From On the Free Choice of the Will

Having finished with the first round of stories for the Advanced Fiction workshop, I am going to be out of character and not moan about how bad ideas taken to their logical conclusions in real life, rather than merely in theory, end up as these very stories. Yes, they’re fiction, yes, authours don’t always condone what they write about. Still.

As an antidote, I’m going to post a few choice quotes from Augustine of Hippo’s On the Free Choice of the Will. (Most of these are taken out of context, but the whole book is good reading.)

He believed in the power of story, in fact. “But haven’t people often been condemned for good deeds? Recall the story that is superior to all others by virtue of its divine authourity. There you will find that we must think very poorly of the apostles and martyrs if we intend to make condemnation a sure sign of wrongdoing.”

“Let us carefully examine to what extent evildoing is punished by the law that rules peoples in this life. Whatever is left is punished inevitably and secretly by divine providence.” That would be powerful when worked out in a story. . . now I want to try it.

Also, if people tell you that the Church disapproved of using reason, please listen to the primary source. “Take heart, and set out confidently and piously in the paths of reason. There is nothing so abstruse or difficult that it cannot become completely clear and straightforward with God’s help.” (Later on he makes an exception for the Trinity.) In response to a statement by Evodius he says, “Here again I want to know whether you know this for certain, or whether you willingly believe it on the urging of some authourity, without actually knowing it.” And anyway, he wouldn’t be going to all the trouble of explaining the reasons behind the reasons behind doctrines, if he were one of those religious people who enforce their beliefs by repeating them until people just give in. He’s obviously not afraid of questioning basic beliefs and digging into things.

“We should not find fault with silver and gold because of the greedy, or food because of gluttons, or wine because of drunkards, or womanly beauty because of fornicators and adulterers, and so on, especially since you know that fire can be used to heal and bread to poison.”

“So to take something quite obvious as our starting point, I will first ask you whether you yourself exist. Or do you perhaps fear that you might be mistaken even about that? Yet you could certainly not be mistaken unless you existed.” And here we have Descartes’ famous “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”, centuries before he made that discovery.

And this merely parenthetical note: “(for if your soul could not perceive wisdom at all, you would have no way of knowing both that you will to be wise and that you ought to will this, which I feel sure you won’t deny)”.

“Augustine: And you surely could not deny that the uncorrupted is better than the corrupt, the eternal than the the temporal, and the invulnerable than the vulnerable.

Evodius: Could anyone?”

Unfortunately, they have.

“Augustine: And does anyone doubt that a life that cannot be swayed by any adversity from its fixed and upright resolve is better than one that is easily weakened and overthrown by transitory misfortunes?

Evodius: Who could doubt that?”

Most modern writers.

“Many find their happiness in the music of voices and strings and flutes. When they are without it, they think they are miserable; and when they have it, they are in raptures. So when the silent eloquence of truth flows over us without the clamour of voices, shall we look for some other happiness, and not enjoy the one that is so secure and so near at hand? People take pleasure in the cheerfulness and brightness of light — in the glitter of gold and silver, in the brilliance of gems, and in the radiance of colours and of that very light that belongs to our eyes, whether in earthly fires or in the stars or the sun or the moon.”

“So if you take away everything that is good, you will have absolutely nothing left. But every good thing comes from God, so there is no nature that does not come from God. On the other hand, every defect comes from nothing, and that movement of turning away, which we admit is sin, is a defective movement. . . . But since we cannot pick ourselves up voluntarily as we fell voluntarily, let us hold with confident faith the right hand of God — that is, our Lord Jesus Christ — which has been held out to us from on high.”

There’s another half of the book to go. I’ll post more probably on Tuesday, after Advanced Fiction again. I get to tell my atheist that he included 19 stereotypes of fundamentalist Christians in his story, which made me laugh, and why doesn’t he try something new?

The more I read of Augustine, the more I want to read (have I said this before?). He’s so good and right about so many things, and he’s a good writer too, which helps. And he has a sense of humour.

Have you, my readers, read any Augustine? Favourite works, or quotes?

