Skip to content

Tales from Dystopia XXI: Capitalism and alcoholism

1 May 2017

One of the notable features of life in post-apartheid South Africa is the way the Christian churches seemed to drop the ball after 1994. Before 1994 many Christian groups were quite vocal in their critique of apartheid, and in analysing the ills of society. Once the first democratic elections were over, however, they seemed (with a few exceptions) to breathe a collective sigh of relief, sit back and take the attitude that the government should get on with fixing things. After all, the government was now a democratically-elected one.

Perhaps this contributed to the government’s losing its moral compass, and the government seemed to become aware of it before most of the Christian bodies, and the Moral Regeneration movement was a government initiative, though even that has now been forgotten.

Now there is talk of “white monopoly capitalism” and “radical economic transformation”, which I think is more smoke and mirrors, but perhaps that, and some aspects of Christian blindness, can be illustrated by some more tales from the apartheid dystopia.

If I name names, it is not to blame particular people (I think the people named are probably dead by now, and anyway they are no more to blame than many others) but rather to show that this took place in concrete history.

In 1980 I attended a consultation called by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) at Hammanskraal. It was ostensibly called to evaluate the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Programme to Combat Racism, but it didn’t do that at all.

I was in a group that was discussing racism in the church, and one member of the group, Ben Ngidi, of the Congregational Church, called for a Black Confessing Church. He said it was necessary because blacks responded to the gospel from a position of poverty and oppression, while whites did so from a position of power and privilege. I thought that this was something of an oversimplification, because here we were, a bunch of mainly middle-class mainly clergy, and that black middle-class church leaders were probably not in a better position to respond from a position of poverty and oppression than white middle-class leaders. I was trying to point out that we needed to look at class as well as race.

I gave an example of a black Christian business man whose behaviour could be seen to be oppressive, and everyone in the group sought to justify it. One member of the group, Maredi Choeu, himself a businessman, said, “Perhaps he gives bursaries.”

The example I gave had to do with Nondweni, a resettlement area in Zululand.

In South Africa white people built towns and established businesses, but complained about the shortage of labour. They induced black people to settle close to the towns (but not in them) in places called “locations” or “townships” to provide the labour needed. So there was established a pattern of a white bourgeoisie and a black working class.

When apartheid came in 1948, however, the Nationalist government thought the “locations” were too close to the towns, so they established a different pattern. They built large rural “towns” further away from the white towns, so that the “labour” would commute long distances by bus, train or taxi. But these “towns” where people settled were unnatural. They were urban residential areas in rural areas. There was no industry, no employment. When they were established, and people were forcibly moved to them there were no public buildings at all. There were no shops, no schools, no churches, no clinics. Such places were the product of ethnic cleansing, and most of the people who lived there were unemployed, because there was no work nearby, and as it was an urban area, people could not keep cattle, sheep or goats, which normally fed people in rural areas.

Nondweni was such a place.

And the first public building in Nondweni was a bottle store (liquor store). It was owned by a Christian businessman, Gideon Mdlalose.

The Mthonjaneni Deanery of the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, of which I was then a member, was aware of this, and it was discussed at a deanery conference. In many of the resettlement areas where black people were forced to move the first public building that was erected was a bottle store, so that the unemployed could squander what little money they had on booze, and the businessmen who owned the bottle stores, whether they were black or white, were making private profit out of public misery.

The Deanery Conference, after discussing this, proposed a very cautious and diplomatically-worded motion on this to be presented to the Diocesan Synod, to the effect that the synod requested the KwaZulu government to be very careful about granting liquor licences in places of high unemployment. The resolution named no names, pointed no fingers at anyone. It did not mention Nondweni specifically, because there were many such places.

The problem, of course, was that the liquor trade was lucrative. KwaZulu was then a “homeland” controlled by an army of (white) civil servants from the central (Nationalist controlled) government in Pretoria, many of whom taught everything they knew about corruption to their black underlings (yes, blaming corruption on apartheid is not entirely wide of the mark).

