Kishotenketsu, Story Structure, and the Nonviolent Imagination 


What is Kishotenketsu? It’s a four-act story structure characterized by a twist in the middle. 

As you can guess by the name, it’s Asian, originating in Chinese poetry and developing in many forms of Japanese poetry and storytelling.  It’s the story structure Studio Ghibli often uses in its films. 

But why should we care? Because unlike western story structures, Kishotenketsu is not rooted in conflict, and doesn’t rely on conflict to maintain interest. 

That isn’t to say that it excludes conflict, but that it doesn’t require it like the typical western storytelling. 

I’m not alone in my belief that we in the western world are primed (through a “mean world” viewpoint) to support war and nationalism by the stories we hear  from early childhood on. 

Western storytelling’s three-act structure is pure conflict: 1) introduce conflict 2) escalate conflict, 3) resolve conflict. And when conflict is resolved, at least somebody is going to lose, to suffer some kind of harm, be it physical or emotional or social.

Traditional three-act storytelling comes down to winners and losers, and I think we can do better. 

Kishotenketsu is a tool to help me do better, as a writer, yes, but also as a person in general. My nonviolent imagination needs nourishing,  just like everyone else’s. 

Kishotenketsu helps me imagine story structures that aren’t just boring navel gazing,  stories where things happen, even action things, but where the very heart of the story isn’t a struggle or conflict.

It’s also helps me imagine win-win situations, situations where conflict can be averted by reconciliation of opposites.

And it’s helped me learn to write short stories, which is something that completely escaped my understanding before 2017.

I think that’s enough for now: I’ll be revisiting this topic soon.

Movies You Must See: The original HIGHLANDER

Although it’s been overshadowed by a stream of crummy sequels, an awful animated series, and a quite good in its own way TV show, the original 1986 Highlander starring Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, and Sean Connery deserves a serious watch.

It’s the first movie I’d seen about immortals that really addressed the issues that come with being immortal. The central love story between Connor and Heather, is poignant, moving, and powerful.

And although it does hew to the myth of redemptive violence, it does at least show Connor’s disillusionment with violence, his understanding that war – even a clan skirmish – is pain, loss, and suffering.

Even for an immortal.

Although his body heals from all wounds, he carries the scars from violence with him into the present day.

But that isn’t to say that the film is all grim. The dialogue is frequently witty, especially when Connor speaks with some of the less cultured police investigators. And of course Sean Connery is Sean Connery.

There’s a real operatic feel to many of the scenes between the immortals, especially when Clancy Brown’s Kurgan is involved.

And while Highlander is still a product of its times, its gender roles are pretty progressive for a mid-80’s action film. Brenda and Heather are both much more than just damsels or trophies.

I don’t want to say too much, since Highlander is so much better the less you know about it going in, but please, give it a watch. It is well worth your time, and one of the best movies to come out of the 1980’s.

What I Like: New Reviews Forthcoming


When I restarted this blog a few months ago, I tried something called “12 word reviews.” 

They never really felt right or caught on, probably because 12 words isn’t enough for any real information,  just a little snark.

 https://youtu.be/Pubd-spHN-0

And that meant I had to tack a few paragraphs on, which meant it wasn’t really a 12 word review at all.

But I do still want to talk about some things, mostly books, so I’ll drop the gimmick and just talk. 

Before I start, here are a few things I like to see in media: 

  1. Female (or otherwise non-male) lead roles
  2. Multiple female characters
  3. Who aren’t female re-skins of tired masculine stereotypes 
  4. Major characters (including leads) who are people of color
  5. Multiple non-white characters, including women of color
  6. Characters who subvert or just don’t fit gender conventions, in whatever way that fits the setting (including LGBT+ characters) 
  7. Perhaps most importantly,  a story that doors not perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence

    1-6  are partly on general principle (representation is a good thing)  and partly because I’m sick of reading,  playing,  and watching the same white male (anti) hero for the 800,000th time. 

    7 is because we are indoctrinated from early childhood with the idea that what makes the world better is killing or beating up the right bad guys. 

    It’s great training if you want a populace that uncritically accepts every war, bombing,  and use of torture the men in high places want to enact,  but it goes against the teachings of Jesus (and many other religious as well).

    Even the churches get in on this act when they teach preschoolers a sanitized version of David and Goliath (and forget to mention that David grew up to be a rapist who murdered his best friend to cover up his crime).

    So when I write about a book, movie, or game, I’ll most often keep these things in mind,  as well as the standard information,  like how i had to force myself to stop reading and go to bed,  or how the actual prose style worked out. 

    Pray for Dallas and the Families of the Slain

    This was a terrible, terrible tragedy.

