Someone unsubscribing from my newsletter took the time to write me a note today, to say: “I’m not interested in reading biased and left leaning ‘literature.'”
Well, I never called it ‘literature,’ as that would be a mite presumptuous of me. And there was no mention of politics, none, in my email announcing the arrival of Rasha’s Letter today. So I assume that the note he sent me actually means, “I’m not interested in reading stories about Muslim time travelers who are not terrorists.” Or maybe it actually means, “I am not interested in reading science fiction about refugees.” Or, if he got as far as reading the description of the novella on Amazon, maybe it means “I don’t want to read about people who are bi.” Who knows.
Ridiculous way to limit your reading, but whatever floats your boat, sir. Seriously, I’m not going to cater to readers’ bigotries. That’s both a recipe for boredom and fundamentally a lost cause. I could write a story about sentient chewing gum (and don’t tempt me), and I am certain someone would still take political offense and find it to be ‘biased and left-leaning literature.’ So I’m just going to write what I want to write, about characters who move my heart facing challenges that move my heart.
However: If, unlike my surly note-scribbler, the rest of you would be interested in reading Rasha’s Letter, it is live today! I am excited to give this story to you. It is one of the best and most moving I’ve written, according to some of the early readers. Part time-travel thriller, part love story: you can get it here.
For those eager for or relying on audiobooks, there will be an audiobook for you within a few weeks. It is in production as we speak!
P.S. Got another of those unkind notes in my inbox, from a different reader, almost the moment I posted this. The note read: “Unsubscribe me If you’re seriously peddling this Islamic Puke I Don’t want this crap.”
Seriously, I never got this when my first Ansible stories came out, but I’ve been getting this more frequently ever since 2015, though only from my U.S. readers. What the hell has Trump and his souped-up Islamophobia done to this country?
My response was:
“You are certainly welcome to unsubscribe, Charles; there is a link to do so at the bottom of the email. I have science fiction stories told by space travelers from many parts of the world, but predominantly Christians, Jews, and Muslims. I don’t know what it is you think I am ‘peddling,’ but if you either don’t enjoy science fiction about humans exploring the universe or you want to read stories that only include particular groups of people in space exploration and not others, you are unlikely to enjoy my fiction.
Having abundant time on his hands, ‘Charles’ actually wrote me back, explaining that his vision of the future is evidently more inherently genocidal than my own.
Says Charles: “I Already have a Full Library I need none of you’re drivel….Left Wingnut trying to enable Islamics…don’t the watch Star Trek or Star Wars the Islamics Don’t exist in the Future”
Says me: “What a boring future. I don’t have time to waste imagining your boring future; mine is a bit bigger in scope. I sincerely suggest you do unsubscribe, and enjoy your already full library, sir.
And the saga continues:
Charles: “Ahhh to hear the sweet Squeeling of the millenial Fascist and you have no Future Sonny you’re whole generation is screwed”
Stant: “I am not a millennial, and hardly a fascist, but if you are so bored with your current reading that you have time to flame science fiction authors over email, might I suggest you widen your reading horizons a bit?
Gen X’ers are easy to anger but difficult to insult, largely because we’ve already heard all the insults, about two decades ago. Charles is going to have to up his game a bit. (However, having met Charles, I can at least confirm that an encounter with sentient chewing gum is not as far-fetched as I had at first believed. — And yes, that is petty. But if you’re going to take the time to write me about how my work is “Puke” because it happens to include people you think shouldn’t exist, you will not find me in a pleasant mood.)
Anyway, I just found a note in a very different tone waiting for me, from a different reader: “I loved it. I loved the imagery, the prose, I loved the diversity, I loved the emotion behind each and every sentence. It was absolutely beautiful. It was such a wonderful read.”
I can’t write for everybody. So I write for readers like her (the reader who sent that last note), and I write for me.
It is Good Friday. This is a day that resonates powerfully for me as a storyteller. Here are two things about the Good Friday story that sink into my heart today:
1. No matter who you are, no matter how the world has treated you, no matter how alone you feel, you matter so much – both in your uniqueness and in your identity as an essential part of humanity – that a handful of people in what is now Israel, Syria, and Turkey once wrote down a story about a God who, out of all the infinite cosmos, wanted to live on earth and breathe and have dinner and walk and talk and love and grieve and die with you. You matter.
2. On a day when some remember a story of an unjust (but legal) crucifixion conducted for political reasons, it is a good time for those of us who are more privileged to reflect that: a) there is a wide gap between law and justice, and our responsibility is always to stand in that gap; b) religious piety and love of one’s neighbor are not the same thing, and one may prevent the other, as it did for people in the story; c) seeking safety in a community or a nation is not a matter of finding and expelling the “lawbreakers” – after all, we have an entire religion whose origin story involves the time that God was expelled as a lawbreaker; d) we could be cautious of whose example we follow — do we wash our hands of the violence that is done with our tacit permission, like Pontius Pilate, or do interrupt the stone-throwers, do we we kneel and wash the feet of society’s outcasts, like Jesus?
Update: Available now in paperback, kindle, and audiobook from Audible and iTunes.
Rasha is a Syrian refugee fleeing war with her infant son. Sahira is a time-traveling, shapeshifting hijabi defender of humanity.
In a distant future when all humanity is fleeing a predatory and unexpected horror, Rasha’s choices at a critical moment could make the difference between extinction and refuge — if Sahira can get her safely to that day.
