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A clergyman’s daughter: loneliness, nihilism and futility

20 November 2014

George Orwell Omnibus: The Complete Novels: Animal Farm, Burmese Days, A Clergyman's Daughter, Coming up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Nineteen Eighty-FourGeorge Orwell Omnibus: The Complete Novels: Animal Farm, Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Coming up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second novel of the collection I have read is A clergyman’s daughter, to which I give only three stars. Not that it’s a bad book, but it has some faults that I didn’t see in Burmese Days.

It to is set in the period between the great world wars of the 20th century, but this time in England. Dorothy Hare is the daughter of the widowed rector of a country parish in Suffolk. He takes care of the services, and she takes care of him, and the pastoral work of the parish, which keeps her busy from morning till night In addition she has to make costumes for plays, do fund raising, and keep the creditors at bay.

Eventually the strain gets too much for her, and she disappears. The parish gossip has it that she eloped with a neighbour, but she finds herself in London suffering from total amnesia, with no idea of her identity. She falls in with some people who are going hop-picking in Kent and loses herself in the rather mindless work, which Orwell describes in great detail. When the season is over she takes her meagre earnings back to London, and looks for a job, without success. Her memory gradually returns, but having no money she becomes one of the homeless street people of London.

Orwell is clearly drawing on his own experiences in describing this, as he did in another book, Down and out in Paris and London. Eventually Dorothy gets a job in a private school, which exhibits all the worst features of education. Dorothy tries to make lke learning more interesting for the children, but is thwarted by the proprietor of the school, whose sole aim is to make money.

One of the things I liked about the book was Orwell’s power of description, and in some ways he described my experience too. I once attended a private school, not as bad as the one in the book, to be sure, but there were certain similarities. It was Mountain Lodge Preparatory School in Magaliesberg, and, like the one in A clergyman’s daughter, it had a proprietor, a Mr Burnford, who did not teach, but rejoiced in the title of Bursar. I was there for three years, and each year the school had a different headmaster. Unlike the one in the book, however, the teachers were allowed to try to make learning interesting, all except one, the Afrikaans teacher, a Mrs Barr, whose authoritarianism led to two strikes among the pupils. When I was 11 the school closed, and Mr Burnford scarpered. There were all sorts of rumours, but we never did hear what really happened.

And Dorothy Hare, working at the school was friendless. Orwell describes this as follows:

There is perhaps no quarter of the inhabited world where one can be quite so completely alone as in the London suburbs. In a big town the thong and bustle at least give one the illusion of companionship, and in the country everyone is interested in everyone else — too much so, indeed. But in places like Southbridge, if you have no family and no home to call your own, you could spend half a lifetime without making a friend.

That was Dorothy’s experience in the book, and it was mine for 8 months in 1966, when I lived in a dingy bed-sit in Streatham, and worked at Brixton bus garage as a bus driver for London Transport. There were some South African friends I visited very o9ccasionally, but they were a long way away, and that part of the book particularly resonated with me.

But there was also a flaw in it. Orwell is trying to do a Dickens, and the school he describes is a 20th-century female equivalent of Dotheboys Hall. But his diatribe against private schools is a bit over the top, and becomes too didactic, and that is the biggest weakness of the book. Admittedly it is only a couple of paragraphs here and there, and nothing like the 70-odd pages of John Galt’s speech in Ayn Rand’s Atlas shrugged. But it remeinded me with a jolt that true art cannot be propaganda, and propaganda canno0t be art. Orwell seems to change gears from novelist to pamphleteer.

Not that I disagree with him in the point he makes — there are plenty of private schools like the one he describes in South Africa today, though the government has tried to vet them and set standards through the South African Qualifications Authority.

Dickens could get away with that kind of novel, but I’m not sure that Orwell can. Orwell moves Dorothy a bit to conveniently from one social problem to another so he can write about it in novel form. It’s good, but it doesn’t quite come off as it does with Dickens. Nevertheless, if you want to read about zemblanity in education, it’s worth a read.



