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Neoinklings: alienation and otherness

9 June 2018

At our June Neoinklings literary coffee klatch, most of the books we discussed had to do with people or groups of people being alienated from each other.

David Levey had borrowed my copy of 1968 in retrospect (my review here), and returned it, saying that he had found most of it too theoretical, as I had, but was interested in one chapter, on transgender people, which was more immediate. I would have liked to have discussed the theoretical aspect a bit more, but then others arrived and the subject shifted.

Val had been reading Between Mountains, a kind of love story set in the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession (1991-2000), A war correspondent and an interpreter at the war crimes trials at The Hague develop a relationship, but interpreters’ work is confidential, and so they are not allowed to talk to journalists, and this hampers their relationship.

The book also has lots of descriptions of things that happened in the wars, and how people responded to them. Some of them brought back memories from 20 years ago, when it described the monks of Decani Monastery in Kosovo:

In Visoki Decani the monks lit beeswax candles and chanted. They watched the Serbian offensive, the looting and burning of the town. They took in people who came to their door, Serbs afraid of the KLA, Albanians afraid of the Serbs. They heard the gun battles as the Serbian forces advanced. Every Thursday they opened the coffin of their founder and released into the air the scent of roses. They remembered the days when tourists came to look at their ancient frescoes, which were once reported on television to paintings of UFOs bringing life to earth, our DNA seeded from outer space, and they thought they had enjoyed these tourists despite it all. They chopped wood, cleaned the stables, and did HTML coding for their web page, where they implored other Serbs to talk to the Albanians, just sit down and talk. They prayed that, when the day came, and it might be soon, they would make a good death.

Twenty years ago one of the monks, Fr Sava Janjic, would write a kind of daily diary of the monastery on internet mailing lists, in which such events were described. So we were given a monk’s eye view of the conflict and the news from Kosovo in a kind of blow by blow account, and the summary above seems fairly accurate, except that it tends to imply that the violence was mainly from the Serb side. The monks urged all sides to seek a peaceful resolution, but there were too many conflicting vested interests.

Apparently this is what got some of the tourists excited about UFOs:

What got tourists at Decani Monastery excited about UFOs

That led on to some discussion of the role of the media and public relations firms in stoking ethic hatred. The British firm Bell Pottingert doing such things for their clients in South Africa was still recent enough to be at the forefront of everyone’s memory, It led on to mention of another book, The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington. Huntington describes how the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession got started:

The breakup of Yugoslavia began in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia moved toward independence and pleaded with Western European powers for support. The response of the West was defined by Germany, and the response of Germany was in large part defined by the Catholic connection. The Bonn government came under pressure to act from the German Catholic hierarchy, its coalition partner the Christian Social Union Party in Bavaria, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other media. The Bavarian media, in particular, played a crucial role in developing German public sentiment for recognition. ‘Bavarian TV’, Flora Lewis noted, ‘much weighed upon by the very conservative Bavarian government and the strong, assertive Bavarian Catholic Church which had close connections with the church in Croatia, provided the television reports for all of Germany when the war <with the Serbs> began in earnest. The coverage was very one-sided’… Germany pressured the European Union to recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, and then, having secured that, pushed forward on its own to recognize them before the Union did in December 1991.

For more on the role of PR firms in igniting ethnic hatred, see here.

This led on to ethnic and religious conflict and the kidnapping of people, especially children, in Nigeria, and Tony McGregor mentioned a book his daughter had been reading, What Sunny saw in the flames, by Nnedi Okorafor.

Someone also mentioned Pale Native by Max du Preez — memoirs of a journalist, but one who was trying to extinguish the fires of ethnic hatred rather than igniting them,

That got us on to how racial conflict started in South Africa, and the relations between Dutch and Khoi in the Western Cape in the mid-17th century. Janneke Weidema said that went back to the history of the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain and told us something about that.

I mentioned another book I had read recently, The mysterious flame of Queen Loana. by Umberto Eco. I had thought the title referred to a monarch of a place liker Hawai’i, but it turned out to be the title of a comic book. It’s about a man who suffers from partial memory loss — he can remember abstract things he learnt, but not personal relationships. Hr goes back to his grandfather’s home where he grew up, and looks through the books and comics he read as a child and his school essays, and finds that it is like researching the biography of a stranger.

