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Why can’t theology be like science fiction?

University of the South School of Theology EfM Year 4 Books 2014

I admit to reading a great deal of science fiction and fantasy (in addition to literature, history, science, business, technology and other categories of composition), and that science fiction is perhaps not the best starting place for studying Theology, Ethics and Interfaith Encounters – the topics for my fourth year in the Education for Ministry  (“EfM”) program of the University of the SouthSchool of Theology.  Nonetheless, in some ways, science fiction can be more rigorous than theology.

The Webster definition of Theology: “The study of religious faith, practice, and experience. The study of God and God’s relation to the world. A system of religious beliefs or ideas.”  Webster’s definition for Science Fiction is: “Stories about how people and societies are affected by imaginary scientific developments in the future.”

My textbooks for this year are pictured above. EfM is an excellent program. I found all of these books interesting and worth reading (some are inspiring, superb, and worth reading more than once!). Since my EfM group is in Week 30 of a 36 week curriculum, I have finished reading all but the last on this list:

  • Education for Ministry – Reading and Reflection Guide Volume A (2013)
  • Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian FaithDiogenes Allen (2010)
  • And God Spoke: the Authority of the Bible for the Church Today, Christopher Bryan (2002)
  • The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety, Timothy F. Sedgwick (2008)
  • Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All, L. William Countryman (1999)
  • My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation, Edited by Jennifer Howe Peace, Or N. Rose, and Gregory Mobley (2012)

Last week, as I was finishing Living on the Border of the Holy, I identified a source of some of my frustration with my EfM reading this year.  When a fantasy or science fiction author creates a fictional universe, self-consistency is a major concern:

What distinguishes a fictional universe from a simple setting is the level of detail and internal consistency. A fictional universe has an established continuity and internal logic that must be adhered to throughout the work and even across separate works. So, for instance, many books may be set in conflicting fictional versions of Victorian London, but all the stories of Sherlock Holmes are set in the same Victorian London. However, the various film series based on Sherlock Holmes follow their own separate continuities, and so do not take place in the same fictional universe….

A famous example of a fictional universe is Arda, of J. R. R. Tolkien’s books The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. He created first its languages and then the world itself, which he states was “primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary ‘history’ for the Elvish tongues.” [from Wikipedia’s fictional universe article]

If a popular author does not present logic, continuity, and good writing, the powerful and vocal fan community is pleased to point out every inconsistent detail at length. (Continuity is also a major concern in films – if for no other reason than to avoid being listed on websites devoted to movie mistakes.)  Since reading my first science fiction book many decades ago, I have come to expect logic, continuity, and good editorial practices to be key drivers.  I have not always found those characteristics while reading these theology books.

Example One – from Living on the Border of the Holy

In Living on the Border of the Holy, the geographic metaphor in the title is found throughout the whole book.  “Border” is used 108 times, “borderland” is used 42 times, and “country” (as in “border country” – but not counting hits for the author’s name) is used 65 times.  The image of a border country is explained in many  ways that I found contradictory and confusing:

  • “The encounter with the HIDDEN is a kind of fault line running through the middle of our lives; no one can escape its presence. The HIDDEN forms a border country that turns out to be. paradoxically, our native land.” (p.6)
  • “The border country, therefore, is a place of intense vitality.  It does not draw us away from the everyday world so much as it plunges us deeper into a reality of which the everyday world is the surface.” (p.11)
  • “It can be helpful to imagine our human encounter with the HOLY as life in a border country. It is a country in which, at privileged moments of access, we find ourselves looking over from the everyday world into another, into a world that undergirds the everyday world, limits it, defines it, gives it coherence and meaning, drives it. Yet this hidden world is not another world, but the familiar world discovered afresh.” (p.8)
  • “The border country is the realm in which human existence finds its meaning. The border itself is the indispensable condition for this. If you could slip over entirely into the HIDDEN HOLY, you would no longer be in touch with the basic materials and experiences of human life. If you try to slip over entirely into the everyday world, then actions and experiences merely follow each other in succession without forming a larger whole.” (p.161)

In addition to reading two hundred pages, I spent time prayerfully considering Living on the Border of the Holy, and I discussed it for several hours with my EfM group.  The mixed geographic metaphor and strained logic did not help my understanding:

  • How can a land-feature simultaneously demarcate, undergird, and be a fault line?
  • How can it both be someplace to which we have “privileged moments of access” and also our “native land”?