(of Hippo — there was another, who ought to be just as well-known, even if his literary output didn’t rival Jonathan Edwards’)

Posted in Books, Reading | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

January Wrap-up

Oh, look at me actually posting on a Tuesday again! Probably just because this is the kind of thing easy to write in advance. It is a busy day, though. Later I’m going to spend a couple of hours going through the Rachmaninoff piano concerto, whether that’s organizing parts or printing them, for tonight. Risks of the job include paper cuts, but what’s new.


For classes: the first four Meditations of Descartes; some of a textbook (elsewhere referred to as Fiero); a book on writing which isn’t half bad; and we’re not done yet with On Free Choice of the Will by S. Augustine of Hippo! I’m barely beginning my acquaintance with him, but the more I read of him the more I want to read. It’s all in Plato, as they say, and if there’s something not in Plato, it’ll turn up in Augustine. (They do seem to share a propensity for defeating Relativism before that school of “thought” was ever named.) In the part we read for today, Augustine even advances two of the arguments Descartes makes in the Meditations, which I noticed because of reading them together.

3 books of the Dealing With Dragons series — fun twists of the usual fantasy things, and good relationships: good married couples, good not-overwhelming romance, good friendships.

Princess of the Midnight Ball: voice not at all distinctive, exactly like every other normal fantasy fairy-tale retelling, nothing unique. World-building also left much to be desired.  Fantasy with an obviously copied-from-Europe continent, with countries called Spania and Breton, is lazy worldbuilding, and as a related general principle, historical fiction which gets events or ideas mixed up is lazy research. People generally like fantasy because the worlds are different from our own (and yet somehow the ideas they’re built on tend to be much the same, which is reassuring), and historical fiction because it is our own world (in the past). Such generic fantasy is disappointing when the authour hasn’t done enough work to at least give countries new names, let alone new cultures. But that problem isn’t limited to this book, and it did have some things going for it, like a male main character who unabashedly knits.

Eidi: This one was actually translated from Danish, but the voice comes through as quite “clear and distinct” to misuse a phrase from Descartes. The writing style is lovely. Unlike the previous book, the words aren’t there merely to convey information, but are beautiful on their own. It’s a middle-grade book, too, which I’ve found don’t often have that kind of care taken in the writing. Characters lie without consequences, but otherwise the world-building and plot and characters are good and well done. It’s rare to find a middle-grade book worth re-reading.

Parts of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, about Emperor Theodosius. Definitely eighteenth-century in the writing style and the authour’s point of view, but other than that, a lot of good information.


I think earlier this month, when I was recovering and before school started, I dipped into Of the North. Other than that I got the idea for, and opening line of, a story about the Black Plague, for the fiction workshop; and went off on a tangent and started another story, about a library (kind of); and Just Outlaws proceeds at a swifter pace that doesn’t make sense because it’s the only one without a deadline. I’ve been observing outlaws quite a lot of late, and those things want to be set down before I forget about them. Like Algernon’s shock, his first time being in the party that goes out and holds up merchant trains, that the men aren’t just taking the proceeds from sales, but the merchants’ personal belongings. (And he protests, and they say “What? Why shouldn’t we?” and he hangs his head, realizing he has a lot to do.)


Still hardly anything, unless you count Skyping into one of the business meetings. Which was entertaining in the way of anything where SCAdians are gathered, but nothing like an actual event. I might get out one of my sheets and experiment with making my hypothetical lower-class simple veil (one of the hood-like ones seen quite often in art), but we’ll see. First I have to finish a knitting project that’s been plaguing me. Pavel! (I’ve been knitting the nesting dolls from TCoL, on Olivia’s request, and if I’ve ripped out Pavel’s head once, I’ve done it a score of times. With single-ply yarn, too. It’s held up surprisingly well.)


School again. This semester my sister’s tagging along behind me on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We have the Humanities class together and so far it’s been lots of fun. (We also do a lot of people-watching, and I’m teaching her how to spy on the little cafeteria, and what times are good for seeing various types of people, and creepy things like that.) Orchestra is fun as usual.