We debated all this in the Deanery Conference. We could propose blustery resolutions condemning such abuses “in the strongest possible terms” (without, of course, actually using such terms), but we felt that that might make us feel good and self-righteous, but would not actually change anything. So we sent the diplomatically-worded motion to the diocesan office to be included in the synod agenda.

The people at the diocesan office, when they received the motion, decided that it was marvellous, and decided they were going to make it the central focus of the whole synod. The only trouble was, they got it spectacularly wrong.

They hired a film on alcoholism, and were going to get some social worker or someone to speak about alcoholism. And when it came up for discussion at the synod, the clergy, in particular, got up one after another to speak and denounce drinking as a sin. Only one (who was one of the very few white clergy) got up to point out that it was not drinking, but drunkenness that was a sin.

But the sin that the motion was aimed at was not drinking, or even drunkenness, but the sin of economic
exploitation, and one of the chief sinners actually got up and confessed his sin — Gideon Mdlalose himself got up and confessed that the first public building in Nondweni was a bottle store, and that he was the owner of that bottle store, and that terrible things happen there, but if it wasn’t there people would just go to buy their liquor at Nqutu, or if that was closed, they would go to Dundee. But the point of the motion was that hardened drinkers might well do that, but the young children would not. I read Nehemiah 5:7-13 to the synod. Does that not have something to say to all of us, black and white, about “radical economic transformation”?

And it was that example that I put before Maredi Choeu and others at Hammanskraal.

Yes, there is a problem with white monopoly capital. But there is also a problem with Indian monopoly capital, represented by the Guptas. The problem is not with the colour of the capital, but with monopoly capital itself. The ones who are concerned about the colour of the capital are themselves the bourgeoisie. So talking about “white” monopoly capital is something of a smokescreen.

But it is the other problem concerns me more — that a motion to a church synod about capitalism should be transformed into one about alcoholism. By doing so, the church was essentially blaming the victim. Yes, if people did not drink, there would be no business opportunity for a bottle store. But the business opportunity arose because of an unjust political system which removed people from their homes and dumped them in the veld where there were no churches, schools, clinics, sports clubs and above all no work — what else was there to do but drink?

And yes, if a Christian businessman had had scruples about establishing a bottle store in a place like Nondweni, a non-Christian businessman would have even fewer scruples about doing so. Gideon Mdlalose was not a bad man, and I’m not trying to get at him. In fact he was one of the most perceptive people at the synod, because he was one of the few, outside the Mthonjaneni Deanery, who could see what the motion before the synod was really about. It was about capitalism, not alcoholism. It was not about the failings of the flesh of flesh and blood alcoholics, but about the world powers (kosmokratores) of this present darkness (Ephesians 6:10-12).

And the problem persists in our day. We still fail to see the wood for the trees. It is not the racial epithets we put in front of monopoly capitalism, it is monopoly capitalism itself, and the value system that serves it, that we need to be aware of.


This is part of a series of blog posts on Tales from Dystopia — memories of the apartheid years in South Africa

Three popes and a patriarch

30 April 2017

A unique occasion ignored by the media — how often do you see three popes and a patriarch gathered together at the same place?

Someone posted this picture last night on Facebook, with no caption, no comment. I expected to see some news item about it, perhaps with a better picture, but if there’s been one I haven’t seen it

Pope Theodoros II. Pope Francis I, Pope Tawhedros II, Patriarch Bartholomew

The three popes represent three different streams of Christianity that have been separated for hundreds of years, so seeing them all together in one place is quite something.

Here’s some historical background:

Some time in the first century St Mark arrived in Alexandria as a missionary for the then-new Christian faith. Alexandria had a large Jewish population then, and so he probably started among them. After his death Mark was succeeded as Bishop of Alexandria by Ananias (AD 61-82), Abilius (83-95), and so on. The historical record is sketchy, but the church grew among the Greeks and Romans and the native Egyptians. The Greeks had conquered Egypt under Alexander the Great, and ruled it for several hundred years (the Ptolemy dynasty), and they had in turn been conquered by the Romans.

By the end of the second century the Holy Scriptures and liturgical texts were being translated into at least three vernacular languages, and the church had grown so much that more bishops were needed. It was about then that the bishops of Alexandria began using the title “Pope”, since theirs was the senior bishopric.

