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Appropriate and inappropriate cultural appropriation

25 September 2016

I only learned about the term “cultural appropriation” about seven years ago, and blogged about it here: Inculturation, indigenisation, syncretism and cultural appropriation. But though the term itself was new to me then, the thing it described was not. Fifty years ago I wrote about how disconcerted I was (well, more like disgusted) to encounter English Anglicans who spoke of “Orthodox Spirituality” in hushed and reverent tones, yet looked down condescendingly on other aspects of Orthodoxy as the amusing antics of quaint foreigners.

Literary figures rendered in Byzantine icon style -- cultural appropriation? Appropriate or inappropriate?

Literary figures rendered in Byzantine icon style — cultural appropriation? Appropriate or inappropriate?

One of the ways in which postmodernity differs from modernity is that it is more tolerant of tradition, and indeed different traditions. Modernity tends to be intolerant of tradition, or at least all traditions other than its own. Moderns often express amazement that “anyone could believe that in 2016”, a kind of temporal chauvinism that assumes that anything anyone believed before the Enlightenment must be false. Postmodernity is much more tolerant, and adopts an indulgent attitude towards cultures of other times and places. The problem is that it also tends to encourage an eclectic and rather superficial borrowing from other cultures, in a way that trivialises them. Here is a recent example: See Literary Figures Rendered in Byzantine Icon Style, which is not very dissimilar from the “spirituality” one of 50 years ago.

On the other hand, I li8ve in a multicultural society. For many years our rulers tried to deny this. They concocted the policy of apartheid (aka separate development) to keep different cultures separate. There was little danger of cultural appropriation, except among those who wanted to buck the system, and those tended to be suppressed. American jazz, for example fused with urban African culture in the shebeens of Sophiatown, but the government brought in bulldozers to put an end to that.

The government insisted on “own”. “Own” affairs, “own” culture, “own” people, “own” land. So they tried very hard to stop cultures influencing each other, and their policies tended to assume that cultures were static. In “separate development” the emphasis was on the “separate” rather than on the “development”.

There are still some people who would like to go back to the old days. They regard multiculturalism as a Bad Thing, and say that things were so much better when we had apartheid.

Things seem to have played out somewhat differently in North America, where, according to my blogging friend Jonathan Allen, it seems that the concept of cultural appropriation has itself become trivialised. He recently wrote on Facebook:

Culture is, and always will be, wrapped up in unequal and unstable dynamics of power. The hijab that the offended author, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, wears is a case in point: to simplify greatly, it originated through the appropriation by victorious and newly dominant Arab Islamic polities of elite Byzantine practices of veiling women, refracted through the emergent legal and religious norms of Islam, itself formed through appropriative acts, from the recycling of Jewish popular traditions, to the destruction of Coptic Orthodox churches in order to acquire spolia for early mosques. But of course the history and meaning of a cultural artifact like the hijab doesn’t stop there, and cannot be reduced to a story of cultural appropriation, or patriarchal dominance, or religious piety, or postcolonial assertions of feminism. It is all of those, and, perhaps, none of them, depending on the context, the people involved, and the meanings that emerge out of that matrix. Neither Abdel Magied nor anyone else is to blame for all of the matrices of appropriation, power, privilege, and so on we are all entangled in- which is why I don’t think charges of ‘hypocrisy’ are very helpful here or in most cases. Everything we do is, in some way, political, and is connected to multiple dynamics of power, privilege, and production, in ways that cannot be reduced to easy moral answers, or to moral answers at all even (though we shouldn’t then simply ignore potential moral questions). Many of the attempts to police identity, even if borne out of praiseworthy sentiments initially, tend to ignore or erase this dynamism, and instead become practices of merely securing political and cultural power over others- even if that is not the intention of the actors involved.

He links to this article, Will the Left Survive the Millennials?, according to which it seems that some are demanding that fiction writers write only about people of their own culture, and that if they write about people of other cultures they are guilty of cultural appropriation. That view is ascribed to the “left”, though it sounds like Dr Verwoerd’s most happy dreams. I think that only goes to show that terms like “left” and “right” in politics have long been meaningless.

