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Post-apartheid writing and posthumous books

5 July 2019

At our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch yesterday Val and I mentioned that we had been enjoying reading books by Zakes Mda. Before 1994 a lot of South African writing was “protest” literature — protest against apartheid and similar writing. Even before 1994 people were wondering what South Africans could write about after the end of apartheid. Professor Njabule Ndebele wrote a paper about the re-discovery of the ordinary.

Well I think Zakes Mda has rediscovered the ordinary in writing about post-apartheid South Africa, though what he writes is still very much protest literature, but instead of protesting against apartheid he protests against crony capitalism and the Aristocracy of the Revolution. And what fascinates me is that he wrote a lot of these books before Zuma became president. Was he been prescient, or was he exaggerating and satirising tendencies that later became so obvious that they could no longer be satirised?

I’ve written a review of another novel by Zakes Mda, here: Black Diamond: Yuppie life in the new South Africa. Now Val has just finished, and I have just begun, The Heart of Redness. It promises to be an interesting story, and jumps between the past and the present. One of the peripheral characters is Sir Harry Smith, sometime Governor of the Cape Colony, an arrogant man, described by one of his biographers as a bungling hero.

So I think Zakes Mda strike the right note for South African writing post-apartheid. Whenever I’ve tried to write fiction, I’ve got stuck in the apartheid era. It’s the world I grew up in, the world I understand, where the line between good and evil seemed to be a lot clearer than it is today. Oh, and my children’s book about the apartheid era is going cheap this month.

Janneke Weidema noticed that the Zakes Mda book I had brought along was a library book, and it seems that a lot of the books in our local municipal library seem to be toss-outs from deceased estates, and the ones they don’t keep they sell at R2.00 apiece — we have got some interesting books that way too. And that led on to our major discussion topic for this month — what do you do with your books when you die, or what do your heirs do with them?

I recalled that in looking up wills for family history research I found the will of a Walter Bagot (who turned out not to be related), in which he named a friend as a kind of literary heir, and said he was to be allowed to “take such of the books from my library as he shall select” and dispose of the rest in any manner he saw fit.

I also recalled that I had once spent a term at an Anglican theological college, St Paul’s College in Grahamstown (now the College of the Transfiguration in Makhanda). While I was there there was a “loot”. A clergyman had died, and his heirs gave his theological books to St Paul’s College. The books were placed on a table in the library, and the students were allowed in one at a time. Each one could take one book, and this process was repeated until all the books had gone.

Another book I’ve been reading is The Road to Miran. It’s about an art and archaeology student who travelled around central Asia looking for relics and ruins of Buddhist culture on the old Silk Road, which was the main trade route between China and the ancient Roman Empire. The Silk Road split and passed to the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert, and it is inhabited today by the Uighur people, who are mainly Muslim, and ruled by China.

Christa Paula, the author, travelled by bus, train, taxi and camel. Parts of the route were forbidden to foreigners. She would ask people how to get where she wanted to go, and would be told, “It is forbidden”. So she would ask “What should I do?” and the answer would be “Buy a ticket,” so she did, on the principle that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

Her journey was in 1989, the year of the Tianamnen Square massacre, even when democracy was breaking out in many countries. To those of us who grew up with the Cold War and Apartheid democracy sometimes still seems like a novelty, an impossible dream come true, and then one stops to think that that was 30 years ago. When Christa Paula wrote it she was a student, but now she would be nearing retirement. And it was interesting to read about the apartheid in China. The inhabitants of the region are the Uighur people, and there was a special celebration of Uighur-Chinese friendship. But Christa Paula once was embarrassed to find herself at an event that was strictly for Han Chinese only — no natives or foreigners allowed.



In Memoriam: Danie Steyn

29 June 2019

An old friend, Danie Steyn, died earlier this week, after a long and painful illness.

Danie Steyn in October 1998

We first got to know Danie when he started coming to our church, the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas of Japan, in the early 1990s. At that time we ran a bookstall at the church for a mission society, the Society of St Nicholas of Japan, which had actually started the parish as a mission parish. The bookstall was open on Sunday mornings after the Divine Liturgy, and Danie became one of its most regular customers.