So many people are retiring or graduating in May that I’m going to be practically out of money if I buy them all the books I’d like to give them. Orthodoxy for JP, probably also for Cole; possibly Plato or Augustine of Hippo or something suitably old for Joel, or maybe Scruton, so he gets a refutation of Communism free of charge; possibly History in English Words  or Poetic Diction for Professor McLean — I asked her today and she said she had neither. So maybe I’ll get her both, if the exchequer isn’t empty by then.

Posted in Ordinary life, Reading, SCA, Writing | Tagged | 5 Comments

I can read in pickle colour too.

Yesterday was over forty degrees and sunny, and now we’ve got snow blowing over everything and covering up the dirt, and it looks like midwinter again. I miss Of the North, but at the same time it needs so much work I get overwhelmed just thinking about it. And our book for Advanced Fiction stresses the important of action in stories, and keeping things moving, and not settling down. I kind of like writing the everyday serene sort of things, focusing on the bare feet and dirt under fingernails and the way what goes into your food varies from one day to another depending on what’s in season, and the shapes of clouds and trees and hills. AEschild owes a lot of her upbringing to Tolkien, so it makes sense that she’d notice that. I dunno, maybe I’m just not only writing about dead people but for them, in a style modern readers get bored of. It’s not a fast-paced novel at all. Don’t even modern readers ever get tired of constant adrenaline and blood?

I’ve noticed that recently my Tuesday-creeping-into-Wednesday posts have been the adventures of the motley crew, and the posts from later in the week have been more serious. Have you noticed it too? Do you like getting half-and-half of that sort of thing? Do you want me to stick to just one of the halves, and if so, which? Or something different entirely?

It’s too early in the semester for this to happen, but already I’m finding myself unable to decide what to write about, because so much needs writing about — whether that’s the plague for the one story, or the peculiar magic of libraries on the night of March 25 for another, or the six books (6) I ended up with when I asked for one (one) last night. So please pipe up, readers, and tell me what you want me to write about next — I’ll probably end up doing all of them sooner or later, but what do you want first?

I could write (in red) about atheism and art; I’ve been thinking about it lately what with Augustine in one class and an anti-theistic writer (friend? enemy? antagonist? antithesis? I like antithesis) in another.

I could write my convoluted thoughts about academics and grad school (in blue) and the future and medieval studies and art. I’ve been thinking about that general pile of intertwined things (gestures helplessly in the general direction of the mess of my life) quite a bit lately; dunno if it would help anyone much.

I could also show you my three-page single-spaced (because I’m still not used to college requirements) paper on the section of Gibbon having to do with the Emperor Theodosius I. I could even put it in pickle colour.

(I’ve been reading Dr Seuss again.)

Posted in Of the North, Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What’s the only difference between a viola and a coffin?

(Due to snow in the Cities and Dr Rieppel having the flu, we didn’t have orchestra last night. But it turned out to be a busy evening for all that, and much fun was had by all, whether that came in the form of opening grapefruit in the most barbaric way possible, making jibes at Sola Scriptura, or talking about whether abortion is permissible to save the mother’s life.)

Sunday afternoon was the long-awaited (and much dreaded) concerto competition — used to be for strings only, but they opened it up to piano for this year, and we had heard of two pianists, one of whom didn’t seem to be much of a threat to either of the favourites (Olivia and JP), but one of whom we heard of for the first time on Thursday, who was rumoured to be playing Rachmaninoff, and Dr Rieppel was said to be taking him seriously. Olivia and JP went home and practiced. Dr Rieppel was to be one of the judges. One thing that was making the competition easier was their teacher not being there to make them nervous. He said the stress of having to sit through it and wait for the judges to decide was too much.

Olivia and I left church after dishes, bringing a friend with us (who had to sit in the farthest back seat of the van, with us far away in the front, because of the middle seats being down; and because I’m used to tagging along after Olivia and it being just the two of us, he got almost forgotten a couple of times, though neither of us were intentionally ignoring him), and got to SMSU an hour early. Olivia went and practiced with Beth, her accompanist, and then found a practice room and played by herself.

Others turned up eventually, among them Joel, who said he was getting nervous already though he wasn’t even playing, and had anyone seen Dr Rieppel? After some searching he found out that Dr Rieppel had gotten sick and wasn’t coming.