And all that leads me to think that it is time to revive the somewhat outmoded concept of a synchroblog, and for a group of people to blog on the same day about appropriate and inappropriate forms of cultural appropriation, and where the difference lies. I think George Tinker’s article, cited in my earlier blog post, might be a good starting point. It’s a good question for missiologists. Any takers?



The problem of Susan: growing up?

19 September 2016

A few months ago I blogged about “the problem of Susan” — a reference to C.S. Lewis’s book The Last Battle, the last of his series of Narnian stories.

lastbatDavid Levey had read a paper On reading irreligiously, in which he had mentioned that some irreligious critics of C.S. Lewis were hung up about “the problem of Susan”, one of six children who had previously visited the land of Narnia, but had lost interest in it as she grew up. The meme was perhaps expressed most strongly by J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame), when she said:

There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.

David Levey mentioned this in his paper, though he was talking about Philip Pullman rather than Harry Potter, and you can see some of the background here and here. As Philip Pullman put it

And in The Last Battle, notoriously, there’s the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.

These criticisms suggest that what C.S. Lewis was objecting to in Susan was that she had grown up, and did not remain an eternal child. But I am not alone in thinking that both Rowling and Pullman have seriously misinterpreted Lewis at this point. Because the problem was not that Susan was growing up, but that she wasn’t. ‘Grown up indeed,’ said the Lady Polly. ‘I wish she would grow up…’

And now someone has come up with the perfect illustration of the difference.

Susan’s idea of growing up is in the picture on the left, and the Lady Polly’s idea of growing up is in the picture in the right.

girlslifeSusan’s idea of growing up is to be an airhead consumer; the Lady Polly contrasts this with becoming a thinking adult.

And the article at that site is worth a read too.


Spirituality in Orthodox Perspective: II | A vow of conversation

17 September 2016

Macrina Walker notes in a blog post that “it is hardly surprising that some Orthodox theologians should be wary of the word “spirituality.” Golubov highlights the concerns of Father Stanley Harakas and Giorgios Mantzarides who reject the use of the word in an Orthodox context. Harakas argues that, in contrast to terms such as “spiritual life,” it has a “reified, objectified and ‘substance-like’ connotation” that he sees as related to western ideas about grace. He writes:

The parallel between ‘spirituality’ and grace understood as ‘created,’ an objective substance which is ‘conveyed’ by the sacraments, is too obvious to need documenting. It is no accident that a theological milieu accustomed to the understanding of divine grace as a created substance which was capable of being dispensed or withheld by the official Church, could in a quite analogous way, create the term ‘spirituality’ and live comfortably with it. (Kindle Location 120)

Source: Spirituality in Orthodox Perspective: II | A vow of conversation

I can heartily agree with that.

I’ve sometimes seen articles about words that get on people’s nerves, and I gather quite a lot of people have a strong aversion to the word “moist”. In the same way I have an aversion to the word “spirituality”.

I first became aware of it, and of my aversion to it, when I was a student at St Chad’s College in Durham, in 1966 or 1967. I, like many of the other students, was studying for a postgraduate diploma in theology. We had university lectures and college tutorials for the academic stuff, and then there were other gatherings in the grads’ common room for things like sermon practice. And one term there were weekly gatherings on “spirituality” — a lecture given by a member of staff, followed by questions and discussion. And it gave the the heebie-jeebies, like “moist” does for some people, because nobody bothered to define the word, it was simply assumed that we all knew what it meant.

They even had a session on Orthodox spirituality, which I wrote about in my diary.

Then went to the Junior Common Room, where there was a meeting of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius — an introduction to the Eastern Church by Benedikz and Father Bates. Father Bates, it appears, spends his holidays in Greek monasteries. The thing lasted three hours, and was incredibly dull. However, their theme this year was “God and Caesar”, and they are having a conference on that theme in about six months time — so perhaps things might improve, or at least something fruitful may be learned at the cost of boredom. Father Bates, and the English generally, seem to find the Eastern Orthodox Church quaint, foreign, and rather amusing. They roared with laughter at the description of the way a priest baptised a child in St Oswald’s, and washed the olive oil off his hands in the font afterwards, and then got all deadly earnest and serious over obscure points of spirituality.

I was later to find that attitude quite common. English people affected an interest in Orthodoxy, but in fact they were only interested in Orthodox spirituality, whatever that was supposed to be, and from my observations their suppositions were pretty far removed from Orthodoxy itself.



And Father Hugh Bates (one of the college tutors) never did answer any of my questions about Orthodoxy, in spite of having spent time in Greek monasteries. In fact he discouraged me from asking, implying that it was something esoteric, dangerous, and definitely not for the hoi polloi like me, making it sound like a Rosicrucian ad for secret knowledge of the mysteries of the ancients.

The Fellowship of SS Alban and Sergius, which was supposed to promote understanding between Anglicans and Orthodox, began to look to me very much like what is nowadays called “cultural appropriation” — a selective nicking of bits and pieces of other people’s cultures, while ignoring or despising the rest. At least that’s what it looked like in Durham 50 years ago. It may have been different in other places, and it may be different in Durham today.

Spirituality seemed to be primarily a Roman Catholic word, adopted by High Church Anglicans, and seemed to be attached more and more to advertisements for retreats. I got a new insight into it about 10 or 15 years after my time at St Chad’s, from Colin Gardner, an English Professor at the University of Natal (now UKZN). He was a Roman Catholic, and this was at the height of the charismatic renewal. One of the leading figures in the charsimatic renewal in the Roman Catholic Church at that time was Cliff de Gersigny, a businessman and lay evangelist, who was off all over the place conducting missions, speaking in tongues, getting people to sing bouncy choruses and the like. He was fairly good at waking up somnolent parishes, and getting people to take their Christian faith more seriously. I mentioned him to Colin Gardner once, and Colin said that he was rather put off by Cliff de Gersigny’s “jaunty spirituality”.

Thinking of “jaunty spirituality” in relation to the Cliff de Gersigny I knew gave me a better understanding of the word, at least as Roman Catholics used it. It was also used in some Orthodox literature in English. I know of two different books called Orthodox Spirituality, one of them actually published by the Fellowship of SS Alban & Sergius, but neither of them dealt with the forbidden knowledge that Father Hugh Bates had so darkly hinted at. They just seemed to be dealing with how to live the Christian life. It then occurred to me that spiriuality was a rather poor attempt to translate the Russian word dushevnost, which might be better translated as “spiritual life” or “life in the Spirit”.

Either term seems better than the kind of moist spirituality people seem to talk about nowadays, which still gives me the heebie jeebies.

50 Years Ago: Verwoerd assassinated

6 September 2016

Many people remember where they were when something momentous happens, like the assassination of Dr Verwoerd, and I happened, quite unusually at the time, to find myself in the company of South African expatriates in the UK, and the immediate reaction of all to the news was “Out of the frying pan and into the fire”.

Wloo1I had a couple of days of from my job of driving buses for London Transport, and took the train from Waterloo to Bournemouth  to stay with Arthur and Florence Blaxall.Arthur Blaxall was an Anglican priest who had worked among deaf and blind children. He was also a pacifist, and ran the office of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Johannesburg. He had been arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for things like supplying spectacles to members of the families of political detainees, given a suspended sentence, and forced to leave the country, so he was an exile rather than an expatriate.

Wloo2I got to Waterloo station about 10:10, and had breakfast there, There was rather sickly music gurgling from loudspeakers all round the platforms. The place where I had breakfast was called “The Windsor Room”, with rather pretentious decorations, and cheap furniture that made the total effect rather ridiculous. I had meant to get the 10:30 train, but on getting on to the platform found it was full up.  I went to the end of the platform and watched it pull out — it had a steam locomotive at its head — the first I had seen in England. Like the rest of the British Railways rolling stock, it had these great big spring-loaded buffers at each end and no cow catcher, which gave it a sort of Hornby toy appearance. Then I went back to the concourse again and bought a book, which I read at the platform gate while waiting for the next train at 1:30. It was called Mandrake — about a British minister of planning who gets an idea similar to Dr Verwoerd’s Bantu Homelands — traffic is diverted from the towns, and people are moved around and sent to where they were born, and the earth takes revenge on them.

The train got to Bournemouth at about 2:30, and I went out of the station and got a number 4 bus to the terminus, as instructed by Arthur Blaxall. I was rather disappointed that it was not a trolley bus, and when I got to the terminus I found an old trolley bus route had come up there once, but now all the wires had been taken down, and just the poles left standing. I saw the tower of the church, and made for that, and reached it about 10 to 3. And is there honey still for tea?

Bournemouth, September 1966

Bournemouth, September 1966

Alverna House, where Arthur and Florence Blaxall were staying, was quite a new place, built next to the church, for retired clergy, or those in England on holiday. It is run by the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG). I was showing Arthur some photographs when a priest, also from South Africa, Michael McKay, who came from somewhere in the Cape, burst in and announced that Dr Verwoerd had just been stabbed in parliament. “This is terrible,” Florence
said. “Vorster takes over,” I said. Father McKay could give no details of who had done it — he had been in a shop to buy a record when the announcement was made over the radio in the shop. Florence said there were usually news headlines on the BBC light programme at 3:30, so we waited for that, talking and wondering what would happen now. I had had a letter from John Aitchison a couple of days ago with the good news that banning orders of Elliot Mngadi and Mike Ndlovu (two Liberal Party organisers) had been lifted. I had just shown it to Arthur and said I agreed with John that the ardent Nats and even Dr Verwoerd were becoming a little apprehensive about the growing strength of the right-wing fascist element, led by Vorster, and perhaps Vorster had been rapped on the knuckles over the banning of Ian Robertson, a rather mild student leader, and we wondered if this assassination might be Vorster’s revenge. The thing that concerned us all was that Vorster, the leader of the hard right of the National Party, would now take over.

Arthur told us stories of Verwoerd when he was priest in charge of Heidelberg, Verwoerd’s constituency. He was not, said Arthur, very popular there. On one occasion he had been asked to officially open the national road by-pass, and there had only been the mayor and a couple of the town councillors and Arthur and Florence there. The rest of the population stayed behind at home, not interested. On another occasion there had been a National Party stryddag, and they had bought large quantities of meat for a braaivleis, but the meat had to be given away afterwards because it was so poorly attended. He also said that on the occasion that Verwoerd was shot at the Rand Show, the news was flashed on the screens at the bioscopes, and at the non-European one in Market or Commissioner Street, there was a huge cheer. When it was announced that he was expected to recover there was an equally huge groan.

Arthur and Florence Blaxall at Alverna House in Bournemouth, 6 September 1966

Arthur and Florence Blaxall at Alverna House in Bournemouth, 6 September 1966

I remembered the occasion well. It was the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and I was with the rest of the AYPA — the youth group at St Augustine’s Anglican Church in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. We were  making palm crosses for use in church the next day. When someone announced the news that Verwoerd had been shot there was a spontaneous cheer from everyone — then disbelief. We cheered then because the Sharpeville massacre was still fresh in the minds of all of us, with the State of Emergency and the banning of the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress. It was a release, and the first impulse was to cheer. But not so six years later, because there was only the knowledge that Vorster was waiting in the wings.

We went to town then, by trolley bus. Stood in a queue with hordes of children, and had to stand on the bus when it came. The schools seem to have re-opened today. The bus was a yellow-painted Sunbeam MS2B, with front overhang, and two staircases. It seemed to go very well; indeed it was a joy to ride n a trolley bus again, and some of the streets we passed through might have been in Durban or Pretoria — wide, straight tree-lined avenues, with houses set back from the road and separate from each other. Arthur pointed out a school where people from all over the world came to learn to speak
English. It stretched quite a way along the street, and then the yellow bus nose-dived down a steep hill, and we got out.

