Saturday, December 9, 2017

This video about editing the first Star Wars has good points about effective storytelling in all forms


Lucas, like most of us, was at his best when he had to carefully consider the opinions of other people. The first Star Wars would have failed if he hadn't had a smart producer, Alan Ladd Jr., who forced him to go through many drafts of the screenplay, and a smart wife who may deserve a co-writer's credit, Marcia Lucas. As this video points out, he also got solid advice from fellow directors on what to cut.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Why I'm an agnostic

 In second grade, I understood why God approved of Samson burning the fields of the Philistines, but I couldn't understand why he approved of Samson doing that by setting fire to the tails of foxes. That was just mean.

Florida's schools were segregated in the early '60s, and Bible-reading was mandatory at the start of the day. I spoke up against both—think of me as the chibi version of the Klansman's favorite opponent, a godless commie niggerlover. By the end of the decade, the movements for civil rights and the First Amendment had been won in public schools: the Bible was out, black people were in. As I came into my teens, my side of my generation was famously focusing on sex, drugs, and rock and roll. People like lists of three, so the fourth usually gets left out: we were also trying alternatives to conventional Christianity and Judaism. I studied Theravada Buddhism and tried meditation and was fascinated by gnosticism and desperately wanted to know the answer to the great question, what's it all about?

Sometime in my teens, I learned about agnosticism. While I knew then that both theists and atheists included people who had doubts, agnosticism seemed the best description of what I was: I didn't know the truth, I was open to learning more, and since religion was no longer imposed by the government and public schools, I was concerned with other struggles.

I began seeing something that atheists mention while missing its full implication: if religious beliefs have little to do with whether we're good or bad, that applies to theists too. Their belief does not make them behave badly; their mistaken beliefs about goodness do. If that was not so, there would be no good people in any major religion, yet there are good people in all of them.

Lately, I've been thinking about something else: Only 3% of the US identifies as atheists and 4% identifies as agnostics. No one will make a better world without the help of the other 93%.

And I've been wondering about this: Why is the economic class I oppose the class that is most receptive to atheism?

It comes to this:

1. I don't feel obliged to take a side on something that can't be known.

2. I don't feel obliged to convert people to what I believe. If your understanding of the universe pleases you and you don't force it on others, I'm happy you found something that comforts you.

Friday, June 30, 2017

William Sanders is dead. He was a better man and a better writer than his haters.

I never met William Sanders, but I admired his work, and after I began studying mobbing and call-out culture, I admired the man, too. I wrote about him in The Powwow Dancer vs. the People of Privilege - Mobbing William Sanders.

The story of his that is most likely to be remembered is online: "The Undiscovered" by William Sanders (pdf).

He retired from writing, then wrote a couple of stories. I'll always wonder what more he might've written if fandom's identitarians had not decided to drive him from the field.

ETA: I learned of this from Gardner Dozois's Facebook post.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why writers should treat fans the way teachers treat students

I was once in a flamewar where, to my astonishment, people were angry that I was disagreeing with them as though they were my equals—they behaved with the curt rudeness that's common in heated arguments, but they expected me to treat them the way good adults treat ignorant youths, with a gentleness that hides the awareness the person being addressed simply hasn't a clue. I mention that now because the phenomenon's described at Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog: Funny--On Academic Bad Manners:

Philosopher Tad Brennan at Cornell writes with an explanation:

Journalists are surprised that academics can be short with them because they last met academics in the classroom, and most professors are kind and generous when dealing with students. Serious academics save their scathing put-downs for colleagues and equals--I doubt that those quotes from Fodor and Sterelny document interactions with students.

Instead of feeling pained and affronted, the bloggers and journalists should take it as a compliment: 'hey, those academics are treating me like an equal!' That can help to salve the bruises, anyhow. And it also shows why a sharp-tongued critique directed at a non-student is no betrayal of the "tone" appropriate to an "educator". If you are my student, then I have an obligation to be your educator; if not, not. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Why there are no expiration dates on spoilers

 A novel is literally a "new thing". This is why there are no expiration dates on spoilers—everyone should have the chance to experience a story as the writer intended. If you don't know how Oedipus Rex ends, I won't be the one to tell you. I envy people who don't know the endings of great stories.