Both time-travel thriller and love story, this riveting addition to the Ansible saga takes you from the dust and despair of bombed-out cities and poisoned land to the weird apparitions that can transform a planet’s future.
“Stant Litore may be SF’s premier poet of loneliness.” – Jason Kirk, author of Reverb and The Other Whites in South Africa
“Litore’s stories aren’t only entertaining. They are stories invading our lives, unexpectedly. You encounter them, as you might encounter people. They are those random elements in life that happen to you, like a mugging, like childbirth, like falling in love and marriage, like death and the funeral that follows. They are moments that leave a mark, and leave you changed.” – Andrew Hallam, Ph.D., Metropolitan State University of Denver
“Stant eloquently writes passages that are so moving, full of passion, fury, loneliness, blind drive … He takes us to places of amazing beauty, awe-inspiring, as well as places where the implications in the story can leave you almost in despair for the human race.” – Nikki Ebright, Director, Myths & Legends Con
Had a lovely class this morning on “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I shared the differences between English ‘peace’ (derived from Latin ‘pax,’ meaning rest or order achieved via the absence or suppression of conflict) and Koine-Greek/New Testament ‘eirene’, meaning diverse lives woven together in community. We talked about how ‘eirene’ doesn’t exist if your community consists of people stacked on top of each other hierarchically in separated, exclusive bolts of cloth, unwoven. We talked about weaving in the Greek world and in Greek literature, noted wryly that several centuries of primarily male translation committees for Bibles, until recently, couldn’t distinguish between ‘woven’ and ‘knit,’ and talked about what’s required for eirenepoein (peacemaking) to work. We talked about how in Galatians, ‘bearing one’s own load’ and ‘bearing each other’s burdens’ aren’t treated as opposites (not an either/or choice) but as both being a part of living in woven-together, responsible community (not dependent or independent, but interdependent). And one heaviness on my heart was that I have been a completely terrible peacemaker this week, because this season has made me harsh. And peacemaking requires patience, listening, self-control. There is a difference between strong and harsh. At least for me. So I will work on that.
What a peculiar culture we are, with a basketful of destructive and long-lived ideas inherited from the Romans. We think peace means ‘no one fighting, conflict avoided’ because that’s what kind of peace the Romans liked to demand of subject peoples. We think meek means weak, because that’s what the Romans thought (the Greek word ‘praeis’ actually means overriding your fears and appetites to serve something more important; it’s about restraint and service). We think of giving charity instead of doing justice, though in most ancient languages, there is only doing justice, without a separate word for ‘charity.’ We think ‘blessed’ means lucky or favored or happy, because Latin, again (the Greek word ‘makarios’ means ‘made big’ in the sense of influence in the lives of others). We think ‘pure’ means ‘unmixed’ (Latin) when the Greek word means ‘cleansed’ (using the same root as ‘catharsis’) because in the Koine Greek text it didn’t matter what you had done or what had been done to you, or what swear words you’d spoken or heard, or the status of some portion of your anatomy; what mattered was the process of cleansing the heart and what that cleansing would allow you to do in the future. We think truth means ‘a fact’ when it actually meant ‘a commitment’; the Greek ‘aletheia’ that we translate as ‘truth’ meant ‘unforgetting’/never-forgetting a promise, and we miss that because the Romans used a word that meant ‘that which can be verified.’ We think faith is a thing instead of an action. We think love is something you feel when it’s actually something you do, a way that you put everything on the line for another (Greek ‘agape’). We think hope is something wishful, when it was actually a vision of an alternate and sought-for future that you were going to walk toward no matter what may come at you in the dark. We talk about ‘salvation’ and forget that the Greek word means ‘given refuge’ and that the early Christians defined themselves as refugees in search of a home. As Margaret Atwood says, we think liberty is about what you’re getting freedom from instead of what you’re getting freedom for: we tell Exodus stories where God says ‘let my people go’ and we forget the rest of the sentence, we forget what purpose the freedom was to serve; we are always fearing and running away from things and missing what we’re running toward. Even after so many centuries, in the West we translate and live with the eyes of the Caesars always over our shoulder, and with the language and the quick march-step of the Romans shaping our thoughts, our religious texts, and our cultural ideologies.
3 years ago when I started the Ansibleseries, I wanted to continue my SF/F explorations of the Near East, this time imagining that in the world after climate change (and projecting from today’s current and extensive investments in higher education in the Near East) that history may swing around and the Near and Middle East and Southeast Asia would lead the world in science, mathematics, technology, and long-distance exploration in my 25th-century imagined future. As has happened before in history.
So I set out to write the stories of intergalactic exploration and time travel through the eyes of Islamic explorers from Iran, Indonesia, Arabia, Egypt, the Sudan, etc. … I really didn’t think of it much as a ‘statement,’ political or otherwise. It was speculative fiction, speculating about possible futures and about time travel and space travel and what one might find out there, and what you might bring with you when you did find it. And about the utter loneliness of reaching across such vastnesses of space and time.
Over the course of those three years, however, my country has gone absolutely raving bonkers. I mean, it was bonkers before. But now it’s completely unfettered-bonkers.
