13 January 2010

Christianity as Fiction

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:01 pm

Yesterday I received an email from my old buddy Steven Pinker. Well, it’s not like he’s a really close friend: about three years ago I quoted him in my nonfiction book about Genesis 1 and sent him the relevant passage, which he commented on. So I guess I got automatically stored in his email directory. Anyhow, my pal Steven wanted to let me know that his wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, had just published a new book called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

As you can imagine, especially if you’ve been reading my recent posts, the title immediately captured my attention. Goldstein, being married to one of the more famous of the “new atheists,” isn’t really offering an apologetics — the 36 Arguments appear in an Appendix, each accompanied by a convincing counter-argument. Besides being a novelist, Goldstein is a serious scholar, having taught philosophy at the university level and having written biographies of Gödel and Spinoza. One of her novels in a fictionalized account of the life of William James. The new novel was just released just yesterday, and today it’s number 200 among all books, fiction and nonfiction alike, on the Amazon bestseller list. [I just checked again: it’s down to 246]

The update from Stephen dovetails nicely with the sixth of seven randomly-selected sentences from which I’m hoping to discover personal meaning and direction for the new year. It goes like this:

“Thus he is given almost equal status to Peter, who sits in a similar position to the right of Christ, and they are distinguished from the other disciples in being accompanied by two female figures, one representing the church of the Jews and the other the church of the Heathen, offering wreaths to Christ.”

The “he” who serves as subject of this sentence is the Apostle Paul, on whose writings I’ve written frequently at Ktismatics. The sentence appears on page 200 of Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind, a book which I found in the giveaway box at the local library and which I’ve not yet read. According to the back cover, the book traces the decline of scientific and rational thought in the West as a consequence of Constantine’s consolidation of a Christianized Roman Empire in the fourth century. Previously the church had emphasized the Gospels, in which Jesus is presented as a Jewish national hero and a rebel against Roman authority. After the crucifixion Peter had sustained the essential Jewishness of Christianity. Paul, on the other hand, universalized the Christian faith to embrace Romans and barbarians alike, imposed a hierarchical church authority structure, and counseled cooperation with the political authorities — an approach that proved much more compatible with the consolidation of the Empire. Augustine emerged in the fourth century as the pre-eminent Pauline theologian and enforcer of a standardized Christian dogma.

In my nonfiction book about Genesis 1 I made the opposite argument: that a revival of Augustinian influence within Christianity during the Protestant Reformation restored a more empirical and creative orientation to Western culture. In all likelihood I was being overly charitable, largely because I was trying to establish a basis for collaboration and compromise between believers and nonbelievers. Three years later I don’t care as much about compromise, or even about religion-bashing. I’m prepared to regard Christianity as the fiction I believe it to be, along with most other forms of metaphysical speculation, and to exploit it for my own amusement. At the same time, I agree with Fabio’s contention that

“In the West we cannot ignore how the history of Christianity influences our every step (and on this point, I find extremely telling the constant subtle interest of extremely timely ‘radical thinkers’ such as Badiou and Zizek with Christianity, not to mention of course Meillassoux own polemic against fideism and yet his confrontation with theological, or divinological, issues)”

So, like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, I’ll continue incorporating religion into the fiction I write, as long as it stimulates my imagination and contributes to my glee.



  1. That video was painful. But what a gorgeous house.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 14 January 2010 @ 8:42 am

  2. Agreed about the painfulness. I suspect that the agent or PR firm wanted Pinker visible in the home video in order to enhance sales presence. I can’t tell if he wants Goldstein to go ahead and admit that the main male character in her novel really is based on him, or if he wants her to say what she says: that it’s a mistake to think that her fictional characters are based on real-world people. Yeah right. She seems wrapped very tightly, and he’s got a kind of smug demeanor in this performance. Have you ever read any of her fiction, Asher? I haven’t, but from the blurbs her book sounds like a fairly traditional “literary fiction” human-interest story. I reserved it at the library, but there are 3 patrons ahead of me in the queue.


    Comment by john doyle — 14 January 2010 @ 10:15 am

  3. Smug — perfect word for that guy. In one of his non-fiction books, he attempts to discredit the work of Rumelhart and McClelland using the “Sympathetic Skeptic” approach, in which the writer pretends that he wants the interlocutor’s arguments to be true and keeps giving them “one more chance”, drawing out (and supposedly cementing) their inevitable failure. To me this was unforgivable, especially since Pinker failed to display an understanding of how neural networks operate.

    So — Pinker: Jackass.

    I haven’t read any of Goldstein’s fiction. I am interested in this book, but I fear that I might be in for the sort of white-bread zaniness that sets my teeth on edge. This is probably an unfair expectation based on her relationship with Pinker. I’m definitely getting a sample before I buy it, though.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 14 January 2010 @ 10:40 am

  4. Here’s a quote from a review I found

    There was only one character I didn’t like, and that leads me to my one major complaint. Cass’ mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, was pompous, egotistical, and insufferably self-absorbed – and I have no doubt that Goldstein intended us to find him so – but then, why does he have so much face time in the book? The plot noticeably drags whenever he appears, and in fact, the plot thread that involves him is never really brought to a satisfying resolution.

