Monday, September 24, 2012


Most of my writing is nonfiction, but I've experimented at odd intervals with fiction, too.  The latest interval has actually met with a little success and might well turn into something really cool, not to mention remunerative.  But before we get to that, let's review:

Late in high school, I read the Worst Star Trek Pulp Novel Ever and decided I could write something better.  I succeeded, barely: I produced a novella about a human who becomes accidentally entangled in an interstellar organized crime network.  It wasn't completely original, and it was often cheesy, but it was better than that pulp novel, and helped me to realize that I could write this kind of stuff, when I put my mind to it.  A seminar in my senior year also helped me to look critically at my own work and to try out other forms of fiction.

In my second year of undergrad, I took an advanced fiction-writing course from a professor who asked that we learn by imitating techniques modeled by famous novelists.  The exercises could have been excruciating if he hadn't also given us some freedom to continue to seek our own writing voices in the process.  The results, for me, were some interesting short stories, little thought-experiments, some of them derivative -- there's one that reveals, in retrospect, how many of Piers Anthony's fantasy novels I'd read up to that point -- but again, each was a chance to break new ground.

During my twenties and early thirties, I kept coming back to short story-crafting, writing more originally, but still struggling to find the writing voice I'd been looking for since high school, with mixed results.  (It should come as no surprise that this period overlapped with some particularly difficult stages of development in my doctoral dissertation.  Writer's block can be contagious that way.)  I showed a story or two to friends; I entered a public library's all-night story-writing contest; but I was still looking for that One Really Good Idea.  Maybe that's especially important for those who write and hope to publish science fiction -- there's so much, and so many good ideas (and more than a few bad ones!) already out there, that the finding of one's voice is inextricably bound to the discovery of a distinctive feature that nobody else (to one's knowledge) has yet developed.

That brings us to the recent past.  In trying to "write what I know," I had been kicking around ideas about an artificial intelligence (or "A.I.") as a narrator, ever since I had first encountered narrative transmission models in the field of literary criticism.  Without going into exhaustive detail, some critics have suggested that reading is a communication process that happens not just between author, text, and reader, but between imagined folks within the text itself: the "implied author" as s/he is represented in the text, the narrator who relates the story, the narratee to whom the story is told, and the "implied reader" for whom the text is intended (the model can get much more complicated, though we don't need to go into that here.  But I know a guy who wrote a dissertation about this stuff.)  For example, in the case of this blog, a real author with flesh-and-blood fingers is typing it, and a few (presumably) fleshy readers are reading it, but within the blog itself, one could posit that there's a Me as I present myself in here, and a You, an "ideal" reader, that will get and appreciate everything I have to say.

What I had begun to wonder about was the prospect of an AI as an implied author and/or narrator: how a computer would present itself and relate a story to an audience, who that audience would be, etc.  This led to a story about an archival computer from Earth, recounting the manner in which Earth was attacked and incorporated into a vast empire called the Magistracy.  Other stories followed, and ideas for more pop up all the time.  This unfolding universe is at least as much a philosophical thought-experiment as that of others whose work I've enjoyed; Ursula Le Guin, for example, draws on her father's work in anthropology when she writes sociologically rich stories about the worlds of the Ekumen, while Robert Sawyer has speculated that so much of "sci-fi" is philosophical in nature that it could be just as accurately called "phi-fi."  Well, welcome to "A.I.-fi."  Certainly fleshy creatures, humans included, are involved in this batch of stories, but the accounts themselves belong to machines who live among them, pilot their ships, etc.  Part of the fun of creating and writing these characters lies in imagining how differently they might see their world(s), and what they make of ours.  And of course a fair amount of my background in ancient-imperial ideology and biblical theology comes through, too.

The Magistracy stories completed so far received some very positive feedback from my sister, a (recovering) English Major now well-versed in the publishing world, and from one Karen Elliott Lowe as well.  Finally, with fear and trembling, it was time to submit a few for publication.  Last week, a small Canadian publisher wrote to congratulate me on the upcoming publication of one of my stories in their very short story collection (contest entries were limited to 750 words.  You try it.  It's fun and frustrating by turns) this coming December, with second-round contest results TBA.  And I'm still waiting to hear back from Asimov's, one of the premier SF magazines, about what they think of another, much longer story.  But hooray for external, blind-review validation, and here's hoping for more to come!

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Constructing the Scaffold

Hamilton's TrueCity movement of churches ( will shortly be announcing the formation of The Scaffold, a book room intended to serve as a resource for pastors and ministry leaders.  

I think it's an exciting project, but I'm a bit biased; I'm managing it.

But Matt, you finished your Ph.D in something ending in "-ology."  Shouldn't you be teaching somewhere with pomp and circumstance and stuff?

Maybe.  I've tried to.  I'm still trying to.  I'd still like to.  But that avenue is very crowded right now, and there's a need here that involves stewarding my teaching and research skills a little differently.  The Scaffold, as friends and I have envisioned it over the past few months, will be a space where we can work on sermons, papers, and other projects,  A space for working individually or together.  With maybe some coffee.  And possibly some cookies.  I wouldn't be a very good Baptist if sharing food wasn't in the vision somewhere.  It's a place that I and others will be able to work productively and cooperatively, hopefully sharing books we don't need to keep at home -- and hopefully getting more and better work done, and maybe even learning from one another, in the process.  And this may well offer opportunities to teach, consult, etc. in related capacities, outside the academic settings to which I'm accustomed.