He grew up during the Second World War, and so he wondered how he had reacted to Fascism and the Fascist indoctrination in schools.  He saw some of the school essays he wrote as a child, and saw his text books about the noble Italians as opposed to the degenerate Ethiopians and Jews. He was a member of the Balilla Boys, the Italian equivalent of the Voortrekkers, and wondered if he had been a proud or reluctant member.

Janneke told us some stories about the German occupation of the Netherlands, and how their friends and neighbours tried to hide Jews from the Nazis, and how some Jews never dared go out of doors until the war was over

And, back in the Cape Colony, Tony McGregor asked me about a book that debunked the Nationalist mythmaking about Slagtersnek. The Nationalist myth was that a heroic Afrikaner, Bezuidenhout, stood on his white dignity and resisted arrest by Hottentot soldiers. But the author, J.A. Heese, did some genealogical research, and discovered that Bezuidenthout was resisting arrest shooting at the soldiers from a cave with his half-caste son. It had nothing to do with “white dignity” and everything to do with not wanting to pay tax. The book is Slagtersnek en sy mense, by J.A. Heese (Kaapstad, Tafelberg, 1973).


Colin Morris: the Methodist who led me to Orthodoxy

8 June 2018

This morning I read an obituary for Colin Morris, a Methodist minister who had a profound influence on my life.

It’s almost exactly 50 years ago that someone else lent me a book by Colin Morris. I was writing my final exams for a postgrad Diploma in Theology at Durham University. I’d just finished an Old Testament exam, and had a Doctrine exam the following morning. I should have been studying for it, but found Morris’s book too absorbing to put down. His book called into question the whole activity of academic theology.

Include Me Out!: Confessions of an Ecclesiastical CowardInclude Me Out!: Confessions of an Ecclesiastical Coward by Colin M. Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colin Morris was a Methodist minister in Zambia in the 1950s and 1960s. This book starts with a description of how a young Zambian dropped dead of starvation outside his front door on the same morning as he received a copy of the Methodist Recorder, dealing with a report on Anglican-Methodist unity talks. and the theological issues that still separated them.

He was struck by the contrast between armchair theologians in Europe engaging in theoretical theological debates and their failure to take seriously the plight of people like the man who dropped dead at his door. “Your theology, fancy or plain, is what you are when the talking stops and the action starts.”

The book is filled with similar instances.

He castigates the academic theologians for tinkering with theological propositions in order to make them more “relevant”, and urges them rather to put into practice the theology that they already have.

(Karl Barth writes) “‘Jesus is immanent in the Church only because He transcends it’. In everyday speech this is like saying that something is wet only because it is dry, near only because it is far away, and relevant only because it is irrelevant…

… Ah, breathes the theologian. That is paradox and, therefore, profound.

… Ah, says the man in the pew, it’s beyond me but I’ll take the parson’s word that it means something.

… So what? says the man in the street, it has nothing to do with the price of fish! — a remark calculated to touch a theologian on the raw; say that he’s unintelligible and he will take it as a compliment, but suggest that he is also irrelevant and he will sue you!

And fifty years after Colin Morris wrote these words, little has changed.

View all my reviews

A couple of months earlier, in April 1968, I had attended a seminar on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students — 10 days of lectures at a World Council of Churches Study Center in Bossey, Switzerland, followed by Holy Week and Pascha at St Sergius in Paris. A couple of months later I spent a term at St Paul’s college, Grahamstown, where, all exams behind me, I could browse the library and read what I liked, and read The world as sacrament by Fr Alexander Schmemann.

I’ve described how all these led me to Orthodoxy  in another blog post here, so I won’t repeat all that now. But what struck me most about what Colin Morris had written was how it echoed what G.K. Chesterton had written sixty years previously in his book Orthodoxy — that as long as we keep changing our theology, we will never change the world.

Theological liberalism — taking liberties with theology — usually leads to political conservatism. If we are always adapting our theology to fit the status quo of the world, then, as Chesterton put it, as long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will always remain exactly the same.

As Morris puts it, “The judgement upon us is not that we have failed to bring our theology into line with the best modern thought, though that may be true, but that we do not act to the limit of the theology we already have.”

I never met Colin Morris, but I did read a book he wrote at a critical point in my life, which changed my approach to theology. And fifty years after reading that book, I read his obituary here. .

Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life

24 May 2018

Danse MacabreDanse Macabre by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book more than 20 years ago, and wasn’t very impressed with it. It was old even back then, so why read it again now?