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Burmese Days: the ugly face of colonialism

13 November 2014

George Orwell Omnibus: The Complete Novels: Animal Farm, Burmese Days, A Clergyman's Daughter, Coming up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Nineteen Eighty-FourGeorge Orwell Omnibus: The Complete Novels: Animal Farm, Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Coming up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since this is a collection of novels, I’ll comment on each one separately as I read it, here on my blog, and when I’ve done with all of them may add some comments on the collected works on the Good Reads site. I begin with Burmese Days, because that was the first one in the collection that I hadn’t read, and it was one I had not even heard of.

I’d read Animal Farm and 1984 when I was young. They were well known. but Burmese Days I had never heard of. I suppose it was because I read the first two in the time of the Cold War, and Animal Farm with its expression of Orwell’s disillusionment with Bolshevism seemed very relevant at the time. 1984 was more chilling, and even more relevant in South Africa, with its theme of creeping totalitarianism. I read it at the time when the National Party was using increasingly totalitarian methods to tighten its grip on every aspect of South African sociaty, so many of us were amazed that the book was not banned since far more innocuous books had been banned, but this one remained freely available.

But Burmese Days is set in the halcyon days of British colonialism, between the two world wars, when the entirce colonial structure depended on the prestige of the white man, and it was above all necessary to keep the natives in their place. In 1926, the time in which the story is set, Burma was administereed as part of the Indian Empire. White men were gods, and it was this semi-divine status that enabled them to rule. One might say that never in the field of human government have so many been ruled by so few.

The gods, of course, had feet of clay, and what Orwell did for Bolshevism in Animal Farm he did for British colonialism in Burmese Days. No wonder one never heard of the book in the 1960s, when the empire was crumbling, and the white man’s prestige had gone. Today there is much talk of post-colonialism, and I think that if post-colonialism is to mean anything, then this book is an essentiual introduction, to get something of the flavour of colonialism itself.

I think in many ways it is quite a brilliant novel. In the first few chapters Orwell sets the scene, both physical– the sights and sounds and smells of Burma — and spiritual, the values of the colonial rulers, and their interactions with the natives. It is also a love story, not in the romantic Barbara Cartland sense, but in a much more real-life way.

Something of the atmosphere of the story was something I had caught glimpses of in my youth. When I was twelve years old I went to stay with a friend at the sugar experiment station in Mount Edgecombe in Natal, and there was a club there that we went to occasionally, for film shows, and occasional dinners. It was redolent with the atmosphere of colonialism, buffalo heads on the walls, ceiling fans lazily turning, chairs with the corners that stuck out between your legs, white table cloths, heavy silver cultery, starched table napkins, and obsequious Indian waiters. The club in the book, in the small village of Kyauktada in Upper Burma, isn’t nearly as posh as that, but it is similar in that it is the centre of the social life of the Europeans in the village.

If you want to be post-colonial, read this book. It gives the essential flavour of what post-colonialism is post. And it’s a good read.

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Two visitors from the USA

19 October 2014

This weekend there were two visitors from the USA at church events we attended.

The first was the patronal feast of St Thomas’s Serbian Orthodox Church in Sunninghill, which was attended by Bishop Mitrophan from the USA, and several clergy from nearby parishes. We were a bit late for Vespers, having got the time wrong.

Vespers and Litiya at the Patronal Feast of St Thomas's, Sunninghill. The parish priest, Fr Isailo, censing the five loaves

Vespers and Litiya at the Patronal Feast of St Thomas’s, Sunninghill. The parish priest, Fr Isailo, censing the five loaves

Bishop Mitrophan is Professor of New Testament at the St. Sava School of Theology in Libertyville, Illinois, USA. After Vespers the congregation had supper in the church hall, while the parish choir sang Serbian folk songs, and then Bishop Mirtophan briefly addressed the people.

