science

What I’ve Been Reading Online

Taking a mental break from NaNoWriMo

AUSTRALIAN CULTURE

  • These women had every right to be safe.’ – Short obituaries to some of the many Australian women murdered by their partners in 2015. Destroy The Joint keeps a tally on the violent deaths of women in Australia. It’s horrendously sad and, as an Aussie woman, bloody terrifying. If it were a virus killing off Australians at a rate of 1 or 2 every week there’d surely be money spent on research to combat it.

SCIENCE AND FAITH

  • A seminary student visits the Creation Museum. – I found this interesting for a variety of reasons. I am grateful for people who take the time to question the opinions of young earth creationism (YEC), not because they’re picking a fight (I hate conflict…) but because they’re raising really important questions. After I got married to a former-YEC true believer I was strongly discouraged from following my personal interests in science – particularly my fascination with astronomy and the evolution of dinosaurs – because it conflicted with his and his family’s views on Genesis. Fifteen years later I find myself trying to re-learn science, and deconstruct the worldview that so heavily influenced my understanding of science for a decade. This Petto and Godfrey book was a great overview of the issues involved and I found it really helpful.

RELIGIOUSLY MOTIVATED VIOLENCE AGAINST CHILDREN

POSITIVE BITS ON RELIGION (Trying to balance it out because I don’t want this to always be a negative, angsty blog.)

  • The World Community for Christian Meditation – How grateful I am for encountering contemplative Christianity. What a lifesaver for my faith that has become.
  • I love this quote from Pope Francis: “The disease of a lugubrious face. Those glum and dour persons who think that to be serious
    we have to put on a face of melancholy and severity, and treat others – especially those we consider our inferiors – with rigour, brusqueness and arrogance. In fact, a show of severity and sterile pessimism are frequently symptoms of fear and insecurity. An apostle must make an effort to be courteous, serene, enthusiastic and joyful, a person who transmits joy everywhere he goes. A heart filled with God is a happy heart which radiates an infectious joy: it is immediately evident!” – I have brought these words to mind several times since I read them. I must meditate on them more deeply.

ART

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What I’ve Been Reading Online

THEOLOGY & CHURCH

SCIENCE

Electromagnetic spectrum: image from Wikipedia

Electromagnetic spectrum: image from Wikipedia – I found it great to learn more about it in the course I’ve been taking on Astronomy.

  • This month I’m taking a course in Astronomy through Open Universities Australia’s free Open2Study short courses. The course is a four-week introductory overview of the science of astronomy, major breakthroughs (including, refreshingly, frequent acknowledgement of women’s contributions to science) and some mind-blowing, awe-inspiring discussions about our wonderful universe. The course is presented by a radio astronomy researcher and lecturer from Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.

As I’ve mentioned previously, though I have a lifelong love of science, for many years my particular social circumstances meant that my only exposure to scientific progress was heavily mediated by the selected reporting and interpreting of the creationist community. There were lots of reasons for this and as I’m completely disinterested in engaging in any debate (it’s just too dualistic and feels unnecessarily divisive and other people are far better at it than I), taking courses like this one has helped bring me up-to-date with current scientific understandings of the origin, expansion and development of the universe. One thing I’ve found particularly helpful in the Astronomy course is the clear explanation of what, exactly, are scientific theories (they’re not just vague hypotheses) and I have formed a far more accurate understanding of the process of the scientific method as it pertains to astronomy.

The course makes me think of Franciscan priest Fr Richard Rohr’s comment (which from memory I think was in this particular lecture) that scientists are far better than most religious folks at being humble before their incomplete understanding of the universe – where fundamentalism wants the black-and-white truth and wants it right now, science is able to take its time and explore the possibilities.

What I’ve Been Reading Online

RELIGION & MENTAL HEALTH

  • I came across “Registered Runaway” a couple of years ago when I was looking for resources to help me sympathetically dialogue with the growing number of gay and lesbian Christians in my life. A recent mental health series on the blog has proven fascinating and relatable. I particularly liked this article, “Why you’re getting worse at reading,” which I connected with. I too know the agony of a dwindling concentration span directly connected to how much screen time and online interaction I have. He mentions the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr which was a life-changing book for me. It came along when I was struggling with the demands of university and got me to step away from the computer and pick up books again.

ORIGINS & SCIENCE

I was raised liberal-progressive Roman Catholic, in a family with a mix of Atheists, Agnostics, Neo-Pagans and, obviously, at least a few other Catholics at varying degrees of commitment. In that context, I never in my life had reason to question the conventional wisdom of evolutionary biology, astronomy and geology. Then I got married.