I was moved to read it again because several months ago I blogged on Stephen King‘s 70th birthday, and said that some of his monsters were convincing and others not (Stephen King is 70 | Khanya)). Brenton Dickieson commented that I had misunderstood some of the monsters. and so I re-read It to remind myself about the monster in it.

I wasn’t altogether convinced. and so began reading a series of books about horror literature to see what they had to say abut monsters in particular, and we also discussed this a bit at our monthly literary coffee klatsch. And so I came back to this book.

What does Stephen King have to say about monsters, his own and other people’s?

In this book he deals mainly with the period 1950-1980, and nearly 40 years have passed. King himself has written many more stories featuring monsters since then, and so have a lot of other people. His own views may also have changed.

According to King there are three main types of monster in “horror” literature:

  • the Vampire
  • the Werewolf
  • the Thing without a Name

He uses three 19th century horror novels to typify these. The Vampire, of course, is Dracula. The Werewolf is Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Thing without a Name is Frankenstein.

But then there is the mother of them all, the Ghost Story, which was so common in the 19th century. If anything typifies the 19th-century ghost story it is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

King (1982:79) makes a further division:

All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will — a conscious decision to do evil — and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.

I’m not sure that these systems of classification work all the time, or even most of the time. King himself went on to write stories that cut across both systems.

What is the nature of a monster anyway?

As King and others have noted, one kind of monster is a physically misshapen creature. In the period King writes of, such “monsters” often appeared in circus side-shows — dwarfs, bearded ladies, people who were unusually short or tall, fat or thin. People paid to go and see them, and King sees this as one of the functions of the horror story. When we see people with unusual shapes, we can be thankful that we are “normal” and it gives us a measure of “normality”.

But in fantasy literature generally monstrosity is a symbol of evil, of twisting the good out of shape. So Tolkien’s orcs are misshapen, deliberately twisted by their master. Shelob is a monstrous spider, monstrous because of her size.

But while Frankenstein’s monster indeed has no name, it is also, like the Vampire, a revenant, something returned from the dead. It is created by the free will of Victor Frankenstein, but develops a will of its own and so becomes, from a human point of view, an external evil.

And this happens in one of King’s own later stories, Pet Sematary.

Warning, possible spoilers

In this book there is a mixture of external evil in the form of the Wendigo, the wild spirit of the untamed woods, and the grieving father who tries to get his son back from the dead, and does that of his own free will. So at one level there is the classic zombie story.

Zombies, like vampires, are revenants, corpses returned from the dead. The difference is that vampires return of their own free will, but zombies are reanimated by the will of the living. And that applies to the composite monster created by Frankenstein too. The “thing” in Pet Sematary has a name, the name of the son who dies, so it doesn’t fit neatly into King’s classification system.

Several chapters in the middle of Danse Macabre suffered from its being so out of date. King described horror films and TV shows. I never saw most of the films, and during most of the period King deals with we didn’t have TV in South Africa, so I had no chance of seeing them, but even in countries that did have TV, no one under 50 is likely to remember them.

The book has two appendixes, one with what King regards as the better films of the period 1950-1980, and one with a list of  the better books.

Some of the books and films he mentions, or fails to mention, are quite surprising, however.

The film Horror Express, made in 1972, was well within the period that King writes about, and yet I could find no mention of it in King’s book. It even starred such classic horror actors as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Among the books he mentions is Watership Down by Richard Adams. I never thought of that as a horror tale. But Adams did write at least one horror story — Girl in a Swing. But perhaps it was too late for King’s period, though only just.

What follows appears in my blog post but not in my Good Reads review because it strays from a straightforward review of a book into what it is about monsters that interests me.

I suppose my take on monsters is shaped by a Christian outlook and worldview.

There are monsters in the Bible. Some, like Rahab, are only hinted at (Isaiah 51:9-12); others, like the monster from the sea and the monster from the land in Revelation 13, are described in some detail.

The Anglican catechism used to describe a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Monsters, whatever else they may be, are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace.

Stephen King at his best seems to get this. As I noted in blogging about his birthday Stephen King is 70 | Khanya:

Pet Sematary is Stephen King’s zombie story, though he doesn’t use the word zombie in it, perhaps because zombies belong to another culture. But it is not the Wendigo or the zombies that are at the centre of the story, but the temptations of the human heart. In that sense it is like some of the writings of the Desert Fathers about demonic assaults and temptations, transferred from the desert to American suburbia.