Bishop Mitrophan at the patronal feast of St Thomas's Church, with, in the right of the picture, Fr Razvan Tatu, of St Andrew's Romanian parish in Midrand

Bishop Mitrophan at the patronal feast of St Thomas’s Church, with, in the right of the picture, Fr Razvan Tatu, of St Andrew’s Romanian parish in Midrand

Bishop Mitrophan studied in Romania, and has translated several Romanian theological works into Serbian, and among the clergy who attended the celebrations was Fr Razvan Tatu of St Andrew’s Romanian parish in Midrand so they were able to converse in Romanian.

Supper at the St Thomas's patronal festival

Supper at the St Thomas’s patronal festival

This morning, Sunday,  we had another visitor, in more humble circumstances.

Kaycie (Xenia) Simmons, a lay missionary from California, who is working in our diocese for a year, came on the train from Johannesburg to visit our small mission congregation in Mamelodi East. We used to meet in a school classroom, but when they put up the rent to an unaffordable level, we started meeting in the houses of parishioners.

As usual, we had the Hours and Readers Service (Obednitsa), and, in honour of the visitor,  a rather sumptuous lunch prepared by Grace Malahlela, in whose house we met.

Mamelodi congregation, Sunday 19 October, 2014

Mamelodi congregation, Sunday 19 October, 2014

Kaycie has begun work among children in Brixton who attend St Nicholas Church there, and hopes to start something similar among the children in Mamelodi, and possibly arranging some meetings for women.

Pretoria is best, of course, at jacaranda time

Pretoria is best, of course, at jacaranda time

The visitors arrived at a beautiful time of the year — late spring, when the jacaranda trees are blooming, and turning the steets and hills blue. We took Kaycie to see some of them, and she returned to Johannesburg in the car wehich our son Jethro helped her to buy, and has just fixed up so she can travel around for her ministry in various places.

Blessed are the crazy: Mental illness and the Christian faith

6 October 2014

This post is part of a synchroblog[1] timed to coincide with the launch of a book, Blessed are the crazy by Sarah Griffith Lund. I’ve only just heard of the book, and don’t have a copy, so this post is in no sense a book review, but rather a few thoughts on the general theme. For more information on the book, see here.

It’s a difficult thing to write about, partly because the definition of mental illness keeps changing. What exactly is it? When I did Psychology I at university 50 years ago we did a brief survey of psychopathology, and a number of different kinds of mental illnesses were described. There were schizophrenics, paranoiacs and manic-depressives and a few other conditions mentioned, but most of the terms in my textbooks back then don’t seem to be in use today. So that makes me wonder about the social construction of mental illness — is mental illness just something in the mind of the beholder. Is it just a social construct  that society imposes on people?

St Basil, Fool for Christ of Moscow

St Basil, Fool for Christ of Moscow

Back at the time that I was studying Psycho I, there was also a popular perception of psychology and related fields. There were psychologists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, and many people were not clear about the differences between them. Some people told me that psychologists were scientists and psychiatrists were quacks. I wasn’t sure about that. The Psychology we did at university was the study of behaviour of animals and human beings, and in part dealt with the physiology of behaviour — the senses, like vision, hearing, taste and so on. Psychiatry was a specialist field of medicine. You had to have a medical degree to practise as a psychiatrist, so I wondered about people who said that psychiatry was quackery.

Most of our textbooks for psychology was American, and one thing that made an impression on me was that they all said that believing that your telephone was tapped and that the police were reading your mail was a sign of mental illness and being out of touch with reality. But it was the textbooks that were out of touch with the reality of South Africa in 1964, and, I suspect, with the “homeland security” America of 2014, which reinforces the notion of the social construction of mental illness. Is believing that your phone may be tapped a sign of paranoia? Or is it a sign that you live in a paranoid society that is obsessed with spying on its citizens? When I looked at my government file from the apartheid era, there was frequent use of the term ‘n delikate bron (a sensitive source) , and it was clear that in many instances this referred to a little man in the post office who opened and read letters addressed to people overseas and noted the contents for the Security Police records. So who was paranoid, the citizens who thought that the State was spying on them, or the State that was actually spying on its citizens?

