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Reflections of Graham Greene

16 September 2017

The Reflections: 1923-1988Reflections: 1923-1988 by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are three 20th-century authors that I have thought peculiarly Christian. They are G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. There are several others that I consider ordinarily Christian, like Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and a few more. But the three first-named all converted to the Roman Catholic Church in adult life, and to do such a thing meant, at least to my teenage mind, that they had given a lot of thought to the Christian faith and had made a serious life-changing decision about it. I thought that even before I had read many of their books.

Did their writing warrant the prejudice with which I approached it? G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy certainly did. Evelyn Waugh’s The loved one was as funny as the English II lecturer said it was, in an off-the-cuff remark. I never got to take English II, but a lot of us attended the lectures at Wits by a guy called Cronin because his lectures were far more entertaining and interesting than any others in the university, and were regularly attended even by architecture and engineering students.

The rather dour and humourless English I lecturer once reproached me for my prejudice when I wrote in an essay that I thought William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was about Original Sin, and he commented that I should not approach the book with preconceived ideas. I thought that I hadn’t,. because I only came to that conclusion after reading the book. But I certainly approached Chesterton, Waugh and Greene with preconceived ideas. A friend recommended Graham Greene’s The power and the glory, though, and it went way beyond any preconceived ideas I might have had.

I’ve read other books by all three authors, but this one, a collection of essays, op-ed articles, reviews and other miscellaneous pieces, is one of the best. It’s taken a long time to read, because it is not something to be read at a sitting, but rather savoured, one piece at a time. I’m rather sad that I have to return it to the library, I’d like to have a copy to dip into occasionally, as bed-time reading. Many of the pieces are very short, two to three pages. They are arranged chronologically, and as I read further my respect for Graham Greene as a writer deepened.

Because the pieces are arranged chronologically it is easy to see how Greene develops as a writer. Part of it is just a matter of growing up and maturing. When he wrote his early pieces he was not much older than I was when I wrote my essay on William Golding, and I criticised one of them quite strongly in another blog post here Pandering to colour prejudice | Notes from underground. That was written in 1923.

But it is not just maturity. It was after his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church in 1927 that there is a marked change in his writing, a change in viewpoint. It was Søren Kierkegard, the Danish Protestant existentialist, who wrote an entire book with the title Point of View for my Work as an Author, and Reflections helps to explain Graham Greene’s point of view as an author.

He was very well-travelled, and wrote about South America, the Caribbean, Russia, China, Vietnam and many other places. A lot of his novels are set in the places he visited, The Quiet American, which I have not read, but want to, is set in the early stages of the Vietnam war, His contemporary articles in this book show a great deal of insight into the nature of that conflict, and perhaps both his reporting and his fiction helped to inspire The Ugly American, written about a later stage of the war.

His descriptions of Cuba before and after the revolution that overthrew the dictator Batista are also very interesting. While not uncritical of Castro’s rule, Green notes the enormous improvements that had taken place, and contrasts it with Haiti, a state run by a gang boss and a bunch of thugs.

Several of the pieces in the book are forewords he wrote for books by other authors, which had the effect of making me want to read some of the books. He described some of his own personal disasters — a trip to China in which he managed to antagonise most of his fellow travellers, and a film script for his worst film which had to be so mangled by the requirements of the British censors that the story was rendered almost meaningless.

One essay that I thought particularly brilliant was The Virtue of Disloyalty, and I thought so much for Jonathan Haidt’s moral compass. In the essay Greene criticises Shakespeare for being too loyal to the powers that be, but it also serves as a good refutation of Jonathan Haidt’s view of morality. If you don’t know who Jonathan Haidt is, see here: The moral high ground — or is it? | Notes from underground

And I rather like this extract from an address he gave in Moscow in 1987 at the time of glasnost and perestroika:

Talk is often an escape from action — instead of a prelude to action –and big abstract words have to flow too far and too fast. I feel incapable, really, of summarizing some of the excellent and long essays which were read in my section. It would do injustice to the authors, and my memory as an old man is getting weak.

Literary Coffee Klatsch: the Quaker factor

7 September 2017

We’ve been meeting for our monthly literary coffee klatsch for more than a year now, having quite wide-ranging discussions on Christianity and literature. We have discussed a variety of authors and works, with quite deep discussions on G.K. Chesteron (first Anglican, then Roman Catholic), and several others, but Quakers haven’t figured much in our discussions, so today Janneke Weidema spoke a little about the history of the Society of Friends (Quakers). It was quite fascinating, and we stayed about twice as long was we usually do.