In his Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine G.B. Caird says that the monster from the sea (in Rev. chapter 13) represents the power of the State, while the monster from the land represents religion supporting the state (specifically at that time, the Roman religion of emperor worship). He qualifies this, however, by saying:

But it must not be thought that John is writing off all civil government as an invention of the Devil. Whatever Satan may claim, the truth is that ‘the Most High controls the sovereignty of the world and gives it to whom he wills’ (Dan iv. 17). In the war between God and Satan, between good and evil, the state is one of the defences established by God to contain the powers of evil within bounds, part of the order which God the Creator had established in the midst of chaos (cf. Rom xiii. 1-7). But when men worship the state, according to it the absolute loyalty and obedience that are due not to Caesar but to God, then the state goes over to the Enemy. What Satan calls from the abyss is not government, but that abuse of government, the omnicompetent state. It is thus misleading to say that the monster is Rome, for it is both more and less: more, because Rome is only its latest embodiment; and less, because Rome is also, even among all the corruptions of idolatry, ‘God’s agent of punishment, for retribution on the offender’ (Rom. 13. iv).

The monsters are both external and internal. They roam the world, but they also enter our hearts. In this case, the temptation is to try to solve all problems by politics, but what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us.

And if one characteristic of monsters is their deformity, then that is how we saw the monster of Apartheid. Evil does not exist independently of good (as H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters seem to suggest). Apartheid was monstrous because it was a deformation, a twisting of the good. As the Oyarsa of Malacandra said to Weston in Out of the silent planet:

I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly, and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little blind Oyarsa in your brain.

That is the most succinct description of apartheid that I know, of its monstrosity and deformity. That is what it did, and that is how it was set up by the Bent One.

And now we have groups like AfriForum trying to summon Apartheid from the grave, like a zombie, to blight our lives.

Black Panther and the values of Wakanda

18 May 2018

This morning at TGIF Nduluma Mwaba led us in a discussion of the values of Wakanda, as seen in the film Black Panther. Wakanda is a fictitious country somewhere in Africa, and Black Panther is a comic book superhero who is the alter ego of the king of Wakanda.

We hadn’t seen the film, so thought we had better see it before this morning’s talk, so we rushed off to see it yesterday afternoon.

The talk was billed as Nduluma Mwaba speaking on The Wisdom of Wakanda, and the blurb read:

“Black Panther” has smashed box office records. And while it has been seen
largely as a black movie (whatever that means considering that films with
predominantly white actors aren’t punted as “white movies”), the
philosophical tapestry and ideological themes in this movie are universal
and common to our humanity.

Nduluma Mwaba will examine some of these themes and ask some pertinent
questions around our humanity, our duty and our values. He will seek to
“tap into the wisdom of Wakanda” – the fictitious country in which the
movie is set. Nduluma’s background is in Chemistry and Economics, and he
holds a keen interest in philosophy as a gateway to human freedom and

Neither of us is too keen on superhero films, so we hadn’t seen this one. We’re not great moviegoers. I think the last time we went to a sit-down movie house was in 2010, when we went to see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (my review here). Val said she would rather see A Wrinkle in Time, which we had discussed at our neoinklings literary coffee klatsch, and so would I, but that wasn’t what was being discussed at the meeting tomorrow.

T’Challa, the recently enthroned King of Wakanda and the Black Panther

So we went searching on the Internet to see if it was still showing in Pretoria, and where, and how much it would cost (surely the price had gone up since 2010?). In the course of my search I found a review Black Panther has duped us all, which I read, and I suppose predisposed me to see the film though its spectacles. Its verdict was that Black Panther denigrated the armed struggle and promoted neoliberal values.

Anyway, we found where the film was showing, and went to see it, and enjoyed it. Not the best film I’ve ever seen, but not the worst either. The three dominant impressions after seeing it were

  • the obligatory car chase
  • the CIA man comes to the rescue — after being rescued himself
  • Val noted that it was one of the few American films she had seen where the chief villain spoke with an American accent and the good guys didn’t.

Warning: there may be some spoilers in what follows

So this morning went to TGIF where Nduluma Mwaba spoke about the film and some of the moral and ethical issues it raised. Only about half the people there had actually seen the film, and we were glad we had been because it would have meant far less to us if we hadn’t.