    We should pray for the families of all involved:

    • The offers who were killed
    • The officers who were wounded, and struggle to recover
    • The civilians who were shot
    • The family of the murderer, who by all appearances were ignorant of his terrible plans, and now have to wonder how the person they loved could do something like this
    • Pray for the whole city of Dallas, and for our nation. Pray for Baton Rouge and St. Paul, too.

    Being a police officer is obviously a dangerous job. While some jobs (like logging and fishing) are more dangerous in terms of death and injury, police face the added psychological danger of active, malevolent violence.

    It can’t be an easy job to do, and they all need our prayers.

    Black and White

    Becoming vegan was surprisingly easy. It was definitely low-risk.
    Not like protesting in the streets.
    It’s not going to get me fired, arrested, or shot
    (Although as a 41 year old white man, that last one is pretty unlikely)

    And I don’t know what to do about that.
    I’m not willing to get fired, arrested, or shot.
    (However unlikely that last one is)
    I have a daughter to protect and provide for.
    I have a wife I don’t want to leave.
    And honestly, I don’t want to suffer.

    So what can I do? What will I do?

    We don’t live in a just world. Let’s put aside the shades of gray for just a minute and try to see the world in black and white:

    Black people are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for selling drugs, even though white people are more likely to actually sell drugs

    Black people are incarcerated at six times the rate of white people

    Black college students have the same rate of getting jobs as white high-school dropouts.

    Black men with no criminal records have the same rate of getting hired as white men fresh out of prison. It seems people expect black men to have criminal backgrounds.

    Black people have been killed by police at over twice the rate of white people in 2015 and 2016 so far.
    12% of the US Population, but 27% of the dead
    306 out of 1146 killed in 2015
    136 out of 561 killed in 2016
    That’s almost a hundred people of all races, and 25 black people a month.
    That’s almost three people a day, with a black person being killed almost every day.

    If you’re wondering why your Facebook feed won’t stop blowing up with videos and reports of black men being shot down, it’s because it’s happening almost every day.

    Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were just two more in a long list of black lives cut down violently.

    …Now, back to the shades of gray …

    I’m still not willing to get fired, arrested, or shot.
    But I’m willing to put my voice out there.
    I’m willing to keep talking and writing about it
    I’m willing to sign petitions
    I’m willing to write to my various elected officials
    I’m willing to consider this the most pressing issue our country is facing, and vote accordingly (even if I’m voting for someone I otherwise don’t like)

    I’m willing to LISTEN to people who have LIVED this experience
    I’m willing to admit that I’ll only ever know ABOUT these things, that I won’t ever KNOW them.

    I’m willing to admit that I DON’T and CAN’T have the answers to these ongoing atrocities, and to LISTEN to black voices as they speak up:

    • Campaign Zero has outlined extensive, comprehensive solutions that address the problems of police militarization, community distrust, and disproportionate impact on the black community from a number of angles.
    • The black police union in St. Louis have started something powerful. They’ve released a 112 page report of what’s wrong with their department, and they’re calling on their chief to quit. This is a radical and almost unprecedented action, breaking the “blue wall” that shelters violent police officers and penalizes police who speak out. If other police groups join in, this could be the start of real and lasting change.
    • Also, be sure to pray for Officer Nakia Jones, who just called out the police responsible for Alton Sterling’s shooting. Pray that she isn’t harassed, doxxed, fired, assaulted, or worse.

    I’m willing to admit how privileged I am to be in a position where I can choose to play it safe, and admit that it’s because I’m white.

    I’m willing to say “Black Lives Matter.”

    Because black people aren’t safe. And too many people treat them like they don’t matter.

    And I’m willing to say their names, or at least a few of their names:
    Alton Sterling
    Philando Castile
    Eric Garner
    Sandra Bland
    Tamir Rice
    John Crawford III
    Freddie Gray

    And hundreds more.

    Fifty Tears for Orlando

    I posted about this on Facebook on Sunday, and thought I should add it here, where it would be more permanent. I thought about adding more here than I said there, then I read this: Dear White, Hetero, Cis People: Please Don’t Co-Opt This Tragedy. 

    The truth is, it doesn’t really matter what I think. I’m not gay, transgender, bisexual, or otherwise a sexual minority. I’m not Latino. Any observations beyond base sympathy would be little more than armchair commentary from the safety of the sidelines.

    We should get out of the way and yield the floor to LGBT+ people, especially Latinx people, so I’ll link to this interview with Isa Noyola and then be done.

    [My Facebook post from Sunday, June 12, 2016, follows]

    My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting [Saturday night, June 11, 2016]. This morning in the service, Pastor Megan told us of an old ritual (Jewish, I believe) of pouring out drops of wine or water in mourning, to represent tears. She poured out fifty drops of water (the number murdered at the last count at the time), counting each one.