Which is how I find myself at conventions explaining to certain individuals that no, I am not writing about terrorists. That yes, there are Muslim scientists. Many, in fact. That no, this is not an “Islam-takes-over-the-world” dystopia, and no, for the love of God, fellow author, I don’t want to read your “Islam-takes-over-the-world” dystopia. And that if you would just read a damn history book once in a while or learn anything at all about the many, many cultures of Asia and Africa, you might not be as shocked by a science fiction book with a hijabi botanist on the cover. And if you really get combative with me, I’ll lose patience and explain to you how the first story of interstellar exploration was written by a 13th-century Arab. If you can’t handle speculative fiction that speculates about how other cultures would approach first contact, get. Find yourself another author who will cater to the tiny-ness of your world.
Fortunately, even today, the larger percentage of readers who stop by are genuinely intrigued. They actually want some speculation in their speculative fiction, and most don’t bring with them a requirement that a fictional twenty-fifth century conform to their prejudices.
They just want a really good story, and they still have enough curiosity to want to see the stars through more eyes than their own.
She is the time-traveling, shapeshifting hijabi defender of humanity you meet in the second season of Ansible, striving across time and space to protect our descendants from the most unexpected and dangerous threat our species has ever faced.
This portrait of Sahira by artist Lauren K. Cannon will be featured as the cover art for The Fiction of Stant Litore, a hardcover gift edition to be released at the end of this year; the edition is entirely funded by my Patreon members. I am elated to have another cover from Lauren, and I thought you might like an early look!
For the daring among you: you can explore the Ansible universe here (in paperback, kindle, or audiobook):
I just read several blog pieces describing the phenomenon over the past decade in megachurches in which large congregations don’t sing, they just…listen and applaud as a worship team on stage sings. And I am genuinely floored. I really hadn’t known this. Having only ever been an active member of two small churches, I hadn’t known that going to the sanctuary to stand as a silent audience and watch a performance was a thing.
I don’t mean this as snark, truly: I just feel a little punctured.
My heart wants to ask, “But… but when does the congregation praise God?”
My head wants to note, “This might explain so much about the commodification and politicization of Christian media and megachurches, and the substitution of loyalty to charismatic leaders in place of communion with God and his Body.”
And my heart and mind wants to plead: But… but… but! Our church BEGAN with people gathering in secret to sing to God together. Pentecost, the Phos Hilaron, the hymn at Colossae … Paul and Silas singing in a jail cell… It’s why, when I wrote Regina’s story in What Our Eyes Have Witnessed, as she waited in a shed not knowing if the Roman guardsmen would execute her, she sang. She sang with her whole heart. Because that’s what you did if you were a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion from the East, whenever the first, second, or third-century Roman government went on one of its periodic “we don’t like people from the Middle East and we need to make Rome great again” xenophobic binges. When that happened, you got flogged and thrown in prison, and you sang. You sang with each other. You sang to each other. You sang to God. You sang the psalms. You sang the hymns. You sang because it was how you remembered what was true when the whole world went dark. You sang because in the morning you might be crucified or burned alive or made a spectacle of for the amusement of those in power, and because the hope you and your brothers and sisters sang about was all you had. You sang the way that Kurdish pop-singer sang, as she stood by the tanks and screamed her joy at life and her defiance across the lines at Daesh (ISIS). You sang the way Maya Angelou used to sing, when her heart would be so full of sorrow and pain and love and faith and hope that she would lean back from the podium mid-speech and just sing. But you all sang, together, because you didn’t have a Maya Angelou or a Kurdish pop-singer. You weren’t an audience; you were the spectacle, and you were never going to chant the words the Empire wanted to hear. You were going to sing to God with all your heart because you liked his story better than Caesar’s and better than the story that other men and women had written for you. Because that story had set free your heart, though your limbs remained in shackles.
It was the jailors who didn’t sing.
It was the Romans who forgot how. Who stood applauding in silence or chanting repetitive catchphrases while ever-more decadent Caesars paraded their wealth and power in the street.
In medieval and Renaissance iconography, Saint Valentine of Terni, a third-century physician, is often represented with an epileptic child seizing or recovering at his feet, in memory of his love for afflicted children and his visits to those suffering from epilepsy, and in reference to legends of miraculous healings. For centuries, people suffering seizures would turn to Valentinus, the patron saint of epileptics, lovers, and beekeepers, as a figure of hope.
Today, we are only beginning to understand possible causes of epilepsy. Though 3 million Americans have epilepsy, it remains one of our least understood ailments, and medical research on it is poorly funded. (You can learn more about the effort – and help – here.)
A few years ago, we lost a much-loved family member to seizures; if you see me at a convention and for just a moment I look a bit abstracted and sad, I may be remembering Dee; she used to encourage me, and I used to keep with me, in her memory, a signing pen that she gave me to sign books, though I have since lost the pen (I believe a reader accidentally walked off with it).
My daughter Inara has survived every seizure biology could throw at her, but sometimes the memory of weeks of nights at her bedside at the hospital comes at me, too, out of nowhere, and the memory of hours of convulsions, one set after another without any way to help her, and the memory of the times she turned ashen-gray. And the memory of holding her afterward while she was exhausted, and the memory of times when she would look up at me and giggle and I’d hold her even closer.
And if on Valentine’s Day we think of love and romance, many years of my romance with Jessica, my lovely and compassionate and wise wife, have been written in battle, with the two of us fighting together for Inara’s life and care.
Medically, we have come a long way, over the past half-century, in treating epilepsy; gone are the days of locking away epileptics in dark rooms, of electric shock therapy and primitive lobotomy. Gone are the days, too, of assuming that epileptics are possessed by supernatural forces. And today, Inara is triumphant. So, as Inara’s father, I am grateful to live in this century and not a previous one.