She began with vocabulary. Quakers, like most other groups, have some terms that have a special meaning for them, and there are some special uses. “Elder”, for example, is a verb, exemplified by a notice on a parking space reserved for the disabled, to the effect that anyone else who parked there would “be eldered”.

There is an emphasis on quietness and peacefulness, and the group discerning a proper course of action. This was in marked contrast with our TGIF meeting last Friday, where we were asked to share our vision of a new South Africa without the rubbish, and then to think of what we personally were going to do to bring it about. There was a great emphasis on action and activism, and Janneke contrasted this with the Quaker attitude of “Don’t just do something; sit there.”

In southern Africa, however, Quakers are quite active in giving training in nonviolence, especially in prisons.

She also mentioned a rabbi who meditated on the fact that most laws in Judaism were passive; the emphasis was on avoidance, things that one should not do. The one exception is peace. We are to “seek peace and pursue it”. And that is very familiar to us; it is from Psalm 33/34, which we sing every Sunday. Verse 15 reads: Shun evil and do good: seek peace and pursue it. It’s worth thinking about what that means.

But central to the Quaker approach is Light, with a capital L. This is God’s light in our hearts, and as she spoke about it I was struck by how familiar it sounded to me as an Orthodox Christian, because one of the central themes of Orthodoxy is the Uncreated Light, the light of the Transfiguration, and it seemed very similar to the Quaker approach. And a lot of the Quaker thinking seemed to have an affinity with Orthodox hesychasm.

So much for the general approach of Quakers, but what about literature?

Janneke specifically mentioned two books that are of the top of the Quaker reading list: The Journal of George Fox and The Journal of John Woolson. She read several extracts from them, and said that George Fox, in particular, assumed that people would be familiar with the Bible, not used for prooftexting, but in a more holistic way. John Woolson’s writing was more in line with Enlightenment thinking.

John Woolson became a lawyer, and when people asked him to draw up wills for them, he urged them not to bequeath slaves to their heirs, but to free them instead. If they would not do so, he declined to draw up their wills.

I had been under the impression that Hannah More was a Quaker, because, like John Wookson, she was concerned with the abolition of slavery, but apparently she was not Quaker, but Evangelical. She did, however, make her mark on literary history.

Quaker WitnessQuaker Witness by Irene Allen

In addition to books about Quaker beliefs and practices, there are also works of fiction by Quaker authors, including whodunits like this one. It is one of a series of four, described by one reviewer as a Quaker Miss Marple.

There is also a book written by Quakers in southern Africa, Living adventurously, a compilation of writings of Quakers in different parts of the subcontinent. Janneke said she would bring some copies along to our next meeting, in case anyone would like one.

Beyond the rubbish

2 September 2017

Yesterday morning at TGIF we had a strange discussion on the future South Africa we would like to see.

Most of those present were white Christians. I don’t know how representative the group was of white Christians in South Africa as a whole but the response of this group was rather discouraging.

The mandate for the group discussion was:

At last week’s TGIF, Mahlatse Mashua used the thought-provoking metaphor of a smelly overflowing dustbin in his analogy of the South African household. Often our conversation is stuck in arguing with each other about who was responsible for putting what rubbish into the bin or who should be carrying it out. This Friday, we’ll invest some time imagining what a South Africa without the overflowing bin could look like.

Usually, we are good at identifying what it is that we do not want, what is evil, what needs to be removed. The challenge is to see beyond the absence of the negative and to envisage the presence of the positive. What would a just, moral and restituted South Africa look like in practical ways? How would everyday life experiences change? Are we able to dream a little about “overcoming evil with good”? Join facilitator-coach Vera Marbach as she leads this discussion and be prepared for interaction.

We discussed this in pairs, and I tried to take the mandate seriously, to “see beyond the absence of the negative and to envisage the presence of the positive. What would a just, moral and restituted South Africa look like in practical ways?”

So, thinking of the school classrooms we worship in in Mamelodi and Soshanguve, I said I would like to see every child in South Africa have the opportunity to go to a well equipped well-maintained school with competent teachers.

I hoped that others would come up with other examples and that we could build up a picture of the kind of South Africa we would like to see.

But it seemed to me, from the things that people reported from the discussion, that nobody else even tried to take the mandate seriously. Most of the things came up with were

  1. negative — ie the absence of things we don’t like
  2. abstract — ie not “practical ways”

People spoke of things like “no guilt”, which emphasises the negative, or “a sense of accountability”, which is abstract rather than practical.

By saying that I tried to think of something practical and concrete (as we were asked to do), I’m not trying to set myself apart from the rest of the people taking part in the discussion and to say that the others didn’t get the point and I did. If you look at other posts in this blog you will find plenty of negative thinking, and complaints about things that I don’t like about the way things are and the way things were, and the overflowing rubbish bin of South African society that Mahlatse Mashua spoke about it.

And when we were asked to envisage the kind of South Africa we would like to see, without the rubbish, I found it hard to do. My first thought, on reading the mandate in the e-mail a couple of days before, was that it was too hard for me, and I would simply go along and listen to everyone else’s vision of a new and improved South Africa, and draw inspiration from that.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18), and we in South Africa seem to have lost our vision and lost our way.

When looking at present problems in the country, in which the ANC and the country as a whole seem to have been captured by the greedy and the corrupt, some like to point out that the ANC was never perfect, and that is true. No political organisation 9r party is perfect, in either its leaders, members or policies. But there were those heady days just before and after 1994 when there was vision, when anything seemed possible, when people were asked what kind of society they would like to see, and shared ideas. In those days, whatever else there was, there was vision and there was hope.

But yesterday’s TGIF seems to indicate that it is not just the ANC that has lost its vision and its way, but ordinary white Christians as well. We all, black and white, Christian and non-Christian, seem to have lost not just our vision, but even our capacity for envisaging a better future.

When there is no vision, we simply react to negative stimuli (no guilt). We want an absence of things that make us uncomfortable rather than the presence of things that contribute to “a better life for all” (as the ANC’s 1994 election slogan put it).



Sue’s Book Reviews: Of Wheels and Witches (by Stephen Hayes)

27 August 2017

Here’s a quote from Sue F’s review of my children’s book Of Wheels and Witches.

The latter part of the book is fast-paced and more violent than I’m comfortable with. This is not an escapist unrealistic adventure story of the Enid Blyton variety. It’s all too real, even gory in places, and as such I wouldn’t want a child of nine or ten to read it. Moreover, the children are very young to have been allowed out on their own in such dangerous circumstances; the adults seem to think nothing of letting them ride about the countryside, even when it’s clear that there’s the potential for tragedy. The characters are drawn skilfully, and it was easy to identify with them.
Source: Sue’s Book Reviews: Of Wheels and Witches (by Stephen Hayes)

Most authors (I imagine) are pleased to have reviews of their books, whether the reviews good or bad, because in most cases, provided they are neither fulsome nor malicious, reviews help one to improve one’s writing. Sue reviews quite a lot of children’s books, so I was glad to see her review.

Her review also raises an issue that interests me — that of violence and danger in children’s literature. I’ve mentioned this in a couple of online forums, but perhaps a blog (in its literal role as a web log) is a better medium for comparing things with links to different web pages for reference.

One of the books I have read recently, The mystery of the Solar Wind (my review here) had some scenes that I regarded as too violent. I recently re-read Alan Garner’s children’s books, and this time was struck by how violent they are — they end in scenes of rather confused violence, and those were the parts of the books that I least enjoyed.

The ending is the most difficult party of a story to write, and so many books I’ve enjoyed seem to have anticlimactic endings — Alan Garner’s books are not alone in that. And, in his review of Of Wheels and Witches, David Levey was most critical of the ending. If Alan Garner’s books ended too violently, perhaps mine did not end violently enough?

Anyway, thanks to Sue for raising that issue and giving me something to think about.

Another thing that struck me, after reading E. Nesbit’s Five children and It yesterday, is that most of the best children’s literature is in the fantasy genre, and the stories from the past that have been most reprinted and still available today are in that genre. But that is another story, and there’s more on that here: Children’s literature: fantasy or moral realism? | Khanya

Gaps in Scholarship on C.S. Lewis and other Wade Authors

15 August 2017

A few weeks ago I read a commentary on C.S. Lewis’s children’s novel Prince Caspian, which I found very helpful. You can see my review here. Now the librarian of the Marion Wade Center in Wheation, Illinois, USA, which has a large collection of material on C.S. Lewis and related authors, is appealing for people to write more such works.

Critical / annotated versions of books are a great way for a reader to have an experienced / informed guide walk them through a text. Such books contain notes in the margins or footnotes that provide context to historical references which most readers won’t know, explain complex concepts that might be outside of a reader’s range of experiences, and also interesting facts about the text like how an example is understood in British culture, or where an idea may have come from the author’s personal life. These notes are like a wise companion along the reading road, and that guidance helps readers finish the reading journey and get the most out of all the roadside attractions and truths along the way.Examples of some books in this category include: The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, annotated by Douglas A. Anderson; The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis, annotated by David C. Downing; and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, annotated by Craig M. Kibler.

Source: Mind the Gap: Where Scholarship on C.S. Lewis and other Wade Authors needs some Filling-In – Sunlit Fields

I thought the one on Prince Caspian was particularly well done. One doesn’t normally think of children’s books as requiring critical commentaries, but perhaps children’s books written by Oxford dons are an exception. Fifty years ago I read The Annotated Alice and found it very useful.

The Prince Caspian one is a commentary rather than an annotated edition, but since I had read the book several times, and once fairly recently, the commentary was sufficient to call to mind any parts of the story I had forgotten.

One of the other authors mentioned in the Sunlit Fields blog post is G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. Something that I found quite useful for that was The London Heretics. One can appreciate a lot of what Chesterton was writing about in a general sense, but more than a century later it is easy to forget that he was referring to the doctrines of specific people who were well known in his day, but almost forgotten now.

So I hope there are scholars who will respond to this appeal. I might almost be tempted to do so myself, but then think that it would require a great deal of research, including, no doubt, some at the Marion Wade Center itself, and that even the fare to travel there is quite beyond my means. And that makes me wonder how anyone at all can afford to do such research. Blogging’s cheaper, and we still have our literary coffee klatsch once a month, which is just over the hill from us.


Own Affairs redux

14 August 2017

There are lots of Internet discussions about racism going on at the moment, and one that particularly concerns me was on the “Ask an Orthodox Hipster” group on Facebook. Facebook groups are good for quick questions and simplistic answers, like soundbites, but they are not good for more nuanced discussions, so I’m writing about it here, partly in the hope that I can clarify my own thinking, and partly hoping that others may contribute useful insights.

There are several links to other sites and articles in this discussion, and I’ve included some in the texts, and put others at the end.

The core question that concerned me was this:

Maximos Williams: I think loving ones own people first and foremost is admirable.

Me: And what constitutes one’s “own” people? Surely our “own” people are our fellow-citizens of the kingdom of God who are joined with Christ and us in baptism. See 1 Peter 2:9-10. If we think that “blood is thicker than water” (the water of baptism) then we sell our heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world.

I should also say where I am coming from.

I lived through the entire apartheid period in South Africa, where the concept of “own people” was at the core of government thinking and the policy of the ruling National Party. For 46 years they tried to indoctrinate the entire population with the notion expressed by Maximos Williams, and I saw the results of that policy, and the results were evil. Not only were the results evil, the thinking behind it was evil. Apartheid was not just a good idea that was badly implemented. It was a bad idea. Full Stop. Period. <EOT>

And when apartheid was crumbling, and even the National Party had agreed to negotiate for a different future without it, one group of diehards who wished to retain apartheid thinking went around putting up posters saying “Own People, Own Land.” It was probably translated from Afrikaans by people who did not realise how ambiguous it is in English (Eie Volk, Eie Land), but as Paolo Freire pointed out in his Pegagogy of the Oppressed, the oppressed internalises the image of the oppressor, and those apartheid chickens are coming home to roost in the Black First, Land First movement.

During the first 20 years of apartheid it was criticised by some Christian leaders because it was unjust and oppressive. But there was usually the underlying thought that a juster, kinder, less oppressive form of apartheid might be acceptable. But they had not really examined the presuppositions on which it was based. One of the first theological critiques of the ideological underpinnings of apartheid was from an Anglican priest, Trevor Huddleston, in his book Naught for your comfort, where he pointed out that it was incompatible with the incarnation of Christ. It was only in 1968 that a significant number of Christian leaders concluded that apartheid was worse than a heresy, it was a pseudogospel. Its premisses were not merely un-Christian, but anti-Christian. They did this in a public document called A message to the people of South Africa.

We, in this country, and at this time, are in a situation where a policy of racial separation is being deliberately effected with increasing rigidity. The effects of this are seen in a widening range of aspects of life – in political, economic, social, educational and religious life; indeed, there are few areas even of the private life of the individual which are untouched by the effects of the doctrine of racial separation. In consequence, this doctrine is being seen by many not merely as a temporary political policy but as a necessary and permanent expression of the will of God, and as the genuine form of Christian obedience for this country. But this doctrine, together with the hardships which are deriving from its implementation, forms a programme which is truly hostile to Christianity and can serve only to keep people away from the real knowledge of Christ.