“First Bacco’s not coming out because it’s too much,” Joel said, “and now Dr Rieppel doesn’t want to have to choose between you so he gets sick, and I can’t find any of the pianists, and they still expect me to go in and announce things?”

One of the pianists showed up just before the thing started. Joel did the opening announcements and warned people about “the Spot”, which is a weird place on the floor where, if you or your instrument are touching it, your sound gets weirdly distorted. Some people call it a superstition.

Olivia went first, I did a terrible job of turning pages (it’s been at least eight years since I did, I’m out of practice), and she got it over with. Next went Aleigha, and the pianist was to be third. Only he asked to have the room to himself for a bit to “warm up”, so out we went, several people grumbling about how he’d been practicing nonstop since he arrived, and sounded pretty warmed up already.

While we were standing in the back hall, the narrow one that separates the choir and band rooms from the practice rooms, someone remarked on their chipped nails; and thus it was, when Beth came out to join us, that she found David and Joel, who might have reasonably been expected to be discussing how people had played so far or their relative states of nervousness, carrying on a lively discussion of nail polish.

During the competition Olivia sat with her friend Anni, quite a distance from me, but if we turned our heads we could still see each other and communicate that way, over the back of Joel’s head. We agreed that the pianist was good, and likely to come in first. At one point toward the end of the competition Joel leaned back in his chair, and the next time we turned to look at each other, an unexpected obstacle was in the way. Joel looked up just in time to see me staring at him, got confused and worried, and started looking around. JP noticed what was going on and started laughing, which only confused Joel further. The next time he got up, to set up David’s chair and stand, when he came back he sat down in another chair. But then David sat down, looked around, said, “Where’s the spot? I’m in the spot. Joel, you put me in the spot!” And he didn’t use the music stand Joel had so kindly provided, so Joel got up and moved it, and sat down in his original chair again.

At one point, it might have been during the Rachmaninoff, my ball of yarn (I was of course knitting) jumped off my lap and rolled under the chair to my left. Leif was sitting in that chair, but being a pianist himself, he was paying close attention to the music and didn’t notice. As I wasn’t about to get on my hands and knees in the middle of the performance to get my yarn, I just kept knitting, but I did glance around to see if there were any way to get to it. But it had rolled out of sight, and it was a lot like that scene in Babe, except of course no open paint cans standing around. The boys’ father was sitting in the row behind us, and he happened to notice, and smiled, and reached down and batted it back toward me. Then Leif picked it up, and all was well, with no dollhouses ruined.

David played last, going from memory (as Olivia had), and toward the end made a significant mistake, heard it, grimaced, looked to his accompanist, fumbled, but eventually recovered himself and finished. Since in previous years, if he’d placed at all, it was only third, we figured this would be one of the years he didn’t place at all. The pianist was fated to win and JP and Olivia would take the second and third places between them — so we all thought.

The judges went out to confer.

Presently the boys’ father said, “Joel, tell some jokes — lighten the mood.”

“Okay,” said Joel, and thought. “How’s this one. What’s the only difference between a viola and a coffin?” Georgia, the boys’ sister, had just competed with a piece for viola. She gasped and turned on Joel. “Oh, sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, “actually there isn’t one,” and covered his face. We heard no more jokes from Joel.

The judges returned, and Gretchen beckoned Joel over to give him the paper with the winners’ names so he could announce them. He took it and came back to the center of the room, opened the paper, and turned white. This was not quite the response any of us were expecting, having figured the winners were obvious.

“Third place,” he said, “goes to Olivia,” and we all applauded. “Second place goes to David —” and David’s jaw fell on the floor and he forgot to pick it up. “And first place to Jared Campbell,” who was, of course, the pianist. “Congratulations to everybody who played, and even if you didn’t win this year, please come back next year and try again.” With his job finished, he joined Olivia and Anni and JP in clustering around David.

“They’ve got to have made a mistake,” David said wildly. “They meant JP — they mistook us — I’m wearing a blue shirt too.”

“Gretchen knows you two apart,” Joel said. “And it said David cello on the paper.”