Yet even in past centuries, when not locked away, burned, or lobotomized, people with epilepsy achieved great things. Many were fierce and creative and relentless and dragon-hearted like Inara: Vincent van Gogh, Joan of Arc, Gaius Julius Caesar, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, the Apostle Paul, and many others.
February 14 is the day when we remember the patron saint of lovers, beekeepers, and epileptics, one of whose historical sources was a third-century physician who cared for epileptic children. So despite its commercialization in our culture, February 14 has a few added layers of meaning for my wife and me.
Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about tyrannosaurs, gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!
Sos (Greek: “rescued,” “safe” – see Strong’s #4982) nothing is more core to Christian identity than this concept: that we, who were in danger, in peril, without refuge, have been made sos by a Soter (Savior). Each of us is soterion (saved), delivered by a Soter from slavery and from flight, made sos. The early Christians wrote and taught and believed that they were each a soterion, literally a refugee granted refuge. While on earth, they were paroikoi and parepidemoi, strangers in a strange land, sojourners without citizenship, who “hoped against hope” (Romans 4:18) in God’s promise that they would find and arrive in a “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), in which they would have citizenship at last. In which they would be not slaves or exiles but huioi, sons and daughters (Galatians 4:4-6), adopted heirs and “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
To my mind, nothing makes it more clear that a large swath of evangelical Christianity in America has sold its soul and lost its heart than the vocal support and encouragement from many quarters for bans on refugees and for walling out the xenoi: the “others,” the “aliens,” the “immigrants.”
The radical statement of first-century Christianity, recorded in the Gospels and in the Epistles (both Pauline and otherwise)—a statement radical to a Greco-Roman world but traditional in the Hebraic world it was inherited from—was that we are all xenoi. We are all outsiders. The Christ himself was an outsider while on earth, and being one, he was able to welcome all outsiders to break bread with him. The kingdom of heaven, he taught, is like a banquet to which all outsiders are brought in, dressed, fed, and made at home (Matthew 22).
From this core identity as xenoi, as refugees on earth seeking citizenship in a heavenly country, derived the attitudes toward society, community, and alterity that characterized the earliest Christian writings and that often upset Rome’s heavily stratified and deeply xenophobic social order.
Thus, when Peter urges the early Christians to avoid slavery to earthly desires, he abjures them by their identity as refugees:
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners [paroikoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul.” (1 Peter 2:11)
It is our active remembering of our identity as sojourners that permits us to live differently, Peter insists. A paroikos is literally a “dweller-near,” one who lives outside the house (oikos) and is without citizenship, yet is dwelling near the house: a resident alien. Implicit in the Koine Greek is the idea that these non-citizens live closely in community with citizens; the word emphasizes their nearness to the house, not their distance or their origin in a faraway place. That’s why we often find the word translated “sojourner” rather than “exile.” The other word, parepidemos, means a “passer-through,” one who is here for a time but was not born here and may not die here.
Earth is not our country, Peter reminds us. We are passers-through, we are dwellers-near-but-not-of, and this identity must drive our choices, our beliefs, our commitments to ourselves and others, and our actions.
For the early Christians, the lovers of truth (that is, lovers of aletheia, literally “unforgetting”), the promise you were supposed to actively unforget, from hour to hour, from day to day, was the promise of soteria, of salvation and refuge, of heavenly citizenship. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, early Christians of Jewish descent are urged to remember their Hebrew forefathers who held faithfully to a strong hope of soteria:
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers [xenoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)
The archetype for the life of faith in Hebrews 11 is the journey of Abraham across Mesopotamia. Abraham, as a xenos, traveled across a wilderness in search of a new home, “hoping against hope” (as Paul writes in the letter to the Romans) for a better country, a country promised but as yet unknown. In the same way, the Hebrew prophets and the first-century Christians, the writer of Hebrews suggests, are xenoi—others, strangers, aliens in the countries they pass through [parepidemoi]. They are willing to endure any hardship on their journey because of the strength of their yearning for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Of such faithful refugees, God is not ashamed; he has prepared for them citizenship in a heavenly polis (city).
The writers of the New Testament are informed here by the Jewish Torah and Nevi’im, by the Old Testament, by the recurring insistence of Moses and the Prophets that we are all strangers in the land, that God may grant us a residence in a promised land, but that we remain sojourners on an earth we do not own. “Shelter the strangers in the land,” Moses says also, “for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebraic law urges that immigrants be treated with justice—“one law, for the homeborn and for the immigrant”—in memory of the time the Hebrews themselves wandered in the wilderness. And, lest they forget that they remain sojourners even today, the festival of Sukkot remains a time when an increasingly settled people are urged to leave their homesteads and their towns and dwell in temporary booths and shelters in the countryside for a brief time.
This is what Deuteronomy instructed its readers to “unforget,” when they would lie down and when they would wake up and when they would walk down the road—this is what they were told to bind on their foreheads and write on their doorposts (Deuteronomy 6): their core identity as refugees and delivered slaves, brought across a wilderness and granted refuge. And it was as their Deliverer, their Rock and their Refuge, that they were to know their God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” – an authoritative line that repeatedly punctuates passages in the Torah.