Not only so, he also brought a lot of friends along, and urged them to buy Orthodox books from the bookstall. Many of those he brought were young Afrikaners from Potchefstroom University (now the University of the North-West). Danie became an evangelist for Orthodoxy, often with surprising results.

One of the people he brought to St Nicholas Church was Andrei Kashinski, a young Russian immigrant to South Africa. It was the time when the Soviet Union was disintegrating and Andrei, a member of Komsomol, the Communist Party youth organisation, was a factory manager. His wife left him, however, and like many other Russians at the time he got baptised, not knowing quite what he was doing. Because of his broken marriage he wanted to go far away, as far from Russia as possible. He looked at a map, and South Africa seemed to be far away. So he came to South Africa.

Andrei Kachinski

One day Andrei was sitting in a bar in Aliwal North, and mentioned that he had been baptised in the Orthodox Church. One of the people there said ” I know someone from your church,” and drove Danie to the other end of the Free State, to introduce him to Danie Steyn, who was then living in Parys. Danie brought Andrei to St Nicholas Church in Brixton, where Andrei discovered what he had let himself in for when he was baptised.

After 18 months Andrei returned to Russia, and helped with the restoration of the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. Now he is a priest in a village parish near Moscow, which he has been rebuilding after it was destroyed in the the Bolshevik era. Danie was able to visit him there, and was impressed with his simple lifestyle, and with his ministry in a small rural parish.

So Danie influenced the lives of many people. One day, quite soon after I had first met him, a former colleague of mine from the Missiology Department at Unisa, who had moved to the University of Pretoria, brought some theological students to St Nicholas Church in Brixton for the Divine Liturgy. At that time there were two faculties of Theology at the University of Pretoria, one for the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) , and the other for the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk (NHK). Danie had studied theology with the latter, which was more theologically liberal, but more politically conservative than the NGK. So Danie spoke to the visiting students after the Liturgy, saying that Reformed Theology, especially that of the NHK, tended to be cold and intellectual and academic, and the experience of God in Orthodoxy was like dropping from head knowledge to heart knowledge.

Benjamin Elisa (Gustav) Prinsloo’s funeral at St Nicholas, Brixton, Danie Steyn made the cross.

One of those who came to Orthodoxy through Danie’s witness was Gustav Prinsloo, who was baptised on Holy Saturday 1997, which we think was the first Orthodox baptism in South Africa done in Afrikaans. Nine months later Gustav was in a car accident which claimed his life, and his funeral was held at St Nicholas Church in Brixton, and after the service most of the congregation drove in procession to Petrus Steyn, about 200 km away, where the burial took place.

Danie had organised the funeral, and leading the funeral service was virtually the first pastoral task of the new priest, Fr Bertrand Olechnowicz, who had been in the parish for less than a week. The funeral made quite an impression on many of Gustav and Danie’s friends who attended, and the following Easter 11 people were baptised, most of whom had been present at the funeral.

Fr Iakovos Olechnowicz at the funeral of Gustav Prinsloo in Petrus Steyn, January 1998. Danie Steyn in red shirt.

Twenty-one years later we gathered at the same place to bury Danie next to his friend Gustav and his stepfather Stowell Kessler, and now there are three Orthodox graves in the cemetery at Petrus Steyn.

Burial of Danie Steyn, next to his friend Benjamin Elisa (Gustav) Prinsloo, 27 Jun 2019.

I didn’t know Danie when he first became Orthodox, but I got the impression from talking to him in the early 1990s that he had an idea of an Afrikaner national Orthodox Church. I was reminded of a similar idea that had been held by George Alexander McGuire in the USA. McGuire was an Antiquan who went to the USA and became an Episcopalian (Anglican) priest, but wanted a black independent church. Being aware that the Orthodox Church had Russian, Greek, Bulgarian and similar national churches, he approached the Russian bishop in New York, but the bishop explained to him that it was not quite what he thought. There was no principle in Orthodoxy for establishing ethnically exclusive churches (this notion had been condemned some years earlier as “phyletism”). The Russian, Greek, Bulgarian etc Orthodox Churches were all in communion with each other and were not, as a matter of theological principle, ethnically exclusive. The Russian Revolution made it difficult to continue that conversation, and McGuire formed the African Orthodox Church, of which he became Primate, but since then several branches of the African Orthodox Church have joined the Orthodox Church, especially in East Africa.