There is a statute of limitations on spoilers for critical pieces that assume the reader or viewer knows the piece in order to analyze it. But even then, the ending shouldn't told be in the title of the critical piece—it's more considerate to title something "About That Big Star Wars Reveal" than "About R2D2 Having Hitler's Brain."

That said, the accidental revelation of an ending is no big deal. Like stepping on someone's toe, it happens. Only jerks do it on purpose.

The intentional revelation, though? A story spoilered cannot be unspoilered. I oppose the death penalty, but I'd make an exception for those who love to spoil.

PS: If you wouldn't reveal the end of a mystery, don't reveal the end of any story. All stories are mysteries when first experienced.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The campfire scene: the heart of every team movie and the greatest weakness of Rogue One

The campfire scene gets its name from stories in which people on a journey stop for a meal and have nothing to do but talk. Campfire scenes reveal character, both to the audience and to the other characters. They give the members of a new team a chance to bond. They make us believe a story is about individuals rather than archetypes. The campfire scene is to a story about a team what the falling in love scene is to a romance: it makes us want to see the characters succeed.

Rogue One would've been much better with a campfire scene. There might be one on the cutting room floor—one character calls another "little sister", which only makes sense if they'd had time to form a bond. There were plenty of opportunities for campfire scenes—a story can have many—and yet the few attempts did nothing to convince me that any of the team members came to care for anyone they had not already cared for, except the guy in charge of the mission, who apparently liked the hero because she was of the desired sex and reasonably competent.


Monday, January 23, 2017

The Rebel Jesus

The Rebel Jesus


You know the end of this story.

The rebel goes to the city ruled by the empire’s governor. He attacks bankers. He is arrested. The rich decide he must die. The governor sentences him to the traditional death for rebels, fastened to a stake called a crux in a public place where his suffering will tell passersby what happens to those who defy the empire.

How rebels die is a common story. I will not tell that part.
This is the story of the life of the rebel Jesus.

1. One Thousand Years in a Land with Many Names

Every story about a rebel is a story of a place and power. The place in this story is a strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Its neighbors are Egypt in the southwest, Arabia in the southeast, and Syria in the northeast. Egyptians called it Peleset. Assyrians called it Pilistu. The Greek historian Herodotus called it Palaistine. The Bible’s Hebrew writers called it Peleshet, and some English Bibles translate it as Philistia. Its common English name is Palestine.

Its history is a story of conquest and independence and conquest again. When its people called it Canaan, its city-states became vassals of Egypt. As Egypt grew weak, independent kingdoms grew again, including Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Archeology tells us they were small, but the Bible says they were great.

The Book of Samuel calls David, their most famous king, a messiah, a Hebrew word that translates into Greek as Christos. It means “an anointed one”, a person who has scented olive oil poured onto his hair by a priest to show he is God’s choice to lead the people.

The land was conquered by Assyria, then Babylon. Hebrew became a language for scholars. The people adopted the Aramaic that their conquerors spoke.

Babylon fell to Persia. The Persians believed in one god, Ahura Mazda, whose priests were called magi and whose prophet was Zoroaster. Persia’s Emperor Cyrus was a Zoroastrian, but the Book of Isaiah calls him a messiah because he let Judah’s exiled nobles return to Jerusalem and built a Temple so Judeans could worship the one god in their own way.

Persia’s empire fell to Alexander the Great. The Seleucid Empire brought Greek culture into many parts of Palestine. In the region that had been Judah and was now Judea, the Hasmonean dynasty ruled as vassals of the Seleucids until civil war weakened that empire. The Hasmoneans united Palestine to form an independent kingdom called Judea after its Judean rulers

Then Rome came.

Judea became a client state of the Roman Empire. The Hasmoneans rebelled with help from the Parthian Empire that had risen in the east. The Romans defeated them and installed a new vassal in Judea, King Herod the Great, who built forts and palaces and expanded the Temple of Jerusalem.

When Herod died, three rebellions broke out. Each leader claimed to be a messiah who would drive out the Romans. The largest revolt was in the region of Galilee. Rome crushed it, and two thousand people were crucified

The kingdom of Judea was divided among Herod’s children. Philip got the north. Salome got the southwestern coast. Herod Antipas got the center, including Galilee. Herod Archelaus got the south, including the original land of Judea.

Ten years later, Rome banished Archelaus for incompetence. The province of Judea was put directly under Rome’s control. The first of many Roman governors ordered a census to count and tax the Judeans. Rebels led by Judas the Galilean opposed it. To complete the census, the governor of Syria brought troops to restore peace, and so the census is remembered by his name as the census of Quirinius.