By recalling in their daily lives that identity as refugees granted Refuge, they would be less likely to live lives of pride—the ostentatious lives of “self-made” people who, secure in their houses, would not see the children starving outside their walls. It is this forgetting that the author of Jeremiah finds so abhorrent in pre-exilic Jerusalem. Idolatry is abhorrent to Jeremiah largely because of what he sees as the consequences of forgetting the covenant; he describes women who bake cakes for Astarte and have houses full of bread while others’ children sit famished in the street outside. These are not the lives, Jeremiah insists, of people of the covenant—of people who live in daily awareness that their homes are temporary, of people who know their history as refugees and sojourners granted safety at last.
Terence (who, according to the writers of antiquity, was himself a freed slave of foreign birth who became one of the great playwrights in the Roman world) famously wrote, Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto: “I am human; therefore I consider nothing human to be alien to me.” There are no xenoi or paroikoi in Terence’s thinking; all humans are in the oikos, in the house. There are no dwellers-near who lack citizenship in humanity.
The early Christians, commenting on the Torah, arrive at a similar sentiment, but from an opposite point of origin: We are all outside the house. We are all strangers in the land; knowing this, no human can be a stranger to me. We are all xenoi, and we are all refugees. Because we are all shivering in the cold outside the house, and because we are all passing through a strange land hoping for refuge, it is no longer either desirable or rational ethically to wall anyone out. This was more than a metaphor for Paul, for Peter, for the author of the letter to the Hebrews: it was a way of describing the lived experience of a disinherited and diasporic people granted a new hope, a hope of citizenship in a city they had never seen, a city they had not built, a city to which they were being delivered by a Soter, a city they believed they were called to live their lives worthy of.
If evangelical Christians today forget their identity as xenoi and paroikoi—as refugees on the earth—then they will forget both their Soter (Savior) and what it means to be sos (saved, given refuge). If men and women of faith permit themselves to “harden their heart” (Jesus’s phrase) against refugees and deceive themselves into thinking themselves owners of homes (oikoi) and “homelanders” whose country must be defended against all comers, then they will have forgotten who they are. The entire story of the New Testament is that of refugees granted a heavenly city, brought there out of violence and sin and pain by a heavenly Soter, and then urged to imitate that Soter and to live as “citizens of heaven.”
How do citizens of heaven live? How did the Savior live? By giving refuge. By rescuing others. That is what it means to be a citizen of heaven. That is what it means to live as a community of what the Romans (who were obsessed with security, with law and order, with property, “their minds set on earthly things,”) called “the little Christs,” the Christians.
To see refugees as “others” is to forget yourself.
It is to forget your core identity as xenoi, as others.
It is to forget your core identity as the sos, the refugees saved.
THE PTOCHOI EN PNEUMATI
How did we get here?
How did we forget, as people of faith, that we are the outsiders, not the insiders—that we are the sojourners “dwelling near” (paroikoi) the house, not the dwellers in the house. We have forgotten that earth is the wilderness and heaven is our home. We let go of the truth: the aletheia, the ongoing act of “unforgetting.” We forgot that we are exiles and that we are poor.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” With these words, Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount. In Koine Greek, the word chosen here for “the poor” is the most extreme word possible: hoi ptochoi. This is not hoi penoi (the day-laborers without savings accounts, working for their daily bread) or hoi penichroi (those needing daily bread), but hoi ptochoi, the utterly without-refuge.
To be poor in this way—to be ptochos—is to be unclothed, to be utterly destitute and without resources and to know it. To be ptochos is to be stripped of everything, your skin bare to wind and weather. The man who is ptochos lies naked in the dirt, his face pressed to the ground, utterly at the mercy of the one he is pleading to. To be ptochos en pneumati—poor in spirit—is to know that you are made of ashes, that you will go back to ashes, that belief in your own sufficiency is a delusion.
It is that delusion—that faith in our bank account, or in our personal virtue, or in the solidity of our house, or in our cunning, or in our family heritage, or in our religious standing—that keeps us from living big, blessed lives. (Makarioi, “the blessed,” as I discuss in Lives of Unstoppable Hope, are literally those whose lives are made big in the sense of their impact on others; like Abraham, others’ lives are blessed—made bigger—through them. The root of makarios, “blessed,” is mak, “big”; in English, we get macro and mega from that same root).
The Emperor cannot be big and blessed in his new clothes, because those new clothes in which he is so confident are nothing more than an illusion. They might blow away at the wind of a child’s words. Even so, might our house or our religious standing or our bank account or our cunning fail us. Like the Emperor in the story, we all of us stand naked in the cold world, but some of us, experts in denial, choose to believe we are clothed.
The ptochoi en pneumati—the poor in spirit—are not blessed because they are poor, because they are naked, or because they are without resources.
They are blessed and able to live big lives because they know they are poor, naked, and without resources.
And, recognizing their own nakedness, the “poor in spirit” are no longer able to lord their possessions over others, or to look upon the unclothed with contempt. Yearning themselves for refuge, it would be nonsensical of them to deny refuge to others. (And, recognizing themselves as xenoi, the “poor in spirit” cannot afford xenophobia.)