It gets more complicated than that. A friend of mine was a member of an interdenominational Bible study group under the auspices of the Christian Institute. One of the other members was a psychotherapist of some sort (I can’t remember if he was a psychoanalyst or a psychiatrist or something else) who was himself a mental patient in the Fort Napier Mental Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. And it turned out that he was being used by the Security Police as a spy to spy on others in the study group, and report on what they said. It seemed cruel and cynical to exploit an inmate of a mental institution in this way. A crazy society was using crazy people to spy on the sane.

This was not peculiar to South Africa, either. In the USSR the Bolsheviks incarcerated political dissidents in mental institutions on the grounds that they must be crazy not to appreciate the advantages of communist society.

But in 1964-66 I also had a real encounter with real mental illness. The priest of the Anglican parish I then belonged to, whose clergy were also chaplains to the unviersity where I studied psychology (among other things), left at the end of 1964 to return to the UK, and became rector of a parish on the outskirts of London. In South Africa he was known as a dynamic preacher, and was also instrumental in building the parish into a lively Christian community. Within a couple of months of arriving in his new parish in England he had a mental breakdown. In 1966 I went to the UK to do post-graduate study, and sometimes stayed with this  priest and his family during university vacations, and he was a completely different person. He could not focus or concentrate on anything for long, and would get a bee in his bonnet about relatively unimportant matters. He became irritable, and snapped at his children. I could see that in some sense he had “lost his mind”, and a mind is a terrible thing to lose.

St Xenia, Fool for Christ of St Petersburg

St Xenia, Fool for Christ of St Petersburg

So if mental illness is a social construction, it is not only a social construction. There is more to it than that. In the case of this priest it was eventually diagnosed as some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain, and he was given drugs to treat the condition, but he was never quite the same again. Of course drugs to treat such conditions are the field of psychiatry, and so I was reminded that psychiatrists were not merely quacks but that mental illness was real, and they were trying to find ways to treat it.

And that raises the question of the relationship between the “mind” and the “brain”. Nowadays, with the ubiquity of personal computers, we can make an analogy. Problems with the mind are software problems, problems of the brain are hardware problems, but they also can’t be rigidly separated. But there isn’t space to go into all that here.

Going back another 50 years from the 1964, one comes to G.K. Chesterton, who a century ago wrote about the same kind of thing, and raised the question whether Christians were mad people in a sane world, or sane people in a mad world.

And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally true that maniacs are commonly great reasoners. When I was engaged in a controversy with the Clarion on the matter of free will, that able writer Mr. R.B.Suthers said that free will was lunacy, because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic would be causeless. I do not dwell here upon the disastrous lapse in determinist logic. Obviously if any actions, even a lunatic’s, can be causeless, determinism is done for. If the chain of causation can be broken for a madman, it can be broken for a man. But my purpose is to point out something more practical. It was natural, perhaps, that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about free will. But it was certainly remarkable that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about lunatics. Mr. Suthers evidently did not know anything about lunatics. The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience.  He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.[2]

And going back another 30 years or so, we come to Léon Bloy, who said that Christians were called to be “Pilgrims of the Absolute”, and when someone asked him whether that might endanger his mental balance, Bloy replied Pilgrims of the Absolute:

Balance? The devil take it! He has indeed taken it long ago! I am a Christian who accepts the full consequences of my Christianity. What happened at the Fall? The entire world, you understand, with everything in it, lost its balance. Why on earth should I be the one to keep mine? The world and mankind were balanced as long as they were held fast in the arms of the Absolute. What the average man means by balance is the most dangerous one-sidedness into which a man can fall… the renunciation of his heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world.

And that leads me back to another synchroblog, of six years ago, which completes the circle: Blessed are the foolish — foolish are the blessed | Notes from underground

Notes & References

[1] A synchroblog is when a number of bloggets blog on the same general topic on the same day, and link their blog posts to each other so that you can see the same topic from various points of view.