PaperSell1We walked through some gardens, with hundreds of people wandering around, all pink, as Englishmen seemed to look when they have been in the sun. A stream, the Bourne, ran through the middle of the gardens, with children paddling and lots of old men with military moustaches wandering about. There was also a bandstand, but the band was not playing at the moment. Then we came to the beachfront, which looked like East London, and there was a paper seller with the evening news, and the placard screaming about Verwoerd being murdered. We bought one, but there appeared to be nothing in it — and so I asked the paper seller if it was the one with the news about Verwoerd. It’s in the stop press, he said with the news about Verwoerd. It’s in the stop press, he said irritably, and went on to mutter something about having been in the place 28 years. Over the way another bloke was selling the local paper, the “Evening Echo”, and that had a more informative article, and an ironic stop press — “Verwoerd dead — official”, and underneath “No Justice” in the racing news. At 2:30 No Justice won the race, and Verwoerd was wheeled out on to the ambulance.We thought it was prophetic. There would be no justice when Vorster took over.

Revd Arthur Blaxall, 6 September 1966, on Bournemouth Beach

Revd Arthur Blaxall, 6 September 1966, on Bournemouth Beach

We walked along the beach front and sat in deck chairs and read the papers, and discussed some more. It was now just after 5:00, but the sun was still bright as we sat watching the sea with the rather treacherous-looking waves and the stony beach. There were few swimming here, and it was not surprising as there seemed to be a steeply sloping beach, and a strong undertow. A woman plonked down next to Florence, and listened in on our conversation, then said to Florence, “Did you hear about Dr Verwoerd?” “Yes, shocking, isn’t it.” A man came around to collect money for the chairs we were sitting in, and I paid him.

We sat there in the sun for quite a while chatting and looking at the sea. It was the end of an English summer, and so there was a hint of autumn in the air. But our thoughts were far away, back home in South Africa where it was the beginning of spring and I could picture the azaleas blooming in Pietermaritzburg, but politically there was a chill in the air there too, with the prospect of Vorster having unrestrained power. Verwoerd was the architect of apartheid, but Vorster was the architect of the South African police state.

Florence Blaxall 6 September 1966, Bournemouth Beach

Florence Blaxall 6 September 1966, Bournemouth Beach

About nine months earlier I had heard Verwoerd speaking at a meeting in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. Three years earlier had had spoken there and he had had to be brought into town by a back route, to avoid student demonstrators on the main road. And when he got to the hall the stage was booby-trapped, and bags of flour rained on him and others on the podium. That was just after South Africa had become a republic, and much of the ire against him came from British Empire Loyalists, though the students demonstrated against apartheid.

In 1965, however, the Empire Loyalists had become renegades along with Ian Smith, whose UDI for Rhodesia had made headlines the day before. So Verwoerd was given a hero’s welcome by the “kith and kin” crowd, and the international media were there in force to hear what he had to say about UDI. Instead they had to listen to him speaking for two and a half hours about Sir de Villiers Graaff and the United Party. He dismissed UDI in one or two sentences: our policy is well known, he said, we do not interfere in other people’s domestic affairs.

We left the beach and rode up to the top of the hill in a funicular. The last time I has been in one one must have been when I was about 6, at Brighton Beach, near Isipingo, but it had closed long ago. I wonder if the Bournemouth funicilar is still operating 50 years later. From the top there was quite a good view over the beach, and we walked down again to the gardens.

Bournemouth, September 1966

Bournemouth, September 1966

I bought another, later edition of the Echo, which had a fuller report of the assassination splashed on the front page. “Dr Verwoerd assassinated in parliament” “Stabbed by white” it announced. The man who did it was said to be a parliamentary messenger, of Greek descent.

PaperSell2We got a bus home from the beach a number 1, a single decker with plush seats and headrests and all, to Kings Road, where we got a trolley bus the rest of the way.

When we got back to Alverna House in came a chap called Arnold Hirst, priest, also from South Africa. He was from Stellenbosch, where he had just done his curacy under Canon Findley. He was stocky, thickset, smoking a pipe, with blond hair. Very much a white South African. He was quite upset by the news of the assassination — said he could just imagine the effect it would have on his parish — it seemed that hordes of them were scuttling over to support the Nats. “Hell’s delight!”, he said, and so it would be, I thought, with Vorster on the loose and unrestrained. I was to meet Atnold Hirst again six years later, in 1972, when he was rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields Anglican Church in Durban North. I was banned to Durban and had nowhere to live there, so he put me up for a few days until I could find somewhere more permanent to stay, and 18 months later invited me to join him in the parish.

We had supper, and then went upstairs, where there were two old ladies, Dr Christie and another, who were retired missionaries from India. We watched the 10 to 9 news on their television, which was mostly about the assassination, and showed pictures of Verwoerd being carried out on a stretcher. It also showed reactions of people interviewed outside South Africa House
in London; a woman who was a devoted admirer, overwrought with emotion. The men were generally against Verwoerd, but also against the assassination, except for an African who said he was overjoyed, and that it was the happiest day of his life, and wished he had done it himself. Perhaps he is not a South African, or if he is does not intend to go back there, because for those at home there is little cause for jubilation. It will be out of the frying pan, into the fire, with little doubt.

At 10:20 pm we went up again to see the 24 hours programme, which was very good, including interviews with Joe Matthews and Bloke Modisane, and also a guy from the SABC, who made no secret of South Africa’s intention to take over the protectorates. We wondered if Leabua Jonathan (Prime Minister of Lesotho) and Verwoerd had discussed plans for the Anschluss when they met the previous week, and perhaps that was what Oom Henk was about to speak about when he was killed. Now we shall never know — at least not from his lips. There was also a slimy gent from the South African Foundation — a slimy businessman, who obviously didn’t care how many people were in jail, as long as his business keeps booming.

I hadn’t gone to Bournemouth to talk about the assassination of Dr Verwoerd, however, but rather to spend some time with Arthur and Florence Blaxall, and this blog post is really about them. The assassination just happened to be the main topic of conversation that day. Arthur Blaxall was my mentor in Christian pacifism, and I hope one day someone will write his story. Perhaps this can be a small contribution towards it.


Click Bait in the Age of the Feuilleton

4 September 2016

The Glass Bead GameThe Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a strange book. Written in the 1930s, it is set in the future, and in that it is similar to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which somehow seems to invite comparison. And there are comparisons, though these two eighty-year-old visions of the future are also very different. But both describe a hierarchical society. Huxley’s book has a reservation for savages, those who do not fit in to the highly organised society of the civilised, where consumerism is taught from infancy.

In The Glass Bead Game, however, the reservation is not for savages, but for intellectuals, who live in the province of Castalia, where they are free to engage in their intellectual pursuits, untroubled by the world outside. It is an all-male society of elite schools whose students are picked by the elite.

The main part of the book is the story of one of these elite students, Joseph Knecht, who rises through the ranks to become the Master of the epitome of Castalian society, the Glass Bead Game. The book begins with a history of the Glass Bead Game, which explains nothing about the game itself — how it is played, or how one wins or loses.

Hesse tells us very little about this society and how it functions. There is virtually no mention of the technology of the 23rd century. There are virtually no female characters and those few who do appear (outside Castalia) are virtually characterless.

But I did learn a new word: feuilleton.

The denizens of Castalia refer to our age (or rather Hesse’s age), the age of the 1930s and 1940s, as the Age of the Feuilleton, or the Age of Wars.

I had to look it up, and it seems that a feuilleton is a section of a newspaper devoted to feature articles and op-ed pieces, shallow journalistic renderings of what is happening in the world. It struck me that if Hesse thought that the 1930s and 1940s were the Age of the Feuilleton, our time must the Age of the Feuilleton on steroids, because back then he was thinking purely of print media — newspapers and magazines. He did not envisage the Web, but I think perhaps the best way to describe the Age of the Feuilleton in today’s terms would be Age of Click Bait — the endless pursuit of trivial knowledge, trivially presented. And perhaps I’m a good representative of that age, because the only TV programme I watch with any regularity is the quiz show Pointless, which deals with exactly that.

Bauhaus1But in the absence of any description of the material culture of the post-Feuilleton age, what one might call the Glass Bead Game Age, I had to fall back on the 1930s vision of the future, and pictured Joseph Knecht’s schools as being built in the Bauhaus style.

In the course of his schooling Joseph Knecht meets a fellow student from the outside world beyond Castalia, a world to which he returns for his holidays, and he alone is critical of Castalian society and its values. He points out that there is nothing creative about it. They study creations of people of the past, art, music and science, without studying the past itself which produced them. Joseph Knecht alone has an interest in history, to the study of which he was introduced during a visit to a Benedictine monastery.

At the end of the book are some poems and three short stories, said to have been written by Joseph Knecht himself. And the three short stories are better than the entire book.

I nearly didn’t read the three short stories. I thought the book was long, and I carried on reading because I wanted to see what happened, but I tired of the two-dimensional description of a two-dimensional world. Yet the short stories are in fact an essential part of the book, and are the key to understanding the rest of the story.

And one excerpt from one of the short stories at the end seems to say a great deal about our age, and the religion of our age, and especially about Christianity in our age, with Christian leaders like T.B. Joshua and the writers of what a friend of mine called “spiritual Westerns”. It seems to sum up much of my experience of Christian ministry.

These are matters which in the several thousand years since his era have probably not changed so much as a good many history books claim. But he had also learned that a seeking, thoughtful man dare not forfeit love; that he must meet the wishes and follies of men halfway, not showing arrogance, but also not truckling to them; that it is always only a single step from sage to charlatan, from priest to mountebank, from helpful brother to parasitic drone, and that the people would by far prefer to pay a swindler and be exploited by a quack than accept help given freely and unselfishly. They would much rather pay in money and in goods than in trust and in love. They cheat one another and expect to be cheated themselves. You had to learn to see man as a weak, cowardly and selfish creature; you also had to learn how many of those evil traits and impulses you shared yourself; and nevertheless you allowed yourself to believe, and nourished yourself on the faith that man is also spirit and love, that something dwells in him which is at variance with his instincts and longs to refine them.

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Spring, eclipse, books and more

1 September 2016

Happy Spring Day and Happy New Year! Welcome to the new year 7525.

We had our Literary Coffee Klatsch at Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road, and to celebrate Spring Day there was also a partial eclipse of the sun, which we kept popping up to look at.

Pete Beukes checking on the solar eclipse

Pete Beukes checking on the solar eclipse

The eclipse was only partial where we were, but in some places people could see a full annular eclipse, where the disc of the sun could be seen all the way round the moon.

We tried the Greek coffee this time, but it somehow looked Turkish.

Greek (or is it Turkish?) coffee at Cafe 41

Greek (or is it Turkish?) coffee at Cafe 41

We chatted about many things, but the book part of our discussion was mainly about the role of books and stories in education.

Isobel Beukes told of training teachers in using stories in teaching. Trainee teachers were given children’s stories to read, and asked to explain how they could use them in teaching.

That reminded me of something that had been suggested by Father (now Bishop) Athanasius Akunda, when we were involved in a somewhat pemature attempt to start an Orthodox theological seminary in South Africa. We thought it would be better to start a kind fo pre-seminary school, where potential seminary students could have some preparatory training. Fr Athanasius suggested that one could teach theology through literature, and we tried it out in one of our classes.

