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Roman Catholic radicals and Orthodoxy

13 December 2017

Jim Forest has just written a biography of a Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan, who died last year.

Why would an Orthodox Christian write a biography of a radical Roman Catholic priest, and why would an Orthodox Christian want to read such a thing? Jim Forest himself gives an answer to that specific question here: FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN, SJ: WHY SHOULD AN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN BE INTERESTED IN HIM? by Jim Forest | ORTHODOXY IN DIALOGUE:

“And just what is it,” my friend asked, “that was so Christ-revealing about Berrigan’s life?”

When he died last year, age 94, obituaries focused on the anti-war aspects of Berrigan’s life: he was eighteen months in prison for burning draft records in a protest against conscription of the young into the Vietnam War; then there was a later event in which he was one of eight people who hammered on the nose cone of a nuclear-armed missile. No one has kept count of his numerous brief stays in jail for other acts of war protest. He was handcuffed more than a hundred times.

But it raises other wider questions too.

For the last few years the “mainstream” media have focused on the phenomenon of the “religious right”, but fifty years ago the focus was more on the “religious left”, exemplified by people like Daniel Berrigan, protesting against the Vietnam War.

I first learned of Daniel Berrigan in 1969, through a radical Christian magazine called The Catonsville Roadrunner. The magazine was inspired by the actions of Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, who with several others had broken into an office containing records of military conscription and publicly burnt them. It became a legendary act of Christian civil disobedience

Ikon magazine cover, designed by Hugh Pawsey, my fellow student at St Chad’s College

Jim Forest himself was involved in a similar act of civil disobedience in Milwaukee, for which he was jailed.Those were interesting times, the late 1960s and early 1970s, the age of hippies and moon landings and radical Christian protests. Inspired by The Catonsville Roadrunner I and a group of friends launched our own radical Christian magazine in South Africa, called Ikon.

So I want to turn Jim Forest’s question around. Not “Why should Orthodox Christians be interested in the life of a Jesuit priest like Daniel Berrigan?” but why did so many people involved in the radical Christian scene of the late 1960s become interested in Orthodoxy?

One factor may have been that at that time Orthodoxy was peculiarly powerless.

In 1968 I visited St Sergius Orthodox Church in Paris, and there was a seminary in the crypt of the church where the students lived in humble and primitive conditions — sleeping cubicles separated by threadbare curtains, and an open drain running down the middle of the floor. That, to me, represented the poverty of him who came to be poor among the poor, rather than the power and prestige needed to maintain a religion.

Most of the traditionally Orthodox countries were under communist or Muslim rule, and in those places Orthodox Christians were treated as second-class citizens, and deprived of civil rights. Many Orthodox Christians in the West were refugees and asylum seekers. or children of refugees and asylum seekers.

Another reason for the attraction of Orthodoxy for radical Christian activists was that Orthodoxy had a firm theological base. In the West, theological liberalism led to political conservatism and vice versa. Theological liberalism was embarked on a project to adapt the Christian faith to the modern world, and that meant adapting Christianity to support the status quo. Radical Christians wanted to change the status quo on earth, so that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

G.K Chesterton said that the modern young man would never change the world, for he would always change his mind. Christians who are always changing their theology will never change the world.

This can be seen in the media expectations of Roman Pope Francis. They are looking to him to bring about change in the Roman Catholic Church. Will he change the theology and bring it up to date? But most of the time they are disappointed, because he criticises the state of the world from the point of view of existing theology — the wars, civil repression and exploitation that continue pretty much as they did in the 1960s.

There is much talk about “progressive” theology and “progressive” politics, but what do we mean by “progress”? As G.K. Chesterton put it, more than a century ago now:

Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.

Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked hard, that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own point of view) leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all.

And that is why I think that some radical Christian activists have been attracted to Orthodoxy. And that complements Jim Forest’s point about why Orthodox Christians should be interested in people like Daniel Berrigan — because several people who have shared the interests of Daniel Berrigan have also become interested in Orthodoxy. So by all means buy and read Jim Forest’s book about Daniel Berrigan.