    I closed my eyes in silence as she counted, trying to comprehend that each number represented somebody’s life. Somebody of incomparable value. Somebody who was most likely loved by friends, family, loved ones. Perhaps somebody who felt alone.

    All taken away in the name of “righteous” anger, of “purifying America,” of self-righteous hate.

    Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us all…

    “Race” is a Four-Letter Word (Part One: Suspicious Behavior)

    This past week has been a big one for talking about race in America. I think we all know why. I’m not here to talk about that tragedy, that verdict, or whether it was right or wrong.

    I wasn’t on the jury. I haven’ t seen the evidence and heard the eyewitness testimony. I don’t know if the verdict was right or wrong. But that isn’t the point.

    The point is, a lot of young black men have died in similar ways. A lot. This slideshow shows just a few.  And a lot of times, their killers have either gone free or gotten away with a slap on the wrist.

    If the Trayvon Martin case was an aberration, it would just be sad. But it’s part of a pattern. An ugly, unjust, institutionalized pattern. And I think that people of good conscience need to speak out on this pattern.

    When I was young, I always tried to deal respectfully with police officers. But mostly they left me alone. I wasn’t doing anything criminal, and they didn’t assume or suspect me of doing anything criminal.

    For a long time I assumed that was the default.

    It is, for white guys…

    …but not so much for African-American, Middle-Eastern, and Latino men.

    I’m no celebrity. I’m no TV star. Celebrities get treated better, right? They get away with things mere mortals wouldn’t?

    Maybe not. Levar Burton is beloved celebrity, a role model to a generation of kids who grew up watching “Reading Rainbow” and “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” shows that glorified education, personal advancement, and (usually) nonviolence.  He is also, if you haven’t figured it out yet, a black man.

    I don’t have a ritual for when I get pulled over by police (other than “try not to get pulled over by police.” Traffic tickets are expensive). I’d never think to pre-plan a set of actions to make sure the officer knew I was unarmed and not resisting. Why would that even occur to me?

    Levar Burton does. 

    Lest you think that Mr. Burton is alone, or paranoid, read this story, about a young honors student whose mother drilled the same practices into his head. He’s far more accomplished than I was at that age, but he has to prove himself every time.

    I never would have believed or understood this just a few years ago, but I really think the most “suspicious behavior” a person can display being male and dark skinned.

     

    Four Types of Violence, Part Five: Some Parting Thoughts

    Peace Sign made of garlic, photo by David Goehring, Creative Commons

    Good for the World, Good on Spaghetti
    Photo by David Goehring, Creative Commons

    I’ve been talking about violence a lot lately, and I think it’s time to bring it to a close now.  Kurt Willems has a great series here outlining a powerful argument for total pacifism among Christians.  Needless to say, there are other interpretations.  MT at Biblical Self Defense  discusses several OT and NT passages that relate to self defense, including armed self-defense, as not just a necessary evil, but a positive good.

    Though I have not yet been swayed to the point of actual pacifism, I have to say that Kurt Willems’ arguments have profoundly affected me. He’s helped me to reassess my overall attitude towards violence done in my name as an American, the violence in the media that I consume, and the violence in the culture that I create.

    And let’s face it, our American culture is awash in violence. We glorify revenge at every turn. Even as Christians, if you look at the time we spend watching violent films and TV, we probably glorify “good guys killing bad guys” more than we glorify God.

    So what is the answer? I’m afraid I don’t have the whole answer. I may never have it. But I’ll keep wrestling with it. I know this much for sure:

    Even without being convinced of true pacifism, the kind that would not use force to resist a home invader who threatens my pregnant wife, the kind that would not use force to resist the Nazis in World War II – even without taking that (admittedly radical) step … I can commit to pursuing peace today, through:

    • Questioning the violent actions my government takes, whether declared wars or unilateral (even unmanned) actions
    • Questioning the level of violence used in our justice system, especially against peaceful protesters and nonviolent offenders
    • Questioning the violence that is allowed to happen by authorities turning a blind eye or simply being overwhelmed: bullying in schools, beatings and rape in prisons.
    • Turning the other cheek in personal disputes, refusing to use even verbal ‘violence’
    • Protesting verbal violence, especially misogynist and racist bullying
    • Valuing the lives of foreigners in distant nations as much as I do my own, especially if they are civilians
    • Examining the culture I consume and create, and expunging anything that glorifies violence as a positive good.

    Four Types of Violence, Part Four: Self-Defense

    What I’ve said so far is pretty non-controversial.  Nobody, religious or not, really thinks it’s okay to kill someone for the insurance money, or hunt down and kill someone instead of pressing charges at the police station, or forcibly convert someone (at least nominally) to your religion or point of view.