About ten years after I first met him, Danie attended a training course for church leaders held at the Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen in Johannesburg, with people from many different ethnic backgrouds, English, Afrikaans, Greek, Ndebele, Romanian, Pedi, Zulu and more. As much as ever, Danie saw his ministry as evangelising Afrikaners who had become disillusioned and dropped out of the Calvinist Afrikaans-speaking churches, but saw it as bringing people into an inclusive Orthodox fellowship in which people of all ethnicities would be welcome, though each could worship in their own language.

In spite of what the Russian bishop had told George Alexander McGuire, though there was no theological basis for ethnic exclusivity, there is still sometimes in Orthodox Churches an attitude of ethnic exclusivity based on prejudice, which Danie himself had experienced when reading the Book of Acts in preparation for the Easter Vigil. He was reading in Afrikaans, and was treated very rudely by a member of that particular parish, as a result of which he, and most of the Afrikaans and Slavic members of that parish left and joined the new Russian parish which was being started in Midrand.

We will miss Danie. May his memory be eternal.



I crave your indulgence…

26 June 2019

I’m still trying to get my head around this.

A couple of days ago I saw this picture on social media.

Back in the 16th century Protestant reformers objected to the Roman Catholic Church raising money by selling indulgences to penitents, but here is a Protestant church selling tickets to worshippers for a worship night.

What’s the difference?

I realise that churches need money to do their work, but putting a price on worship really seems a bit much..

It seems that the public image of Christian churches is that they are now primarily money-making businesses. On the question and answer site Quora people ask questions like How much do pastors make and what do they do all week?, and How much do mega-pastors make?

I suspect that a lot of people who ask questions like that are doing so to judge whether being a “pastor” is a sufficiently lucrative career. Someone once asked me how to become a church marriage officer, and I’m pretty sure that was because in some parts of the country church marriage officers of different denominations have set up a cartel, where they have agreed among themselves to charge certain fees, and agree not to undercut each other.

Back in the 19th century some Anglican parishes were actual businesses. They would raise the money to build a church by forming a limited liability company (a for-profit company, not a non-profit) and would sell shares in the company, and then pay dividends out of pew rents. But eventually people got embarrassed by that practice, and it stopped, though I still remember seeing notices in St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg informing worshippers that “All seats in this church are free”/

It is things like these that contribute to the image of Christian churches as being primarily money=-making organisations.

Yes, I realise that churches need money to function, that bills have to be paid and all that, but putting a price on worship? Eish!

Reading old books

15 June 2019

A couple of years ago there was a reading challenge: Read a book published before you were born this year – Modern Mrs. Darcy.

I also read somewhere about the same time that reading books published before you were born makes you a better writer, because it gives you an understanding of other times and places, a wider sympathy, and it can deliver us from temporal chauvinism.

So I thought I would try to make a list of books I had read that were published before I was born. Some were published only a year or two before, others were published a century or more before, but they were all published before.

Of course the list is not complete. I can’t remember every book I have ever read. I do remember some of the first books I read, before the age of 7: Choo Choo, the little engine that ran away, Buzzy Wing (about bees) and Hush Wing (about owls). But they may have been brand new when I got them, and so may not have been published before I was born. I recorded some in my diary, and remember reading others, and more recently I’ve tried recording books I have read when I read them (GoodReads also helps with that).