They are the Emperors who have stopped believing in their invisible clothing. Naked, nothing more can be stripped from them. Poor, nothing more can be stolen from them. These are the people who can live day to day, as Mother Teresa did. These are the people who can lie on their side in the dirt without pride or self-imposed stigma, as Ezekiel did, if by doing so they might move the hearts of others, or who can sit night after night beside a loved one who suffers, if by doing so they might offer one sliver of comfort. These are the people that can march in defense of civil rights, no matter what slurs or fists or bullets are hurled at their faces. They have given the day to a higher cause or a higher God than themselves: “. . . having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
These vagrants, these exiles, these poor in spirit, seek a better country, that is, a heavenly one. They yearn for our world to be more like that. They may march, they may weep, they may doubt, they may die, but they will never give up. The call home—the allure and vision of a world where no man is oppressed, no woman is beaten, and no child suffers needless illness, hunger, or violence—is too insistent to ignore.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That is the first beatitude and the first description in the Gospels of living the saved life, the blessed life, of living life as a citizen of heaven.
THE CALL TO UNFORGET
If Christianity is to be not only “relevant” but critical and active in the years ahead, people of faith must remember who they are. We must remember—in fact, we must unforget, from hour to hour—that we are sos (saved). We must find ourselves again—as refugees on earth, as strangers in the land, as strangers to whom no other human being can be strange. As others (xenoi) who “other” no one. As citizens of heaven, hoping for a new city and yearning for home.
Our Soter requires that we hold to this truth (this aletheia, this “unforgetting”) and thus hold to Him.
Our fellow human beings require that we unforget that we are xenoi together—because, having forgotten, we are hurting them.
And we must do this unforgetting for ourselves, too. Because what will it profit us if we gain “the world” but forfeit our soul?
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
Before heading out with my family to the protest of the Muslim Ban happening in our city today, I want to give you this. Stories are also a form of resistance. This can be especially true of science fiction and fantasy, where we speculate about other possible futures and other possible pasts. A few people asked me for this, so I made it for you: a one-page flyer Islam in SciFi Starter Kit. Use it. Share it. Print it. Email it. Included is a reading list of science fiction and fantasy either by Muslim authors or about Muslim characters who are not the media stereotype. There are links to free ebooks. A Mosque Among the Stars is an anthology of stories from 12 authors, permanently free in PDF format. And the first three stories in my Ansible series about 25th-century Muslim interstellar explorers–I’ve made those free until February 8, 2017 on the kindle, in hopes that might help too. They’re yours; explore them.
Many of the world’s great scientists, mathematicians, scholars, doctors, and poets are Muslim. And arguably, the world’s first science fiction may have been Zakariya al-Qazwini’s 13th-century Awaj bin Anfaq, in which an explorer visits the earth from a distant planet. Much of modern astronomy has roots in Islamic cultures, and much contemporary astronomy research is conducted in Muslim-majority nations. With 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet, it is no stretch to think that they may have an enormous role to play in the future of science and technology and in our science fiction. (And, though I didn’t include it on the flyer because it is the one story everyone knows, Frank Herbert’s Dune, one of the monuments of twentieth-century American science fiction, imagined descendants of one Muslim culture playing a very large role in an interplanetary future.)
If you want to go deeper than what a one-page flyer and list and “starter kit” can provide, check out the Islam in Science Fiction website, which includes book lists and reviews, essays and interviews with Islamic artists and writers and with non-Muslim scifi writers who write stories with Muslim characters.
One of my friends who asked for this said that such a reading list was instrumental when they were first discovering that almost everything they knew about Islam was categorically false. I hope you find these stories open a door for you, too. It’s a big world and a big universe out there, and the people we meet in it are seldom who we expect, and seldom who we’ve been taught.
“Thunder in space. We make it, the tyrannosaur and I, his great, taloned feet pounding down the long meters of this arena. I am whooping and laughing on his back, and though dozens of hovercraft flash with camera lights and floodlights of a dozen colors rush about me, no one can stop me. This is my moment. Mine and his.”
I am so pleased to announce that the new Stant Litore story is here! Samuel Peralta’s anthology Jurassic Chronicles, in which I join Victor Milán, Seanan McGuire, and other marvelous storytellers to bring you tyrannosaurs, triceratops, and other wonders of lost worlds past and future, is just $0.99 this first week. Spread the word! Get your copy! Enjoy the stories!
Abstract: “In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.”
After a conversation earlier today, I’m going to share this longer post with you because a few of you might find it useful or beautiful, or may want to refer to it in conversations later. The topic is what some key words from the New Testament mean in the original text, because they get thoroughly sucked dry and mangled in English. If the post is useful, it may provoke some readers to read certain things in a very different light than how they are typically read in our culture, or may help them challenge others to do so.
This is written in response to a reader who asked me about the meanings of the words ‘truth’ and ‘belief,’ and how they are connected.
Truth (in English)
A truth (from the word “troth,” the same word we use in “betrothed”) is something you trust deeply, perhaps with all your heart. As I wrote in a post earlier today, a truth is not a fact, and a fact is not a truth. These are very different concepts. It is a truth that I will stay with my wife until she or I die. That is not a demonstrable fact, and will not be for many years, I hope; it is a truth. It is a truth that my wife loves me; this is not a demonstrable fact in any scientific sense, but I trust it deeply. These are truths. And when we got engaged, we pledged our truth (troth) to each other. In religion, one might speak of the Truth of divine promises — something deeply and profoundly trusted by the worshipper, promises judged by the worshipper to be worthy of their trust.
