13 September 2023

Missing persons: fact and fiction

Missing PersonsMissing Persons by Nicci Gerrard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnny Hopkins goes off to university and disappears. His family and friends embark on a frantic search for him.

The book concentrates on the effects of Johnny's disappearance on his friends and especially on his family, which is rather unusual in such books.

Many novels feature missing persons as part of their plot, but most concentrate on the search for them, or on the missing persons themselves. The reaction of their friends and family usually form part of the story and are not the central element of the plot.

There have also been quite a lot of TV series on missing persons, where the reactions of friends and families of the missing have been central, but these have usually been documentary, or re-enacted documentary rather than fiction. I don't know whether it's the influence of such TV series, but I think I prefer such themes not to be fictional, but rather to be based on real people and real events. You can make up a story about why someone would want to disappear, or why some villains would want to make someone disappear (Shatter by Michael Robotham is a good example of that genre), but making up a story about how people react somehow doesn't strike me as being as interesting as the real thing.

I realise that this is a personal preference, perhaps also driven by my interest in family history, which is a search for missing persons over several generations. So this is not about this particular book, which I thought was interesting and well written; it's rather about my own personal preferences.

One example is Re: Beaglehole, a court case that established the South African law of missing persons. Absalom Beaglehole went missing in England, but his brother died in South Africa, and their sisters in England wanted the missing Absalom declared dead so that they could claim his share of their brother's inheritance (in this instance, real life diverges quite widely from the fictional story). If you're interested, you can read about what happened in the Beaglehole case here: Deceased Estates, Probate Records and Missing Persons

But, my personal preferences aside, the characters in Missing Persons are believable, and its worth a read.

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06 September 2023

Good Advice for Fiction Writers

More on How to Write a MillionMore on How to Write a Million by William Noble
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I got a job as an editor of academic texts I began looking at books in the university library with advice to writers and editors. I could recognise bad writing when I saw it (even as a student, having to read obfuscatory prescribed texts), but as an editor my job as to improve it, and turn a bad text into a good one.

As a result, I read quite a lot of books on writing, both fiction and nonfiction, and when I saw this one going cheap on a book sale, I bought it. I would not have bought it at the full price, because the title put me off. I thought someone really needed to edit that (a million what?). But on sale it was cheap enough that there was nothing to lose, and I'm glad I did, because it really is one of the better books on the subject.

It is actually 3 books in one, by three authors I had never heard of. The three books in one binding have separate page numbers, indexes and tables of contents. They are on Description, Revision and Setting. As an editor, I read the Revision one first, and also used it when revising my first novel, Of Wheels and Witches, and have just reread it for working on a second edition.

They give sensible advice. For example, nearly all books on writing give the advice (or sometimes a command) to "Show, Don't Tell", and this one covers it from three points of view -- in description, revision and setting. But here it is not overly prescriptive about it. It is more helpful than that, and gives advice on when to show and when to tell, and also how to do both showing and telling, when each is most appropriate.

I recommend it for both beginning and experienced fiction authors, but nonfiction authors and editors could also benefit.

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03 September 2023

Utopia as Dystopia: R.A. Lafferty's "Past Master"

Past MasterPast Master by R.A. Lafferty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bit like Brave New World and 1984 on steroids.

Astrobe is the new Earth, and a paradise where poverty is unknown, and wealth and comfort are freely available to all. The paradise is marred, however, when increasing numbers of people, like the savage in Brave New World, reject this, and opt for a life of voluntary poverty, deprivation and disease.

A group of leading citizens decide to bring Sir Thomas More, the English lawyer and martyr who wrote the original Utopia from the past, as the eponymous "Past Master" to help them to solve this problem. More arrives, and discovers that the paradise is not all that it seems. Those who doubt the vision become the target of programmed killing beasts and are eliminated from the society, rather as More was eliminated from his own English society back in 1535.

The Astrobian Utopia has a far better surveillance system than 1984 and can detect treasonous thoughts before even the thinker is aware of them. This seems to be significant for the role of so-called "AI" in our current society, and it is worth reading for that reason. R.A. Lafferty raises the kind of questions we should be asking about "AI".