The links to the other posts will appear here as soon as they become available, so if you don’t see them now, please return in a day or two to find some other views on this topic. There is one link that will probably not be part of this synchroblog, and yet ought to be, so if you got this far, I urge you to read it: MYSTAGOGY: The Foundations of Orthodox Psychotherapy

Here are links to other posts in this Synchroblog:

More links will be added as they become available

[2] Chesterton, G.K. 1990. Orthodoxy: the romance of faith. New York: Image. ISBN: 0-385-01536-4

Neoliberalism and the Gospel

2 October 2014

ElijahJesus The Market is Lord

And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word (I Kings 18:21).

It seems to me that for many Christians the Gospel of Neoliberalism has replaced the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I’ve known that for a long time, and have blogged about it before (here, and here, and here).

But today I was reminded of it again when several people brought various articles on it to my attention:

As one of these articles points out, Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us | Paul Verhaeghe | Comment is free |

Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.

Constant evaluations at work cause a decline in autonomy and a growing dependence on external, often shifting, norms. This results in what the sociologist Richard Sennett has aptly described as the “infantilisation of the workers”.

And this Sick of this market-driven world? You should be | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian:

Today the dominant narrative is that of market fundamentalism, widely known in Europe as neoliberalism. The story it tells is that the market can resolve almost all social, economic and political problems. The less the state regulates and taxes us, the better off we will be. Public services should be privatised, public spending should be cut, and business should be freed from social control. In countries such as the UK and the US, this story has shaped our norms and values for around 35 years: since Thatcher and Reagan came to power. It is rapidly colonising the rest of the world.

But in some ways this point is the most telling, and raises the question that Elijah put to the Israel of old: Sick of this market-driven world? You should be | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian:

Neoliberalism draws on the ancient Greek idea that our ethics are innate (and governed by a state of nature it calls the market) and on the Christian idea that humankind is inherently selfish and acquisitive. Rather than seeking to suppress these characteristics, neoliberalism celebrates them: it claims that unrestricted competition, driven by self-interest, leads to innovation and economic growth, enhancing the welfare of all.

When a Christian script was running in many people’s minds (see Counterscript to know what that refers to) Greed was regarded as one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but in the Gospel according to Neoliberalism, it is the supreme virtue.

elijah1And for many Christians, the Neoliberal script has started to drown out the Christian one, and so raises the question of Elijah: How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.

“Baal” is a word that means lord or master, and the deity referred to was Melqart, the god of the Phoenician city of Tyre. Melqart was a god of rain and fertility, and hence of material prosperity, and was invoked by Phoenician traders for protection of their commercial enterprises. In other words, the cult of Baal was a prosperity cult, which had lured the people of Israel, and was actively promoted by their Phoenician queen Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. The people of Israel had the prosperity script playing in their minds.

In our day too, many Christians have the prosperity script playing in their minds.

The post immediately preceding this one, on Neopentecostal churches and their celebrity pastors, points to a phenomenon that Christian missiologists like to refer to as inculturation or contextualisation, which, in a good sense, means making the Christian gospel understandable to people living in a particular culture or context. But in the prosperity gospel preached by some Neopentecostals, the Christian gospel has been swamped by the values of Neoliberalism. One could say that “prosperity theology” is the contextualisation of the Christian gospel in a society dominated by Neoliberal values, but to such an extent that the result is syncretism.

But while the Neopentecostals sometimes do this explicitly, many other Christian groups do it implicitly, and we need to ask ourselves where our values really come from — from the gospel of Jesus Christ, or from the gospel of the Market. Jesus Christ is the love of God incarnate, but the Market, or Melqart, or Mammon, is the love of money incarnate.

When the world urges us to celebrate the virtues of Greed, whether subtly or blatantly, do we resist it? Are we even aware of what is happening? Or do we simply allow that script to play in our heads, telling us “You deserve it”?