2017 SA Blog Awards

4 December 2017

I’ve entered this blog for the 2017 South African Blog Awards.

I’ve entered it in two categories:

  1. Religion and Spirituality
  2. Arts and Crafts

If you feel like voting for it, you can click on the button you see at the top of the sidebar on the right. You can vote for it in either of the categories or both, but if you later vote for another blog in one of those categories, your later vote will supersede the earlier one. So if you vote for this blog, and later come across one that you like more, you can change your mind and vote for that one. You have one vote in each category.

I’ve entered such things a couple of times before, but I don’t take them very seriously.

For one thing, none of the categories really fit this blog, so I think there is a huge gap in the thinking of people who run such awards things and people who write blogs like this. I think we come from different galaxies.

I blog quite a bit about books and reading, but there is no category for that. A suitable category might be “Arts and Literature”, but they don’t have one, only “Arts and Crafts”. There is nothing about crafts in this blog, zilch. But “Arts” seemed to be the closest one could get to literature.

And then there is “Religion and Spirituality”. I suppose some posts in this blog could fall under the heading of “Religion”, but if I write anything about “Spirituality” it’s usually to say that I’m agin it.

Consider these Top Posts and Pages for the last couple of days. These are the most-read posts in this blog, what people actually read this blog for. Which of the SA Blog Awards Categories would you put them in?

Four of them might fit in the “Religion & Spirituality” Category, thought the one on the MBA might also fit in the Business category. One might fit in the “Travel” category. But the rest don’t fit in any of the categories really — you can see a list of all the categories in the SA Blog Awards here. There is a “cloud” of categories of posts on this blog lower down in the sidebar on the right.  Many of them are not represented at all in the SA Blog Awards categories.

This blog, like many others, spans many categories. I blog about education, but this is not an education blog. I blog about travel, but this is not a travel blog. I blog about food, but this is not a food blog. I blog about the environment, but this is not an environment blog.

If anything, I see bloggers as old-fashioned essayists, writing about many topics. But there is no place in the SA Blog Awards for non-specialist blogs.

Also, if you want to win one of these things, you have to spend an inordinate amount of time organising all your friends to vote for you, and get them to persuade all their friends to vote for you. I think the last time I entered one of my blogs in the “Religion and Spirituality” category, perhaps about 5 or 6 years ago, it was won by a neopagan blog. Neopaganism isn’t very big in South Africa, but its adherents seem to be good at organising and soliciting their friends to vote for them.

The main reason I entered is that I’m curious to see what happens. I don’t take it very seriously, because I suspect that most of the interesting blogs in South Africa will fall through the cracks between the categories, as I’m sure this one will. But the button is there if you care to click on it.

Shadow Bringer

1 December 2017

Shadow Bringer. David CalcuttShadow Bringer. David Calcutt by David Calcutt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nathan is a boy of indeterminate age (somewhere between 8 & 12, I would guess, from his behaviour in the story) who sees a UFO. It looks like a black bin-liner in the sky, but it falls into a pond, and when he goes to investigate the dog he is taking for a walk gets scared.

Rasha is a girl about a year older than Nathan who is prepared by an old woman to battle a monster in another world. eventually their paths cross, and Nathan realises that he has to battle a monster that can take many forms, and sows discord in the family he is staying with.

I thought the book was good in showing how the menace of evil manifests itself in day-to-day life. Everyday activities, like making tea and sandwiches, is shot through with the threat of something that is there and not there. But at the end little is resolved. We can see that evil causes conflict, but too many things seem to be unresolved. Of course in real life many things are left unresolved, and conflict is sometimes followed by reconciliation and sometimes not, but in this book one doesn’t know.

View all my reviews

A Lancashire childhood

21 November 2017

Our Kid (The Hopkins Family Saga, Book 3): The funny and heart-warming story of a northern childhoodOur Kid (The Hopkins Family Saga, Book 3): The funny and heart-warming story of a northern childhood by Billy Hopkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure if this is a semi-autobiographical novel or a fictionalised autobiography, but whatever it is, I found it very interesting. A few years ago I re-read A Touch of Daniel, which gives a picture of urban Lancashire life in the 1960s, and this book does much the same thing for the 1930s and 1940s.