If this were a science fiction or fantasy book, I think these basic logic and presentation contradictions in the setting would have been sorted out by the editor before publication.  I finally started ignoring the faulty metaphor and got on with considering the excellent content of Living on the Border of the Holy, especially its remarkable analysis of the priestly calling.

Example Two – from Theology for a Troubled Believer

There is no thematic metaphor in Theology for a Troubled Believer but there is certainly a strong cultural point of view. When I read stories about sympathetic, intelligent but non-humanoid characters, I can feel my mind opening to understand how human thinking and capabilities are influenced by our sensory input and body design.  Notable examples of such aliens include:

I admire authors who can understand and present a very different way of thinking and carry it forward through an extended work of fiction. In contrast, when I read Theology for a Troubled Believer, I was frequently irritated (and occasionally infuriated) by the author’s narrow, privileged, academic, and American context for a topic that is far beyond one culture’s circumstances. For example:

  • “The systemic search for reasons, or for the logos for anything and everything, is something we today take for granted.  It is part of our mental makeup.  We do it automatically.” (p.xviii) [While true for many educated Americans, I do not think that the “systemic search for reasons” is part of humanity’s mental makeup.]
  • “…we who live in democracies find it strange to consider the act of the Good Samaritan and the acts of the ‘sheep’ in the parable of the Sheep and Goats as acts of justice.  To those who think in terms of democratic societies, it is an act of mercy, not justice.” (p.23) [People living outside of democracies may also share this thinking.]
  • “The natural world is also a witness to God’s power, wisdom, and goodness…. Nature is not used to move from unbelief to belief.  Nature was always used by people who had already been moved by God’s grace to a life of faith as a way to gain a better idea of God’s power, wisdom, and goodness from nature’s immense size, intricate order, and usefulness to human life.” (p.50) [This sweeping generalization is not even true for the many Americans whom Nature has lead to belief!]

In addition to his insensitivity to other cultures, the author’s arrogance toward believers in Judaism and Islam is breathtaking. However, Diogenes Allen is most snarky about fellow scholars, particularly “philosophers of religion”. His negativity is tiring as a continuing theme.  The best part of this book is Diogenes Allen’s inspiring analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan and the absolute value of human beings – that alone makes Theology for a Troubled Believer worth the slog.  However, I think if this book was in the science fiction or fantasy genre, a sensible editor would have gone to work with her red pen to make some much-needed improvements in its point of view and writing mechanics.

Example Three – from And God Spoke

I include And God Spoke because it was easily the best book of theology I read this year. And God Spoke is accessible, funny, and succinct. It includes lovely quotes by famous writers (C.S. Lewis: “Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”) and excellent writing in general:

“We need to beware a naïve belief that thinks it can take a couple of verses of scripture in isolation from their wider context and find there universal moral rules that are to be applied remorselessly in all cases, however complex. We need equally to beware of a naïve skepticism that can see in scripture only a mass of contradictions and inconsistencies from which it is possible to prove anything and nothing.” (p.10)

All in all, this is a book that makes the study of Christian faith, practice, and experience a pleasure.   Interestingly, there is a section in And God Spoke that analyzes how words are used, based on the modes of language presented by literary critic Northrop Frye. Christopher Bryan writes about visionary or imaginative language as:

“…words used to take us beyond our reason or our loyalties to worlds where our ordinary modes of consciousness are only one possibility among many, where imagination, fantasy, dreams, and intuition have play…. Words used in this last mode can carry us in imagination to other worlds — to the worlds of the gods, of myth, of universes transcending the universe we know. And here we find stories of our relationship to those worlds — stories of creation, fall, and redemption. Here we find those grand, overarching narratives that shape our understanding of the universe around us, and our place in it.” (pp.35-36)

The author goes on to write that visionary language is the most significant and normative for much of the Bible. Imaginative language is thus a shared mode of expression for both the Bible and for science fiction / fantasy. And God Spoke meets the best standards of science fiction and is a good example to all future books of theology.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Books
Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

University of the South, School of Theology EfM, Diploma Katy Dickinson 2014
My EfM Diploma! (arrived early)

Images Copyright 2014 by Katy Dickinson


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Katy on People to People Radio: 1 May 2014

People to People Radio Logo

Tonight (1 May 2014), I will be on People To People Global Radio Show talking with US Doctors for Africa Founder and Chairman, Ted Alemayhu, about Triangular Partnership, and the Pan-Africa Medical Doctors and Healthcare Conference, to be held 21-23 May 2014 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Our segment of this weekly radio program will be hosted by Dr. Anteneh Habte, Chairman of People to People.  Join us Thursdays at 9:00 pm Eastern Time (6 pm Pacific Time).  Access the weekly show online http://www.blogtalkradio.com/p2pglobalradioshow/ or phone 646-595-4742 each Thursday evening.