    I wonder if Klapper is the Pinker character.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 14 January 2010 @ 10:41 am

  5. I sent a sample to my Kindle. I will refrain from comment, except to suggest reading a bit of it before taking it out of the library.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 14 January 2010 @ 12:12 pm

  6. That bad, is it? Well I won’t hold my breath waiting for the others in line before me to take their turns with it.

    As a psycholinguist Pinker is in league with Chomsky in asserting the necessity of an innate language module over and above incremental learning. This would put him at odds with Rumelhart and McC’s connectionism — so he got smug on their asses, did he? The author of my 7th iconic sentence, which I’ll probably post on tomorrow, disagrees with Chomsky and Pinker on this issue, and I think he’s right: no god-given Kantian language capacity handed down to us humans on a skyhook. I haven’t read Pinker’s Language Instinct book, but I did like his omnibus How the Mind Works as a good overview of how an evolutionary psych approach can be deployed without getting silly in overgeneralizing from the data. He also wrote a kind and rather bold foreword for a book by the unknown Judith Harris called The Nurture Assumption, which uses the evolutionary POV to critique in detail the usual assumptions made by developmental psychologists about childrearing. And he responded personally and rapidly to my email, so I’ll always harbor kind thoughts toward the guy.


    Comment by john doyle — 14 January 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  7. It’s weird terrain. I read a book recently in which Pinker was presented as a heroic early critic of Chomsky (in terms of not dismissing language evolution). But Pinker is wrong about a lot of stuff, and being pompous about it doesn’t help.

    One interesting thing for me in the context of this book is an idea my wife had. She compared Pinker’s argument against the connectionists to the argument made by “intelligent design” creationists. Rich.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 14 January 2010 @ 2:20 pm

  8. K: In all likelihood I was being overly charitable, largely because I was trying to establish a basis for collaboration and compromise between believers and nonbelievers. Three years later I don’t care as much about compromise, or even about religion-bashing.

    What caused this shift away from collaboration/compromise? Is it a permanent change in direction? Or something more temporary: a shift of interests, etc.?


    Comment by Erdman — 14 January 2010 @ 3:06 pm

  9. I’m happy to collaborate and compromise with religious folk on tangible projects: aid to Haiti, antiwar efforts, etc. As you know, Erdman, I’ve made some efforts to arrive at theological reconciliation between believer and unbeliever, a project which you too are undertaking. But I’m on the outside of the religious community, and for me to achieve any sort of influence on the inside strikes me more and more as itself a fantasy, a fiction. So I think I’ll just keep it fictional. E.g., a guy shows up with an interpretation of the Biblical creation story and is disregarded by the traditional religious crowds, but somehow a fringe group adopts/coopts his theory, with potentially dire consequences for the world… That sort of fictional project seems more realistic than actually having any believers hear or pay attention to this guy’s interpretation in the real world.


    Comment by john doyle — 14 January 2010 @ 5:51 pm

  10. So we just watched A Serious Man by the Coens. Now there’s some religious fiction to be reckoned with.


    Comment by john doyle — 14 January 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  11. Could you expand on what you mean by “influence”? Have you been disappointed by your lack of influence? That is, when you began your project of reconciliation, did you anticipate having more influence? What did that look like to you? What expectations did you have?


    Comment by Erdman — 15 January 2010 @ 11:28 am

    • Wouldn’t a project of reconciliation sort of naturally include the idea of influencing people?


      Comment by Asher Kay — 15 January 2010 @ 11:46 am

      • Asher,

        Yes. I would think so.


        Comment by Erdman — 17 January 2010 @ 2:49 pm

  12. Well of course one fantasy regarding influence would be that my reading of Genesis 1 would be so persuasive that many believers in God would accept the distinct possibility that God had nothing whatever to do with creating the material universe. I’ve wondered how many tribes the Elohim talked with before one of them finally “got it,” becoming consciously aware of the universe and their place in it. All those other encounters would have gone unrecorded, as if they had never happened. Or how many times might God have sent a messiah who died without having fulfilled his mission? My fiction is nothing if not ambivalent, so I can write a novel about someone who, after laboring in obscurity for years, unexpectedly becomes very influential in ways he doesn’t like and that might have terrible consequences for humankind. The analog would be an Elohim whose intention was to educate but who, much to his own chagrin, found himself being worshiped instead.


    Comment by john doyle — 15 January 2010 @ 12:29 pm

  13. Over the past 3 weeks I’ve managed to read the first 50 pages of the 36 Arguments book, but today I must return it to the library inasmuch as a hold has been placed on it. So far I can’t see anything particularly interesting beyond the potential love triangle of three incredibly successful and hot Boston academicians.


    Comment by john doyle — 11 March 2010 @ 6:00 am

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