Worse than the ordinary, miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

A saying attributed to Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes. Lancashire is not far from Ireland, but this Lancashire Catholic childhood, though it had its ups and downs, does not seem to have been quite as miserable as the Irish variety, and the miserable bits are balanced by joy and good humour.

At one point the author was encouraged by a teacher to keep a diary, and perhaps drew on that for some of the material in this story, but I suspect that much of the dialogue was made up later, because there are a number of anachronisms. At one point one of the characters uses the simile of a hamster running in an activity wheel, but I think that at that time, about 1945, hamsters were probably unknown as pets. I recall seeing them advertised in magazines like Popular Mechanics in the 1950s, when they were clearly regarded as a novelty, and it was assumed that most people would be unfamiliar with them.

That is where [book:A Touch of Daniel} probably gives a truer picture at least of the language that was current at the time. Trying to recall dialogue even of a period you have lived through, is not so easy. But it still for the most part reads naturally.

I picked up the book from the library mainly because some of my ancestors came from Lancashire, though they lived about 80-90 years earlier, but the book still gives a feel for the places where they lived.

View all my reviews

Stephen King on writing

15 November 2017

On Writing: A MemoirOn Writing: A Memoir by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I began working as an editor at the University of South Africa (Unisa) thirty years ago I discovered the section of the university library that had books on how to write. I read quite a lot of them, initially to learn more about how to deal with other people’s writing that I was editing, and later just because I found it interesting. Then I read it for my own writing when I was working on a masters dissertation and a doctoral thesis, and I began working in the Missiology Department where I was writing and revising study guides myself, at the other end of the editorial process.

Some of the books claimed to be written by professional authors, though I’d never heard heard of them or of the books they had written. But Stephen King I had heard of.

I’d read some of King’s novels. I enjoyed reading some of them, and found others deadly dull. But he was a real professional author who had given up his day job to write, and made his living by writing. So his book on writing doesn’t come out of the same mould.

Many of the others are just a kind of digest of what other writing manuals say. This one is somewhat different, because it is personal. The others say “This is how it should be done” (avoid the passive voice, but in that case the passive voice is accurate). Stephen King says “This is how I do it.”

The full title is On Writing: a Memoir, and so it begins with a bit of autobiography saying how he came to be a writer. And it ends with more autobiography — about how he came to write this particular book. He was in the middle of writing it when he was knocked down by a car, and finished writing the book while recovering from his injuries.

As writing manuals go, what I found most interesting about this one is that he gave his interpretation of the rules and where he followed them and where and why he broke them.

One of the bits I found useful was what he said about overdescription:

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.

I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J Crew catalogue). I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like — I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well… Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. When it comes to actually pulling this off, the writer is much more fortunate than the filmmaker, who is almost always doomed to show too much… including, in nine cases out of ten, the zipper running up the monster’s back.

That reminds me of something John Davies (one-time Anglican chaplain at Wits University) once said in a paper on Christian art — that the author, or the artist, does not know everything there is to know about this thing. He compared Byzantine ikons with the Renaissance art that followed. The Renaissance artists went into exhaustive detail, as if to say “This must mean to you what it does to me.”

That is also why I’ve never seen any of the Lord of the Rings films — I fear they will interfere too much with the pictures I see in my head when I read the books.

When it comes to describing clothing, one of the most annoying authors I know is Jonathan Kellerman.

Another thing I liked especially about Stephen King’s advice was about pacing.

Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (and hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. I guess the underlying thought is that people have so many thing to do today, and are so easily distracted from the printed word, that you’ll lose them unless you become a kind of short-order cook, serving up sizzling burgers, fries, and eggs over easy just as fast as you can.

