research, of ideas and locations, really shines through in these stories. In some ways I preferred the story in the first book, but I loved the ideas in this one. There’s nothing world-changing here, but as rollicking thrillers these books are great – perfect for holiday reading.

So that was my recent word consumption. I’ll also post these comments on Goodreads and Amazon. Remember, folks, we’re the gatekeepers now. If you read things and enjoy them, talk about them – blog, post reviews at online stores, tell your friends and families. As authors, we’ll love you for it.

So what about you? Did you read any great books over the end of year break?

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Get your Christmas out of Sol Invictus!

By
8
December 20, 2011

We’re nearly at that time again. It should be stated from the outset, and really doesn’t need to be for regular readers, that I hate Christmas and everything about it. I do love being able to spend time with friends and loved ones, enjoy good food, exchange gifts and all that malarkey. But you don’t need a special day for that. Just like you should tell your partner that you love them all the time and not only on February 14th. But what really pisses me off is all the Christians who think it’s okay to berate people who leave Christ out of Xmas. Given that the whole thing is stolen and shoe-horned into a medieval fantasy in the first place, it’s a bit rich.

I’ve also taken to responding to, “You can’t have Xmas with Christ!” with, “Then you can’t have Thursday without Thor! Where’s your celebratory hammer?” There’s history with all these things, and it behoves the modern mind to know it.

evil santa1 Get your Christmas out of Sol Invictus!If you get off on the whole Christ mythology, then bully for you. Why you pick one crazy mythology out of hundreds and insist it’s the truth absolutely mystifies me, but if that’s your wagon, then giddy up. And the Western world has certainly jumped on board the whole Xmas lunacy and subverted it into a materialistic circus of misery and one-upmanship. So I can understand the desire to suggest that people look past the crass commercialism and look for what Xmas is really about. But you know what? It’s not Christ. Sure, it’s been hijacked to be about Christ, but if these people were really honest with themselves, they’d admit there’s more to the story. Then again, as that great physician Gregory House said, “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” – (Season 4 Episode 2, The Right Stuff.)

The Christians, since some decades after the death of Christ when the Christians began (thanks to the cult set up by Paul), have always been keen on appropriating something popular, pretending it’s theirs and then using it to further their own agenda. They’re like a virus, chewing up holidays and spitting out Christian rhetoric. But it’s not only the Christians who have pinched things for their aims.

Over the years we’ve merged and melded many things into our modern culture and, while the Christians always shout the loudest at Xmas, there are many other influences that have survived the Jesus takeover.

Burning candles, mistletoe and holly berries, for example, are originally from Yule, the Pagan celebration of the sun god, Mithras. Who is also a very clear blueprint for the myth of Christ himself:

“Both Mithras and Christ were described variously as ‘the Way,’ ‘the Truth,’ ‘the Light,’ ‘the Life,’ ‘the Word,’ ‘the Son of God,’ ‘the Good Shepherd.’ The Christian litany to Jesus could easily be an allegorical litany to the sun-god. Mithras is often represented as carrying a lamb on his shoulders, just as Jesus is. Midnight services were found in both religions. The virgin mother…was easily merged with the virgin mother Mary. Petra, the sacred rock of Mithraism, became Peter, the foundation of the Christian Church.”

Gerald Berry, Religions of the World

Mithras (from the Persian god, Mithra, adapted to Greek as Mithras) allegedly has many features Christians might find familiar:

- Mithra was born on December 25th of the virgin Anahita.
- The babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger and attended by shepherds.
- He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
- He had 12 companions or “disciples.”
- He performed miracles.
- As the “great bull of the Sun,” Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
- Mithra ascending to heaven in his solar cart, with sun symbolHe ascended to heaven.
- Mithra was viewed as the Good Shepherd, the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.
- Mithra is omniscient, as he “hears all, sees all, knows all: none can deceive him.”
- He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb.
- His sacred day was Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
- His religion had a eucharist or “Lord’s Supper.”
- Mithra “sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers.”
- Mithraism emphasized baptism.

Funny old list, that, eh? I said allegedly above as there’s often about as much evidence for these things as there is for the mythology of Christianity; that is to say, not much at all. Though the vast majority of it is backed up by archeological evidence well predating Christian times.