Last week a couple of journalists were asking me why Neopentecostal churches that preach a properity gospel, like T.B. Joshua’s Synagogue Church of all Nations, are growing in popularity, and one answer is that given by George Monbiot in the article quoted above — that the values of Neoliberalism, promoted by Reagan and Thatcher, are now colonising the whole world.





Neopentecostal megachurches and their celebrity pastors

20 September 2014

“IT DOESN’T matter how many people come to services,” says Temitope Joshua, pastor of Nigeria’s Synagogue Church of All Nations. “It’s about how many people are being saved.” But it is the sheer size of his flock in Lagos that marks out Mr Joshua, better known as Prophet T B Joshua, who runs one of Africa’s mega-churches; 15,000 people attend his services every Sunday. A lot more watch his channel, Emmanuel TV.

via Religion in Africa: Celebrity priests | The Economist.

"Prophet" T.B. Joshua

“Prophet” T.B. Joshua

The recent collapse of a guesthouse at the headquarters of T.B. Joshua’s Synagogue Church of All Nations. in which dozens of South Africans died, has led to questions in the South African media about the popularity of “charismatic churches”, and why people travel from South Africa to Nigeria in search of healing. And this came shortly after the news that an aircraft owned by another Nigerian celebrity pastor, Ayo Oritsejafor, was allegedly used to bring money to South Africa to purchase arms for the Nigerian intelligence organisation.

As the article in The Economist suggests, T.B. Joshua’s Synagogue Church of All Nations is similar to other neopentecostal negachurches found in Africa and other continents.

How and why these new denominations arose is still a matter for debate among missiologists and church historians, but here’s a brief summary:

The Pentecostal/Charismatic movement in Christianity is commonly said to have occurred in three “waves”:

  1. First Wave (1900-1950) Pentecostal Movement. This led to the establishment of Pentecostal, Zionist and Apostolic Churches in South Africa and elsewhere, eg Assemblies of God, ZCC and numerous other Zionist denominations. White-led groups tended to be called Pentecostal, black-led groups tended to be called Zionist, and tended to develop differently, partly because of apartheid.
  2. Second Wave: (1950-1980) Charismatic Renewal Movement. This was a revival of interest in the Holy Spirit in non-Pentecostal denominations, which led to some phenomena similar to those found in “classical Pentecostal” denominations – speaking in tongues, healing etc. In South Africa it affected mainly the Anglican, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches though others were also affected. There was also some controversy, as some people within these denominations rejected the new movement for various reasons, and in some cases this opposition led some members, including some clergy, to leave and join….
  3. Third Wave (1980-2010) Neopentecostal Megachurches. These were new denominations, formed in various countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, USA and elsewhere. They sometimes gathered people from the 2nd wave movements mentioned above, who were frustrated by the opposition to the charismatic renewal movement in the mainline churches. The main emphasis shifted away from speaking in tongues to healing and exorcism, and, in some instances an emphasis on material prosperity.

There are some home-grown South African neopentecostal denominations, like the Rhema Bible Church of Ray McCauley, the Tyrannus Apostolic Church of Simon Mokoena, the Grace Bible Church of Mosa Sona, and possibly the International Pentecostal Church of Frederick Modise.

This is a bit of an over-simplification, since the so-called “Third Wave” took some other forms as well as megachurches, for example in the Vineyard movement, and the Restorationist movement, which advocated house churches. The Second Wave — Pentecostal manifestations in non-Pentecostal denominations — has also taken on new forms. An example of this in South Africa is Anglicans Ablaze, whose national conferences attract several thousand people (and little media attention). But the megachurch phenomenon is the one that has probably had most impact on the news media, and therefore on the general public.

Some of the megachurches have expanded to other countries in Africa, and some based in other countries, like T.B. Joshua’s church, have members in South Africa and elsewhere in the continent. Another foreign-based Neopentecostal church with many branches in South Africa is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which originated in Brazil.