The Book of Acts of the Apostles says Judas the Galilean was killed and his followers scattered. His influence did not end with his death. The historian Josephus says Judea had three sects before that rebellion, and a fourth one after

Judea’s rich liked the Sadducees, whose  name means they were descended from Zadok, the first High Priest. Sadducees welcomed Greek and Roman customs.

Judea’s middle class liked the Pharisees, whose name means “the separated.” Pharisees rejected foreign ways.

Most Judeans liked the Essenes, whose name means “the holy”. Essenes were also called Ebionites, which means "the poor", because they lived simply in communes in the cities and the country, sharing all they had.

Josephus called Judas the Galilean the father of a fourth sect, the Zealots, who "agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord." In pursuit of their goal, Zealots killed Romans as well as the Judeans who worked with them.

Into this troubled world, the rebel Jesus was born.

cc by 3.0 Andrew c.

2. Two Stories of One Birth

Matthew's Birth Story

The Gospel of Matthew says the life of Jesus begins while King Herod rules Judea.

In Matthew’s story, Joseph the son of Jacob lives in Judea in the town of Bethlehem. He learns his wife Mary is already pregnant when she comes to live with him. Wondering if he should send her away, he goes to sleep. When he wakes, he decides to keep her and raise the child as his own.

After Jesus is born, three priests come from the Parthian Empire and give the baby presents of gold and rare perfumes. They say he will be the king of the Jews.

King Herod the Great hears about this. Believing the boy may be a threat to his rule, Herod sends soldiers to kill every boy in Bethlehem who is two years old or younger.

Joseph and his family flee to Egypt. When they hear Herod is dead and his son Archelaus rules Judea in his place, Joseph wants to go to home but fears Herod’s son is a danger to Jesus. So Joseph settles in Galilee in the town of Nazareth.

Luke's Birth Story

The Gospel of Luke says the story of Jesus begins when Quirinius orders everyone to go to their family homes to be counted in a census.

In Luke’s story, Joseph the son of Heli lives in Galilee in the town of Nazareth. He takes his pregnant wife Mary on the long trip south into Judea. When they arrive in Bethlehem, Jesus is born. A feeding trough is used for his bed.

Shepherds come to see the baby. They say he will be an anointed one, a savior of the Jews like King David in the Book of Samuel and the Emperor Cyrus in the Book of Isaiah.

Joseph and Mary take the child to the Temple at Jerusalem and dedicate him to God. A holy man and and a holy woman at the Temple each say the boy will grow up to do great things.

The problems with Matthew’s story?

1. When Judea was divided after Herod's death, his son Antipas became the tetrarch of the central region, which included Galilee.  If Herod's children were a threat to the baby, he would not be safe there.

2. The historian Josephus wrote about many horrible things Herod did, but Josephus does not mention babies being slaughtered in Bethlehem.

The problems with Luke’s story?

1. Luke says Herod was alive at the time of Quirinius's census, but the census was ordered ten years after Herod’s death, when Archelaus was banished for abusing his power and Rome installed the first of many Roman governors in the province of Judea.

2. Quirinius’s census, like any census, counted people where they lived. Having people travel to the place their families would be an unnecessary disruption in people's lives.

3. If the census had required people to travel to be counted, it only affected people in the province of Judea. No one would have had to travel from Galilee.

3. The Childhood and Appearance of the Son of the Father

Matthew says when Jesus was twelve, he and his family went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Joseph and Mary began to go home, then realized Jesus was not with them. They spent days hunting for their missing son. They found him in the Temple courtyard, sitting with the religious teachers.

The Aramaic word for father, Abba, was a common name for God. Jews still use it when they recite the kaddish, the traditional hymn of praises. The Bible mentions a rebel named Barabbas—Bar Abba is Aramaic for “son of Father.” The Essenes called themselves sons of God. When Judean rebels used the term, it separated them from the Romans who worshiped many gods.

The Bible does not say what Jesus looked like. Being the son of a Palestinian woman, he would have had dark skin and dark hair.

The Bible does not say how he dressed or wore his hair. In Mark’s Gospel, he’s called a tekton, a builder, and in Matthew, the son of a builder. His hands would have been hard from labor. He may have cut his hair short in the Greek and Roman fashion like most Judeans of the time.