Nduluma Mwabe speaking at TGIF on “The Wisdom of Wakanda”

One of the points he raised, which had not occurred to me, was that the herb that turned the king of Wakanda into the superhero Black Panther gave him not just superhero powers but supernatural powers. That takes it a stage beyond the standard superhero model, the self-effacing Clark Kent who changes into his costume in a telephone booth to become Superman. It has connotations of divine kingship, the god-king.

Superman’s day job is a journalist. Black Panther’s is ruling a nation. The notion of divine kingship has echoes of the Roman religion of emperor worship. When we were talking about it afterwards Nduluma mentioned a recent visit to Rome, and how he felt the vibe of ancient power and ancient pagan religion that permeated the place.

Another issue he mentioned was that if you have something special, like vibranium, do you protect it or do you share it? Some saw it as an analogy for gold, and saw Wakanda as South Africa, being exploited by foreigners as the traditionalist Wakandans feared. I saw it more as an image of something like nuclear power. It’s OK to share it with favourites, like Israel, but not with Iran and North Korea.

But even more vibranium is a McGuffin, like the ring in Lord of the Rings, and represents power and its uses, and who controls its uses. This forms the theme of both Tolkien’s book and this film.

Then Nduluma mentioned the question of duty. At one point in the film the general of the king’s guard, when asked to help overthrow the usurper when the real king returns, says that her loyalty is to the throne regardless of who sits upon it. And that relates to the unwritten rule in democratic societies, that the military should be above party politics, and should serve the state regardless of which party is in power.

The appeal to her immediately made me think of the Portuguese coup of 1974, which brought about the end of the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship, and led in turn to the liberation of Mozambique and Angola from colonial rule. The image of Portuguese soldiers with flowers in their gun barrels, saying that they were no longer prepared to fight the Portuguese dictatorship’s colonial wars for it, was a powerful one, but the balance is a fine one, and which side carries the most weight? Tanya Pretorius saw the same scene from a feminist point of view — that the general was a woman, and so the scene represented patriarchy putting women in a bad light. But I didn’t see it that way; there were plenty of male villains in the film as well.

Another guy, Shingai Ngara, commented that he found the film too American, and found it rather insulting to Africans. At the end it shows the king of Wakanda going to America to do good to Americans, but not doing good to the African neighbours of Wakanda.

Nduluma also spoke of the politics of power, and said that the lion did not have its claws out all the time. It showed its claws only when it was needed. This struck me as particularly topical. Yesterday Tony McGregor had posted a link on Facebook to an article that reported Trevor Manuel as saying that Jacob Zuma’s presidency had been an unmitigated disaster. And almost all the comments on this in Facebook had been critical of Trevor Manuel for failing to do what the Americans call “virtue signalling”, and denouncing the evils of Zuma all the time, like a lion never sheathing its claws. But if he, and others who felt the same way, had done that, they would have had to leave the ANC altogether, and Zuma would still be president today, and firmly entrenched, because those who opposed him would have been neutralised. Instead they kept quiet and worked behind the scenes to recapture the captured ANC, branch by branch.

So there are two levels at which one can see Black Panther the film. One is at the level of cinematic techniques. There are the cliches, like the car chase, the casino scene, the battle scenes. The last, in particular, revealed the comic book origins of the story, with the BLAM! and KERPOW! of the speech bubbles being translated into visual effects.

And then there is the more expansive level of the moral issues and dilemmas faced by the characters. Vera Marbach commented that there is nothing in a film that is not intended to be there, and pointed out that there was a cameo role for the head honcho of Marvel Comics, where the King of Wakanda wins at the casino, and leaves, leaving his winnings behind on the table. And this character gathers up all the king’s chips and says “I’ll take care of these.” Very telling.

But is everything intended? I’m not sure.

I return to the CIA man.

On the surface, it seems a transparent attempt by Hollywood to plug the CIA as the good guys, apparently opposed to the usurper king, Killermonger, who wants to solve all problems in the world, or at least those that affect black people, by military means. In real life, of course, that is the role of the CIA, fomenting wars and engineering coups all over the world. Instead of being a last resort, the US, in particular, seems to look very quickly for a military solution.

But, if one looks below the surface, could there be satire behind it? In the last battle, the CIA man is pictured as a drone pilot, shooting down aircraft that presumably belong to the Wakandan air force, by remote control. That’s got to be satire, hasn’t it?

And at another level, too, could it be satire on the US policy of using surrogates that it controls to fight its battles for it, the “good guy” rebels that it arms and supports to bring about regime change in countries that do not jump to its commands.