In English, a truth is a promise. In English, you believe in a truth (a promise) likely because you trust (have faith in) the subject who gave you that truth. So, for example, if in religious belief God gives you a promise about salvation or about comforting you with the Holy Spirit, the salvation or the comfort is a ‘truth’ or a promise, and God (and/or, potentially, writers of sacred texts and ancestors) is the subject who has relayed that promise to you. So in English, you believe the truth (the promise) and you trust (have faith in) the subject (God). The object, if there is one, is you yourself, the one trusting.
Belief (in English and Greek)
In Greek there is no word used in the New Testament that corresponds to the modern English “believe.” The word in Greek is much closer to “trust.” It is the verb for the Greek noun that we translate “faith,” but we don’t have a verb for faith in our language (which is a rather enormous oversight, if you think about it), so for four centuries we’ve been forced to substitute the word ‘believe’ as a placeholder for the missing word that doesn’t exist in English and that no one thought to invent. Often with unfortunate consequences, because the modern sense of ‘belief’ is very far from the words actually used in the text. To be fair, the original meaning of ‘believe,’ centuries ago, WAS closer to the intent, so the substitution may have made more sense at the time; the word “believe” has changed a lot over time. It originally didn’t have anything to do with your mind at all. In its Old English and Old Germanic roots, the word meant to hold something dear, to love it. Ten centuries ago, you would ‘believe’ a spouse, meaning you’d embrace and love them and hold them dear. (Compare ‘lieve’ root with modern German ‘liebe’ for love.) That’s what ‘believe’ originally meant.
Truth (in Greek and Latin)
“Truth” is actually a substitution, too, in the case of the New Testament, because again, we don’t have a word in English that means the same thing as Greek “aletheia,” or even close. Truth (a promise) was selected as nearest to the spirit of what translators felt the New Testament was looking to convey. “Aletheia” actually means “unforgetting.” Not just remembering, but un-forgetting (“a – lethe”), the daily act of holding a promise present in your mind and heart, of letting that promise drive all that you do. Literally un-forgetting it. Implied in the word is the idea that we are naturally in lethe (forgetting). Lethe is the river in Greek myth that the dead drink from to forget their lives and pasts and all that mattered to them, so that they can cross the river and dwell as somnolent shades in the underworld. The New Testament writers are telling Greek-speaking readers that, figuratively speaking, they have drunk from Lethe and are at risk of forgetting their relationships and their past and what’s been done for them, and the promises made for their present and future. Hence the word “aletheia,” unforgetting, un-Lethe’ing your heart. In a sense, resurrecting your heart, day by day, hour by hour, from the underworld of forgetfulness where life is expressed in hues of gray, without the constant awareness of joy.
In modern Western culture, when someone young and in love slips a love letter inside their clothing to keep it near their heart and to feel the paper against their skin, that is an unforgetting: an ongoing, constant unforgetting of the new love and joy, and of the promise for the future that the letter embodies.
(Paul’s “aletheia,” and the gospel writers’ subsequent adoption of the word, is an attempt to translate a similar concept from Hebrew, one that you can get the substance of if you read Deuteronomy 6, about keeping your history and the promise before your mind and your eyes constantly, wearing it on your forehead, writing it on your doorpost, telling your children the story when you wake and when you lie down, when you go about your day, when you come home from work, etc. Paul coins the word “aletheia” to transfer that concept into a Greek context. Topic to discuss more fully in some other post, but I mention it because this is also one reason why Judaism does not share Western Christianity’s ways of belaboring “biblical truth”; the Jewish concept of witness is much closer akin to Paul’s ‘unforgetting’ than to English ‘truth.’)
So, for example, when in the book of John Jesus says “I am the Aletheia,” he is saying “I am the Unforgetting.” He is describing himself as an embodied unforgetting of God’s promises, a daily living-out of the promise of union and reunion between God and humanity, and between humanity and humanity, and a daily and ongoing incarnation of God’s promise of ‘ki eyeh immakh’ (I will be with you). It’s a very nuanced and breathtaking passage, which unfortunately we don’t have the vocabulary to render well in English.
Also, notice that in Greek, ‘truth’ (unforgetting) isn’t really a noun or a thing. It isn’t a statement. It’s an ongoing action, a verb wearing noun’s clothing. In Greek, it’s easier to verb nouns than in English. “Believe in the Truth” is a weird Englishism that would have been incomprehensible and fairly circular to writers in Koine Greek, much as if you were to say to someone today, “Trust in Trust.” (Say what?) In the Greek New Testament, rather than ‘believe in the Truth,’ you strive all the time to unforget promises, and you hold dear and trust the one who gave you the promise. Where most of our culture’s conversation about belief is transactional in nature (accept this premise and sign on the dotted line), the original text is entirely relational (trust someone and hold their promise constantly before you).
One reason our translation gets so tilted on its side is that we’ve filtered our religion through the lens of Rome, and our translations (and in fact, the European languages we’re translating into) are profoundly influenced by Latin. The Latin Vulgate translates ‘aletheia,’ rather horribly, as ‘veritas’ (“something verified or confirmed”). This kind of substitution is common in the Vulgate. In the book of Mark, for example, the Vulgate routinely replaces a Greek word conveying a concept similar to ‘authority’ with the Latin word for ‘power’ or ‘force.’ But a moment’s reflection might persuade us that authority and power are not the same thing.