Some details, for those who are interested (specialists in redaction criticism will note that the language of these and other features of this post overlap with the TrueCity announcement.  I would posit that the author and the TrueCity site shared a common source.  Feel free to write a paper about this.)...
  • The Scaffold will be housed in the TrueCity office (2nd floor, 500 James St North, Hamilton).
  • It will be open Wednesday and Friday mornings (9 AM - 1 PM) to start with, beginning on Oct 10, 2012; more hours may be added later on.
  • Its library will be comprised primarily of books in missional, theological, and biblical stiudies, all on extended loan from those who participate in it -- so it will grow as more of us join in (probably from TrueCity churches, to begin with, though I'm a notable exception to that rule right now).
  • You can learn more about how to get involved on the Facebook page,; visit the online library profile and catalog at and; and contact me officially at
  • Oh, and the name: well, the space itself is probably temporary -- so this is just a simple platform, designed to facilitate building, maintenance, and other activities.  Granted, it's almost interchangeable with scaffolding, the material(s) one uses to build a scaffold; but the metaphor doesn't need to bear that much weight.  As I said, it may only be temporary.  But it's still worth doing.  So come check it out and get involved.  Your brain and your ministry will thank you.
So this is something of an experiment in what I've seen labelled (and have practiced myself) as "intellectual hospitality": space created for the welcoming and honing of reflections and those who share them.  It's something that I and others have prayed over a good deal, in this instance -- desiring to go where God's Spirit leads, without trying to guess too far ahead where the Spirit will lead next.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Writing about Writing

I've been reflecting lately on writing as a vocation and a discipline.  Certainly I was doing so before I read and responded to my sister Chandra's post, "Going Public," on her excellent blog, "several drafts & a loving Editor" (which you should go and read as soon as you're done reading this..., and more so since then.

Like Chandra, I call myself a writer, and again like her, I do not write enough.  If writing is (one of) my vocation(s), one of the things for which I am made and to which I am called, then in a sense I am neglecting that which I was created to do when I am not thus engaged.  If I do not consistently practice this as a discipline, it is difficult to say with any integrity that I pursue it as a vocation.

That doesn't make the writing easy.

Part of what I have been thinking about is that it seems to be easier to write about writing than it is to write otherwise.  Writers whose books I otherwise skim through turn suddenly engaging, insightful, and even funny when they write about writing.  Two examples:

Mark Buchanan (The Holy Wild [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2003], 9) recounts that God made him “a monk’s failed cousin, a writer. Both callings render you slightly odd, a man alone in a room, denying one part of his manhood in order to awaken another. Both force you to shape silence and darkness and waiting into prayer. Both teach you the agonies of silence and of speaking, and the way God’s voice can brim in each. Both require you to listen much, pray much, study much, plow much. One demands you drink much wine, the other much coffee. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Both are lonely vocations.”

Mitt Romney (No Apology: The Case for American Greatness [New York: St. Martin’s, 2010], 195), remembering the solid foundation in compositional skills he received in junior and senior high, desires for the U.S. a “national rededication to the practice of writing,” but adds parenthetically, "Those who read this book may quarrel with the success" of his school's writing program "in my case.  But at least I gained the confidence to give it a try."

The urgent need for a renewed focus on writing is one of the few points on which Romney and I agree; and of course that commitment to better writing needs to be personal, not just institutional.  Buchanan's description of the writing life as a lonely vocation is one part of what sparked this blog; others have applied the same descriptor to writing, as well as teaching, public service jobs, and other careers (so saith Google, in all its oracular wisdom).  It's a helpful reminder of the solitude, and with it the focus and dedication, one needs in order to call oneself a writer, in order to be a writer.  But for me, it isn't quite as lonely a vocation -- for at least three reasons.

First, whether in my nonfiction writing for academic journals, books, and conference presentations, or in my tiny-but-hopefully-growing record of published fiction, writing and the study that informs it are forms of worship.  As long as I am deliberate about it, then time and energy so spent are spent with and for my Creator, in his presence and for his glory.

Second, all my vocations -- or all the facets of my vocation, singular -- are intimately tied to my role as husband to my wife, Karen.  If I am a helpful resource for pastors and other Christian ministry leaders, it's because I learned (and continue to learn) much of how to do that by discovering what is most helpful to her.  If a point in my teaching or nonfiction writing is clearer and more accessible than it might otherwise be, it's often because I ran it past her first.  And if the artificial intelligences that frequently serve as narrators and principals in my short stories seem more credible, more human, easier to relate to, it's often because she's encountered them first and made suggestions that flesh out the stories and those who relate them.

And third, as this blog's description indicates, writing has company in my life; it's never complained about being lonely.  I am an editor, in freelance capacities for an academic publishing house (hopefully with more to follow) and for projects authored by friends, family, and colleagues.  I am a professor/teacher, both informally and in lecture halls whenever I get the chance.  And lately, I am becoming a manager of The Scaffold, a missional/theological book room affiliated with the TrueCity movement here in Hamilton.  On paper, as it were, that last facet will give me more time and space to write, once it gets going over the next few weeks.  But as with the worship aspect, that will happen only if I am very deliberate about it.  My prayer is that this blog will be, among other things, a means of holding myself publicly accountable to my overall goal -- to pursue my not-so-lonely vocation(s) passionately and wholeheartedly.