We asked advice from people about what books could be used, and one of the suggestions made by the late Fr Thomas Hopko of St Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, was to use short stories by people like Chekhov, and in particular he mentioned “The Bishop” . So we asked the students to read Chekhov’s story, and also the story of the Martyrdom of Polycarp — the death of two bishops in different times and places, different cultures, different expectations, and to note the similarities and differences, and see what they could learn from the stories about what a bishop was.

Literary Coffee Klatsch: Val Hayes, Pete and Isobel Beukes

Literary Coffee Klatsch: Val Hayes, Pete and Isobel Beukes

Isobel’s story about children’s books also reminded me of a time I was asked to teach religion classes in school. It was St Paul’s Catholic School in Windhoek, and they asked me to teach the non-Catholic students. Teaching children, however, is not my thing. So I read to them from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, and asked them to discuss the stories. These were children of 9-10 years old, and with such an age group I’ve been quite happy to acts as a consultant and advisor on how to run a youth group, but the “teacher-tell” thing is not for me, at least not with that age group. In a classroom situation the children are inhibited and reluctant to discuss things. The atmosphere of a youth group, with no teacher as an authority figure, is much less inhibiting.

The Singularity as a plural

26 August 2016

Twice in the last month I’ve heard people speaking on and expounding ideas that were familiar to me, and yet presented in an unfamiliar way.

This morning it was Izak Potgieter speaking on The Singularity, and a fortnight ago it was Jan Kleinsmit speaking about the Sons og God in the Old Testament. What struck me as singular (sorry!) about both was that both speakers relied on a single book by a single author for the ideas they expounded, and presented these ideas as new and, if not unique, at least highly unusual. And though I had been familiar with the ideas for 50 years or more, I had not read, or even heard of, either author or book.And neither speaker seemed to have read or even heard of any of the books that I had read that had made me familiar with those ideas.

Toppies in the aloes outside the windows at TGIF

Toppies in the aloes outside the windows at TGIF

These ideas were presented at TGIF — a weekly gathering at which someone presents a paper on some aspect of the Christian faith or something in culture or society that is relevant to it, and there is brief discussion afterwards. It’s held early in the morning so people who have to work can get to work in time. I’ve been going to it on and off for the last 10 years or so, mainly when the topic is one that interests me. I find it useful because since I retired from the University of South Africa there have not been many opportunities for intellectual stimulation and discussion. For a while it was possible to do it in internet mailing lists and newsgroups, but people seem to have been abandoning those forums for social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, where the exchanges become more trivial and random as time passes.

So I was quite interested to attend these gatherings, and feel like a dinosaur from the prehistoric world, where people were reading and discussing books I had never heard of, and they had never heard of the books on the same topics that I had read.

More toppies at TGIF

More toppies at TGIF

Izak Potgieter referred to a book called The Singularity is near by Ray Kurzwell. At the end of it I still wasn’t clear about what constitutes the singularity he was talking about. He referred to the rate of technological change and developments in artificial intelligence, topics that had been dealt with 30-40 years ago by Alvin Toffler in his books Future shock and The third wave. Coincidentally I had blogged on the topics of consciousness and artificial intelligence only a couple of days before (see Networking and consciousness), and though I did not mention it in the blog post, one of the essential features of the story I took as the starting point was the question of singularities in the topology of networks. I gather that in the story the concept of a singularity has been somewhat oversimplified and is not mathematically accurate, but at least when I had read the story I had some idea of what a singularity is, while I still have no idea of Ray Kurzwell’s concept of a singularity.

Jan Kleinsmit’s topic, of the Sons of God in the Old Testament, deserves at least a blog post, if not a monograph on its own. At one time I was toying with the idea of writing a book on the topic and had got a few rough drafts written, but then a bloke called Walter Wink beat me to it, so I gave that up. But the bare bones of the idea were laid out by G.B. Caird in his book Principalities and Powers, which was published 60 years ago, and were hinted at in the novels of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, and of course go back to St Paul himself, and mediated through Dionysius the Areopagite and others.