I will be traveling to Africa later this month (3rd time this year – a personal best!), with my husband John Plocher (his first trip to Africa).  I have been working on the Triangular Partnership panel (moderated by former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn), as well as with the very helpful staff of US Ambassador Patricia M. Haslach of the US Embassy in Addis to prepare for the conference.

I edited and contributed a chapter to the People to People book Triangular Partnership: the Power of the Diaspora (published in September 2013) so this is a topic of great interest for me. There has been much written and discussed about Twinning. I believe that adding the diaspora – people who have a past and a future in both developing countries and western institutions – is a stronger model for successful development.

1 May 2014 Archived Recording

People to People Triangular Partnership Logo

19 October 2019: Links Updated.

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Triangular Partnership: the Power of the Diaspora


I have been editing the new book Triangular Partnership: the Power of the Diaspora all summer for the People to People organization.

People to People (P2P) is a non-governmental, non-profit organization dedicated to improving health care and reducing the spread of diseases, particularly in Ethiopia and in diaspora communities.

Yesterday, I sent the fifteen lead authors their agreements and the most current versions of their written contributions (chapters, the introduction, forword, etc.) for review and approval before we send everything to the printers next week. I also sent myself the signed agreement for the chapter “Professional Mentoring – Fostering Triangular Partnership”.  I am enjoying working with and learning from the other members of the book development team:

  • Dr. Enawgaw Mehari, Founder and President of People to People, and Neurologist MD (based in Kentucky)
  • Dr. Kinfe Gebeyehu, Vice President of P2P, and Pediatrician MD (based in Illinois)
  • Matthew Watts, Coordinator, Marketing and Public Relations at St. Claire Regional Medical Center (in Kentucky)

A pre-publication review copy will be distributed at the 5th Annual Global Ethiopian Diaspora Conference on Health Care and Medical Education, 28 September 2013 in Washington D.C.  This morning, my first phone call was from Mauritania from an author with a copyright question. I love this project!

27 September 2013 update: the conference version of this book is available for free download 

18 October 2019 update: fixed links

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Creative Writing Exchange

Last Import-29

This month I am enjoying experimenting with new writing – part of an exchange my daughter Jessica set up among eight pairs of friends. We are committed to write for at least ten minutes a day in answer to her email prompt and also to giving only positive feedback to our writing partner. For example, on 6 July 2013, Jessica’s prompt was: “What are the women saying to each other? One is wearing cultural dress, another a stove-pipe hat, and the third sunglasses.”

My response was the short story below.  Following Mark Twain’s advice to “Write What You Know”, I borrowed the names of some TechWomen friends but this is a work of fiction – not about particular women!  Only the conferences and places are real: I have travelled recently to both Portland, Oregon and Amman, Jordan.

Afnan, Noor, and Colleen were shopping in Amman. The three geeks had met at the OpenStack conference in Portland, Oregon, the year before. Professional discussions between technical sessions, about programming and politics, had moved into complaints about guys and how pleasant it was for once not to be the only woman in the room. The usual complaints had become more personal and by the time they went to Powell’s Books and lunch together, the three were friends.

Afnan and Noor were both graduates of Princess Sumaya University, although from different years. Colleen had gone to Cal and was fascinated by the other girls’ stories about Jordan and the developing technical culture of the Middle East – so different from her experiences in the People’s Republic of Bezerkley and California. By the time OpenStack ended, the three were collaborating on an open source project together, firmly connected in Facebook, LinkedIn and all of the other web-based glue of the technical world. When Colleen’s Cal thesis advisor was invited to speak TEDxAmman the following year and offered her a ticket to the big event, she grabbed the chance.