Within the next hundred years or so, almost the entire Egyptian population was Christian. They had abandoned the religion of their ancestors (that of the Pharaohs) and become Christian. Many of the Greek and Roman population remained pagan, however. Over the next century (250-350) the monastic movement arose in the Egyptian deserts, and soon spread throughout the Christian world.

In AD 451, however, at the Council of Chalcedon, there was a split. There was a dispute over the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. The council said one thing, and Pope Dioscurus of Alexandria said another. The council deposed Pope Dioscurus, and he was replaced by Proterius, who accepted the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon. The next Pope, Timothy, did not accept the decisions of the council, however, and for the next century the two parties, Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian, fought to have their candidate elected as Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria.

In about 550, a century after the Council of Chalcedon, there was a final split, and since then there have been two Popes and Patriarchs of Alexandria — a Chalcedonian one and a non-Chalcedonian one. The Chalcedonian one remained in communion with the other churches that had accepted the Council of Chalcedon — Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem being the main ones, and it is referred to as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The non-Chalcedonian one is referred to as the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. So after Dioscurus, there are two separate lists of Popes and Patriarchs of Alexandria.

In the 7th century Egypt was conquered by the Muslim Arabs. They favoured the Coptic Pope, because the Greek one was in communion with the Patriarch of Constantiniople, which was then the capital of the Roman Empire, which had ruled Egypt until the Arabs conquered it (not quite, there was also a brief Persian interlude). But all Christians in Egypt, no matter which Pope they supported, became second-class citizens under Muslim Arab rule.

The Greek Orthodox Pope of Alexandria remained in communion with Rome (whose bishops had by now also assumed the title of Pope) until the 11th century, when there was a dispute between Rome and Constantinople, which led to a breach of communion between them. The breach was not healed, and eventually the churches of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem sided with Constantinople, and were no longer in communion with Rome.

So the appearance of three popes and a patriarch together is something the like of which has probably not been seen since AD 550, if at all.

Incidentally, the English version of the name of both popes of Alexandria is Theodore, and both are Theodore II.



Orthodoxy and heterodoxy (book review)

29 April 2017

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: : Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious LandscapeOrthodoxy and Heterodoxy: : Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious Landscape by Andrew Stephen Damick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the plural multicultural world in which we live we encounter all kinds of religious ideas and worldviews. We very often encounter them as soundbites on broadcast media or tweets on social media, without any context, and so have no way to evaluate them in relation to what we already know. Orthodox Christians experience this, and, especially for those living outside traditionally Orthodox countries, what they hear from the world around the is likely to be different in many ways from Orthodoxy.

This book sets out to give Orthodox Christians the information and tools they need to cope with that.

If, for example, you see an adherent of Cao Dai being interviewed on TV, you may think, “Cao Dai? What’s that?”

This book gives a summary of its history and teachings, and how those teachings differ from the Orthodox Christian faith.

I’ve posted reviews of this book elsewhere, on Amazon and Good Reads, but here I’ll go into a little more detail, because I think it might be worth discussing, and some comments might be helpful if there is ever a third edition.

The book starts with a brief summary of Orthodox history and doctrine, and then deals with other religious groups, both Christian and non-Christian. There are chapters on the Roman Catholic Church, the Magisterial Reformation (a term that was new to me), the Radical Reformation, Evangelicalism and Revivalism, and several more Christian and semi-Christian movements. Then there are chapters on other religions, including major religions like Islam, Judaism and Hinduism, and others like Santeria and Cao Dai, with an appendix on atheism and agnosticism.

In good postmodern fashion, the author also includes an appendix telling of his own journey from Evangelical Protestantism to Orthodoxy, not that this is really so necessary, as he makes clear where he is coming from in the first chapter, but it is also good to know. All too often in online discussions of religion, and sometimes in printed books, people are quick to say what they think is wrong, but fail to say what they think is right, and do not mention the criteria by which they judge such things. This book does not suffer from that failing. The author generally tries to be as fair as possible to the groups whose teachings and practices he describes, and then to explain not only the points at which they differ from Orthodox Christianity, but also the things they have in common.