So here is my list as it stands now:

  1. Allcott, Louisa May 1869. Good Wives.
  2. Allen, Roland 1962 [1912]. Missionary methods: St Paul’s or ours,
  3. Austen, Jane 1950 [1816]. Emma.
  4. Austen, Jane Pride and prejudice.
  5. Austen, Jane s.a. Northanger Abbey.
  6. Ballantyne, R.M. 1966 [1857]. The Coral Island.
  7. Belloc, Hillaire 1939. Survivals and new arrivals.
  8. Blackmore, R.D. s.a.. Lorna Doone.
  9. Bront‰, Emily 1847. Wuthering Heights.
  10. Buchan, John 1928. Prester John.
  11. Buchan, John 1947 [1940]. Memory hold-the-door.
  12. Buchan, John 1952. Greenmantle.
  13. Burnett, Frances Hodgson 1977. The secret garden.
  14. Carroll, Lewis 1965. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
  15. Conrad, Joseph 1955 [1904]. Nostromo.
  16. Conrad, Joseph 1960. The nigger of the Narcissus Typhoon The shadow line.
  17. Conrad, Joseph s.a.. The secret agent.
  18. Conrad, Joseph 1964. Under Western eyes.
  19. Conrad, Joseph 2010. Heart of darkness.
  20. Dickens, Charles 1981. Bleak House.
  21. Dickens, Charles s.a.. David Copperfield.
  22. Dickens, Charles S.A.. Dealings with the firm of Dombey & Son: wholesale, retail and for exportation.
  23. Dickens, Charles 1962. A tale of two cities.
  24. Dickens, Charles 2010. Oliver Twist.
  25. Dickens, Charles s.a.. The life and adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.
  26. Dostoevsky, Fyodor 2009. Devils.
  27. Dostoevsky, Fyodor 1959. The brothers Karamazov.
  28. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor 2003 [1864]. Notes from underground The double.
  29. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor 2005. Crime and punishment.
  30. Durham, M. Edith 1909. High Albania.
  31. Eliot, George s.a.. Adam Bede.
  32. Farmer, Edwin 1900. The Transvaal as a mission field.
  33. Greene, Graham 1962 [1940]. The power and the glory.
  34. Greene, Graham 1974 [1936]. A gun for sale.
  35. Haggard, H. Rider 1887. Allan Quartermain.
  36. Haggard, H. Rider 1965 [1910]. Queen Sheba’s ring.
  37. Haggard, H. Rider 1979. King Solomon’s mines.
  38. Haggard, H. Rider 1965 [1887]. Allan Quatermain.
  39. Hesse, Hermann 1974 [1927]. Steppenwolf.
  40. Huxley, Aldous 1932. Antic hay.
  41. Huxley, Aldous 1949 [1921]. Crome yellow.
  42. Huxley, Aldous 1994 [1932]. Brave new world.
  43. Johns, W.E. 1939. Biggles flies South.
  44. Johns, W.E. 1939. Biggles in Spain.
  45. Johns, W.E. 1940. Biggles in the Baltic.
  46. Kafka, Franz 1965 [1925]. The trial.
  47. Kingsley, Henry 1909. Ravenshoe.
  48. Koestler, Arthur 1965 [1940]. Darkness at noon.
  49. MacDonald, George 1964 [1872]. The princess and the goblin.
  50. Maugham, W. Somerset 1967 [1897]. Liza of Lambeth.
  51. Maugham, W. Somerset 1970 [1930]. Cakes and ale.
  52. Miller, Henry 1993 [1934]. Tropic of Cancer.
  53. Montgomery, L.M. 1994 [1908]. Anne of Green Gables.
  54. Nesbit, E. 1978. Five children and It.
  55. Nesbit, E. 1978. The Phoenix and the Carpet.
  56. Nesbit, E. 1986 [1899]. The story of the treasure seekers.
  57. Pepys, Samuel 1997. The concise Pepys.
  58. Reed, Douglas 1939. Insanity fair.
  59. Sayers, Dorothy 1970 [1931]. The Five Red Herrings.
  60. Sayers, Dorothy L. 1968 [1937]. Busman’s honeymoon.
  61. Sayers, Dorothy L. 1972 [1935]. Gaudy Night.
  62. Sayers, Dorothy 1986. Have his carcase.
  63. Sayers, Dorothy L 1934. The nine tailors.
  64. Sewell, Anna 1945. Black Beauty: the autobiography of a horse.
  65. Steavenson, W.H 1933. Suns and worlds: an introduction to astronomy.
  66. Steinbeck, John 1967 [1939]. Cannery Row.
  67. Stevenson, Robert Louis 1948. Kidnapped.
  68. Stevenson, Robert Louis 1947. Treasure Island.
  69. Swift, Jonathan . Gulliver’s Travels
  70. Vale, Edmund 1937. North Country.
  71. Waugh, Evelyn 1955 [1930]. Vile Bodies.
  72. Waugh, Evelyn 1938. Scoop.
  73. Williams, Charles 1931. Many dimensions.
  74. Williams, Charles 1955 [1937]. Descent into Hell.
  75. Williams, Charles 1957 [1930]. War in heaven.
  76. Williams, Charles 1965 [1931]. The place of the lion.
  77. Williams, Charles 1965 [1933]. Shadows of ecstasy.
  78. Wolfe, E.M 1935. Beyond the thirst belt.
  79. Woolf, Virginia 1992 [1931]. The waves.
  80. Woolf, Virginia 2004 [1925]. Mrs Dalloway.

I read many more Biggles books, but could not remember all the titles, nor when they were published, though I read most of them between the ages of 10 and 12. But it was from Biggles in Spain that I first learned about the Spanish Civil War, and from Biggles flies South that I first learned of an ancient Persian army that got lost in the Egyptian desert. So even from fiction one can learn some interesting things about history.

There are still many books missing from the list, since when I read them I recorded the date of the edition I read rather than the date of original publication, but I think the main point of the linked article remains — every year one should try to read at least one book that was first published before one was born. I would go further, and say one should try to read two such books each year, at least one of which should have been published 70 or more years before one was born.

And it is because of that that I chose to illustrate this post with the cover of The Annotated Alice. That was published before any of my grandparents had been born, so it was a different world, and the annotated edition explains many of the things that contemporary readers would have taken for granted, but which mean nothing to us.

Christian psychotherapy

9 June 2019

Someone posted this cartoon on Facebook recently.

Have a look at it, and before reading any further, see what you think it is saying.

You might find it interesting to write your thoughts down.

I forget who posted it. The artist is on Facebook here.

When I first saw it, I struggled to interpret it, and three or four thoughts passed through my head within about a minute.

My thoughts were the following, in roughly this order.

  1. The church is speaking. It had tried to use the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus wedded to modern secular psychotherapy, but was now finding them incompatible.
  2. The church is speaking, seeking the guidance of the psychotherapist, because the church has departed from the teaching of Jesus, and there is now a. rift between them. The psychotherapist is being called upon to mediate between Christ and the Church.
  3. The church trusts the judgement of modern secular psychotherapy far more than it trusts the judgement of Jesus, so that Jesus has been dethroned, and secular psychotherapy rules over all.

One example of the unholy alliance between Christian theology and secular Western psychotherapy can be found in the way a Swedish Lutheran missionary in Zululand, Bengt Sundkler, evaluated the theology of some African Independent Churches. He judged them not by the Holy Scriptures, not by the Church Fathers, but by the writings of Sigmund Freud — see here Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism.

A more positive view of the link between Christianity and secular psychotherapy is Dear Church, Let’s Talk About Mental Health:

Let me start by saying that I am still a pastor, I still believe in the absolute power of Jesus to heal the heart and I’m still a huge supporter of church counseling and ministry. But I feel compelled to raise my voice and say:

  • Therapy is not demonic.
  • Taking antidepressants is not a sin.
  • Seeing a psychiatrist is not anti-christian.
  • And those who suffer from mental health problems are not a failure.

One secular psychotherapist who seems to have been discussed quite a lot in Christian (including Orthodox Christian) circles recently is a Canadian, Jordan Peterson.

I first heard of him about a year ago in a discussion at a monthly gathering where we talk about Christianity and literature. Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life was mentioned there, and I was rather put off by it, since it sounded as though he was saying that the first rule was to aim to be the top lobster in the pack. That didn’t sound very Christian to me. In fact it sounded diametrically opposed to Orthodox spirituality. It also appeared that he and Jonathan Haidt, another secular psychologist guru, had overlapping fan groups.

As I noted in my earlier post, however, have grave doubts about both of them, I have ambivalent feelings about Jordan Peterson, however, strengthened (on the positive side) by a blog post by Jé-nae Freel, in which she makes comparisons between the dragon-slaying protagonist in my book The Year of the Dragon and Jordan Peterson Dragons:

What makes a dragon? Steve Hayes challenges his readers with this question as his novel, The Year of the Dragon, unravels, and its characters are forced to face the beast in numerous ways. It stalks them down the story-line with hunger in its eyes, but it also prompts the rising up of Saint George and courage in its prey.

Once a dragon is born, it will only grow if not acknowledged. Jordan Peterson deals with this in his lecture on Slaying The Dragon Within Us, which points out the trait inside each of us to raise up the beast while pretending that it isn’t there. Peterson uses the children’s book, There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon, to draw a picture of what these creatures can become if not acknowledged, as well as the perceived naivety of those who see the dragon for what it is.

So Jé-nae persuades me to re-evaluate Jordan Peterson. What she says about the dragons, it seems to me, is compatible in many ways with what the Church Fathers say in The Philokalia, for example. In my story the dragon is mostly external to the characters, the principalities and powers, the rulers and authorities of an authoritarian state, but it is also within, in the form of the human passions that align us to the dragon. And in that context, quite a lot of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life makes sense.

The first rule, however, remains a stumbling block, as it seems to link to the modern self-esteem cult.

Self-esteem, as a psychological construct, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has no entry in my Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, 1962 edition. It, like many other psychological constructs, is an innovation. Many of the terms that were used when I studied psychology at university are no longer in use today, and that makes me distrust secular psychology — it seems to be too much subject to the changing whims of fashion.

Jordan Peterson doesn’t actually use the term “self-esteem” a lot, not even in his advice to emulate the top lobster, but his description of the top lobster certainly fits with the traditional understanding of self-esteem in Orthodox spirituality:

There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society—on a scale of one to ten, for the sake of argument. If you’re a number one, the highest level of status, you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and the highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention (Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life)..

In Orthodox spirituality, however, such self-esteem is seen to be demonic:

Our seventh struggle is against the demon of self-esteem, a multiform and subtle passion which is not readily perceived even by the person whom it tempts. The provocations of the other passions are more apparent and it is therefore somewhat easier to do battle with them, for the soul recognizes its enemy and can repulse him at once by rebutting him and by prayer. The vice of self-esteem, however, is difficult to fight against, because it has any forms and appears in all our activities – in our way of speaking, in what we say and in our silences, at work, in vigils and fasts, in prayer and reading, in stillness and long-suffering. Through all these it seeks to strike down the soldier of Christ. When it cannot seduce a man with extravagant clothes, it tries to tempt him by means of shabby ones. When it cannot flatter him with honor, it inflates him by causing him to endure what seems to be dishonor. When it cannot persuade him to feel proud of his display of eloquence, it entices him through silence into thinking he has achieved stillness. When it cannot puff him up with the thought of his luxurious table, it lures him into fasting for
the sake of praise (St John Cassian, On the Eight Vices: On Self-Esteem, from The Philokalia).

That fits with what Jé-nae Freel cites Jordan Peterson as saying — that these demons or dragons that we battle are mostly internal. And that is the point at which Orthodox spirituality differs from much modern Western spirituality. This became apparent to me when about 12 years ago a group of Christian bloggers had a synchronised blog on “spiritual warfare”. You can see my contribution here. It seemed that many Western Protestant Christians did not see spiritual warfare as spiritual at all, but the saw it as physical.

It’s not purely an East/West thing, but it can be seen on contrasting novels about spiritual powers abroad in the world, those written by Frank Peretti on the one hand, and those written by Charles Williams on the other. Peretti’s novels show “spiritual” warfare as very material and physical, external to the characters, while Williams shows that the struggle takes place primarily within the characters themselves. Yes, there is external evil, but it is the internal response to it that is important. It seems that for many Western Protestant Christians, “spiritual warfare” means the struggle against human enemies — Satanists and practitioners of “the occult”, members of non-Christian religions, atheists and the like — the very “blood and flesh” that St Paul warned us that the struggle is not against. So please don’t get the idea that here I am saying that our struggle is against Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt. But some of the ideas that they propound do not seem to me to be compatible with Christians spirituality, and especially Orthodox spirituality.

So I’m not saying that we should write off all secular psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy as works of the devil. But look at the cartoon at the beginning again, and ask what is going on there, who is in charge here? Who is calling the shots? Who is the ultimate arbiter of what we ought to think about it?

A book that might be worth reading in this connection is Orthodox Psychotherapy by Hierotheos Vlachos, the Bishop of Nafpaktos.

Religion and modernity a century ago

21 May 2019

Jesting Pilate: The Diary of a JourneyJesting Pilate: The Diary of a Journey by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A travel diary of a journey undertaken nearly a century ago — the book was first published in 1926. On his journey Huxley and his companion(s) (whose name(s) are never mentioned) visit India, Burma, Malaya, Java, Borneo, the Philippines, China, Japan and the USA.

His observations are interesting historically, because the first three countries he mentioned were still under British colonial rule, while the Philippines were under American rule. At the end of his journey he concludes that travel is broadening, that it makes one aware of human diversity, and that awareness of that diversity should make one more tolerant, but not too tolerant. His views change with each country he visits, and one can see how each one changes the way he sees things.

The first country he describes is India. As a Westerner he regards India as too “spiritual”, and doesn’t think that attitude has done India much good. Back then India was one country, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (which he did not visit). Muslims and Hindus lived side by side. He describes a visit to the River Ganges, where about a million Hindus had gathered for an eclipse of the sun. They were there to save the sun from a serpent that threatened to eat it. Huxley writes:

To save the sun (which might, one feels, very safely be left to look after itself) a million Hindus will assemble on the banks of the Ganges. How many, I wonder, would assemble to save India? An immense energy, which, if it could be turned into political channels, might liberate and transform the country, is wasted in the name of imbecile superstitions. Religion is a luxury which India, in its present condition, cannot possibly afford. India will never be free until the Hindus and the Moslems are as tepidly enthusiastic about their religion as we are about the Church of England, If I were an Indian millionaire, I would leave all my money for the endowment of an Atheist Mission (Huxley 1994:91).

After he had visited the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Philippines he made an observation about Christian mission and colonialism that I, as a missiologist, found interesting:

The Dutch and English were never such ardent Christians that they thought it necessary to convert, wholesale and by force, the inhabitants of the countries which they colonized. The Spaniards, on the contrary, did really believe in their extraordinary brand of Catholic Christianity; they were always crusaders as well as freebooters, missionaries as well as colonists. Wherever they went, they have left behind them their religion, and with it (for one cannot teach a religion without teaching many other things as well) their language and some of their habits (Huxley 1994:161).

When he visited the USA he describes his reaction to an advertisement for a firm of undertakers in Chicago, where the undertaker became a mortician, the coffin became a casket, and the deceased became “the loved one” — a phenomenon that was to lead a couple of other British authors to write books about it — The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh and The American Way of Death by Nancy Mitford.

The thing that really caught Huxley’s attention, however, was the difference in values that this indicated, between the USA and Europe. The undertaker was proud of providing a necessary “service”. Huxley thought that the people who really provided a necessary service did not represent higher values, as the undertaker’s advertisement implied, but rather lower values. Higher values, for people in Europe, were represented by unnecessary services, like art and religion (Huxley seemed to have changed his mind about the value of religion by the end of his journey). In American modernity and materialism unnecessary services were just unnecessary.