In similar fashion, the empire-builder Romans replaced the Greek idea of aletheia with the idea of verifiable fact. (‘Fact’ itself is a Latin word: factum est, “it happened’). That is why in our culture, we still confuse “truth” with “fact.” That’s a typically Roman thing to do. Our modern translations follow suit. (This is also why, in the story of the trial, Pontius Pilate had no idea what Jesus was talking about. “What is truth?” he asks, because his cultural and linguistic vocabulary leaves him ill-equipped — much as our own leaves us ill-equipped — to “get” it.)
In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In Koine Greek, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.
When Paul says, “Hold fast to the truth,” in Greek he is not saying hold fast to a mental opinion you have in your head; in Greek he is saying, Keep unforgetting the promise. If I might paraphrase, it means: ‘Keep unforgetting who loves you, and how much he loves you.’ And in Greek grammar, that isn’t a one-time activity but something that is ongoing, every hour, something to be actively doing all the time.
Addendum: Exhibit B -“Charity”
It’s easy to remain unaware of the extent to which language shapes our thinking. Here’s another example. The word “charity” has only meant what it means now for roughly 150 years. The word was originally coined as a translation of “caritas” in the Vulgate New Testament, and many older Bible translations have this word “charity” everywhere. But “caritas” doesn’t mean giving at the office; the word means a caring love that holds the other to be of high value. In turn, Latin “caritas” is an attempt to translate Greek “agape,” which means a reckless, spendthrift love that holds no accounts and no ledgers, the love where you sacrifice everything you own, even if you are as rich as king, to save one endangered child. That’s the word that we translated ‘charity.’
In the Old Testament, “charity” translates the Hebrew word for “justice.” In ancient Hebrew, there IS no separate word for charity; our often derisive concept of charity does not exist in that language. The people who wrote the Old and New Testaments regarded responding to the needs of the poor and the marginalized (“the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow”) not as acts of charity but as, depending on the text, acts of justice or acts of reckless love.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
Writers and friends: I’m very pleased to announce that I will be on the conference faculty for the 2017 Jubilee year of Pikes Peak Writers Conference.
If you are a local writer and just starting out, I highly recommend coming to the conference. I know it carries quite a price tag, but my attendance at professional writers conferences as a young writer was very formative, an early-in-my pursuits expense that I’ve never regretted. Besides the networking opportunities, I learned so much and received encouragement that I held before me like a torch for years afterward. And it is very useful, if you haven’t done it before, just to meet and talk with agents and editors, not only to practice pitching but also to learn how the publishing world looks like from the perspective of the men and women who work in it every day. So: recommended!
And if you come this year, you can take some of my ‘Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget’ classes as a part of the conference, if you would like! I will have more details on what I’m doing at the event and when a little later on.
I’m looking forward to connecting with some friends and colleagues who are also on the faculty. Excited to see everyone!
More news to follow. If you’re local and a writer, consider holding the date, though!
From my dream-life last night. A bunch of people I know and I were lining up at one end of a long valley, and someone was handing out baseball bats. I asked her why she was handing me a bat, and she growled, “Cause we ran out of quills.” I glanced behind me and there was an entire pasture of tiny people growing, like a crop. Then I looked ahead and saw a whole bunch of cockroach-like creatures stampeding across the valley before us. And it was midnight, and there were a LOT of the carapaced, hungry things coming our way. They were clearly Zerglings, so I thought, “Okay, good, this is Starcraft, okay, I got this. Zerg. Baseball bat. Tiny people. Got it.” Dropped into a fighting stance. My baseball lights up blue like a Protoss zealot’s blade – or a lightsaber – and I go: “Cool.” Then the Zerglings are close and they all have Donald Trump’s face, thousands and thousands of cockroach things with his head (seriously, you have NO idea how creepy it is to find an entire valley swarming with pony-sized cockroach monsters with Trump’s head), and this huge sonorous voice behind me that reverberates in my bones and brain keeps repeating, again and again, YOU MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL PYLONS. YOU MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITION PYLONS. And now I’m sweating, “Drat, this isn’t just Starcraft, this is Aiur. Or America. Or something.” But there’s all these people growing behind us so all right, game on, I start swinging my bat, and it gets REALLY REALLY BLOODY. And that’s when I wake startled because Jessica has nudged me and is complaining sleepily, “Can you sleep on your side? You’re snoring and keeping me up.” And I try to explain that I have to fight off the Trumplings with my baseball bat but I’ve already rolled over and I don’t think any of the words got out, and just as I’m feeling profoundly unsettled and desperate, I fall into another dream and this one involves bringing home a basket of eggs for River until it hatches into tiny tyrannosaurs and us raising the miniature pack in the back yard, except one of the neighbors goes missing and I’m TRYING to explain to the cops that the tyrannosaurs DIDN’T eat the neighbor, they’re really quite safe, they’re smaller than my fist, see, it would defy physics and basic probability for them to have actually eaten the neighbor’s entire body. Maybe a finger, or even a limb if they all ganged up, or possibly eyeballs or a nose but not the whole thing surely, but this doesn’t appear to be helping my case, and River is distraught, so we hide one of the tyrannosaurs in her cupped palms and carry it upstairs and hide it in the attic, which is gigantic, because this dream-attic has entire palaces and mazes in it, and the tyrannosaur gets bigger to fill up the dream attic, and River brings the tyrannosaur a bowl of chips to eat every morning and she calls it Mal and because it’s a dream I don’t remember that Mal is actually the dog, though the tyrannosaur does wag its tail a lot. And that was my dream.
P.S. One thing, however, is clear today. I’m going to construct some additional pylons.