I found the book was generally pretty good in accomplishing what it sets out to do. The descriptions seemed adequate and fair, and the critique was perceptive. Some chapters and sections, however,were better than others. Chapters 2-4, on the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation are good, but, rather surprisingly, in view of the author’s Evangelical Protestant background, the chapter on Evangelicalism and Revivalism was the weakest in the book, and a bunch of 18th and 19th-century religious movements were tossed in, some of them questionably evangelical. The following chapter, on Pentecostalism was, in rather surprising contrast, the most thorough in the book.

I’ll say a little more about the treatment of Evangelism and Revivalism here.

Perhaps Fr Andrew felt too close to the topic, but I think some important points were missed in the chapter. Fr Andrew is not unaware of these points, because he himself makes them in the conclusion, and yet does not make them when trying to account for Evangelicalism and Revivalism.

In his conclusion he says:

I don’t want everyone to be Orthodox just in terms of membership in a visible body. Evangelism is about more than that kind of conversion. Our conversion is actually to Christ, not to “Orthodoxy” (defined here as a mere label, membership, or idea). There are, unfortunately, many who are “Orthodox” but do not seem to know Christ or His Gospel.


I am not suggesting a Churchless “Christianity,” but rather warning against a Christless “Church.” Just as there is no Christianity without the Church, there is also no Church without Christ. If I cannot detect Jesus Christ—in all His warmth, personality (if we can use such a word), and transformative love—in someone’s speaking about the Church, then I have reason to doubt whether I should heed him.

Now I think that is precisely what accounts for the appearance of revivalism, and the Evangelical Revival in the 18th century. The revivalists were faced with what seemed to them to be a “Christless Church”. When he speaks about “Jesus Christ — in all his warmth, personality” can we not see what gave rise to expressions like “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour”?

John Wesley “felt his heart strangely warmed” as a result of an encounter with Moravian pietism, and went around Britain preaching in the open air. But his contemporary St Cosmas the Aetolian did much the same thing in the Balkans.

No, the Western revivalists did not have the resources of Orthodoxy to draw on (though John Wesley was quite well read in the Church Fathers), but St Cosmas found that the resources of Orthodoxy in the Balkans were sadly underused. And consider something like Charles Wesley’s “revival hymn” And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood (listen here). I doubt that there is much in it that would not be acceptable in Orthodox theology. Calvinists, on the other hand, if they are really paying attention to the words, hate it.

The paragraphs from Fr Andrew’s book that I quoted from above are the essence of Evangelicalism. It’s not about doctrine (like Adventism, Dispensationalism or Fundamentalism). It’s about being converted to Christ.

In his chapter on Evangelicalism Fr Andrew does say “The feeling that religion had become “dead” spread like a virus through the churches of the Reformation.” But perhaps it was more than just a feeling. It was an observation that the churches of the reformation were indeed “reformed”, but they were also “Christless”, to use Fr Andrew’s term. And the dead bones needed to be brought to life — that is what “revival” means.

It was also not John Wesley’s intention to have a “churchless Christianity”. The church was there, and people could go to their parish churches for the sacraments, but how could they meet Christ in the sacraments if they did not know him? As someone once said, the Anglican Church had splendid plumbing, it’s just a pity that there is no water in the pipes.” It was only after the Church of England fumbled and dropped the ball that Wesley changed Methodism from a revival movement into a new denomination and started celebrating the sacraments apart from the Church of England.

And while it is true that there is nothing in the Church Fathers about “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour” (and yes, many Evangelicals think that that is enough), the baptism (reception of catechumens) service of the Orthodox Church is as powerful as any Evangelical altar call when the priest says “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” and the catechumen says”I believe in him as King and God.”

All in all, I would say that Orthodoxy is more evangelical than the Evangelicals.

Another weakness I found was that some groups and movements were dealt with in considerable detail, even though their membership is small (the Branch Davidians, for example), while other more influential movements, like Neopaganism and Wicca, were given a briefer treatment. The section on Hinduism could have made some mention of Hindutva as well.