In describing this, Huxley reflects on the source of values. He recognises that if one is a thoroughgoing materialist, there can be no values. One cannot talk of “higher values” or “lower values”, because it is meaningless to do so. The problem with America, he realises, is democracy. Science and technology made it possible for him to read, on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about a young wife of an old doctor in California who was arrested and charged with driving her car onto a railway line while drunk and whistling like a train. The people who were entertained by these stories could not possibly have invented the technology that made it possible to transmit them to the furthest reaches of the universe. That was done by the few. I wonder what he would of made of our technology, where people send pictures, not of unusual events, but of what they ate for lunch.

What struck me about it was that in India, Huxley was a liberal, seeing the need for the liberation of the oppressed Indians.By the time he got to America he had become a conservative and an elitist, saying that democracy was causing lower values to have precedence over the higher.

In this I was struck by the contrast between Aldous Huxley and G.K. Chesterton, who was 20 years his senior. By the end of this book Huxley is coming across as a young fogey. Where Huxley was conservative and elitist, deploring democracy, which allowed the untalented many to enjoy the fruits of the work of the talented few, Chesterton was liberal and egalitarian, and stood up for the common man whose common sense was needed to protect him from the elite.

Huxley gives us fascinating glimpses into other places, other times, other values. Travelling eastwards round the world, he thought India needed to modernised, but after crossing the international date line from the East to the West, he seemed to change his mind, and thought that America was too modern.

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Black Diamond: yuppie life in the new South Africa

16 May 2019

Black DiamondBlack Diamond by Zakes Mda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don Mateza works for a security company in Johannesburg, and his ambitious girlfriend Tumi, who runs a modelling agency, is grooming him to become a “Black Diamond”, one of the nouveau riche of the new South Africa. Don is asked to be the bodyguard of an uptight white female magistrate, who has been threatened by a petty criminal she has sentenced to prison, and there is the hope of promotion if he does the job well. This does not satisfy Tumi, however, who thinks it demeaning, and Don has to spend too much time away from her. The magistrate, Kristin, did not ask for protection, and sees having a bodyguard as a sign of weakness.

In this scenario Zakes Mda weaves a plot of shifting loyalties and the conflicting values that characterise the “new” South Africa, though it was already ten years old in the time the story is set, and is another fifteen years older now.

I had only recently finished reading Mda’s memoir Sometimes there is a Void and so was aware that a lot of this book is based on his own real-life experiences. It is social satire, and the story is rather sad, but Mda also sees the funny side of it. I gave it five stars, on GoodReads, but perhaps that is because it is set close to home, and if I were living on another continent I might have given it fewer. Though I don’t move in the kind of social circles described in the book, it looked pretty authentic to me.

It also seemed to complement another book I had recently read, Darkness Suspended, though the tone in that one is much more serious, and lacks Mda’s humour. Both show life in Gauteng, and both observe similar events. Zakes Mda is an atheist and Jurie Schoeman is a Christian, and that could account for some differences, but the picture they give is broadly similar.

One of the debates in South African literary circles has been about what post-apartheid literature should look like, and perhaps these two books provide one answer. The debate was influenced by a book of essays published by Njabulo Ndebele in the 1990s, Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture. I’ve not read it yet, but I have read quite a lot about it, and I gather that the main thesis is, as the title suggests, that post-apartheid literature should not be dominated by political protest, but should rather deal with ordinary people and ordinary lives.

These books do so to some extent, though there is a strong element of political protest in Mda’s book. The message from Mda is that the new South Africa wasn’t meant to be like this, and shows how its failings affect people. The System has changed, but it remains the System, and it still crushes people. The emphasis in Darkness Suspended, however, is more on whether one’s Christian faith can withstand what the System throws at us, and whether and how one’s faith can help one to cope with the System and one’s own personal weaknesses. How “ordinary” any of this is is a moot point.

But reading these books makes it very clear to me that I could never write like this, not just because I don’t move in those social circles, and so my notion of what is “ordinary” is probably quite different. But to me the “ordinary” remains the apartheid period, and protest, and the roles of ordinary people in that. Perhaps it’s because I like reading and studying history, and live in the past, and so most of what I write about is “Tales from Dystopia“.



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