Five of the best-known celebrity pastors in Nigeria, whose denominations have branches in other parts of the continent and overseas, are:

Adeboye, Enoch Adejare
Born: 1942
Redeemed Christian Church of God

Joshua, Temitope Balogun
Born: 12-Jun-1963
Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN)

Oritsejafor, Ayo Joseph
Word of Life Bible Church

Oyakhilome, Chris
Christ Embassy

Oyedepo, David Olaniyi
Born: 27-Sep-1954
Winners Chapel

The phenomenon of neopentecostal megachurches has its origins in several different movements, which have combined.

Ayo Oritsejafor - Nigerian celebrity pastor

Ayo Oritsejafor – Nigerian celebrity pastor

The megachurch concept was developed and advocated by David Yonggi Cho, who wrote several books about it. These books were read quite widely around the world, and some of those who read them tried to implement the ideas in them, and a kind of megachurch ecclesiology developed, which seemed to go along with the figure of the founder becoming a celebrity pastor.

Another influence was the so-called “Word-Faith” teaching, associated with the names of Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland, also known as Prosperity Theology, or the Prosperity Gospel. This was spread through audio and video tapes of their sermons, which circulated widely in charismatic circles, and were particularly attractive to megachurch leaders, who had large and expensive buildings to maintain, and had a constant urge to pull down their barns and build bigger ones. Many of those who adopted this teaching took it out of context, and gave it an exaggerated importance which caused even its founder to have second thoughts: Kenneth Hagin Sr.’s Renouncement of Word-Faith Teachings:

Charismatic Bible teacher Kenneth Hagin Sr. is considered the father of the so-called prosperity gospel. The folksy, self-trained “Dad Hagin” started a grass-roots movement in Oklahoma that produced a Bible college and a crop of famous preachers including Kenneth Copeland, Jerry Savelle, Charles Capps, Jesse DuPlantis, Creflo Dollar and dozens of others—all of whom teach that Christians who give generously should expect financial rewards on this side of heaven.

Hagin taught that God was not glorified by poverty and that preachers do not have to be poor. But before he died in 2003 and left his Rhema Bible Training Center in the hands of his son, Kenneth Hagin Jr., he summoned many of his colleagues to Tulsa to rebuke them for distorting his message. He was not happy that some of his followers were manipulating the Bible to support what he viewed as greed and selfish indulgence.

Again, this was not an isolated phenomenon, nor unique to Pentecostal and charismatic circles. In the 1960s an Anglican priest in Johannesburg, Norman Luyt, preached the gospel of money in parishes that at that time had not been influenced by the chartismatic movement at all, and was so good at it that he was made an Archdeacon. “Success appeals to those who love success, and all men do” he used to proclaim, saying that in order to appeal to the world, the church must polish its image to make it look like a big success. The clergy should live in big houses and drive expensive cars. I doubt that he had ever heard of Kenneth Hagin, even though his message was not all that much different. But it was Kenneth Hagin’s books and tapes that circled the globe, and promoted the ideas that led to the celebrity pastors of today.

It is misleading to refer to the neopentecostal churches as “charismatic churches”, as some do, which leads many to confuse the charismatic movement with the prosperity gospel, and the charismatic miovement was much wider, and has had many different manifestations. Not all charismatic churches adopted the prosperity gospel, and many have explicitly rejected it.

For more reasons for the growing popularity of neopentecostal megachurches, see here, and for more on the charismatic movement in southern Africa, see here.

Nigeria church guesthouse collapse: the blame game

18 September 2014

The news of the collapse of a church guest house in Lagos, Nigeria, has gradually filtered through to South Africa. The first reports suggested that the church itself had collapsed, and later reports said that 67 South Africans had been killed. And then the blame game started, with the media and the Twitterati and even the pastor of the church, T.B. Joshua, looking for a scapegoat.

Well, not everyone was looking for a scapegoat, as this article shows: Shock, condolences after Nigeria building collapse | News24:

Citizens, religious leaders, and organisations expressed their condolences on Wednesday after dozens of people, including 67 South Africans, were killed in a building collapse in Nigeria.