220px Disc Sol BM GR1899.12 1.2 Get your Christmas out of Sol Invictus!The Roman emporer Aurelian first instigated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti in 274 CE, which is the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun god, often considered to be one and the same as Mithras. This birthday festival was celebrated with a huge party and feast on December 25th, a date I’m sure you’ll find familiar. It was Constantine who decided, for mostly political reasons, that Christianity would be the state religion, though he did release an edict in 313 CE proclaiming religious tolerance of all faiths. But there were still enough adherents to the Mithraic tradition that even in the 5th century, Augustine preached against them as Christianity continued its takeover.

Incidentally, it was also Constantine who made Sunday a day of rest. Not because of Christ myths, but for Sol Invictus. In March, 321 CE he decreed:

On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.

But I digress. Going back to Christmas being a Sol Invictus celebration, even the Syriac bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi wrote in the 12th century:

“It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.”

Ernest Renan, in 1882, pointed out how things could have been when he said, “if the growth of Christianity had been arrested by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraic” (Renan, E., Marc-Aurele et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882, p. 579)

And the whole celebration of the sun god idea can be taken back to well before Roman times. There is much evidence — including many ancient monumental alignments — to demonstrate that the event of the winter solstice, and the return of the sun through longer days, was celebrated hundreds to thousands of years before the common era in numerous parts of the world.

When “the people” are really into something, the worst thing to do is try to tell them they can’t enjoy it any more. The best option is to co-opt it into your own agenda over time. So the Pagan sun worship was Borged (resistance is futile) by Mithras and Sol Invictus celebrations, and those in turn swallowed by the Christians; not as biblical doctrine but to compete with Pagan cults.

Regardless, in the end the effect is the same: “Christmas” is not the birth of the “son of God” but the birth of “the sun”. The deity Mithras and the celebration of Sol Invictus, inextricably intertwined, also ended up drawing in the Christian mythologies and the Christ myths gathered the most adherents and strength and swallowed up those things that birthed them.

Then combine into this Saturnalia, described by the poet Catullus as “the best of days”, which was a big old party in honour of the Roman deity, Saturn. There was a huge banquet followed by gift-giving and partying, where social norms were put aside in the name of hedonism and good times. Which sounds damned fine to me. This festival was originally held on December 17th, but subsequently extended right through to the 23rd. After all, why party for one day when you can get your groove on for a week. And many of those practices were also taken into the Christmas celebration and made a part of the whole thing.

saturnalia 1 Get your Christmas out of Sol Invictus!
Saturnalia

And everything I’ve written here only touches on the depth and complexity of the history of our culture. So the next time some twat says, “You can’t have Xmas without Christ!” you can respond with, “Yes, you can, actually. Just ask Mithras.”

Enjoy the things that make you happy. Be nice to each other, have fun and indulge yourselves. Give gifts, eat too much, drink too much, and don’t forget to spare a thought for those less fortunate and try to do something to help them as well. But don’t be wilfully ignorant. It’s never been easier to explore truth and history, to understand yourself and your culture. Get out there and expand yourself.

And blessed Solstice to you all.

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The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood – review

By
3
November 14, 2011

12326372 The Couriers New Bicycle by Kim Westwood   reviewKim Westwood is a writer with a rare, light touch. The Courier’s New Bicycle is her second novel. I haven’t read her first, The Daughters of Moab, so this is my first foray into Westwood’s long fiction, though I have enjoyed her short stories in the past.

This book is the story of gender transgressive, Salibury Forth, and his/her life as a courier of contraband hormones in a dystopian near-future Melbourne. A pandemic has cause widespread decay among society due to its effect of making a large proportion of the population sterile. The governing authorities are religious zealots and the world is not a very pleasant place any more.

I won’t go into any more detail about the story here, as it’s easily learned elsewhere. However, it’s fundamentally a noir-ish whodunnit, with people double-crossing other people, trouble on the streets, and Salisbury trying to sort it all out. Salisbury is also an activist, working with a clandestine group to free animals from the cruelty of factory hormone farming. So Westwood tackles big issues here – gender, religious oppression, cruel farming practices, activism. It would be easy for the book to become a diatribe, a lecture, but it doesn’t.

I have to admit that at first I thought the book wasn’t going to work for me. But I soon locked into Westwood’s light, lyrical style and it all started to gel. She deals with very heavy subjects with a nuanced touch and lets characters speak for themselves. The mystery is convoluted and, at times, a bit opaque, but gripping nonetheless. The world she creates is very well realised, and not a place I would ever want to live. This story turned out to be transportive.