“I’m going to ask them if they’re sure. I made that huge mistake.” He even stood up, but Joel pulled him down again.

“Trust the judges, David.” There was a great deal more of this.

Joel had the dubious honour of informing Bacco of the winners, which he did by texting him, which much trepidation. “He’ll be mad that neither of you won, and then because I told him, he’ll be mad at me. . .”

With the excitement over we were free to leave. Some of us were quicker than others, as Anni only had to get in her van, but the boys and Georgia had to load a cello, a violin, and a viola in the back of a fifteen-passenger van, and then various people too. (I’m not sure if that makes any sense, in that wording, but I can’t think of a better way to put it at the moment.)

Joel’s car was parked next to our own. He stuck his head out and frantically gestured to Olivia to put her window down, which she did. “What’s the name of David’s piece?”

“I don’t know.”

He hopped out of his car and ran to ask Anni, but Olivia called after him, “Ask David, he hasn’t left yet.” So he turned in the middle of his course and ran for their van.

The only open door on this side of it was the driver’s door. Their dad was approaching from the back, about two large steps away from the door, when Joel leapt in front of him and up into the driver’s seat. He shrugged and spread his hands as if Joel were perfectly welcome to abduct half his family if he cared to take the task of driving home off his hands. Joel, twisting around in the driver’s seat, interrogated David, then jumped out and ran back to his car. We’re pretty sure he never noticed the proper driver.

Posted in Ordinary life | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Just-beginning thoughts from a conversation

                   I have been wondering, because of a mix of modern light reading with Edward Gibbon from two hundred years ago: I wonder if the modern taste for patterns of varying grays, rather than black and white, when it comes to moral questions and characters and their actions, is because we can’t see as clearly as perhaps we once did, so what we take for complexity is in many cases (I am not saying all) only our own shortsightedness?
          It’s also very Aristotelian, looking at what is around us to take from our impressions of a pattern an idea of what should be. So we say “We don’t see heroes anymore, so we shouldn’t write them; they’re unrealistic, too high a standard to hope to reach”. An earlier view, the more Platonic one if you will, would have said “How should humans be? Then let’s try to encourage them to turn reality into that ideal: let’s let them read about heroes.” Of course, with the glasses off, either point of view has problems.
                I think of Faramir, in the books at least (I hear he was very different in the films), and how well he’d fare in a novel today. All kinds of editors and reviewers would say he’s unrealistically perfect, nobody would have remained untempted by the Ring, he’s not a believable character. But lots of people, reading about him in LotR, love him and take hope from his uprightness and nobility that such things are, even if not possible, at least worth striving for. And he’s a very black-and-white kind of character. Much more so than Boromir, whom you trust and distrust and dislike and pity and honour all within the space of half a book, because he’s so mixed. (Poor brothers, always getting compared to each other. That made things worse.)
                     Not that any of that is to say that before a certain point all characters, plots, and moral dilemmas were black-and-white, and that since then all of them have become a hopeless swirl of gray. It’s just me wondering.
Posted in Books, Writing | Tagged | 14 Comments

Not one iota of difference

I saw mundane detachable sleeves today! I was staring at them through the whole class.

If that wasn’t random enough, have a lot of random wisdom culled from various classes these last few days.

From the History of Philosophy: Metaphysics and Epistemology class:

Each language has a great work proving this vulgar tongue is worthy of great literature, a work which both showcases the beauty already present in the tongue and raises it to new heights. The example given was Rene Descartes’ work in French, but I thought of a few others: Homer for Greek; Jerome’s Vulgate for Latin; Dante’s Divina Commedia for Italian; Luther’s Bible for German; Beowulf for Old English, Chaucer for Middle English, Shakespeare for Modern. I’m not coming up with anything for Spanish, though. 

(Oh, and speaking of the Vulgate, in the Humanities class this morning the professor handed around his Greek NT for us to look at, and Olivia and I went and looked at the beginning of Revelation, after looking at the genealogy in Matthew.)