Is it satire at this level?

Or is it just naive realism?

Ascension: Orthodox theology in Western hymns?

16 May 2018

On the Eve of the Feast of the Ascension of Christ, and within the Octave of the Ascension in the West (if they still have such things as Octaves) I think about the meaning of the feast.

One of the worst sermons I ever heard was was about 52 years ago, in St Leonard’s Church, Streatham, South London. The preacher compared Christ to a heavenly lift mechanic, who had come down the lift shaft to repair the lift, which was broken, and having completed the repair, returned again to the top of the shaft.

But there is surely more to it than that.

Then, and on other occasions, I got the impression that the Church of England was a bit embarrassed about Ascension day, and didn’t know quite what to make of it, but the ascension of Christ was mentioned in the creed, so one had to say something, however banal and unconvincing it might sound.

In South Africa Ascension Day used to be a public holiday, though it is no longer. I think that was largely due to the Dutch Reformed Church, which in the 19th century had experienced a kind of Pentecostal revival led by Andrew Murray in the church at Wellington. The time between Ascension and Pentecost became a time of special devotion, with more services, focusing on the expectation of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. It was their equivalent of Lent, and they seemed to regard Ascension day as more important than Christmas.

When I was at a Methodist Church school our Afrikaans teacher (who was quite devout and had completed the concordance to the Afrikaans Bible that has been started by his father) was quite disgusted that Ascension Day was just kept as an ordinary school day, and that he had to come and teach on that day.

The expectation of the descent of the Holy Spirit certainly features in the Orthodox understanding too, as we can see from the Troparion of the feast:

Thou didst ascend in glory, O Christ our God,
granting joy to Thy Disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit.
Through the blessing, they were assured
that Thou art the Son of God,
the Redeemer of the world.

But there is still more to it than that.

One of the hymns for Vespers says:

The nature of Adam,
which had descended to the nethermost parts of the earth,
Thou didst renew in Thyself, O God,
and today Thou didst take it up above every Principality and Pow’r,
for loving it, Thou didst seat it with Thyself;
and having compassion on it, Thou didst unite it with Thyself;
and united with it, Thou didst suffer with it;
and Thou Who art passionless hast glorified it with Thyself.
But the Bodiless Powers were asking:
“Who is this Man of beauty?
Not man only, but both God and man,
the two natures together made manifest.”
And so exultant Angels, flying about the Disciples in shining robes,
cried out: “Ye Men of Galilee,
He Who is gone from you,
this Jesus, both Man and God,
will come again as God and Man, the Judge of living and the dead,//
granting the faithful forgiveness of sins and His great mercy!”

Is there anything in in any Western hymns to compare with that?

I believe there is.

Though many Western Ascension-Day hymns witter on about vegetation and the changing seasons, there are a few that have some theological content. This verse from one of them, by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, illustrates this:

Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
There with Thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne.
Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension
We by faith behold our own.

I think that is a pretty good summary. In fact it describes what happens at the Divine Liturgy. I would be quite happy to use that to teach Orthodox people about the Ascension of Christ. You can see the whole thing here.

Are there any more Western Ascension hymns that express something of Orthodox theology?

Eugene Nielen Marais, poet

15 May 2018

Dark StreamDark Stream by Leon Rousseau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I generally enjoy reading literary biographies, sometimes even more than reading the works of the writer or poet concerned. I enjoy reading “life and times” books because of my interest in history. But Eugene Nielen Marais is an exception to this. I have loved some of his poems since I was a romantically-minded teenager.

As a teenager my favourite poets were the romantic ones, like Keats and Shelley. But now I find that their poems that moved me so much when I was 14 or 15 do not move me so much now. They strike me as rather flat. But Marais’s poems that I loved then still move me today, especially ones like Winternag (English translation here) and Skoppensboer (Jack of Spades). Keats’s Endymion now leaves me cold, perhaps because in my youth I read into it things that weren’t there, whereas the things that I read into Marais’s poetry back then were actually there and are still there now. Keats was writing in England about an imagined Greece. Marais, in Winternag, was writing about the Transvaal highveld, which he knew, and where I lived.

His life and times are interesting too, because much of that history led us to where we are now in southern Africa, but that is as much the art of the biographer, who had to do the hard work of getting the details of his life, and making the times come alive.

There is also a family history reason. Though Marais himself wasn’t a relative, one of his close friends and admirers, Joän Couzyn, who made a sculpture of him, was married to a relative of my wife Val.