There are alarming signs that this doctrine of separation has become, for many, a false faith, a novel gospel which offers happiness and peace for the community and for the individual. It holds out to men a security built not on Christ but on the theory of separation and the preservation of their racial identity. It presents separate development of our race-groups as a way for the people of South Africa to save themselves. Such a claim inevitably conflicts with the Christian Gospel, which offers salvation, both social and individual, through faith in Christ alone.

In other words, the ideology of apartheid (and not merely its implementation) was based on the premiss of a pseudogospel, a false offer of salvation, salvation by race and not by grace.

I give that explanation of where I am coming from because I am aware that I might be overreacting to Maximos Williams’s statement. The phrase “own people” may carry a lot more baggage for me than it does for him.

But nevertheless the core question remains — who are our “own people”?

And if they are anything other than our fellow-members of the Body of Christ, then where do our fellow-Christians come, if not “first and foremost”?

Do they take second, or third, or fourth place?

Newly-illumined servants of God in procession around the font and Epitaphios (funeral shroud of Christ). One Lord, one Faith, One Baptism, One Holy people of God, black, white, coloured, Asian, Bulgarian, Greek, Russian, American.

And if so, is this not idolatry — because if God’s people are not “first and foremost”, then surely God himself is taking second place. “You shall have no other gods before me” — but if we put God and God’s people in second or third place, or lower down, that means we have made an idol of ethnic or racial identity, and that is the very “phyletism” that was condemned by a synod in Constantinople in 1872, whether you call it a council or not.

Another contributor to the Facebook discussion said:

Christopher Dane: I understand the nuance Maximos Williams is trying to discuss. I’ve said it three times here.

I think there needs to be serious discussion about the difference between preferential and violent racism vs identity politics. I haven’t seen a single mature conversation on that topic yet.

Now I’m not sure what “identity politics” is, or how it differs from “preferential and violent racism”. I think “identity politics” may be something peculiarly American, so I’m not qualified to say much about it, or about the “maturity” needed to discuss such a topic. Perhaps that kind of maturity is peculiar to Americans, and the rest of us should back off.  But it is Americans who like talking about “American lives” and denounce the idea that “all lives matter” — and isn’t that a kind of “own people” thinking again?

So I think that, regardless of the difference between “preferential and violent racism” and “identity politics”, the core question is who one’s “own people” are.

The original question, that Maximos Williams was responding to, was “What is the Orthodox position on racism and white supremacy?

And someone responded with this cite from the Synod held in Constantinople in 1872:

We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which “support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”

I don’t know whether that is an accurate quotation or translation of what the Synod said, but it seems similar in import to what South African Christian leaders came up with 96 years later in the Message to the people of South Africa.

And who are “our people”?

But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may shew forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: which in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy (I Peter 2:9-10).

Early Christians thought of themselves as a “third race”, regarding every foreign country as a homeland, and every homeland as a foreign country.


Farewell to an old friend

8 August 2017

Just over a month ago we visited old friends Martin and Wendy Goulding. A month later Martin died.

Martin & Wendy Goulding, Melville, Johannesburg 29 Jun 2017

Martin told us something about his health problems. He was taking pain-killers every day, and had to have medicine for diabetes more than 20 times a day. He was regularly seeing an oncologist about cancer.

And today we attended his funeral.

St Francis Anglican Church, Parkview, 8 August 2017

And my mind went back more than fifty years, when four of us, all students at the University of Natal, took off for a long weekend travelling around seeing friends. We were Martin Goulding, Isobel Dick (now Beukes), Pam Taylor (later Trevelyan, now dead) and me.

We were driving from Piet Retief to Ladysmith on a beautiful spring day in September 1965, with the hills around Paulpietersburg green with new grass, and we started singing eschatological hymns. One of them was Light’s abode, celestial Salem, vision whence true peace doth spring.

When we had sung it a couple of times Martin said that his favourite verse of the hymn was this one.

O how glorious and resplendent,
fragile body, shalt thou be,
when endued with so much beauty,
full of health and strong and free,
full of vigour, full of pleasure
that shall last eternally.

I hope he has now discovered what that means.

More memories of Martin Goulding (and other old friends) here.