But Palestine had holy men called nazirites who let their hair grow long. Some took vows to live as nazirites for a period of time. Some, like the Bible's Samson, lived as nazirites their entire lives.
The Bible says Jesus was called the Nazarene because he came from Nazareth. But early Christian writers may have failed to understand that he was a Nazirite, a long-haired son of God. Or he may have been both a Nazirite and a man from Nazareth.
Long hair did more than identify a holy man in Palestine. It showed the world he rejected the ways of Rome.

4. Before the Rebel Jesus, the Rebel John

The story of one rebel starts with the end of another, John the Baptist. His title means he baptized people, washing away their sins in a ritual bath.

Mark starts his story by telling about the Baptist living in the country near the Jordan River. He wears simple clothes and eats simple food. Many people come to hear him teach and be cleansed of sin. John washes Jesus, and then Jesus goes into the desert to meditate.

John also starts his story by telling about John the Baptist. Rich Judeans send priests and Temple guards to John, demanding to know who he is and what he is doing.

John answers by quoting Isaiah, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

That's a rebel’s answer, a cry that the maker of the universe has declared the current order is wrong and must be set right.

Matthew starts his story with Jesus's birth, but before Matthew tells about the adult Jesus, he tells about crowds going to the Baptist. Among them are Sadducees and Pharisees. The Baptist calls them “children of vipers” and demands they change their ways.

That's a rebel’s answer, a rejection of the elite who prey on Palestine's people like snakes.

Luke also starts his story with Jesus's birth, but Luke links Jesus and John before either is born. Luke says the pregnant Mary goes to stay with her pregnant relative Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, the unborn John leaps in her womb to acknowledge that Jesus in Mary's womb is a miraculous child. In Luke's story, John is only six months older than Jesus, but, as in the other gospels, John is still the first to become famous, and Jesus goes to him to be washed.

Luke tells what the Baptist teaches.

The crowd asks, "What should we do?"

John answers, "If you have two shirts, give one to someone who has none. If you have food, do the same."

A tax collector asks, "What should we do?"

John answers, "Take no more from people than you're supposed to."

A soldier asks, "What should we do?"

John answers, "Don’t take bribes. Don’t accuse people of things they haven’t done. Be content with your pay."

Telling the rich to share equally?

Telling their servants, the tax collectors and soldiers, to be honest?

That's a rebel’s answer, an accusation that the current social order is not just.

The Baptist’s teachings, his isolation from Judean society, and his criticism of Judea’s two largest sects imply he was a member of the third, the Essenes. Only one detail argues against that. Matthew says John lived on locusts and honey. If so, he was an unusual Essene because Essenes were vegetarians.

But the oldest copies of Matthew are in Greek, and the Greek word for locusts, akris, is very close to the Greek word for flatbread, egkris. What John ate may have been misspelled in an early manuscript and faithfully copied ever since.

Or perhaps John's group of Essenes were not strict vegetarians.

This we know: The Baptist's teachings made poor people love him and rich people fear him. He lived by the Jordan in Perea, where Rome's servant was Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Perea and Galilee. Antipas married Herodias, the former wife of his brother Philip, and the Bible says John called that incest.

Insulted, Herodias asks Antipas to kill John. In Mark's story, Antipas refuses because he believes John is a good and holy man. In Matthew's story, Antipas refuses because he is afraid killing John will spark a rebellion.

Then Herodias's daughter, Salome, dances at a feast. Antipas is so pleased that he tells her, "Whatever you ask, I'll give you, up to half of my kingdom."

Salome asks her mother, "What shall I ask?"

Herodias replies, "The head of John the Baptist."

Antipas is not willing to go back on his word in front of his guests, so the Baptist’s head is given to Salome on a platter.

Josephus tells a simpler story. He says Antipas was afraid the Baptist would raise a rebellion. He had John imprisoned at Macherus near the Jordan River, then killed.

Some of John's students went with Jesus. Others stayed true to John and his teaching. Today, the Baptist is revered by Mandaeans, a gnostic sect numbering about 70,000 people worldwide. They call Jesus an apostate. Considering how Jesus's path diverged from John's, that's understandable. The gospel writers are reluctant to say why Jesus was washed by John like all who went to went to hear him, but the Mandaeans say clearly that Jesus was a student of John's who went his own way.

What Jesus did when he was young and why he felt he needed to be washed by John, the Bible does not suggest. Mark, whose gospel is the oldest in the Bible, tells his story without explanations:
In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up from the water, he saw the heavens parting, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. A voice came out of the sky, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
In Mark's story, Jesus is not called God's son until John washes him. The later gospel writers were clearly troubled by what that implied. That Jesus was washed by John must have been too well known for the writers to omit, so they said Jesus was washed by John to fulfill a prophecy. That was enough of an answer for them. They never asked why one son of Abba needed to be washed by another before he could do what God expected.

All four gospels make one thing clear: Jesus began under the influence of a man who died a rebel's death, killed by Rome's approved ruler for criticizing the ways of the rich.

5. The Rebel Followers of the Rebel Jesus

The Bible says Jesus had a core group of twelve followers who were called apostles, a name that comes from the Greek word for messenger. The Gospels disagree on their names. The number twelve may not be meant literally—it may simply be meant to evoke the belief there were once twelve tribes of Israel—or some apostles may have been known by two names.

Where "brother" is used below, it may mean a literal brother, a relative such as a cousin, or a best friend.

The Zealot

Simon, called the Cananean by Mark and Matthew, and the Zealot by Luke, is not mentioned by John. Cananean comes from the Hebrew kanai which was translated into Greek as zelotes. The Zealots were zealously devoted to God in their desire to drive the Romans out of Judea. The historian Josephus says the Zealots became Judea's fourth major sect after Judas of Gamala led a rebellion against Rome at the time of the Judean census.

The Sicarius

Judas Iscariot is identified by John as the son of Simon Iscariot. His epithet suggests he was a member of the sicarii, radical Zealots whose name came from their sicas, sickle-like daggers that they hid in their robes and used to kill Romans and Judean collaborators.

Some writers insist Iscariot meant Judas came from Kerioth. They note that Josephus says the sicarii appeared while Felix governed Judea, twenty years after the Gospels say Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death.

But two better explanations exist. Josephus may be wrong. If so, the sicarii were less active before Felix's time and Josephus simply overlooked the earliest examples of Zealot assassinations. Or Josephus may be right. If so, early Christians may have identified the Zealot Judas, the sly betrayer of Jesus, with the sicarii, the most secretive and brutal of the Zealots. Then, a decade or two later, Mark recorded what he knew using the epithet for Judas that his readers would recognize.

The outlaw followers of the executed Baptist
Simon Baryona is best known as Peter, the Greek translation of the Aramaic name, Cephas, that Jesus gave him. Both Peter and Cephas mean "rock". Peter was a married fisherman in the town of Bethsaida, though we do not know if his wife died or he left her. (Yes, it is odd that for the last thousand years, celibate Catholics Popes claim they follow Peter's tradition.) Peter's death is not recorded in the Bible. Early Christians believed he died the rebel's death of crucifixion.

Jesus calls Peter baryona Matthew's Gospel. Traditional Christians say this means Peter was a son of Jonah, but baryona or biryona is the Aramaic word for outlaw or ruffian—in the Talmud, the Zealots are called biryonim.

Peter's brother Andrew was also believed to have died the rebel's death of crucifixion. The Gospel of John says Andrew was a student of the Baptist's who recognized Jesus as a messiah and introduced him to his brother.

The Sons of Thunder

James, son of Zebedee, is called one of the Boanerges. Strong's Concordance says that's an Aramaic term from bēn ("sons") and regesh ("of thunder, tumult"). James is the only apostle whose death is recorded in the Bible—in Acts, Rome's agent Herod Agrippa has James killed with a sword.

The other Son of Thunder is John, James's brother, the only disciple believed to have died of old age.

Who were the Sons of Thunder? Thunder was the voice of God, so Sons of Thunder were Sons of God who opposed the Romans with their many gods.

The tax collector and five others

Whether the remaining six apostles were associated with rebellion, the Bible doesn't suggest. They were Philip, Thomas the Twin, Bartholomew who is named in three Gospels and may be Nathanael to John, James the son of Alphaeus who is not mentioned by John, Thaddeus who appears in Matthew and Mark and may be Jude to Luke and John, and Matthew the tax collector who is not mentioned by John.

But Matthew's former job gives him a whiff of rebel—he went from serving Rome to serving the rebel that Rome would kill.