I have a few other minor quibbles.

Liberation theology (in the Roman Catholic Church) is dismissed as an attempt to unite church dogma with Marxist politics. I’d say it’s a bit more than that; it marks a shift, however slight, in Roman Catholic soteriology away from the “satisfaction” theory, and a bit closer to Orthodoxy.

I think he also confuses nihilism with subjective relativism (the idea that there is no universal truth, but only what is true “for me” or “for you”). Nihilism goes a lot further than that. It is the belief that nothing is true, nothing is knowable, nothing has value.

I think the book generally accomplishes what it sets out to do, and will be useful to Orthodox Christians who want to know how other religious groups differ from their own. I would strongly recommend it for Orthodox seminary students, especially those from non-Orthodox backgrounds. It could also be useful for members of other groups who want to learn more about Orthodoxy, though there is a caveat here: in Western Christianity there is an expectation that theology is something written in books, but even in Western theology, and much more in Orthodoxy, what can be written about theology in books is not all there is to theology.

You may order a copy of this book here

View all my reviews

Christianity, Western Civilization and me

22 April 2017

This is one of those “now it can be told” stories, because most of the people mentioned in it are probably dead. It’s a response to a lot of articles that I read about the impending demise of Western Civilization (or Civilisation if you prefer)

Many of these articles attribute this predicted demise of Western Civilization to loss of faith — usually the loss of Christian faith, but occasionally, as in the following example, loss of faith in Western Civilization itself: The Crisis of Western Civ – The New York Times: “Faith in the West has declined and, amazingly, people have been slow to rise to defend it.” Many or the articles complain that people in the West have lost their faith in God. This one is, I think, more honest, and is referring to loss of faith in the West itself.

The problem, from a Christian point of view, is that both attitudes are idolatrous.

The first attitude, which sees “faith” as faith in God rather than as faith in the West itself, nevertheless subordinates God to Western Civilisation. We need to revive faith in God in order to “make The West great again”. One is the means, the other is the end. It is as if the Gospel of St John said, “God so loved Western Civilization that he sent his only-begotten Son…”

The article also identifies Western civilization with modernity and liberalism, and describes illiberal regimes as “premodern” The Crisis of Western Civ – The New York Times:

…the Western civilization narrative that people, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world and in time. This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.

The problem with that is that modernity, as we know it, begins with the Renaissance, not with ancient Egypt or ancient Greece. Modernity includes the Reformation and the Enlightenment as well as the Renaissance, but Western Civilization also includes the Middle Ages and even the so-called “Dark” Ages. You can’t just pick and choose the nice bits of history to include, and dismiss the not-so-nice bits as premodern, and therefore not included. Yes, Liberalism developed in the West, and I generally think that liberalism is a good thing. Like G.k. Chesterton, I say “As much as I ever did, more than |I ever did, I believe in liberalism, but there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.” Western Civilization in its “modern” stage, encompassed liberalism, but also witchhunts and the transAtlantic slave trade.

So, if I am somewhat sceptical about modernity, let me get a bit postmodern, and say “where I am coming from”. I do not try to pretend, in “modern” fashion, that my narrative is the Voice of Science. My narrative is produced by my own history and experience. So let me say something about that. It’s not because I think that “it’s all about me”, but if I tell you how much it is about me, it will make it easier for you to judge how much is just my personal opinion and bias. And you can then reinterpret it through your bias, even if, in modernist fashion, you like to pretend that you don’t have one.

I grew up in apartheid South Africa where the dominant narrative was that only the National Party could protect White Western Christian Civilization for South Africa (and the world). At the age of 13 I consciously accepted some of the major parts of the Christian narrative (some might call this “being born again”), and after that I became increasingly aware of  the growing divergence between the Christian narrative and the National Party narrative (some might call this “cognitive dissonance”).

In the 1960s I went to study in the UK, and, somewhat to my surprise, I experienced culture shock. I had assumed that speaking the same language would be a protection against that. I became something of an African nationalist when I discovered how narrowly chauvinist some British and European views were.