From the Advanced Fiction Workshop:

Thoughts on hearing about a man who lost all his limbs and was powerless even to commit suicide:

We will all suffer in this life. If we were to put such people “out of their misery” because they can’t bear it, where do we stop? We’ve all had rough days where we think we can’t bear it, but most of us are able to soldier through. You do get out of it eventually. While there’s life there’s hope.

And consider this. We can’t give anyone a perfectly happy life free from all sickness, sorrow, or other trouble. What we do get to do is choose how we respond to pain, whether we let it get us down (and turn us into villains), or turn it into beautiful heroism, or be mediocre — a mix of good and bad responses at different times.

From the Humanities class:

“When did Christianity become distinct from a Jewish sect?” Oh, I dunno, could be about the time Christ claimed to be God and the Pharisees picked up stones to throw at him. . .

In Imperial Roman religions, deities represented powers, impersonal, distant from humanity, and were worshipped rather impersonally (except maybe by their priest(esse)s?).

Ancient astronomers thought the planets were living beings, hence their being named after deities. Mater Terra’s atmosphere was her breath, the magma coursing through her was her blood, the earth was her flesh.

The cults of Dionysus, Isis, and Mithra were similar in accident to Christianity: the former, for example, had a death and resurrection, a mortal woman impregnated by a god, a ritual meal including wine; Isis was a kindly mother of a divine son who saw him killed and brought back to life; Mithraism also emphasized rebirth and resurrection, self-discipline, and celebrated the unconquered sun on December 25th. But a crucial difference between those and Christianity was that no one ever claimed that Zeus and Semele or Dionysus, Isis and Osiris, or Mithra, ever actually walked the earth. In Greek and Roman myths, when the gods came to earth, though they might appear to be men, they were never actually men in essence. Christianity not only claims that God appeared in history, it says He became man without ever losing an iota of His divine nature.

(By the way, the textbook rather skims over the Arian heresy and doesn’t even mention Athanasius, and calls the heretics “some dissenting Eastern churchmen”.)

The professor will say things like that which we fully agree with, and then he’ll go and say of the New Testament that “For a document supposedly transmitted directly from God, we have to remember that it was put together by a lot of scholars, from a lot of incomplete manuscripts,” and nod at us. We don’t complain when our textbooks are put together by a lot of scholars — I doubt we’d notice if they were put together by a lot of ghosts — so shouldn’t that make it more reliable, if it were to change anything? 

And to continue the thoroughly random theme of this post, here’s a bit from last semester. This is one illustration among many of how Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War could have been hilarious in spots, except he was too busy being a man of facts and science.

“The next day the Syracusans began operations at an earlier hour, but with the same plan of attack by land and sea. A great part of the day the rivals spent as before, confronting and skirmishing with each other; until at last Ariston, son of Pyrrhicus, a Corinthian, the ablest helmsman in the Syracusan service, persuaded their naval commanders to send to the officials in the city, and tell them to move the sale market as quickly as they could down to the sea, and oblige every one to bring whatever eatables he had and sell them there, thus enabling the commanders to land the crews and dine at once close to the ships, and shortly afterwards, the selfsame day, to attack the Athenians again when they were not expecting it.

In compliance with this advice a messenger was sent and the market got ready, upon which the Syracusans suddenly backed water and withdrew to the town, and at once landed and took their dinner upon the spot; while the Athenians, supposing that they had returned to the town because they felt they were beaten, disembarked at their leisure and set about getting their dinners and about their other occupations, under the idea that they done with fighting for that day.”

Posted in History, Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

“The use of theological terms to which they attached no doctrinal significance”

A short story involving time-travel with the idea of changing history for the better (but better according to whom? exits with sinister chuckle) is in the works for the Advanced Fiction Workshop. I have to start early because once again an irresistible idea involves lots of new research (one area in which historical fiction writers have it harder than those who do fantasy or some other more normal genre) — this time, however, an era much better documented than the 11th century. 1348 and the Black Plague! How exciting!

Anyway, I was going to talk about something else. I’m not going to call it “language”. The more often people use the term “language” as a euphemism for swearing, the harder it is to say you’re studying language without shocking people unnecessarily. Language is a perfectly good and decent thing on its own, and generally indispensable if we want to communicate anything. I’m using a lot of language myself right now. Swearing should be called bad language, because it is: a sub-category of language which is bad, whether inherently so or because it’s used improperly.