Interestingly, even though my husband’s immediate family and friends tended to be variants on what I later found out are called Young Earth Creationists (YECs), one day I realised that the church he’s from and that we attended for most of our married life thus far actually holds the view that it’s up to the individual to decide what they believe. They actively present a multiple array of views and say quite explicitly that it’s not up to the church pastors to decide which view is correct (which may come as a shock to outsiders but no, it’s not always about brainwashing the masses). It’s a lot more laid-back as far as Pentecostal communities go.

At the time I was led to believe that if I wanted to be a real Christian I had to take Genesis literally or I was a compromiser. Here I am 14 years later and my husband has increasingly embraced the rational and the scientific to the extent that his views have changed a lot. We met when we were 19 years old, and you’d kind of hope we’d progressed in our faith journey between the ages of 19 and 30-something. In the meantime we’ve also both finished two university degrees each. I’m qualified as a sociologist with a focus on the environment and human societies. He’s got a Master of Engineering degree and is quite the scientist.  We have learned a lot over the years and that includes learning a whole lot more about how science works, what scientists believe, what Christians think scientists believe and so on. After much careful consideration and reflection we reached a point of no longer accepting the YEC viewpoint. It’s not a decision made lightly, knowing full well the kinds of vitriolic criticism, shunning and accusations of backsliding we would possibly face from some church members.

Let me be clear: I have nothing against my creationist friends whatsoever, and if any of them are reading this I hope that my change in opinion will not dismay you and that one day, even if you never change your mind, you’ll understand that I am simply following the information as I best understand it. And aren’t we all?

For a decade my only exposure to science was through the heavily mediated and pre-approved Creationist texts that compiled snippets of journal materials and framed them with Christian apologetics. You have to understand – I was raised in a family of science geeks. We love science. To stop reading it was to throw out who I am. And then, one day about a year ago, I decided I wanted to learn more about feathered dinosaurs. However, for a number of years I only read about dinosaurs in Creationist texts and so I know just about every apologetic imaginable about how to interpret dinosaurs and fit them on Noah’s Ark (take babies, or eggs, and only two of each kind, which might represent family or order level biology and not species-level). I know all of the claimed dinosaurs in the Bible passages (how dare the study notes claim that Leviathan is a mere crocodile when clearly it’s a Kronosaurus!). I know the “real” reasons dinosaurs died out (a post-Flood Ice Age killed off their sluggish cold-blooded selves… even though evidence suggests that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, and that some of these were furry or feathered). And feathered dinosaurs are either a hoax or their own created kind.

But for many myriad reasons, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with Creationist apologetics. Now, I’m not going to go on about it. I really have no reason to stop Creationists believing what they believe because I have identified as that myself for about a decade and I shared their materials out when I was leading Bible study groups and have read all the best writers in the field and still find useful some of their questions about the origin of life and death, the way the evidence is interpreted and the way it applies to our identity as humans.

I have found some interesting sites for those who want to explore critical assessments of YEC viewpoints. I’ll list them here but I can’t emphasise enough the fact that I’m not interested in a debate. I am so thoroughly burnt out on Christian apologetics. It feels to me these days like a noise, a clanging gong, rather than a path to knowing Christ.

So, for those who are interested, here are some sites I found that explore issues of Creationism and science. And as always, links are shown here for interest’s sake, and inclusion in my blog is not necessarily indicative of my complete acceptance of the materials presented on the linked site. *deletes half of my original post*

CULTS & RELIGIOUS ABUSE

While I have not experienced any of the extreme forms of religious abuse and violence sadly faced by many people, I found myself reading up on these issues partly because I studied Sociology of Cults as part of my uni degree and found it compelling; and secondly because I have experienced or encountered the low-level forms of cultic control that go on; including psychological manipulation, control, disempowerment, financial abuse, forced “volunteering,” a loss of control over one’s schedule, shunning, fundamentalist ideology fuelled by fear, complementarian perspectives on women, punitive and harsh disciplinarian systems of child rearing (for examples of these see here and here), dysfunctional and unhealthy social dynamics, gossip as a means of keeping people under control, a fear of science and psychology, etc. I read about it to try to understand it sociologically, and to share what I learn with those who might need to hear that what they’re experiencing in God’s name is a very human phenomenon and not in any way representative of that which is good and pure and lovely and perfect in the Universe.

Here are some materials that I’ve read recently on the topic. Proceed with caution if you are likely to be triggered by articles referring to abuse, control and religion.

NaNoWriMo: Working title and synopsis, complete! Introducing “The Thrones of Arid Den.”