In 1968 I took part in a seminar on “Orthodox Theology for non-Orthodox Theological Students, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. It consisted of a week of lectures at the WCC study centre at Bossey, Switzerland, and participation in the Holy Week and Easter services at St Sergius in Paris. That stimulated my interest in Orthodoxy, and for a while I subscribed to the Eastern Churches Quarterly, from which I learned that the Orthodox Church had been in Africa since the first century, and that the Anglican Church, to which I then belonged, was a Johnny-come-lately in terms of African Christian history. The head of the Orthodox Church in Africa was the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, and the first to hold that office was St Mark. I did not learn that in any university church history course, in either the UK or South Africa. Such  courses were pretty Eurocentric.

On returning to Southern Africa, I spent the first few years in Namibia. There were no Orthodox Churches there. The Anglican bishop there, Colin Winter, invited me to go there, making it clear that the diocese had no money to pay me, but I could work there as a self-supporting deacon if I could find a secular job, and report to him on what I was doing or what I thought I could do.

I did some research into that, and discovered that a former priest of the diocese, the Revd Ron Gestwicki, an American, had worked mainly among Herero-speaking Anglicans, and had also set up a theological education scheme for clergy of the Herero-speaking independent churches, notably the Oruuano Church and the Church of Africa. When the previous bishop, Robert Mize (also an American), had been deported in 1968, the Revd Ron Gestwicki had also left, so the work he had been doing had stopped. I checked the diocesan records, and got an idea of what he had been doing, and was most impressed by it. He seemed to have done  a lot with impressive energy and devotion.

Herero Anglicans in Namibia

I wrote a report for Bishop Winter, suggesting that I should try to revive some of the work Ron Gestwicki had been doing, but not on the same scale, as if I had a secular job, I would not have as much time. But there was also something different. I had been in touch with the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, which had been asked by a group of African Independent Churches (AICs) to provide theological education for their clergy. The Revd Danie van Zyl had been appointed to oversee the project, and had developed, in consultation with the AIC leaders, and impressive syllabus. I recommended in my report that we link up with that project, and also mentioned that I thought the Christian Institute syllabus was much better than Ron Gestwicki’s one. When he read that, the bishop blew his top, and said I was denigrating the work done by Bishop Mize and Ron Gestwicki, even though that had not been my intention.

I had, however, seen the outline of Ron Gestwicki’s syllabus, and thought it most unsuitable. Quite a large part of it was teaching the history of Western Civilization, the writings of Western philosophers, and European and American history. It seemed to me that that was not Christian teaching, but Western cultural imperialism, and there were plenty of things that clergy in Namibia would need to learn before they learned those things.

The Christian Institute theological course never actually got off the ground, in spite of its good syllabus. Danie van Zyl left, and was replaced by another Western theologian, Basil Moore, who westernised Danie van Zyl’s syllabus, and then was banned. As a result of these failed experiments, I became quite interested in theological education and training for ministry, and later became involved in such things.

All this made me very aware of how “Western” and western-centric much theological education was. And the thread seems to run through Ron’ Gestwicki’s syllabus to the article that I quoted from at the beginning of this blog post. There seems to be, especially in North America, an attitude towards Western Civilizati0n that seems almost idolatrous. There have been good things in Western Civilization, but they are good because they are good, not because they are Western. Likewise there are bad thinga, but they are bad because they are bad, and not because they are Western. We should be less concerned about preserving or propagating civilizations, and more concerned about preserving the good, and reducing the influence of the bad. And if we are Christian, then the Kingdom of God is more important than anyone’s civilization, culture, nation or ethnic group.







Wondering about worship

19 April 2017

After reading a few articles on the Web about worship this week, it seems that Christians from different backgrounds and traditions are in different galaxies in an expanding universe, rapidly moving apart.

First, some background.