Colleen was a true nerd, wearing what was comfortable and clean, but sometimes adding a bizarre element to keep her all-male co-workers noticing that she was still a girl. Some days it was yellow socks with pink and white nigiri sushi images, today it was a stove-pipe hat. Colleen was a firm believer in the principle that you can be as weird as you are good. She was a very good programmer. At first, that Afnan and Noor wore hijab and more stylish clothes did not concern Colleen. It was their kind of uniform, just as jeans and funny socks or hats were hers. Noor wearing her sunglasses propped on top of her headscarf was kind of like a hat.

Colleen told Noor and Afnan that her professor’s TEDx talk had gone well and that she was meeting amazing new people, men and women whose work had made a difference, who were trying to change the world. But for the first time since High School, Colleen was a little worried about her clothes. Maybe the hat wasn’t right for this high-end crowd. She asked her elegant friends to go shopping, to help her spend some money. Colleen did not want to wear hijab or that western-uniform, the skirted suit, but the long dress and coat that Afnan wore or Noor’s fitted slacks and jackets looked good. Colleen was ready for a change.

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We are looking for a publisher for the new book Triangular Partnership: The Power of the Diaspora. Your publication ideas and suggestions are welcome.  “Triangular Partnership” is a term used by People to People (P2P) to describe the relationship between three global groups:

  • Diaspora
  • Developing Countries Institutions
  • Western Institutions

People to People (P2P) is a MentorCloud partner, a non-governmental, non-profit organization dedicated to improving health care, reducing the spread of diseases, and providing technical assistance in promoting and improving environmental health – particularly in Ethiopia and in diaspora communities.  P2P Founder and President is Ethiopian-born neurologist Enawgaw Mehari, MD.

Chapters are by selected experts and are less than 15 pages each in length.  About half are done and the remainder are due in a week.  Each chapter is being reviewed by one of six Associate Editors for content and quality, and we have started the process of verifying the reference bibliographies. As a sample, you can see MentorCloud’s chapter “Professional Mentoring – Fostering Triangular Partnership”. Other chapter topics include:

  1. “Leveraging Information Technology Infrastructure to Maximize Triangular Partnership Programs”
  2. “Triangular Partnerships: Strategies for Scalability and Sustainability”
  3. “An Introspective Look at the Failure of International Aid in Africa”
  4. “Ethiopian Diaspora: a missed opportunity?”
  5. “Needs Assessment is the Rationale for the Triangular Partnership”

The audience for Triangular Partnership: The Power of the Diaspora includes government, international finance, and foreign affairs world leaders, in addition to university professors, reasearchers and students (and, of course, the associates and customers of the authors and their companies and organizations).

P2P is writing this book to challenge standard-thinking with regard to Africa, Ethiopia and their diaspora communities in light of triangular partnership.  In particular, to bring new consideration of the power of the diaspora to effect change in developing countries in Africa. We plan to be done with the content editing by the end of July 2013 – and to distribute a version at the 5th Annual Global Ethiopian Diaspora Conference on Health Care and Medical Education (28 September 2013 in Washington DC).

Dr. Enawgaw Mehari and Dr. Kinfe Ggebeyehu are managing the Triangular Partnership project – I am serving as the general editor.

Image Copyright People to People 2012

19 October 2019: Links Updated. The conference version of the book Triangular Partnership: The Power of the Diaspora is available for free download 


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Mentor on a Journey


The week before the big TiEcon 2013 conference for entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley, our startup MentorCloud invited Sashi Chimala to talk about mentoring from his perspective as a successful long-time serial entrepreneur.  I was asked to interview Sashi and present his long experience in both entrepreneurship and mentoring in the company blog. The result is “Journey with a Purpose”, published on 8 May 2013.  I decided to present Sashi’s journey in a series of stories like this…

While an undergraduate in Engineering at JNT University, he created a mail-order cartoon art school. The school was advertised in magazines, offering ten lessons by mail, with exercises critiqued by Sashi and a certificate of completion at the end. The school only ran for a year and served one hundred students (it took much more effort than he had thought) but lead to a profound experience.

Three years after Sashi closed down his cartooning school, when he was at a conference, a severely disabled man approached him. Although the man was impaired in all of his limbs and could only move with difficulty, he had diligently completed the cartooning school lessons and came to that conference specifically to thank Sashi for teaching him to be a successful cartoonist. Sashi never met his student or knew of his disability until that day. Sashi’s only regret is that he wished he had saved his cartooning lesson material!