Like so many beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit… which is why, when books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain suddenly break out of the pack and climb the best-seller lists, publishers and editors are astonished. I suspect that most of them ascribe these books’ unexpected success to unpredictable and deplorable lapses into good taste on the part of the reading public.

Related to this is Backstory, which is giving information about what happened before the story begins. King writes:

You’ve probably heard the phrase in medias res, which means ‘into the midst of things.’ This technique is an ancient and honorable one, but I don’t like it. In medias res necessitates flashbacks, which strike me as boring and sort of corny.

One of my favourite authors, Charles Williams, seems to go for the slow build-up in his novels (though his War in Heaven has the most attention-grabbing first sentence of any novel I’ve ever read: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly but with no result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse”).

A few years ago I entered NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) and challenged several friends to do so, and to write a novel in a similar genre to those of Charles Williams. I was the only one who actually took up the challenge, and when I asked someone else to read my effort their main criticism was that it did not start in medias res and began with too much of the back story.

I also recently read a book on writing for children. It too urged the in medias res approach. And then I looked at one of my favourite books from when I was a child of about 9 or 10, The Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton. It was about 150 pages, and the actual adventure didn’t begin until after page 80. Reading it as an adult I saw lots of faults in it, but pace wasn’t one of them.

Another critic of my “Charles Williams” genre story (actually the same John Davies mentioned earlier) said that I should have given more technical information about the mcguffin (an ikon and a holy relic), giving the kind of information about ikons that Dorothy Sayers gives about bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors.

Stephen King also has something to say about that:

We need to talk a bit about research, which is a specialized kind of back story. And please, if you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That’s where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the IQ potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.

King notes that there are three essential parts to writing fiction: (1) narration, which moves the story on (2) description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader, and (3) dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer — my answer, anyway — is nowhere… I distrust plots for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

And there I agree with him. When I’m trying to write fiction, I often have no idea where the story is going to go. One of the characters may say something that takes it off in a completely unexpected direction.

But that sort of thing doesn’t always work. John Masefield once wrote an excruciatingly bad novel called Odtaa (One Damn Thing After Another). And a few decades afterwards I read it again to see if it was as bad as I remembered it. It was.

And finally, Stephen King says he doesn’t write for money.

Yes, he gets paid enough in royalties to live comfortably off the proceeds, but that’s not his motivation for writing. And that’s probably what makes his book on writing different from those of all the hacks who are out to make money by writing books about how to make money by writing.


St Stithians College: Reunion of the Class of ’58

10 November 2017

Today I was invited to a lunch to discuss the possibility of a reunion of my old Matric class, the class of 1958.

We’ve never had a class reunion before, not once in all the sixty years since we left school. Somehow our class was never close. I did keep in touch with two or three close friends after leaving school, but as we drifted apart physically and found ourselves living not merely in different towns but in different countries and even different continents, we gradually lost touch. We didn’t have anything like Facebook to keep us in touch.

So one reason for posting this here is in the hope that some of them may see it, or that someone who knows them may see it, and encourage them to make contact again.

Here it is, the Class of ’58

St Stithians College Class of ’58
Back: Michael Naylor, John Lundie, Steve Hayes, Theo Christenson, David Lange, Robert Ewing
Middle: Chris Genis, John Bolton, William Harris, J.E. Palmer, David Curtis, Neil Hodges, Adrian Callard
Front: Robert Mercer-Tod, Bruce Young, E.M. Harris (Maths), Wally Mears (Head), Steyn Krige (Housemaster, Mountstephens), Eric Pfaff, Jack Turner

If you have known any of them in the past, please share this on social media (see link below) in case someone else you know is also in touch with them. And if you know the whereabouts of any of them at the moment, please urge them to get in touch with the school, or leave a comment in the comments section below.

So today Mike Nayler and I met with three staff members of St Stithians to plan a possible reunion, if we can find any of our old classmates.

Alistair Stewart, Mike Nayler & Steve Hayes, at the Higher Ground Restaurant, St Stithians

You can see more about St Stithians and our class here and here. And the college web page is here.