Nota bene: In this post when I talk about swearing I don’t mean things like the f-word. I go to a secular college, trust me, I’ve heard those words. They’re the kind of words which are inherently bad. (If you don’t believe me that things like words and shapes can be somehow wrong in themselves, read the Father Brown story The Wrong Shape.) There is no right use of such words. I hate hearing them, I disapprove when people speak them, if the situation allows I may even ask (without it really being a question) that the speaker have a little respect for those of us in the room who don’t like to hear such words. What I do mean by the term swearing, for the purposes of this post, are words which do have a good use, and which when used wrongly become swear words: words of the kind where their use as a curse is wrong partly because of the speaker’s attitude, and partly because he’s expressing and maybe even espousing bad theology. Chesterton says, I think in one of the essays in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, although I could be wrong, that “I have known some people of very modern views driven by their distress to the use of theological terms to which they attached no doctrinal significance”. That is the kind of language I do mean.

I’ve come across three main views on swearing in literature: the secular view that anything goes, sometimes with the provision that it should have a point (such as being realistic), sometimes not; the view among Christians that no swearing should ever come up in a book, no matter how mild, even “gosh”; and the view among Christians that bad characters, and unsaved ones, don’t limit their faults to murder (for example), but may occasionally swear, and so to be honest about their state, we may let them swear where the occasion calls for it.

The second and third views have good arguments for each side. The Lady Bibliophile did a blog series a few years ago, in four parts: onetwothree, and four. From another point of view, an historical fiction authour wrote one here. Since I’d like to start some discussion with this post, if my readers were to go read those posts and then tell me which side you come down on, if you’ve decided at all, that would be helpful.

The thing is, I’ve been working on Just Outlaws a bit, because of spending an evening in the company of (among others) someone who strongly reminded me of one of the Merry Men. Since this book begins with a former seminary student ending up living with a lot of outlaws, most of whom are justly outlawed for various crimes, a lot of the characters in the cast are not the kind you’d want your small children being near: murderers, thieves, arsonists, blackmailers, hired assassins, and worse. But they are also human: they have inside jokes, they look out for one another, those who have families try to take care of them from a distance by sending them the money they acquire through their, um, “borrowing a little from those who can afford it”.

I show them stealing. I have to, to set up their characters and place in life, to juxtapose it to the mostly innocent protagonist who’s been thrown into their world and is definitely out of his depth. Stealing is bad, certainly on a par with swearing but often worse. I don’t think most Christian audiences would refuse to read a book in which the (as yet) non-Christian characters steal. We don’t expect unbelievers to have the same moral codes we do, though we are pleasantly surprised in the cases where they turn out to. But many of those same Christian audiences would insist that inserting a swear word is a line not to be crossed. This seems a bit inconsistent, though as I don’t yet know my position on the issue, I won’t go beyond that.

It is in character for the outlaws to swear. They have absolutely no reason to refrain from expressing anger or surprise in that way. And not only because they’re not Christians; I know quite a few people who aren’t Christians and who don’t swear. But a man who’s got a murder in his past isn’t likely to have many qualms about letting out a bad word or two. It’s part of their fallen state. By the end of the book, many of the outlaws do become Christians, and those who aren’t split off to form a separate group. The former category stops swearing, among other things, because one thing about men touched by grace is that they can change.

The question is, do I show them swearing? Are you all right with reading them swearing? Obviously I’m not saying they’re right in doing so: the swearing is there, but I’m not saying it’s good, just as the stealing is there, but I’m not commending it. (I happen to believe that those who have to use swear words to emphasize something are displaying their lack of knowledge, their limited vocabulary and command of the language, not that they’re being creative or forceful or fresh or imaginative. Choosing the first lowest-common-denominator word that comes to mind is not being any of those things, it’s being uneducated and unintelligent.) But I still don’t know.

So give me your thoughts, please! Whether you’re commenting as readers only, or as writers, or as both, you’re welcome to pipe up.


Posted in Rose-Tinted Arrows, Writing | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments