The Church and the Black Swan

This was a grim week here at Secret Sun Central- a friend of my sons died in an accident and we attended his wake Thursday and my sons attended his funeral yesterday. He was one of the first friends my younger son made in this neighborhood. 

His family are the salt in the salt of the earth, a large and close-knit unit that I've always greatly admired. The kids all went to college, all got good jobs, all were active in sports and the community. People living the American Dream.

The turnout for the wake was astonishing. The parking lot for a large local church was filled- we had to improvise a spot. The receiving line wrapped around the enormous sanctuary. 

True to form, the family were solid, in good spirits, strong, gracious, warm and personable in their time of tragedy. I wasn't so much myself. I felt ashamed because I had a very hard time concealing my grief when talking to the family. But again, there they were; understanding, smiling, accommodating, stolid.

The family are devout Catholics, active in their local church. It appeared that a lot of the turnout for the wake were parishoners, coming to support a woman whom they love and value as an important member of the community. I couldn't help but think of the Roman era and how we are reliving it now, and how the love and support in a time of grief was such a powerful tool of persuasion in the spread of Chrisitianity.

Christianity wasn't alone in building bonds of community, of course. There was Judaism, which was an influential and widespread religion in Roman times. And you had a number of other religions, most notably that of the Mother Goddess Isis, which the Roman Church of today so resembles. 

But it struck me that in Roman times you had a powerful and evangelizing faith which atomized, rather than gathered. And that was the religion of cosmopolitanism, an umbrella under which all of the systems of disbelief such as Epicureanism and Stoicism coalesced. And of course, like today you also have Nü Atheism.

Nü Atheism is an adolescent movement. The adults who follow it have adolescent (or pre-adolescent) temperaments and personalities (Maher, Dawkins, Gervais, Myers etc) and it's grown in popularity since you have a large generational cohort reaching young adulthood and seeking to set themselves apart from their parents. But it's reactionary and petulant. A pose, not a philosophy.

The Christian churches helped it along by cynically allying themselves with partisan political interests of post-Cold War conservatism, ignoring that the so-called Mainline churches thought they too were surfing the crest of a wave by allying themselves with 60s liberalism. Didn't work out that way.

There are many in the Church who see this as a time of exile, many who see the current mood as a millennial shift, that the Church faces the same abyss the state cults of Rome did when Constantine began the process that brought the Church to power. This is absurd. Christianity is rising like wildfire in Africa and China, is reviving in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe and remains powerful in Latin America. 

It's in the graying, dying, shrinking precincts of Western Europe and North America where religion is in decline. 

Gee, you think there's a connection?

Many very conservative Christians (conservative theologically, that is) see this as a time of discipline for the Church, that God is punishing the Church for submitting itself to partisan and economic powers and neglecting its calling to evangelize and to serve the poor.

I don't know, it's no longer my fight. I left the Church for very complex and powerful reasons. Part of this was my disgust with the politics, with the aggressive partisanship of the 90s Southern Baptist and nondenominational ascendancy. I disdain Nü Atheism and its tributaries for the same reason, though in this case the politics are a mirror image. Same aggressive polarity, different party.

But I'm not one of those who are writing the Church's obituary. I think when the Millennials hit middle age they'll remember how nice it felt to be part of a community and will want to return to some kind of church. And to see the power of an institution that can provide such solace and support during the worst time of your life; well, what do the atheists have to counter that

Inevitably, the priest scandals come up, curiously often by the same people who ally themselves politically with people trying to mainstream pedophilia such as the BBC, and The Guardian. The priest abuse scandals were a total disgrace, there are no two ways about it. But at the same time the lion's share of the cases were decades old. Not that the damage is, however. The damage is often forever.

Yet he same people calling for the abolition of the Catholic Church because of the scandals and the cover-ups go suddenly silent when you point out that the worst of the Church's scandals are nothing in comparison to the sexual abuse of students committed by public school teachers. 

We are hearing cases seeming to pop up on a weekly -sometimes daily- basis from the public schools, and yet we don't see any movement from the Atheist movement to abolish the public schools. Why? Why the double standard? 

Science and math teachers especially commit rape, statutory rape and other forms of sexual abuse at alarming rates and yet the media seem to look the other way. 


It's a funny thing for me- I could never join the Catholic Church for reasons both personal and historical. But I respect it in many ways, as much as I decry its abuse of power. I'm not a joiner, I value my position as an outsider. But I do wonder if we're working backwards in a way, reliving late Rome but in reverse.  

I've written about the New Age, and how its power and influence is often unnoticed because it presents such a nebulous target. But it continues to grow and influence the mainstream religions in ways people don't quite yet understand. There are yoga cults most people have never heard of that have tens of thousands of followers.

And I do believe that without the monopoly of the churches -especially the intimidation and repression we often saw from the Southern churches towards any competition- that we will see interesting new religious movements flower once this adolescent rebellion burns itself out. 

We can't really guess at what they are yet. These things tend to follow larger streams of environment and event, meaning they arise in reaction to what is happening in the world and respond to the needs that present themselves to be filled. Social media may well be the medium in which the contagion may take root.

Whether or not they take the symbols of religion literally, people find meaning in them and the will to overcome adversity. They find community, fellowship, and support in time of trial. As our overclass becomes more antihuman and more psychopathic, those are needs I can only see increasing. Who will fill the void?

As powerful as the Church is I just don't think its symbols still resonate with people today. In that way it is like paganism in the Fourth Century, finding its neolithic vocabulary no longer resonating with a modern audience. The Bible was written for a time when families were companies and most of the population were slaves. You had limited technology and most people worked in menial labor until dying sometime in their 30s or 40s. 

Maybe the Church can reinvent itself. Maybe Islam will take hold, fueled by a disgust and utter fatigue with modernity and cosmopolitanism. But it's just as likely a black swan may arise, something we can't even imagine yet. Something that will fly under the radar, fueled by the technology of today. 

Aggressive atheism pops up from time to time and breeds itself out of the gene pool (I keep meaning to create a graphic using an old man mourning at a grave and write "Atheist Family Reunion"). It may be how Gaia or the Overmind cleans out certain social maladaptations in the body politic, I don't know. But already many- if not most- of the articles we see from atheists in the mainstream media are protests about how the author isn't like those atheists, the jerks. 

Heaven forbid.

Religion predates America and will exist long after America has disintegrated into a Balkanized collection of corporate serfdoms (which is to say 'in 30 years or so'). It serves a basic human need and has done so for millennia.  I see nothing of any real value or permanence filling that need in its absence. The only question in my mind is whether the old religions will revive or that black swan will take flight.

On The X-Files Revival...

By now you've heard the news: The X-Files are returning to Fox for a limited series. David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and Chris Carter have signed up. Best of all, the City of Vancouver has been enlisted as the shooting venue for the episodes.

Longtime readers know how badly I wished the series never left Vancouver, with its moody atmospherics and deep pool of talent. The series lost something vital when it left Canada after Season Five, and that may have a lot to do with losing executive producer RW "Bob" Goodwin, the man on the floor who made the magic happen.

I was watching some episodes in Season Eight (read my epic post on the season here), specifically the episodes I had given the lowest ratings to. And it surprised me how well they've aged and how obvious the effort to recapture the magic of Vancouver was.

I was just telling my wife how I seemed to tune in with Season Seven at the time (aside from crapfests like 'First Person Shooter' and 'Fight Club'), how some of the mystical themes seemed to synch up with my life at the time. But I feel that it's aged quite badly, that all the comedy and high concept may have been novel at the time but now it just seems like they were squandering the show's hard-earned mystique. It's actually my least favorite season now.

Of course, disenchantment had happened the season before, a season I definitely did not appreciate at the time. But I didn't know then that the producers were struggling to keep their star engaged in those seasons, even after he unilaterally forced the entire operation to move to Los Angeles.

But aside from some of the really broad comedies ('Rain King', 'Aqua Mala', 'How the Ghosts Stole Christmas') and the paint-by-numbers eps ('The Beginning', 'Alpha') I think there's a lot of high-quality work in Season Six, even if the show seemed hellbent on running away from itself (it certainly seems to be the favorite of a lot of fans online).

As I've said, Season Eight is by far my favorite season of the LA years and the truest reflection of what the show might have been had there not been so much creative interference coming from outside the writers' room (hence the record nine Carter/Spotnitz Mythology episodes)

But it's the Vancouver era where the magic really lies (particularly seasons Two, Three and Five). Even the weaker episodes (and there are no shortage of those) retain a certain charm because the machine was so well-tuned, so efficient at telling compelling stories.

I'm of mixed feelings about this reboot, not because I don't have faith that the people involved can't still do excellent work, but because of my alienation from the world it is reincarnating into. No matter what goes on screen there will endless bitching on the Internet. I am going to do my best to tune the negativity out, as I've tried to do since, oh, Season Two (I'm still totally mystified by the bitching about the second XF movie, which to me was a classic 1994-vintage standalone, replete with a host of familiar 1013 faces).

But part of me wants it to remain an indelible part of another age, a better age. An age when everything didn't seem so totally fucked-up. It's the same impulse you get when an old band reunites. Part of you wants them to remain as a totem of another time, not this time. As much as I want to see some new material, I don't know if I want The X-Files to be a part of 2015.

Or I only want to see The X-Files if it exists to defy 2015, with its superficiality, narcissism and Balkanization. Certainly the show is more relevant than ever but it will also be reaching an audience to whom "conspiracy" is a four-letter word, thanks to incessant media conditioning. I've already seen Millennials bitching about The X-Files' distrust of government and corporate power. Sigh.

But maybe The X-Files will strike a nerve once more and make it cool again to question authority. Stranger things have happened.

UPDATE: Excellent interview with Chris Carter where he takes some of his critics head on.

A Novel Approach

I remember hearing a story on NPR once about how the survival of a language depended on literature, that if a certain tongue didn't produce a substantial corpus of literature it would eventually die out.

I think ideas are like that. You hear the phrase "predictive programming" thrown around a lot in conspiracy media-- usually in an incorrect context-- but it's most certainly true that Hollywood and other forms of entertainment media have shaped our culture in ways other institutions no longer can.

The entire extraterrestrial hypothesis owes everything to Hollywood. When flying saucers first appeared the general assumption was that they came from behind the Iron Curtain, or in some esoteric circles, were the war-weapons of a Nazi regime in exile. It was a barrage of flying saucer movies that cemented the association with Martians or Venusians or Reticulans in the public mind, when Crypto- or Ultraterrestrials would make just as much sense. Especially given the fact that what people were seeing looked like hovercraft, not like anything that could escape Earth's gravity.

The personal computer and hacker revolutions were most certainly accelerated by Cyberpunk, first the novels and short stories then the parade of terrible movies and TV shows. No one believes today that computers or the Internet will set anyone free, but there was that expectation back in the late 80s and 90s, which definitely fed the dotcom boom.

Religions are fed by art, literature certainly. Where would Christianity be without the soaring rhetoric of the Apostle Paul? The spread of Islam in the Middle Ages was done with both the sword and the word; the great poets of the Muslim world were often as powerful argument for their faith as their slavers and swordsmen.

And though we may not recognize it, we are in the middle of a Gnostic Renaissance, a time when more people are familiar with the belief system than any time in history. Can you imagine it without the novels of Philip K. Dick or movies like Dark City and The Matrix?

Is this new Gnosticism condemned to recede back into the tides of history, the same way the Syrian and Alexandrian sects did, the same way the Cathars and the Bogomils did? That all depends. Certainly it's difficult to imagine the kind of ecclesiastical backlash that destroyed the previous expressions of the Gnosis, given that the Church has its own crisis to deal with. There are plenty of other antagonists with annihilationist agendas-- the Islamic Wahhabis, the totalitarian "social justice" thought-controllers, the Nü Atheists, the Paleoconservatives-- but they seem focused on destroying each other (not to mention civilization, the humanities and culture in general) to worry about small potatoes like Neo-Gnostics.

If The Secret Sun is anything it could be called "Neo-Gnostic." I've detailed Gnostic themes (and AstroGnostic themes, especially) in several films and TV shows, but I have to say that job has gotten harder in the past 5 years. We're in a strange fugue state in the culture and in society and our art reflects that. Paleocons have been bashing Gnosticism lately because Gnosticism is a tabula rasa to them, a scare word that they can project everything they don't like about our post-postmodern, cosmopolitan, nihilistic culture onto.

Their definition of Gnosticism is amorphous and comes from Traditionalist Catholic and Evangelical apologetics, sources not known for their scholarly dispassion. But I think Gnostic ideas express themselves best in art and entertainment, which is why I've spent the past 8 years talking about them.

But as I said, I feel like I'm running out of interesting source material so I decided that it was time to start creating some of my own.

This is a sort of homecoming for me, since my earliest writing was fiction. I wrote fiction all throughout high school and later did a few comics projects. Those led to my spending a few years shopping scripts for movies around. I have to say that even though I didn't sell anything I had a comparatively cushy ride. I got a lot of interest from major independent producers before I'd written my first screenplay, based solely on my graphic novel.

I wasn't cut out for it, though. Even though I met some very nice people (I got a lot of help from Kevin Smith's* people at View Askew, for instance), I knew I was getting myself into a situation that I wasn't suited for, nor was it suited for me.

But I can't help but wonder if maybe I just was too impatient, that maybe I should have had a stronger stomach for it, given the fact that a treatment I wrote in the late 90s magically transformed itself into the 2011 Saoirse Ronan vehicle Hanna, by some bizarre quantum fluke in the space-time continuum.

A lot of people have asked me over the past 5 years when I was going to do a new book. To be honest I was so unhappy with the entire experience of the rock 'n' roll book I wasn't sure when I was going to write another. Sadly, my publishing career (with one major exception) has been marked by major issues with creative control over the work.

Page/word counts have been my nemesis since my very first project, and at this point in my career it's not something I am willing to compromise on anymore. It's like writing with handcuffs on. It's why I've published so much on this blog, several books work of material if you add it up. No restrictions.

The book market has changed drastically in the past five years. Self-publishing has gone from being a joke to being the gold standard for independent-minded authors. The only satisfying experience I've had so far in publishing was my book on The Clash, which was essentially self-published. I did everything on that book, from concept to layout to production, and handed the printer a PDF file. It was wonderful. It's an experience I intend to repeat.

So what this all adds up to is that I am up to my neck in a new book, a fictional work this time, a novel. I've got the entire story plotted and boarded out (literally- I've taken a page from The Matrix and have drawn storyboards for many of the events- it's an incredible tool for working out thorny storytelling problems). I've got about 90% of the dialogue roughed out. The other 10% then leads to the polishing and rewriting, a process that usually takes twice as long as the original writing itself.

What's it about? Probably what you might expect. I'm a big believer in the concept of "dance with the one what brung ya." I've spent the last 8 years blogging about the topics that most interest me so you can expect to see a lot of them in the book.

But there are a lot of surprises as well. I've been surprised by the process, amazed as characters reveal themselves to me in ways I'd never expect for and events arise that I could never plan for. Writing is truly a magical art when it becomes an act of discovery, when the characters take control of the process and tell you their stories.

So what brought this all on? Appropriately enough, a VALIS reread. Somehow it hit me at the right time, the idea that Dick chose to tell this magical story, that was only barely fictionalized and so ripe with power. Life-changing, world-changing power. How what some might see as the drug-fueled delusions of a handful of weirdos in Southern California in the early 70s was alchemically transformed through fiction into something possessing an indescribable power. You can't help but be struck by the audacity of it.

My story is entirely fictional, there's nothing of a kind like VALIS in it. But I'm trying to draw on that same energy to communicate ideas, to realize them, to transubstantiate them from fringe notions to experiences.

Since I'm doing this on my own, I don't have a deadline. It will be published when I feel that it's 1000% killer, that it's a world-beating, stone-cold classic (in my own humble opinion, of course). But I may serialize at least part of the story here. That seems like a logical progression, especially given the subject matter I'll be exploring. And it certainly fits The Secret Sun ethic as well.

Watch this space...

*Clyde Lewis told me Kevin Smith is a Secret Sun fan when I was on Ground Zero, a fact I'd long suspected.