There’s a fellow called Hank Hanegraaf who ran a radio programme called Bible Answer Man. Apparently one of the answers that his study of the Bible gave him was that he should join the Orthodox Church, which he did. As a result some of those who had supported his radio programme stopped doing so; you can read about that here — ‘Bible Answer Man’ Booted From Bott Radio Network After Hank Hanegraaff Joins Orthodox Church

But here comes the bit about worship — Visiting Hank Hanegraaff’s New Greek Orthodox Church – Pulpit & Pen:

One of the biggest complaints against Pulpit & Pen we get consistently is that we somehow don’t “have all our facts,” or are “misrepresenting” someone or something. I received countless emails claiming that I “misrepresented” Greek Orthodoxy in my recent posts regarding Hank Hanegraaff and that I should do more research. Well, what better way to research than to go straight to the source in person? Saturday, April 15, known as Holy Saturday in the Orthodox tradition, I along with a couple of friends went to visit St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC–the church that Hanegraaff was recently chrismated in. The service began at 11:30 pm, and was still going strong showing no signs of slowing down when we decided to leave at around 2:00 am. While we hoped to have the opportunity to confront Hanegraaff in person, being that we all had to get up early the next morning to worship the living God on Easter morning, we decided to call it a night early. However, there are quite a few things that we can take away from this experience in this church

Go on, read the whole article. see how they “had all the facts” and gave a “fair representation” of Orthodox worship. the bit about “deacons” going out to smoke gives a clue to the quality of the research.

St Nektarius Church, North Carolina, USA, where Hank Hanegraaff was chrismated

Obviously the people at Pulpit & Pen don’t like Orthodox worship, and to judge from some of the other posts on their blog, they don’t like a lot of other people’s worship either. What they don’t tell us is what kind of worship they do like, and what criteria they use to judge. I won’t go into detail in discussing the article in Pen & Pulpit — if you want a detailed point by point discussion you can find one here.

What this does show, however, is that words like “worship” mean different things to different people, and the meanings seem to be growing rapidly more divergent.

This works both ways, or perhaps all ways. If the people at Pulpit & Pen didn’t have a clue what was going on in Orthodox worship, I had exactly the same experience of Protestant worship. I was waiting for the worship to begin, and then discovered that it was over. It turned out that what I thought was a band practice was the worship.

And then there is this — Sermon Content Is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers | Gallup:

As Easter and Passover help fill churches and synagogues this week, a new Gallup poll suggests the content of the sermons could be the most important factor in how soon worshippers return. Gallup measured a total of seven different reasons why those who attend a place of worship at least monthly say they go. Three in four worshippers noted sermons or talks that either teach about scripture or help people connect religion to their own lives as major factors spurring their attendance.

That is very interesting in the assumptions it makes about worship.

Note that it talks about “worshippers” and a “place of worship”, but most of the criteria used for attending have nothing to do with worship, certainly not in the way that Orthodox Christians understand it. There are two other criteria that might have made it more relevant to Orthodox Christians, and possibly some others as well

  • It is an expression of my ethnic culture
  • This is the right way to worship God



The Vespers of Love

17 April 2017

Holy Week and Pascha is always a busy time for us, rushing to get to different services. to prepare things and so on. But it ends with the Vespers of Love on Easter Sunday evening, which is always relaxed and quietly joyful.

This year was no exception. We had got home from the Easter Vigil at 4:00 am, up again at 7:00 to go to the Hours and Readers Service at Atteridgeville at 9:00. That was shorter than usual, because the Hours of Pascha are much shorter, and there’s a lot more singing.

Then at 4:45 we set off for the Vespers of Love at St Nicholas of Japan Church in Brixton, which we always think of as our “home” parish, since we were among those who started it 30 years ago. Even the drive down was more relaxed and leisurely. There was time to enjoy the sunset at Midrand while waiting for the robot to change. Val says Midrand sunsets are always spectavular because it has a big sky — Midrand is the highest part of Gauteng, so in many places the horizon is lower than your viewpoint.

Sunset at Midrand, Easter 2017. Allandale Road.

At Vespers the church is usually dimly lit, except at the Entrance, where we sing about beholding the light of evening. But for the Vespers of Love and the rest of Bright Weak (Easter Week) it is brightly lit all the way through, and the doors on the ikonostasis are always open, symbolising the empty tomb.

St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church, Brixton, in Bright Week.