One of things I enjoyed the most is Salisbury’s connection with her bicycle in a world where petrol engines are virtually extinct, and the freedom that bicycle gives to Salisbury, who is otherwise very trapped by her world, her sexuality, her relationships and everything else (I’m saying “her” for ease of writing – you can read the book and decide for yourself!) I’m a keen motorcyclist and I understand the freedom of the open road. Westwood’s descriptions of Salisbury’s body and bike working as one are brilliant.

The story is tightly plotted and the world immersive. I read this book over a weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s not action-packed and in your face science fiction. In fact, in the Acknowledgments, Westwood says:

This story pays homage the many groups that work against the cruelty of the bile and factory farming industries, including those tireless champions of the animals, the Voiceless team, and Animals Asia. This story is also for gender explorers everywhere: not fantasy. Not science fiction.

The Courier’s New Bicycle is a tremendous achievement.

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More than candy – the real history of Halloween

By
6
October 31, 2011

Today is Halloween. I wrote this post a couple of years ago and thought I might repost it today, for anyone interested.

Seeing as I’m a writer of all things macabre and occult (among other things) I thought I’d celebrate Halloween by posting on what Halloween is really all about. Of course, I can only scratch the surface in the limited arena of a blog post, but I’ll give it a go. So many people think that Halloween is basically a dress up party where kids forget all about pedophiles for one evening and walk around in the dark accepting candy from complete strangers. In some ways that’s actually the scariest thing about Halloween nowadays.

Samhain More than candy   the real history of HalloweenHowever, let’s look at the history. Halloween is an annual holiday celebrated on October 31st. The name comes from a shortening of All Hallows’ Evening, which is in reference to a Christian tradition, though Halloween is actually the Celtic festival of Samhain. Solemnity of All Saints Day, also called All Hallows, is celebrated on 1st November in Western Christianity. It’s a day that commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. Basically it has nothing really to do with Samhain, but you know those Christians and their love of co-opting Pagan holidays. Popes during the eighth century actually moved the Christian holiday of All Saints Day from May 13th to November 1st to rope in those pesky Pagans. Later, around 1000CE, the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. All three days (All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints (Hallows) Day and All Soul’s Day) were called Hallowmas.

Ironically, it’s so often the Christians who complain about the Satanic overtones of Halloween (when they have no idea what they’re talking about) and the very next day they’ll celebrate the dead, and mysterious otherworlds like this Heaven they’re always on about. Come on Christians, is a teeny, tiny bit of consistency really too much to ask? Actually, of course it is. Have you read the bible? But I digress.

So Halloween has origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain. The name is from Gaelic meaning “summer’s end”. While the festival had its roots in Ireland and Scotland, it was celebrated throughout the region by most Celts, often considered to be the Celtic New Year. Samhain is a celebration of the end of the long summer days and the start of the long winter nights. This is the beginning of the dark and scary overtones of the festival. The other side of the scariness comes from the belief among the Celts that the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead were at their weakest on Samhain. That meant that all kinds of spirits (benevolent and malevolent) could slip through from the Otherworld to our world on that night. For this reason, good spirits (particularly family ancestors, dead elders and so on) were honoured and celebrated while all kinds of measures were taken to ward off evil spirits. (Some people think that the habit of wearing costumes on Halloween comes from this desire to ward off the evil spirits, as people would dress as those spirits in order to disguise themselves and avoid harm. This is not something that’s universally accepted, however.)

Also during Samhain, people would stockpile food for the winter, slaughter livestock and cure the meat and so on. The preparation for the long, cold European winter was something to take very seriously. It still is, actually, but central heating makes a mockery of old man Winter nowadays.

bonfire More than candy   the real history of HalloweenAlso during Samhain, because the veil between our world and the Otherworld was so thin, it was a prime time for Druids to step up and make their prophecies. A lot of divination was undertaken during Samhain. People would build huge bonfires and burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the various Celtic gods that the Druids invoked. The Druids would then pass on their divinations, mainly giving the people some hope for the future while faced with a long, bleak, cold and hungry winter.

One other tradition that I really like from Samhain was that of sharing fire. The massive bonfire would be lit, Druids would do their thing and everyone would party around it. During this time, all the fires in peoples’ homes would be put out. On returning home people would take a brand from the huge bonfire and relight their hearth with it, so everyone had a bit of the same blessed Samhain fire in their house at the start of the dark half of the year. There’s something delicious about that tradition.

The Christians, however, weren’t the first to take a piece of Samhain. The Romans got in there first. In late October the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead in a tradition called Feralia. They also had a day to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. These were wrapped in with the various Celtic traditions around Samhain, then the Christians came along and added their Saints and Souls days and the whole thing blurred together. Now we get precocious little snots throwing eggs at your house if you don’t give them sweets for dressing like little tits. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s all fun and games for the little kiddies, but let’s at least try to educate them on why they’re doing this stuff. Regardless, I think that Halloween is one of my favourite traditional holidays, when viewed from its historically accurate perspective. Not the Americanisation of it, with it’s costumes and children extorting sugar from their neighbours, but the real ideas of Halloween. I love the concepts, the darkness descending for another winter, the spirits slipping through from the Otherworld, giant bonfires and Druids seeking some knowledge of the future. Come on, isn’t all that so much better than hassling old Mrs Jenkins for a jelly snake with a sheet over your head? Unfortunately, now that I live in Australia, Halloween falls at the beginning of summer rather than the beginning of winter, but that’s life underneath for you.

What are your plans for Halloween? I might slaughter a lamb…

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Practicing Jedi overlooked on 2011 Australian Census

By
14
August 14, 2011

Practicing Jedi have been overlooked on the Australian Census. Then again, pretty much everything has been overlooked on the latest census, but the Jedi issue is more important than you might realise.

yoda Practicing Jedi overlooked on 2011 Australian CensusIt’s important to me that statistics are as accurate as possible. After all, 76% of statistics are made up on the spot, including that one. But I’m a stats nerd, so when we have a census, we need it to be as close to truth as possible. With that in mind, I entreated my minions on Twitter to make sure they did the right thing on census night. If you have no religion, I told them from a lectern of self-recognised authority, make sure you put No Religion. Don’t mess up the stats by putting something stupid like Jedi or Pastafarian (bless His Noodly Appendage). I was very quickly corrected by a number of minions. It doesn’t matter, they said, because putting Jedi would automatically get counted as No Religion anyway. I was outraged. What about the actual practicing Jedi out there? Suddenly their voice is not being heard.

Apparently the reason for this is because Jedi or Jediism (and who doesn’t love a word with a double i?) has not been legally decreed as an official religion. This pisses me off. Who are the Australian government, or anyone else for that matter, to tell us what our religion can be? In the 2001 New Zealand census there were more Jedi than Buddhists or Hindus. Of course, most of those 1.5% of respondents were being smartarses, but a small number may well associate very personally with Jediism. And good for them.

The biggest “officially recognised” religion in Australia is based on “the belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.” That’s the definition of Christianity from the Urban Dictionary and it’s pretty bloody bang on.

jedi church Practicing Jedi overlooked on 2011 Australian CensusThe NZ based Jedi Church states: “The Jedi Church believes that there is one all powerful force that binds all things in the universe together. The Jedi religion is something innate inside everyone of us, the Jedi Church believes that our sense of morality is innate. So quiet your mind and listen to the force within you!”

Screw the “official recognition”, I know which one of those makes more sense to me. And which one is likely to be the cause of far fewer wars, oppression and suffering.

I don’t follow any religion. On the census I put No Religion to make sure the stats were accurate from my input. But the stats are way off because the things people choose to believe in aren’t recognised. If someone can be counted for believing in a self-fathering Jewish zombie, someone else should be counted for believing in the Force. If someone puts Jedi and gets counted as No Religion, there’s a problem. Imagine putting Catholic or Muslim and getting counted as No Religion. It’s the same thing. And the belief of Jediism is no less reasonable than Catholicism or Islam. Just because they’ve been around since medieval times doesn’t make them somehow more valid. It makes them medieval. And we’ve all seen where that leads us.

So not only did the Australian Bureau of Statistics give me no place note down my dog on the census form, even though he’s a very important member of my family, or let me note that I ride a motorcycle, stating that only cars count for some reason, they’re also telling me what I can believe. It’s one thing to recognise a religion for legal purposes. As far as I’m concerned all organised religions should be declared businesses and pay tax as such. Tax exemption for believing in an imaginary friend is really only something that should apply to pocket money for children. But legality aside, if I choose to believe in something, that’s entirely my choice. If the ABS want a true snapshot of the nation, they should accept all belief systems, not just a handful they think are worthy through some arbitrary decision. If they want to include religion on the census they need to make a proper job of it.

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Christians upset about Muslim billboard

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3
June 28, 2011

I know, those crazy Christians are always upset about something. For that matter, so are the Muslims. Let’s be honest, the religious of any persuasion have always got something to moan about. But it’s been a while since I lampooned a bit of religious idoicy here on The Word and when I saw this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, I knew I had to comment.

In a nutshell, an awareness campaign by Islamic group MyPeace has resulted in some billboards going up to try to point out that Muslims really aren’t so different to Christians, or anyone else for that matter. Of course, they’re just people like all of us. The religious, regardless of persuasion, are all far more alike than many of them will ever be comfortable admitting. If nothing else, they share a large portion of willfull ignorance. And, that one foible aside, they’re no different to anyone else. But I digress.

One of these awareness billboards says: JESUS: A PROPHET OF ISLAM. And there’s a number and a website.

Some Christians are upset because it demotes Jesus from the son of god to a mere prophet and thereby injures their delicate religious sensibilities. And here’s where the relevance to this blog comes in – I can turn anything I find interesting into a debate on words, language and storytelling after all. The Muslims in question are trying to point out that they revere Jesus too, just not in the same way. Meanwhile, the Christians are upset that the status of Jesus is not being recognised. What we have here are two fantasy epics warring about who has the better angle on truth, when, in fact, neither of them have anything even vaguely resembling proof. Ah, religious tolerance – what’s that then? Some of the quotes really made me laugh.

One complainant said that Jesus “must not be associated with such [an] aggressive religion”. Oh, the irony! She burns!

Here’s my favourite:

“What [my child] knows of Islam she has learnt from watching mainstream news broadcasts and to have her saviour identified as being part of this malicious cult was very traumatic!”

Your child told you that, did she? After a considered exploration of available religions and a decision to be Christian? Or did you just tell your kid that’s what she thought?

Anyway, a complaint was lodged with the Advertising Standards Bureau and, thankfully, common sense prevailed:

”such a statement does not, of itself, discriminate against or vilify people who hold different beliefs… The board acknowledged that the Islam faith does consider that Jesus is a prophet of Mohammed… and that it is not unreasonable for children to be exposed to a variety of information in their daily lives, some of which may conflict with the views with which they are raised”.

No shit, Sherlock. We can be thankful for that decision, at least.

MyPeace founder Diaa Mohamed said, ”[The advertisement] conveys the message that, like Christians, we the Muslims also regard Jesus with extreme reverence. The idea being that the people will see beyond the words in the advertisements and recognise that Islam and Muslims are not much different from any other ordinary Australian.”

Which you’d think was quite fair enough. I wonder if he would be equally magnaminous if the Christians put up billboards all over town saying, “Mohammad is not a prophet of god and the only way to heaven is through Jesus.” The Muslims would be fine with that, right?

These kind of things give me so much fuel for characterisation and plot in fiction. People really are fascinating creatures. Or, to put it another way, as my old Grandad used to say, “There’s nought so strange as folk.”

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Religious quote of the week

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2
April 6, 2011

Possibly religious quote of the year. I simply could not let this one go by, for I nearly laughed my morning cereal out of my nose when I read this. To be honest, there’s a plethora of fantastic quotes in this story. The Reverend Avril Hannah-Jones of the Uniting Church in Romsey, north of Melbourne, is having a themed service where sci-fi and fantasy fans are encouraged to show up in costume for a “Sci-Fi and Fantasy Friendly Church Service”. They will hear passages from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter as Hannah-Jones explores parallels between fantasy and Christianity, taking inspiration from Dr Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Wars.

You can see where this is going, right? I was already sniggering at this point.

The whole thing is aimed at increasing church attendance, but it has many flaws. For starters, a lot of SF fans are agnostic or atheist, but even putting that aside, when you start comparing the teachings of the Bible to great fantasy epics, while you’re being surprisingly honest, it does little to promote the supposed “truth” of the Bible. Especially when those literary classics are far more cohesive and interesting.

And naturally, the religious community is rather split on the whole thing. Here’s where those fabulous quotes start coming in. Brace yourself for a +10 Crushing Irony attack and be sure to don your Pot-Kettle-Black armour:

Catholic priest Gerald O’Collins said, “There should be no need to dress it up.” He’s referring to the Bible and the Christian message, of course. “There is a magical story there already. We just have to start selling ourselves properly.”

That’s right – what you need is a better PR department.

Uniting Church moderator Isabel Thomas Dobson said, “We’re always looking for ways in which we can connect the community with the truth of the gospel. We’re talking fantasy, not reality.”

Wait, are you talking truth or fantasy? In two sentences she sums up all the problems with religious scripture as fact. I know I’m being slightly facetious here in my interpretation, but the point is clear.

But all this pales into insignificance in the light of this gem from Mentone Baptist minister Murray Campbell: “I don’t have a problem with people enjoying sci-fi, but church isn’t the place to encourage escapism and fancy dress.”

Has he been to a church lately? The clergy love a bit of fancy dress, with their robes and hats and dog-collars and habits (denominationally determined, of course). And what more escapist activity is there than sitting in a building dedicated to communicating with your big imaginary friend who’s supposed to sort out all your problems and grant all your wishes, while hearing about virgin births, walking on water, raising the dead and so on?

Given that the Bible is one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time, even if it does need the input of a good editor, this whole thing amuses me no end.

Source: Herald Sun

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Pentecost by Joanna Penn – review

By
1
January 27, 2011

Pentecost cover Pentecost by Joanna Penn   review“When Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, the Apostles took stone from his tomb as a symbol of their brotherhood.

At Pentecost, the fires of the Holy Spirit empowered the stones and the Apostles performed miracles in God’s name throughout the Empire. Forged in the fire and blood of the Christian martyrs, the Pentecost stones were handed down through generations of Keepers who kept their power and locations secret.

Until now.

The Keepers are being murdered, the stones stolen by those who would use them for evil in a world transformed by religious fundamentalism. Oxford University psychologist Morgan Sierra is forced into the search when her sister and niece are held hostage. She is helped by Jake Timber from the mysterious ARKANE, a British government agency specializing in paranormal and religious experience.

From ancient Christian sites in Spain, Italy and Israel to the far reaches of Iran and Tunisia, Morgan and Jake must track down the stones through the myths of the early church in a race against time before a new Pentecost is summoned, this time powered by the fires of evil.”

Pentecost by Joanna Penn is a religious thriller and a damn good one. Penn is a non-fiction writer, blogger and public speaker who has turned her hand to fiction and this is her first novel. It’s a great achievement. A long time fan of thrillers, you can see Penn’s passion for the genre in every part of this book.

Morgan Sierra is a great character – a real female hero without being contrived or cliched. The ARKANE group is a great invention, with a solid history making them very believable. The novel races around the world and Penn’s research in location and religious mythology is clear, with every aspect of the plot considered and fleshed out in fine detail. The pace is high, the stakes are higher and very quickly we care about Morgan, her family and whether or not she’ll succeed.

This book has elements that will appeal to all thriller fans – there’s a bit of Indiana Jones, a bit of Wilbur Smith, a bit of Dan Brown and a lot of Joanna Penn. I was fortunate enough, as a friend of Joanna’s, to get a chance to beta-read this book and I have no hesitation in recommending it. It’s a rollicking good read and a cut above a lot of stuff out there. Penn tells us there are more Morgan Sierra books on the horizon and I’m glad. If she’s started out this strong, I’m excited to see where she goes next.

Joanna will be guest posting here as part of the New Age of Publishing series I’m running, so look out for that, and we’ll have a chat with her on the ThrillerCast soon as well.

Pentecost is coming out on February 7th, when you can join in her launch competition and maybe win a Kindle. In the meantime, you can download some chapters in PDF format here.

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Fun with Google Ngrams

By
5
January 21, 2011

There’s this thing Google have put together which is really addictive. It’s called Ngrams. Essentially, when you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books. You can set various parametres of time, which types/language of books are searched and so on. The graphic results are very cool.

For example, instances of the words horse (blue), bicycle (red), car (green) and motorcycle (yellow), between 1800 and 2008, in English:

horse bicycle car motorcycle 300x141 Fun with Google Ngrams

(click for larger images)

Pretty cool, huh. So naturally I started searching all kinds of comparisons. Regular readers here will know I’m fascinated with religious mythology, so I did a search on instances of Christian (blue), Muslim (red), Jew (green), Hindu (yellow) and Buddhist (blue), again from 1800 to 2008 in English. Look at the massive decline in Christianity’s dominance over the written word in that time.

christian muslim jew hindu buddhist 300x144 Fun with Google Ngrams

On that front, what about instances of heaven (blue) and hell (red):

heaven hell 300x146 Fun with Google Ngrams

Hell holding steady while heaven sees a steep decline. This amuses me.

All right, enough of this nonsense, let’s get onto the serious stuff. Between 1800 and 2008, let’s look at instances of fantasy (blue), science fiction (red) and horror (green):

fantasy scifi horror 300x141 Fun with Google Ngrams

Sci-fi doesn’t register until around 1950, fantasy has a slow growth right through, really peaking in the last thirty or forty years and horror saw a steady decline until a resurgence around 1980. I imagine that’s largely down to the pulp horror revival of the 80s and the emergence of superstars in the genre like Stephen King and James Herbert.

So the natural progression from there is to see which is really the most popular when it comes to the big three supernaturals. Here we have vampire (blue), werewolf (red) and zombie (green):

vampire werewolf zombie 300x145 Fun with Google Ngrams

Relatively even, though vampires clearly more popular, till around the early 80s, then the vamps went nuts. Anne Rice, Lost Boys and the like are clearly marked there.

But that was an easy one – of course the vampire is the most popular, as it is the coolest. Though I predict the werewolf has yet to really see its heyday. But now let’s sort out once and for all the ongoing rivalry that all SF fans get heated about. I should start by saying that I’m a big fan of both. But what says Ngrams in the great Star Wars (blue) vs Star Trek (red), in English since 1960:

starwars startrek1 300x143 Fun with Google Ngrams

Jedis FTW!

Man, I could play with this thing all day.

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Unimagined by Imran Ahmad – review

By
14
December 22, 2010

unimagined1 Unimagined by Imran Ahmad   reviewI mentioned recently that I was planning to read one non-genre novel for every SF novel I read. With that in mind I’ve just read Unimagined by Imran Ahmad. My wife recommend it to me – “It’s nothing life changing, but I enjoyed it.” It’s billed as “a Muslim boy meets the West” and it received heavy literary credit in several countries. Frankly, I can’t really understand why.

On the whole, I did enjoy it, as a fluffy read of no real consequence. It’s an entertaining account of the life of Ahmad, from his arrival in England from Pakistan at the age of 4, though to his mid-20s. He’s not a bad writer and often has some good turns of phrase. He talks about his school life, endemic British racism, going to a Grammar school and eventually getting into university in Scotland, all the time studying the things he really doesn’t like while spending all his spare time considering things that do actually interest him. Because of this, Ahamd comes across as a pretty sad individual.

More troublesome, however, is that the whole narrative becomes ever more contrived. The book is written in bite sized chunks of Ahmad’s life and it’s easy to read because of that, but the man himself seems to never grow up. The naive four year old at the start of the book still inhabits the twenty five year old body at the end of the book. It’s hard to accept that anyone can remain so unchanged and undeveloped.

The book is also a veiled attack on all religions bar the man’s own chosen Islam, and a subtle push for the veracity of being a Muslim. It’s all very light-hearted, with Ahmad struggling with his belief, trying to apply logic to his choice and seeking out the things that scare him – those people that have such conviction in their own beliefs that he questions his own. He ends up coming down to a choice between evangelical Christianity and Islam, eventually deciding clearly that Christianity is a complete mess and Islam is the one true faith. Regular readers here will know that I hold all organised religion in equal contempt, but I’m not averse to reading about other people’s journeys and perspectives. The trouble with the religious content of this book is that Ahmad uses his own journey to hightlight all the ridiculous flaws of other religions, while studiously ignoring all the flaws in his own, and falling back on “cultural contamination” when the flaws get a little too close to the surface.

By the end of the book I was rather annoyed with the clean-cut, upstanding, morally superior yet still naive Muslim poster boy that Ahmad set himself up as and was pleased I’d reached the end. There’s no real story here, no solid narrative arc and no real reason for this book’s existence other than Ahmad’s own need to document his life. A life which seems to be largely coloured in with things that suit his desired appearance over the probable truths.

I’m being fairly harsh on the poor man, but I always arc up when I feel like I’m being preached to, especially when said preaching is delivered with an innocent smile as if nothing untoward is going on. Regardless, for the most part I enjoyed reading the book and there were several parts that had me smiling and enjoying myself. It’s just a shame that Ahmad didn’t grow at all during the journey, which made the last third or so of the book quite a chore. Interesting and often entertaining, but hardly “The pick of the literary crop” as the cover declares, courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald.

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Alan Baxter, Author

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