Eugene Nielen Marais (1871-1936) was born of a Cape Dutch family in Pretoria, the capital of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR, South African Republic), the youngest of thirteen children, and the only one to be born there. Part of his schooling was with relatives in the Free State and the Cape Colony, where the new Afrikaans language was beginning to emerge from its Dutch cocoon. Eugene, however, was educated mainly in English, though he could write Dutch and speak Afrikaans.

After leaving school he returned to Pretoria and became a journalist, and while still in his teens became the editor of Land en Volk, which was run on a shoestring. Though it was written in Dutch, Marais introduced Afrikaans from time to time, and was keen on promoting Afrikaans as a literary language. He attacked the corruption of the Kruger government, which meant that Land en Volk lost lucrative government advertising, and strugged to survive. He married, but his wife died shortly after the birth of their only child, who was brought up by one of Marais’s sisters.

After a few years, and partly under family pressure, he went to England to study law, that being regarded as a more respectable occupation than journalism. He was not a good student. Leon Rousseau hints, though he does not explicitly say, that Marais was influenced by the writers and artists of fin de siècle London. He also dabbled in medicine.

He was studying in the UK during the second Anglo-Boer War, and narrowly escaped being interned as an enemy alien. After completing his studies he joined an expedition to take supplies to the embattled Boer guerrillas, but before they could be delivered the war had ended.

Highveld — not really a winter’s night, which is difficult to photograph, but rather an autumn day, near Bronkhorstspruit, where Marais lived for a while.

He resumed his journalistic career in what had become the Transvaal Colony, under the restrictions of the British military occupation, and occasionally practised law. He also, like the Bohemian artists and writers in London, became addicted to drugs, first opium, and then morphine.

In 1907 he moved to the Waterberg, about 70 miles north-west of Pretoria, living as a lodger on an isolated farm, where he studied animals and insects, especially baboons and termites. He later lived in what is now Bronkhorstspruit, where he tried, not very successfully, to practise law, but his morphine addiction made this difficult.

He moved to Heidelberg, where sympathetic doctors tried to cure him, but failed. He returned to Pretoria and journalism for a while, living with friends. In 1936, after his friends had moved away, and losing his access to drugs, he committed suicide.

In reading this book, two things stand out:

  1. The similarity of the corruption in the ZAR under Kruger and the RSA under Zuma.
  2. The best poetry seems to have been written by drug addicts under the influence of drugs.

I’ll say a bit more about these, which I did not include in the review on Good Reads.

First, on corruption, and the similarity of the Kruger regime with the Zuma regime 120 years later:

When Eugene Marais was editor of Land en Volk he was a muckraking investigative journalist, and often exposed instances of government corruption. Though the word had not yet been invented yet, there were plenty of tenderpreneurs in Kruger’s ZAR. As Rousseau 1982:89-90 describes it:

… the revelations in connection with the Selati railway concession were the talk of the town. Marais’s information regarding bribery, four years before, had been completely correct. Via B.J. Vorster, members of the Volksraad had not only received American spiders and Cape carts as gifts, but also gold watches, shares in the proposed company, and large cash amounts. The President himself was not involved, but now, after the exposures, he sided with the guilty ones by stating that he saw no evil in taking gifts.

What bothered Marais quite as much as the bribery was the enormous and totally unnecessary loss the Republic had suffered because of stupidity. An engineering firm which had contracted to build the two hundred mile long railway at £9 600 a mile had farmed out the same contract to a sub-contractor two days later for £7 002 a mile, making a profit of almost £500 000 almost overnight — money which the Transvaal Treasury could have saved if the government had approached the matter more circumspectly.

Marais also found it strange that none of these transactions had been brought to light during the two years that Dr Leyds, anything but a fool, had handled the matter for the Government.

Rousseau describes the Bohemian lifestyle of many of the fin de siècle writers and artists of London, and several of their predecessors too. Since the French Revolution, many artists and writers rejected the bourgeois lifestyle and values that became ascendant then. It may have peaked at the end of the 19th century, bur re-appeared in such movements as the Beat Generation and their successors, the hippies.

I knew that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written Kubla Khan in a drug-induced vision, which was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock knocing on the door. That makes me think that no real poetry will ever get written in these days of Twitter notifications.