This remarkable conversation brought home to Sashi how entrepreneurship was not just about making money and having fun but could at the same time be an opportunity to help impact lives. That student showed him the purpose of business in a new dimension.

Usually my composition projects are either creative writing, teaching, or for business purposes. Sashi’s was an interesting combination of these. I plan to write more journey stories as opportunities permit.

Image Copyright 2013 by Katy Dickinson

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Fostering Triangular Partnership, Professional Mentoring


The conference version of the book Triangular Partnership: the Power of the Diaspora (including the chapter “Professional Mentoring – Fostering Triangular Partnership”) is available for free download.

“Triangular Partnership” is a term used by People to People to describe the relationship of three global groups:

  • Diaspora
  • Developing Countries Institutions
  • Western Institutions

Some background:

How does professional mentoring interact with this Triangular Partnership, and with the global diaspora in particular?

Here are three successful professional mentoring programs in which the global diaspora takes a key role:

  • Below are two pie charts showing a summary of 2001-2009 data on mentor and mentee work locations (from p.77 of the Sun Microsystems Labs Technical Report: “Sun Mentoring: 1996-2009″ by Katy Dickinson, Tanya Jankot and Helen Gracon). As you can see, for this Sun Microsystems world-wide Engineering mentoring program, the largest number of both mentors and mentees were based in the USA (green), compared to those based in APAC (Asia-Pacific Region, blue) and EMEA (Europe-Middle East-Africa Region, red). Even so, there was a disproportionate number mentors based in the USA (more than in APAC and EMEA combined). In 2009, when this data was analyzed, Sun had about 15,000 Engineering staff distributed among thirty locations around the world, including large campuses in China, India and Europe – but most of Sun’s Engineering staff was in the USA. These charts show professional mentors’ willingness to engage in successful mentoring relationships beyond borders in order to build and strengthen a community.
MenteeLocation.Sun2009 . MentorLocation.Sun2009
  • A second example of mentors’ and western institutions’ willingness to reach beyond their national boundaries for a greater good is the TechWomen mentoring program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). For TechWomen 2011, there were thirty-seven mentees from six Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries. For TechWomen 2012, there were forty-two mentees from eight MENA countries. All mentees were hosted at Silicon Valley companies for a month while working with both Professional and Cultural mentor volunteers from over fifty companies and organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. TechWomen has been so successful that its size was doubled for 2013 and the geographic area expanded to include Sub-Saharan Africa, in addition to MENA. The purpose of TechWomen is to bring people together for greater understanding and to empower women and girls worldwide. In both TechWomen and the Sun Microsystems mentoring programs, many of the US-based mentors were either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Sometimes those immigrant mentors or their families were from the same country as their mentee (a direct-diaspora connection), but most times not.
  • A final mentoring program example showing a more-direct diaspora connection was the sold-out December 2012 Inaugural Open Mentoring Session, presented by TiE Silicon Valley as part of their TiE SV MentorConnect program with MentorCloud. About TiE: “TiE, a not-for-profit global network of entrepreneurs and professionals, was founded in 1992 in Silicon Valley, California, USA. Although its birth name, The Indus Entrepreneurs, signifies the ethnic South Asian or Indus roots of the founders, TiE stands for Talent, Ideas and Enterprise. It is an open and inclusive organization that has rapidly grown to more than 57 chapters in 14 countries.” Feedback on the Open Mentoring Session: 82% of mentees completed the post-event survey and rated the event as “Highly Recommended” or “Recommended”. 90% of them said the event “exceeded” their expectations, and a whopping 95% said they would recommend a similar session to their friends.

These examples have shown two legs of the triangle – Diaspora and Western Institutions – using mentoring for community building, mutual-understanding, and professional growth. To see mentoring connections with the triangle’s third leg – Developing Countries Institutions – check out the customer logos on the MentorCloud home page, including:

  • Global Science and Technology Foundation (GSTF) – Sub-Sahara African Universities
  • Indian Institute of Science Alumni Association (IIScAA) – Knowledge Exchange Programme
  • International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA)
  • The SABLE Accelerator – The South African Business Link to Experts
  • TechWadi – Building Bridges for Entrepreneurship – MENA region
  • TiE Silicon Valley
  • University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa (Wits)


Images Copyright 2012 by Katy Dickinson

19 October 2019: Post links updated. For more about MentorCloud business practices, see Collecting a Labor Judgement (15 January 2016).

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