But condolences were rather muted, and many people seemed to feel the need to attack someone, anyone, perhaps because it makes them feel better. I suppose that must count as a “normal” human reaction. After all, after the collapse of the World Trade Centre in 2001 the US Government killed several thousand people in Iraq, who had nothing, nothing at all, to do with the collapse, simply because it made some Americans feel better.

Maybe it is the same thing that made so many people angry with Judge Thokozile Masipha because she found Oscar Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide rather than murder. And so we see the angry birds tweeting things like:

No kingdom has shed more blood than the kingdom of God.

The collapse of TB Joshua’s church has given him so much PR, he must be a very happy man

Some have blamed the South African government for not “doing something”, some blame the Nigerian government. And some have blamed the victims for going to a church in Nigeria instead of one in South Africa.

The media have reported T.B. Joshua as saying that it was a plot to kill him, referring to an aircraft seen in CCTV footage apparently flying over the building. Some have therefore blamed him for being callous and insensitive, and being more concerned with himself than with those of his followers who had lost their lives. But we don’t know that. The media choose to give prominence to some statements and not to others, and may calculate conspiracy theories are more likely to sell newspapers than condolences, and so give prominence to the former and play down the latter.

So who, or what is to blame, and for what?

CCTV footage of the guest house collapse

CCTV footage of the guest house collapse

I’ve seen the collapse of the building replayed many times on TV. It happened so fast that you could see that passers-by in the street were unaware of what had happened until the sound reached them a little while later, when the building had already disappeared.

It happened so fast, and was so complete that it would take several days to know how many people were in the building at the time, never mind who they were and which countries they were from. As a guest house it probably had records of who the guests were, but those records would also have been buried under the rubble, so neither the Nigerian Government nor the South African government could fairly be blamed for not having such information immediately at their fingertips.

And the South African government is pretty good at looking after their citizens in that way. A couple of months ago my daughter had a bike crash in Athens. A guy who was stoned on alcohol or something else suddenly stepped out from behind a parked vehicle as she was going down a hill. Her bike was a mess and she and the bloke she hit were bruised and grazed, but no broken bones. A few days later the South African Embassy phoned to check if she was OK. She hadn’t reported it to them. The police must have reported to the embassy that a South African citizen was involved in an accident, and they took the trouble to check. If they can do that in a relatively minor incident like a bike accident, I’m sure they are doing everything they can for those involved in the building collapse.

Some have sought to blame the victims, and have questioned why they were going to a church in Nigeria, rather than one at home, or saying that all religious people are gullible. But in South Africa we have freedom of religion, and we are free to travel to Mecca or Mount Athos or Rome or Las Vegas for religious reasons if we want to. I’ve stayed at church guest houses in Moscow and Hong Kong, and possibly a few other places I can’t now remember. Perhaps the most apt tweet for this kind of attitude was

“… those 18 who died when the tower in siloam fell on them, were they more guilty than anyone else?”

Some, no doubt inspired by the Oscar Pistorius case, have pointed dolus eventualis in T.B. Joshua’s direction. That would mean that he expected the building to collapse and didn’t care who was inside when it did, perhaps to claim on the insurance.

As far as I can see, the most likely causes of the collapse are one or more of:

  1. Bad building materials
  2. Bad workmanship
  3. Sabotage

It is up to the Lagos municipal authorities who are responsible for building plans and codes to investigate what went wrong, and, if anyone is to blame, it is up to the judicial and law enforcement authorities to deal with them.

But, I suspect that, even if that happens, many people will not be happy. Because justice is not enough. We don’t want justice, we want vengeance, and it doesn’t matter who we take vengeance on, as long as it makes us feel better. And that makes us no better than Boko Haram, and a good deal worse than Oscar Pistorius.

What more can we say but, Lord have mercy? And Memory Eternal for those who died. Whatever their faults and imperfections, they were seeking God.

He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him (Poverbs 18:13).



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