During Vespers we read the Gospel story of Jesus meeting the disciples after the resurrection, when Thomas was absent, and it is read in as many different languages as one can find people to read. This year there were fewer languages than usual, only about 7. I think the most we ever had was 19, including Mandarin, read by a former parishioner, Michael Gluckman, whose business included trading with China, where he spent quite a lot of time.

This time I was also serving with Deacon Irenaeus (Brian) MacDonald, for whom St Nicholas was also a “home” parish, though now most Sundays he, like us, serves elsewhere. So here’s a picture of two aged deacons. And, as also usually happens at the Vespers of Love (Agape Vespers), people seem to hang around chatting for a long time afterwards.

Two superannuated deacons: Stephen Hayes and Irenaeus (Brian) MacDonald

On reading The Silmarillion

13 April 2017

As anyone who has read my blogs will know, I’m a fan of the Inklings, an early 20th-century literary group that included such writers as Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. If you look at the blogroll in the right-hand column you will find links to several blogs dealing with the Inklings, and you will also find a “tag cloud” where you can click on “Inklings” to find posts in this blog that deal with the Inklings.

One of the blogs I link to has just posted a guide to reading The Silmarillion, which lists a lot of very useful resources, though I disagree quite strongly with some of his recommendations for reading them — Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia:

This is what a friend of mine called The Silmarillion: the Bible for Tolkien geeks. It is an astute observation, I think. Like the Bible, The Silmarillion includes genres like myth, legend, history, genealogy, prophecy, and poetry. It is a text of texts from another culture based in other languages, but a text that is meant to inform not just the past but the present. Like the Bible, it better reread than read.

That’s one of the bits I do agree with.

If you encounter Christianity for the first time, and want to know more about the origin of the phenomenon, it can be good to look at the Bible. But rather than reading it from beginning to end, it might be best to start with the gospels. I would recommend beginning with one of the synoptic gospels — Luke, followed by the Acts of the Apostles, and then St John’s gospel, and then go back and start with Genesis. Genesis begins with the creation of the world, but if you want to know something about Christianity, then you need to know that, for Christians, the most significant thing about God is not that he was in the beginning and created the heavens and the earth, but that the God who is in the beginning is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

So with Tolkien.

One’s first encounter with Tolkien’s world is likely to be with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. In those books, in addition to hobbits and men, one finds various kinds of beings like elves and dwarves and wizards, They appear in the story, have different roles to play, and they sing songs referring to other events and a background that the reader does not know about. The Silmarillion, which deals mainly with elves, fills in some of the background.

Where I part company with A Pilgrim in Narnia, however, is where he says Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia:

But why must we begin at the beginning? Here are some alternative ways to read The Silmarillion.

  1. Begin at Chapter 3: It sounds strange, but beginning at chapter 3 gets the reader right into the adventure of the elves and heroes of Middle Earth. Once the story of Middle Earth’s origins is in play, the reader can the go back to fill in the mythic material.
  2. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien: As I said in this post, I don’t think I have ever read anything better than the tale of Beren and Lúthien. It is a gorgeous sad tale of fidelity, courage, and the great deeds of the heroes and heroines of the past. It is also a great way to get a sense of the storytelling in The Silmarillion.

For me, The Lord of the Rings is a bit like the gospels. Having read that, it is time to go back to the beginning and read the Ainulindalë. The Ainulindalë is the first “Book” of The Silmarillion, and, if you are comparing The Silmarillion to the Bible, then the Ainulindalë is like John 1, Genesis 1-3, and Job 38.

So my recommendation is (assuming you are already familiar with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings):

  1. Read the Ainulindalë
  2. Read John 1, Genesis 1-3, and Job 38
  3. Read the Ainulindalë again
  4. Read the chapter “The Fight at the Lamp Post” from The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
  5. Read Job 38:1-7 again
  6. Read the Ainulindalë again, and the rest of The Silmarillion

If you haven’t got it by then you probably never will.

I’ve read the Ainulindalë more than any other part of The Silmarillion.

And by all means make use of some of the very good resources mentioned in Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia.