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Researching and Writing Faith: Inspired by Tesseracts 18 Wrestling With Gods

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Tesnim Sayar is a Muslim punk. She wears both the headscarf and a mohawk and dreams of living of her own design. And like other supporters of the Muslim punk movement Taqwacore, she sees no contradiction between punk and Islam

“Tesnim Sayar is a Muslim punk. She wears both the headscarf and a mohawk and dreams of living of her own design. And like other supporters of the Muslim punk movement Taqwacore, she sees no contradiction between punk and Islam.”–PostModernismRuinedMe Tumbr.

This is fifth in a series of guestblogposts for the 18 days of Tesseracts.  Janet K. Nicolson wrote “A Cut and a Prayer” included in Wrestling With Gods: Tesseracts 18.

 

by Janet K. Nicolson

I have talked in a few places about my experience writing “A Cut and a Prayer” for Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods, so I don’t want to delve into too much detail about how the story came about.

For those of you who haven’t read the story, it follows the tale of Samar, a doctoral candidate in sociology and religious studies who feels she has lost her once strong connection with Allah. She seeks futuristic medical intervention to try and tackle her depression. The story contains many references to Samar’s Islamic faith, and explores how Samar and her mother tackle their faith differently.

This August, I attended When Words Collide in Calgary for the first time, and presented on a panel about Faith in SF and Fantasy. One of the topics I discussed was the process of writing about a faith that is different from my own. How, someone asked, do you approach the research?

I want to share a few of the things I learned, so that hopefully if you, the reader, ever want to write a story about faith, you don’t feel scared about tackling the research!

Tips to researching/writing about faith:

  1. Assume everything you read is biased from one direction or another. Articles written by people of a faith will be different than articles written by someone of a different faith, someone who is a religious scholar, someone who is an atheist, etc. Also, don’t assume that bias invalidates information! Faith is a people based thing, and is necessarily a grey, complicated area where everyone has different viewpoints.
  1. Start with the Wikipedia article. I say this a bit tongue in cheek because Wikipedia can be as biased as anything, but it is also a great starting point. Wikipedia articles provide you with information about the history of a religion (from a non-faith standpoint), common cultural practices, geographic distribution, etc. It will help you root the religion in the real world.
  1. Pay particular attention to the pages about rituals, practices, if there are any. Most of the time, we base our perception of a religion on what we see on TV or in a book, because we don’t see what happens directly in a house of worship. In my instance, I knew Muslims prayed several times a day, but I didn’t know they had a religious “creed” commonly known as the 5 Pillars that they try to uphold as part of their faith.
  1. Check the links at the bottom of the Wikipedia article. Where do they go? Try and find a good combination of material, from other research articles, to interviews, to news articles. Start to branch out this way.
  1. Find an online forum for the faith and read what people are discussing. I found a great forum (the name escapes me now) for modern Muslims, and they had a thread where they were discussing the most inspirational quotes in the Qur’an. Many of the people were younger, and so after sampling quite a few conversations I had an idea of how Samar might be inspired by her religion’s teachings. Researching real people is an absolute must, especially if your protagonist is of the faith you are studying. It’s one thing to know the history of the religion; it’s another to know how people currently engage with it.
  1. Do a Google Image search! You can learn a lot about how people of a given faith dress/look in North America and around the world. You might be surprised by the variety of what you see.
  1. Read people’s opposing arguments to items of faith, whether they are from that religion or not. It’s important to understand the social environment around a faith, so you can either write an accurate present or extrapolate into the future. For example, I researched anti-Muslim bias in the USA, as well as modern Muslim discussions of Qur’an interpretations while working on my story. This helped me understand the world, and the racism, that Samar might live in.
  1. Talk to someone of that faith. In my case, I was lucky because I had previously taught three Muslim students (all women) who in the context of the class had discussed their faith and/or their lifestyles. They were all very different in attitude and dress (as we should expect of any 3 human beings, realistically), and so helped me understand Samar from various angles. If you don’t have this kind of opportunity, contact a local house of worship and ask if you can join a service. My local university does this as part of its religious studies classes and from what I’ve heard, no one has ever been turned away from any place when they’ve requested to attend and learn more. (You might learn about faith, you might also learn about new and tasty foods post-service!)
  1. Be open to understanding your own biases. We all have them. We are a social species and we develop opinions based on what we see and read. Look at your biases closely, and be aware of them so that when you write, you aren’t unconsciously writing your faith character from those prejudices.
  1. Check the spelling. Some words have different English spellings depending on how they are translated. Do your due diligence and triple check everything from multiple sources. And make sure words are spelled consistently throughout your story!

Finally, the most important point:

  1. Don’t be afraid to research or write about faith. My faith is complicated, but I’m not scared to write about faith in general because it is a fundamental and unavoidable part of the human condition. We all have faith in something, whether it is a religion or a science. Bringing faith into a story doesn’t make something a proselytizing creed. It just makes it realistic.

Happy writing!

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photo-nicolson-j-110x110Janet K. Nicolson was born in Regina and has lived in the ice and cold ever since. She currently works as a technical writer for a telecommunications firm. When she’s not watching her border collie herd her cat and husband around the house, she can be found searching the local book store for novels about Big Dumb Objects, rocking video games, or subjecting audiences to her piano compositions.

Nicholson’s work has previously appeared in On Spec Magazine, and will be appearing in two forthcoming issues.

Why I Wrestle With Gods

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Alexander Louis Leloir, Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, 1865

Alexander Louis Leloir, Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, 1865

This is the second blogpost in our 18 Days of Tesseracts and though I frequently contribute here, this one is a more personal blogpost about why the wrestling is important.  I was one of the co-editors of Wrestling With Gods: Tesseracts 18.

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Liana and I are asked quite frequently why we chose the topic of “Wrestling with Gods”–who came up with the topic, why the wrestling, etc?  I think we both had an interest in religion and speculative fiction.  But when we sat down together–thousands of miles away—on the phone, we decided that we didn’t want stories of the true believers or the die-hard skeptics.  They had their ideas about religion figured out.  They would both, in some ways, be evangelical—one preaching about the saving power of Jesus Christ or God or Krishna or Buddha–and the other preaching about how deluded we all were.  No, what intrigued us were the people in the middle: the large struggling subset of believers who had doubts and questions but who still had faith.  That’s where the tension was.  Tension makes better stories and better characters.  Assured characters who had no fear and who had a God that would get them out of any situation would make for boring stories.  But characters who faced difficulties, even huge questions to their beliefs, and struggled onward–they sounded interesting.  They sounded like us.

I don’t know why Liana loved this as much as I did–I will let her tell her story to you.

But I can tell you why I wrestle with gods.

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Read the rest of this entry

Not So Monolithic

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Our first guestblog for the 18 Days of Tesseracts is from the incredible Mary Pletsch, whose story, “Burnt Offerings” is part of Wrestling With Gods: Tesseracts 18.  

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BY MARY PLETSCH

A tableaux of religious iconography on a table, artistically arranged.

Technoshaman (photo by Mary Pletsch)

My story in Wrestling with Gods is called “Burnt Offerings” and its main character is a priest who is, at heart, a private agnostic.  Though uncertain whether the God he serves is real or if there are any Gods at all, he is still not free to resign his post or even admit his doubts.  He relies on the support of his Temple for the medical care he needs to stay alive.

It’s easy to stereotype people based on what religion they follow, as if every member of a particular faith was the same.  All Buddhists are pacifists.  All Wiccans are hippies.  All Christians are intolerant.  But that’s not what I see around me in real life.

Every faith has its casual adherents.  Every faith has its zealots.  Every faith has people who will act in violation of the religion’s actual teachings.  Every faith has people who consider “Jewish” or “Catholic” or “Muslim” to be more of a cultural description  – a set of traditions they were raised with – than an active statement of their personal beliefs in God or the lack thereof.  Every faith has its devoted followers.  Every faith has its hypocrites and its corrupt manipulators.  Every faith has people who will use its tenets to encourage them to be kinder to others.

So when I was writing “Burnt Offerings,” I kept in mind the large number of people who could all call themselves “followers of a faith” while believing and acting in very different ways.  There’s the corrupt Pater Donner, who—however religious he might once have been—has fallen to a state where his focus is on money, power, and persecuting others.  There’s the priestess Sicaria, whose devotion to a goddess of retribution makes her a danger to anyone who acts against the Temple’s beliefs.  There’s my protagonist, Shaman Pasharan, who’s afraid to admit that he’s still not sure whether or not any God is listening to his prayers.  There is a woman who struggles to follow her religion in a place where she faces persecution for it, and there’s an enemy who claim to follow the same religion while using it as a propaganda weapon for territorial expansion.

The real world is filled with complexity, and fiction that strips religion down to Good Religious People vs Evil Devil Worshipers,  or Smart Atheists vs Dumb Religious People,  or Chosen Faithful vs Foolish Unbelievers , doesn’t do itself any favours.  At worst it reinforces harmful stereotypes.  At best, it oversimplifies.

No matter how fantastic the fiction one writes, it can still “feel real” if it reflects the truth of the world around us.  The truth is that faith is filled with disagreements:  splinter groups, different sects, reactionaries and revolutionaries, saints and manipulators, doubters and true believers.   Fiction is an excellent way to build empathy and understanding, but in order to do so, it needs to present us with reality’s messy uncertainties.

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pletschportraitMary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats. She also writes romance under a pseudonym. Visit her online at www.fictorians.com

For an Interview with Mary Pletsch about “Burnt Offerings” go to Corey Redekop’s interview series, Writing Gods.

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18 Days of Tesseracts: The ALL-OVER the Net Event

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Join us as we celebrate the Tesseracts anthologies of the past, present and the future.

The Wrestling With Gods (Tesseracts 18) blog will be hosting 18 different guestblogs by the authors of stories that deal with faith that have appeared in the Tesseracts series.  Come every day to read a new post in a discussion of Faith in Scifi and fantasy with leanings towards craft. You might be reading craft-leaning blogposts on how an author tackled faith elements in their writing, or how their story reflects other stories/ novels that have had a similar faith element and how they all tackled that element–tying their story into the larger longer conversation scifi and fantasy is having about spiritual issues.  You might also find tips on how YOU might better incorporate spiritual elements into your writing using a story from Tesseracts–or several– as an example(s).

Each blogpost will tie a Tesseracts story in with the larger conversation that scifi and fantasy has been having with faith, and hopefully will give you, our readers, an insight on craft, and, of course, a way to celebrate the stories and poems in the Wrestling with Gods: Tesseracts 18 anthology.

We will also be tying each of our author’s guest blogposts in with their interview on Corey Redekop‘s blog where he interviews the different authors about their stories–making our blogs complement the ones on his site, we hope, in a cool way.

On the 18 Days of Tesseracts Event Page:

Tesseracts of the Past – on this event page, and on the EDGE Facebook Page, they will be featuring Tesseracts one through 17 and Tesseracts Q over the various days. Learn who the editors were, and the contributing authors. If you are an author of one of these anthologies, feel free to tell them about your contribution.  If you are a fan—you’ll learn about ALL the Tesseracts anthologies appearing above in that splendid montage of Tesseractses.

Tesseracts of the Present – For the 18 Days of Tesseracts we will hosting offline and online events, and doing various blog posts and interviews. This page will be the source of all information, so join up and keep up to date as to what is happening on this page. We will post updates as we go along. Watch the top pinned post for the schedule.

Tesseracts of the Future – we will get further updates from Superhero Universe. Learn what is new and happening in their Superhero world…AND we will be announcing the editors for Tesseracts 20.

And finally.. October 7th join us for an online Tesseracts Meet and Greet party for all who have loved this series, or who have contributed as an editor or author. This event will happen here on October 7 throughout the day and evening. No matter what the time, drop by and introduce yourself, and post a question for people to answer.

So….if you are an author, an editor or a fan of the Tesseracts anthologies, please join the event, and invite everyone you know. Lets see how far we can spread this invitation.  Share the FACEBOOK event with everyone!  Then come back and see what we have for you here, and elsewhere on the web!

Thanks for joining us for the 18 Days of Tesseracts…
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Speculating Canada Interviews Editor, Jerome Stueart, about Wrestling With Gods

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trent-radio-icon-headphones-1Our friends over at Speculating Canada have been doing a wonderful set of reviews of Wrestling With Gods—and I’ll link to more of them in another post—but here is a recent interview Derek Newman-Stille did with me about the anthology.

On this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I interview author and editor Jerome Stueart about the most recent book in the long-lived Tesseracts series Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods. Tesseracts Eighteen is focused on the theme of religion in Canadian speculative fiction and Jerome and I discuss the relationship between religion and SF, myth and storytelling and their ability to shape religious and science fictional worlds, invented religions, new explorations of existing religions, and generally the power of stories as pedagogy, as a teaching and learning medium.

We conducted our interview outside in Toronto, so please excuse the background wind and noise distortions.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

Hear the Interview here

Gambling with Belief: Revealing Character through Religious Advisors, Prophets and Fanatics

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Game-of-Thrones-Season-5-game-of-thrones-38264756-4500-2994[SPOILERS if you have not yet seen last Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode “Dance of Dragons”]

Sunday’s Game of Thrones shocked many with its depiction of a father who decides to sacrifice his only daughter and heir to his name in order to Win the Throne.  George RR Martin may not have put it in his books yet—but he did tell the showrunners, DB Weiss and Dan Benioff, that this was definitely coming.  I don’t want to address the level of violence in the show.  I think its characters are appropriate to their world.  We have seen beheadings, slayings, burnings, stabbings, as well as rape, mutilation, etc. from good and bad characters.  This is the world Martin has written, so by those rules this is how our characters react to crisis and achieve goals.  It is profound then that level, compassionate heads are in short supply these days (and being mounted on spikes every season).  I count Tyrion, Doran, Jon, Samwell, Varys, Margeary, Olenna, and a handful of others as being the people I would listen to if I lived in Game of Thrones.  The Hound and Dario might have the most practical means of getting through this world alive, but I wouldn’t want to become them, so I wouldn’t want them as advisors.

Who one listens to—having good advisors—is a form of power, no different than a Valyrian sword, I will say.  We all cheered when Dany and Tyrion met because, frankly, Dany could use some good advisors. Her decisions have been erratic–as she seeks to maintain power in a desperately sinking cultural situation.

I want to highlight three “gods” or specifically, three “speakers” for their gods who have become either advisors or powerful people themselves, and ask questions about the ideas that Martin brings out (or the showrunners highlight).  I want to look at how an author might use religion or faith in his or her work to mirror, echo, or highlight something in our own culture.

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The High Sparrow, Melissandre and Jaquen all follow their respective gods–but they also determine what messages of those gods get heard and acted upon.  Being the spokesperson for a “god” comes with advantages.  No one can question you because YOU alone have the red phone to your god–so you can interpret which sins to go after, who to confront, how to judge, and what to do.

Also the Authority for these spokespeople rests not in Kings or Queens but in the god that only you can interpret… and which has no accountability. As bad as Kings and Queens are–there are ways to get them out of power.  There are ways to make them responsible for their crimes.  (As we see in Westeros though, fair courts haven’t been invented yet.)

Gods utilise armies and weapons.  Cersei armed the Faith Militant.  We can all agree that arming the Faith Militant was a stupid move for Cersei: faith-driven people with weapons do not make a reasonable or controllable group.  Jaquen and the Faceless Men have poison–but they are hired by people.  Melissandre has fire and magic (but also Stannis’ army to back her up).  Each group has a weapon and an army to enforce their will–er, um…their god’s will–but they need outside help: High Sparrow needed Cersei to arm them; Jaquen needs to be hired; Melissandre needs Stannis’ army.

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Robots Will Choose to Become Christian

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CC91uxSWIAA0CNeWell, Derwin Mak, I thought of you when I saw this piece from Huffington Post on posthumanism in the church—the building of robots to spread the word of God.  Somebody thinks robots will be the future of religion, especially of pastors/ priests.

So, Derwin Mak’s “Mecha-Jesus” (part of Wrestling With Gods) is a story about a robot built to be Jesus in a Shinto shrine.  It’s comedy, mostly, but the profound questions sneak up on you.  If we get the details on Jesus wrong—can he still be divine?  What would it take to convince you that this Jesus is real?

I got a Philip K. Dick feeling when I thought about that–about the replicants and about how much they just wanted to integrate into society without being noticed.  It’s their story.  In Mak’s story, it’s easily both the Story of Jesus and of two skeptics come to the shrine to see Jesus.  They both bring, in a sense, their own expectations.  It’s got a Bradbury-ness to it too.

So, what would Robots do with religion?  Here’s an excerpt from the HuffPost Religion article:

If your first thought when you hear “robot preacher” is the Preacherbot character from the popular TV show Futurama, we don’t blame you. But for Florida pastor Christopher Benek, robot preachers are an undeniable reality… or at least they will be in the near future.

If, as Christian theology explains, humans are created in God’s likeness, then, Benek told The Huffington Post, “it would make sense that we [too] would be able to create something that has autonomy.”

Benek holds a Doctor of Ministry in theology and science from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and espouses a Christian form of transhumanism — the notion that humanity can be enhanced through the development of new technologies. He appeared in a March 15 episode of “The Daily Show” to discuss his ideas about the future of artificial intelligence and faith.

“If you have the ability to process all of the information on Earth instantaneously, you could write a pretty good sermon,” he told “The Daily Show”‘s Jordan Klepper. “The hope would be beings who essentially lead us to a new path of holiness.”

Robot preachers would naturally work toward peace and justice, Benek told HuffPost, because their intelligence would surpass that of humans; they would be able to make autonomous decisions based on all of the information available to them. They also wouldn’t have the emotional and mental limitations even the most well-intentioned humans have. “We’re limited from a standpoint of intelligence,” the pastor said. “We’re not exponentially growing in the way this being would be.”

Imagine a pastor who could “use the inflection and verbal prowess of a Billy Graham or a Martin Luther King and the compassion of Mother Teresa,” he theorized, and do all this on the fly. “That would allow people’s needs to be met because a lot of times we pastors can’t do that,” Benek said.

But it isn’t just a theoretical exercise for the pastor — it’s a reality that churches need to be realistic about. Technology is increasing exponentially, and religious leaders should embrace this growth. “If they fail to do so they isolate themselves and their congregants from what’s going on in society,” he argued. “And Christ calls us to be involved in society.”

The Daily Show interviewed this man–part of an interview with two pastors–both trying to reboot Christianity for the 21st Century.  One makes it hip and inked and rock based; the other goes for robots.

Best Line from the video from the Daily Show, “We’re talking robots who are exponentially more intelligent than you or I and they would choose to become Christians.”  The reporter–a comedian who has been handed a gift in this interview, tries to still keep his composure, “You mean, robots given higher thought, they will choose Christianity?”

“I think that’s a reasoned argument.”

From here, it’s open season on the poor pastor who deemed Robots are our future.  Watch it for yourself at this link. 

Would you think a robot would be an improvement on modern religion?  Why or why not?