But Rousseau’s list of such writers and poets is a great deal longer, and I certainly didn’t know this of Francis Thompson (Rousseau 1982:123ff):

Francis Thompson, a consumptive and an opium addict — for whose poetry Eugene Marais was in later years to have the greatest admiration –lived the life of a drop-out in London, becoming the confidant of thieves and prostitutes, sleeping under bridges or in poor-housees like a beggar.

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New secular religions and original sin

5 May 2018

Yesterday morning at TGIF Johan Erasmus spoke about new secular religions and original sin. There were secular ideologies that used religious language, and were rejected by some people as being “too religious”. He cited President Cyril Ramaphosa, who spoke of the land grabs under colonialism as the original sin, and said that this implied that before then southern Africa was paradise.

He then focused on Critical Race Theory as such a secular religion. When it comes to defining the narrative of our country, he said, this Secular Religion has its own zealous preachers, doctrines of sin and repentance, creeds that may not be questioned, and excommunication if you do not toe the line.

If I understood him correctly, he did not disagree with critical race theorists’ view of what was wrong with South Africa, but he did disagree with the religious rhetoric  that accompanied it.  I too have been critical of secular ideologies like critical race theory, and suggested that we need the tools to deconstruct them, but one thing that bothered me about what Johan was saying was that he seemed to have his own secular version of original sin.

He noted that for critical race theorists original sin is racism, slavery and colonialism. And racism has been redefined. But in criticising this version of original sin Johan Erasmus seemed to come up with another trio of characteristics: postmodern, neomarxist and liberal. He did not explicitly say that these characteristics constituted the original sin of the critical race theorists, but his repetition of these terms, especially the first two, in his criticism, certainly implied that they constituted some kind of original sin. The assumption was that it was sufficient to say that something was “postmodern” and “neomarxist” for people to know what is wrong with it. And I question that assumption.

What exactly do we mean by “postmodern”? And why should we automatically assume that it is wrong? I’m not saying it can’t be wrong, but we can’t just assume that it is wrong without further qualification. I’ve also criticised critical race theorists in similar terms, here, for example Can we only understand racism in terms of postmodern litcrit academic jargon? | Khanya. But we need to specify what is wrong. It is not simply being postmodern that is wrong, because when we use terms like “narrative” and “discourse” in certain ways we are already engaging in postmodern discourse. If we assume that “postmodern” is original sin, then what is paradise? Modernity? Premodernity?

In a rather convoluted set of hyperlinks, we have here an exercise in narrative theology, which can probably be characterised as postmodern: The ‘Story’ That Replaced Christianity Is Collapsing | Intellectual Takeout. And that story links to this one, Do You Ever Think About Being A Hobbit? – Glory to God for All Things, which is, if anything, an even stronger postmodern critique of modernity. I don’t know if those are neomarxist or liberal, but they are certainly posdtmodern

My own critique of critical race theory is partly verbal. Critical race theorists play an quite common academic word game. They change the meanings of words, and because no one else understands the new meaning they have arbitrarily imposed on the words, claims that no one else knows what they mean, and thus make themselves indispensable for the interpretation of these things, thus creating new academic posts for themselves and comfortable employment.

As Johan Erasmus pointed out, critical race theorists redefine racism as prejudice plus power.

That gets it exactly backwards. because in ordinary English, apart from convoluted word games, racism precedes prejudice.

Racism (in ordinary English) is the belief that some races, especially the race one perceives oneself as belonging to, are superior to others, and that race is a very important, if not the most important characteristic of a persons.

This leads to prejudice. in that when a racist meets a person of a different race to themselves, they assume that that person is inferior because of their race. Racism nearly always manifests itself as prejudice, and therefore precedes prejudice. But one can be prejudiced about all kinds of things, and not just about race.

Prejudice + Power does not lead to racism. But racism + power can lead to such things as apartheid, ethnic cleansing and genocide. That’s a different order from the Racism = Prejudice + Power equation, however.

In saying this I’m not trying to equate academic word games with original sin. But academic word games + power, well, that can be dangerous.

Another problem I have with the concept of “critical race theory” is that tacking “critical” in front of the term does not sever race theory from its Nazi roots.

But to return to original sin, I don’t think President Cyril Ramaphosa was that far off the mark when he referred to colonialist land grabs as the original sin (and remember that, by definition, sin is being far off the mark). The original sin (in Christian theology) was taking what was not given. God gave man (male and female) any fruit of the garden to eat, with one exception. And land grabs are essentially taking what is not given.