Fantasy, horror, science fiction and more

3 November 2017

At our literary coffee klatsch on 2 November 2017 we had a wide-ranging and very interesting  discussion. I can only record a few highlights here, to jog my own memory, and for those who couldn’t be there to catch up. Present: David Levey, Duncan Reyburn, Val & Steve Hayes.

David Levey had been reading A Wind in the Door by Madeleine l’Engle, and said he wasn’t enjoying it as much as her earlier book, A wrinkle in Time. He said the plot was ingenious, but not enough was made of it. I had recently reread A Wrinkle in Time, but had not been tempted to re-read A Wind in the Door. I too found it rather dull by comparison.

Having got started on children’s fantasy books, I mentioned that I had recently read Children’s Literature: the Development of Criticism and had been particularly impressed by one of the essays in it that referred to the implied reader of the books. For example books by Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit and other popular authors assumed that their readers would not only be familiar with households with domestic servants, but that they actually lived in such households. Duncan Reyburn and David thought that science fiction did not make such assumptions, because much of it is set in the future, and thus out of the reader’s experience. I tend to disagree. A lot of science fiction, in both books and film, assumes, for example, that the reader is familiar with concepts like warp drives and hyperspace.

Duncan said that Jung’s archetypes said something about our cognitive experience, and so some people liked fantasy and science fiction, while others could make nothing of it. People had different mental containers, and some preferred their fiction realistic, while others preferred it mimetic, though these sometimes got mixed up in a bizarre kind of way. He had seen an online discussion where people were discussing Superman in a kind of realistic way, calculating that if he caught a girl who was falling she could not possibly have survived, and were discussing this in all seriousness with G-forces and everything until someone pointed out that we are talking about a man flying here.

Val remarked that her experience of Superman was the radio serial, at 4:45 pm on Springbok Radio Monday to Friday without fail, and we talked about radio as a medium for such things, with sound effects. Some of the science fiction radio programmes we recalled were No Place to Hide, The Creaking Door and such things, and I mentioned Strangers from Space. It had been broadcast on Monday evening when I was at boarding school, and our dormitories were equipped with earphones, so we listened to it in bed after lights-out. The first episode was in the format of a news broadcast — there was shrinking of the polar ice caps, and scientists were concerned about the sea levels in coastal cites around the world, and this was being caused by strange radiation. It sounded utterly realistic, and we were half-convinced by it until, in the next episode a week later, it became clear that it was fiction. The two main characters, Benson and Bold, set out to track the source of the radiation but that aspect of the story was lost when they were captured by a sentient and conscious machine on Mars, and then they encountered the mysterious and terrifying Horgoid. I never heard the end of the story because I missed the last episode a year after it started.

We discussed the similar effect of a broadcast of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, which actually caused panic in the USA.

David Levey recommended a book Science Fiction Theology by Alan P.R. Gregory. According to the description in GoodReads: Gregory examines the sublime and its implicit theologies as they appear in early American pulp science fiction, the horror writing of H. P. Lovecraft, science fiction narratives of evolution and apocalypse, and the work of Philip K. Dick. Ironically, science fiction’s tussle with Christianity hides the extent to which the sublime, especially in popular culture, serves to distort the classical Christian understanding of God, secularizing that God and rendering God’s transcendence finite. But by turning from the sublime to a consideration of the beautiful, Gregory shows that both Christian and science-fictional imaginations may discover a new and surprising conversation.

David also commented on the work of H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick.

Duncan said he had been thinking a lot about zombie books and movies, and thought they expressed the modern condition, especially since 9/11 — that people were faced with a dark force that could somehow infect them that they could not control. I mentioned that Pet Sematary was Stephen King’s zombie book, and most of what I’ve had to say on the topic is in another post here, to commemorate Stephen King’s 70th birthday.

Val and Duncan said they liked Stephen King’s stories that had been filmed as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Both had Christian symbolism. In The Shawshank Redemption an innocent man is buried in a tunnel by which he escapes from prison and resurrected on the outside, while the guilty man inside is redeemed.