In a fit of unusually disciplined planning behaviour (in Nanowrimo-speak I’ve historically been a pantser more than a planner), I have uploaded the working title and synopsis for my November 2015 novel draft to the NaNoWriMo website. Introducing “The Thrones of Arid Den,” an original fantasy novel about to be written by yours truly, Fiona Kat [surname withheld partly for privacy, partly because I can never decide whether to go by the maiden name that best represents who I am or my married name which while acknowledging my husband’s significance in my life also gives me the sense that my unique individuality was obliterated when I got married and changed my surname and, without intending it, became absorbed into the in-laws’ pre-existing sense of family identity, even though it’s very different to who I am].

If you’re a NaNoWriMo participant yourself, you’re more than welcome to add me to your buddy list – my profile is http://nanowrimo.org/participants/fiona-kat. Apologies for the long and convoluted author biography; I felt particularly verbose on the day I updated it. But if you read it you’ll discover just how profoundly nerdy I am, and I’m sure that will be enlightening.

planner_badgeOne thing Nanowrimo has done for me over the last couple of years is to reignite my creative streak. Oh, it was always there, it never fully died, but it was like warm coals without kindling. For a long time my creativity was in hiding, timid and fearful of being expressed in a context that wasn’t always fully supportive of women’s creativity, at least, women who were not gifted singers or speakers. At times I was actively told that it was wrong of me to desire anything beyond motherhood, and asked, “What more would you want?” I am glad I ignored this spiritual bullying and chose to dream big, anyway – even if I had to do so quietly.

I look back over the last 14 years of my involvement in a somewhat fundamentalist Christian community and grieve over what it stole from me. I hasten to add that this was not the community as a whole, but rather the specific groups of people I fell in with for the first half of my time there. The congregation is actually quite diverse and mixed, with everything from extremely conservative complementarian fundamentalists with strong shades of prosperity gospel beliefs through to progressive gays and their allies through to those of us with a hopeful universalist perspective. They can’t all be painted with the same brush. It’s just that for a long time I was told that I ought to fall in line with the ultra-conservatives, even if that meant going against my gut instincts and values. I deeply regret ignoring that value system. The moral of the experience, if there is one, is to proceed carefully and patiently when adopting a new set of religious ideologies, lest one behave in such a way that causes a lot of damage.

My music, my art and my writing for a time were lost in the frantic pace of being a “good” Christian and all the responsibilities that label entails for a woman, wife and mother. My music and art stopped for a long time. My writing continued – writing is like breathing to me – but it was expressed through personal journalling and writing mass-produced Bible studies for a church programme. That was, until I took up blogging and then a few years later returned to university.

I now see it as a kind of death, couched in concepts like “self sacrifice.” It was through reading authors like Thomas Merton that I finally learned that this was not the cross Christ asked me to bear. He never called me to throw out the person He made me to be. What liberty to discover that fully-realised humanness and womanhood are not in an obliteration of the self – “More of Him and less of me,” as we were often taught to say. At the time it sounded so noble; now I hear it as a form of social control. But that’s a tale for another time and if I try to write it now I will not do my own story justice, nor would it do justice to those who are still struggling with this loss of self in the name of some forms of Christianity. In a way, one of the characters in my upcoming Nano story will himself have to face these questions of whether it is acceptable to throw one’s self out in obedience to authorities.*

Nanowrimo has rekindled in me the sheer love of creative writing for no reason other than the fact that I love it. My stories are mine to tell. They’re my dreams and nightmares put to prose. My imagination set on fire again. As the real me is allowed to surface again, I also find myself picking up my paints and my guitars with increasing regularity. I love writing and I can credit Nano with being a huge factor in not only getting me to write in some hyperactive over-caffeinated annual November event, but in a more consistent way all year round.

The novel draft I wrote in 2013 was a milestone event for me. It marked the highest word count I’d ever written, for starters. Prior to that my record-holder was my 18,000-words university dissertation that took me two years to research and compose and edit and edit and edit again. My Nanowrimo story left me with the sense that I can, in fact, give my dreams of writing a genuine attempt but only if I allow myself the space to do so. It also gave me the bare bones of a story that I have continued to work on and which I believe has potential to be an interesting sci-fi novel about a long-lived genetically engineered humanoid species returning to their ancient ancestors’ home of Earth, only to be met by a xenophobic and violent Homo sapiens, and the fight they have to reunite with their brothers and return home.

The novel draft I wrote in 2014 was an exercise in getting it dreadfully wrong and realising just how true it is that a novel is not just one good idea, but a whole series of good ideas, and that if I’m not gathering ideas continually, they’re not going to materialise just because I sat in front of my computer that one month and willed the words to come. I was, as Nanowrimo call it, a “pantser” – flying by the seat of one’s pants, as the idiom goes.

But I am so excited, now, about my upcoming novel for 2015. In this story I am exploring ideas of contemplation, solitude versus a need for others in one’s life (written like a true sociable introvert), metaphysics and the uncanny, sacred texts, druidry, the sometimes cruel power of religious social structures, and the tension between loyalties, through the shared experiences of my just-named characters Zaira Dwamgarner, Aulay Harttherion and Haimo Tighe.** I sat up way too late last night scribbling ideas on paper – I think best when I hand write my stories. I look forward to breathing life into Zaira and her travelling companions when November 1, 2015, rolls around. I think this will be my best one yet.

A note on the title – titles are my weak point. I am not great at developing working titles. I had a few ideas – “Zaira and the Torn Skies,” “Zaira and Aulay’s Journey,” the more simple, “Haimo,” but in the end settled on “The Thrones of Arid Den,” because it encompasses the point on which the plot turns. If it weren’t for the thrones, and the prophecies surrounding them, there would be no need to tell about Zaira and Aulay and Haimo.

In the meantime, while I eagerly await the beginning of Nanowrimo, I am taking a short course on Astronomy through Open Universities Australia’s free Open2Study programme. I look forward to exploring more of our incredible universe over the coming weeks.

*I must note that my stories are not morality tales. I have found I don’t enjoy reading nor writing the spiritual allegories that Christian writers so often are expected to write. I have read more permutations on them than I can count and apart from the incomparable Chronicles of Narnia, I am usually not a fan of religious allegories in novels. This is a personal preference, though, and not a moral view – to those who love good Christian novels I hope you continue to find them edifying and interesting. In my own stories, they are explorations of concepts and personalities and sociological ideas. I don’t necessarily expect my characters to choose actions that would agree with my own personal moral or behavioural worldview. One thing I’ve noticed in writing is that my characters take on minds of their own.

**Apologies to anyone, however unlikely, who happens to have the same name as my characters. In good conscience I have created names I believe to be purely imaginative and my characters are not based on anyone I know (with the possible exception of Zaira, who will probably have elements derived from my own personality).

Currently Reading

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Here are the books currently taking up space in my reading pile. The top three are from the library and I’m yet to make any real progress in them. On the bottom, I’m borrowing a friend’s copy of Surprised By Hope. I bought Human Universe by Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen just recently and so far it’s incredible. Tales from the Dead of Night: Thirteen Classic Ghost Stories, selected by Cecily Gayford, was my birthday present to myself last year and it is fantastic. It includes ghost stories by such authors as E. Nesbit, Ruth Rendell and Rudyard Kipling. This is my third time reading through the collection, many of which come from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. There is just something about the way late 19th Century writers composed their tales that really draws me in. Without having intended it, I have found that roughly half of my most-favourite books come from Europe in the 19th Century, usually Russia and England, but some from other countries, too.

Hence the fact I picked up the 1830s and 1840s short story collection by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (or, if you prefer the Ukrainian translation of his name, Mykola Vasyliovych Hohol). Now, I won’t enter into the debate of his ethnicity or nationality, as those discussions are beyond me. Because my husband is part-Ukrainian I find it interesting learning about Eastern Slavic history, and have found that these old Russian novels are a really interesting insight into the culture. I particularly love the writings of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are novels that were life-changing for me.

So far I haven’t read much of Gogol’s works. I have read some of Dead Souls though I’m fairly certain I never finished that. I have also watched two different film adaptations of his story Viy (Вий), a somewhat terrifying horror story. The 1967 film is said to be quite faithful to the original story, which I haven’t yet read. I also saw the 2014 version at a Russian film festival held at ACMI in Melbourne, Australia. I must’ve been one of five non-Slavic people in the whole audience (the others being a handful of our Anglo-Celt and Anglo-Asian friends – I love our multicultural city!). The 2014 film had rather steam punk vibes about it, and plot-wise had some similarities with the 1967 film, but only loosely so, and was a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and English elements. It also, in my mind, inspired moustache goals that I have since insisted the Husband fulfil. He’s not convinced.

The other two books on the pile, The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the lost world of the Celts by Graham Robb is, as far as I can see, a history of Ancient Gaul and Druidry and the spread of Christianity through ancient Europe. Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world by Tim Low is an evolutionary history of the unique and diverse birdlife of our continent. I look forward to delving into these books.

References:

Cox, B. and Cohen, A. (2015). Human Universe. London: WilliamCollins.

Gayford, C. (2013). Tales from the dead of night: thirteen classic ghost stories. London: Profile Books.

Gogol, N. (translation from 2014). Petersburg tales. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics.

Low, T. (2014). Where song began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world. Melbourne, Australia: Penguin.

Robb, G. (2013). The discovery of Middle Earth: mapping the lost world of the Celts. New York: WW Norton & Company.

Wright, T. (2007). Surprised by hope. London: SPCK.