    It’s possible to get so caught up in your nation’s patriotism and propaganda that you miss the fact that a war is primarily about conquest (securing national interests, or, to be cynical, “oil”) as opposed to the official line, which says it’s vital to defend us all from harm.

    That’s a failure of discernment, and a dangerous one, but it doesn’t mean people who feel that way actually believe wars of conquest are okay.  A few might, but most do not.

    The last type of violence, however, gets the juices flowing.  It’s the difference between just war and pacifism, between the Baptists and Anabaptists.

    Self-Defense:  Defensive violence sees an attack in progress and steps in to stop it.

    • It could be a person breaking into a house during the middle of the night, when it’s obvious the owners are home.
    • It could be an invasion by another country.
    • It could be a genocide that merits a peacekeeping action by the U.N. or a coalition of nations.
    • It could be a woman accosted on a city street.
    • It could be World War II.

    This is where the rubber meets the road.  Do you raise your hand to fight back, or do you stand on principle and allow yourself (or a third party, such as a crime victim or ethnic group facing genocide) to be slaughtered?

    It sounds like an easy answer, but the truth is, it’s not.  Jesus talks a lot about peacemakers, about non-aggression, as does the apostle Paul.

    And the truth is, just about any war can be justified as a defensive action if the government works hard enough to manipulate public sentiment (or even presents misinformation, such as in the Gulf of Tonkin or U.S.S. Maine incidents).

    If “Just War Theory” doesn’t effectively prevent (or at least condemn) any of the many wars the U.S. keeps finding itself in, what it’s good for? 

    Four Types of Violence, Part Three: Holy War

    Richard and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf, the Crusades, painting by Gustave Dore, 19th century

    Richard and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf, the Crusades by Gustave Dore, 19th c.

    Holy war. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, and perhaps it is. I can see no evidence that conversion by force was ever condoned in any fashion by Jesus or the apostles, ever.

    I honestly see no instances of using violence to gain converts even in the Old Testament. God ordered the destruction of some cities, and ordered the conquest of certain areas, but conversion by force? Not that I recall.

    In fact, Jesus orders Peter to not even raise a sword to defend Him when the Sanhedrin-led mob comes to arrest Him (“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. – Matthew 26:52, NIV).

    At no point do the apostles or early church leaders violently resist persecution.  They skip town sometimes, they are rescued by angels sometimes, and other times, they submit to indignity, injury, and eventually death.

    (According to church tradition, the only apostle who wasn’t murdered or executed was St. John the Divine, the writer of the Book of Revelations, and he was exiled to Patmos, essentially imprisoned.  Many notable non-apostles, like Stephen, also died for their beliefs, and they offered no violence in return).

    There are, doubtless, many reasons for this.

    First, opposing the military might of Rome would require a literal miracle, and Jesus had made it clear that he was not that type of Messiah.

    Second, fighting back would have made the Christians and their persecutors seem like warring religious factions, little more than gangs fighting over whether or not some rabbi was divine.  It would have ripped the credibility right out of their message.

    Third, for those who were apostles and full-time evangelists, there was only one focus: preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and leading people through repentance and into true discipleship.

    There was no time for marriage and children, no time for personal property beyond travelling necessities, and no time for self-defense.  They were to throw their lives into God’s hands, and spend every bit of energy and time they had into spreading His message.

    There is, I believe, another reason. I believe God knew that Christianity would spread, and nations would become majority Christian in time.

    Kings and nobles would convert, and bring a new danger into the soul of Christianity: an unholy union with government, and the specter of holy wars, religious persecution by Christians, and inquisitions in which even Christians were not safe from church-sponsored violence.

    Had these leaders read and prayed and paid attention (and actually cared), they could have seen that Jesus and the apostles never condoned these sorts of things, and in fact eschewed them.  But they did not: they were dominant rulers, accustomed to enforcing their will through force and fear, and their new-found Christianity did not sink deep enough to change that.

    Granted, this has probably been the least controversial of the series. Honestly, though, I’m not sure that it’s because we’ve evolved past it. After all, we’re still a very warlike species, even in the post-industrial nations. Just because we kill with drones and cruise missiles doesn’t mean we’re not still killers.

    I choose not to believe that our rejection of holy war comes from not taking our religion seriously enough.  I choose to believe that it comes from actually caring about the examples of Jesus and the Apostles. I choose to believe that it represents progress.

    We know that war is not a holy thing. We may still support our secular national government’s wars, but at least we don’t want the Church involved.  And that, to borrow a phrase from Martha Stewart, is a good thing.

    –A Note on Context–

    I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.

    Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.

    The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.