There are more interesting parallels with out society. In South Africa there is a widening gap between rich and poor, though in Astrobe it is large still yet entirely voluntary. Thomas More, after first encountering the contrast, remarks:
I was never an advocate of wealth and fineness. I believe fully in holy poverty. But I say that poverty is like drink: a little of it is stimulating and creative; too much of it is depraved and horrifying.
And More has a better name for what we misleadingly call "AI" -- eloquence machines.
At this one thing for which Astrobe has a hunger now, high oratory, we were the professionals and you are the amateurs. I know that you have analyzed the thing and broken the personal aura down into its elements. It is like chopping up a bird, but can you make a bird? Perhaps you can, since you made the Programmed Persons, but we recognize them as artificial. I know you have built intricate eloquence machines, man, but they ring false. The laughter of the people at them like autumn leaves blowing is evidence of this. I've heard the eloquence machines, and I've heard the people's response. I've heard human and programmed orators who have studied under the eloquence machines. I've heard a lot of things in one week on Astrobe. People are hungry for the real thing...
And then there was the tantalising hint of more: "Evita had been battling principalities and powers for a long time, and it showed on her. And yet she didn't appear more than seventeen."

10 August 2023

Celtic themes in fantasy literature and literary genres

Here's an interesting review of a collection of essays on the influence and use of Celtic mythology, or themes from Celtic mythology in fantasy literature. 

I'm unlikely to find the book in a bookshop, or to be able to afford it even if I could, but I found the review itself very interesting and informative, and it sparked off several ideas. If you find these things interesting, you might like to read the review. and possibly the book if you can get hold of it. Strange Horizons - Imagining the Celtic Past in Modern Fantasy edited by Dimitra Fimi and Alistair J.P. Sims By Debbie Gascoyne:

In her introduction to this useful and insightful collection, co-editor Dimitra Fimi writes: “This edited volume aims to open a conversation about fantasy's multifaceted and enduring fascination with the Celtic past, and its various perceptions” (p. 4). Fimi notes that, while previous scholarship (including her own 2017 monograph) has focused on work written for children, the essays in this volume examine texts aimed at adult readers. The collection is divided into four sections: the first deals with what is loosely defined as “intrusion fantasy,” in which a Celtic “otherworld” overlaps with our own; section two looks at “worldbuilding” and the way authors use Celtic elements to create a fantasy world; section three has discussion of works in languages other than English; and the fourth and final section looks at how “the fantastic is situated within cultural practices perceived as Celtic” (p. 5).

The first thing that struck me about that was the notion of "intrusion fantasy", a term that I was unfamiliar with, but which seems to me an apt description of the novels of Charles Williams and the early children's novels of Alan Garner, which are among my favourites. It also seems to describe most of the fiction I have tried to write (examples of which you can see in the side panel on the right).

 Since  I had not heard of "intrusion fantasy" before I did a web search to make sure that it meant what I thought it did, and came across some interesting web sites, such as this one: Bring These 5 Intrusive Fantasy Books Into Your World

If you’re wondering what intrusive fantasy is—apart from sounding like something very rude and impatient—you’re not alone. In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn argues there are four categories of fantasy, one of which is “intrusive.” (The others, in case you’re interested, are portal, immersive, and liminal.) If a portal fantasy is one in which the protagonist and the reader travel from the ordinary world into a magical one (Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are classic examples), then an intrusive fantasy is the reverse. In intrusive fantasy, magic comes from an Elsewhere into the ordinary world, changing it and the protagonist forever.

Of the five books mentioned there, I've read 1.15. I read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova about 12 years ago -- see my review here: At last, a good vampire story. I did find Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell among the new books in our local library, but it is an enormously long book, and after reading 150 pages and realising it would take forever to finish, I returned it to the library to give other readers a chance.

For more on Farah Mendlesohn's four categories of fantasy, see here.

Concerning Celtic mythology and its use by fantasy authors, Debbie Gascoyne goes on to say:

Several of the chapters in this volume make it clear how many of the most popular ideas about “Celtic mythology” or “Celtic traditions” actually arose from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Robert Graves and Jessie Weston (among others) have a lot to answer for. For example, I was quite shocked to learn from Gwendolen Grant’s chapter on Alan Garner that the “triple goddess figure” he weaves through his Weirdstone trilogy owes more to The White Goddess (1948) than to any Irish or Welsh source material (p. 44). Juliette Wood’s chapter on “The Celtic Tarot” describes an “imaginative, though unhistorical link between current ideas about Celtic myth and a divination device that dated back only to the eighteenth century” (p. 175).

...from which I infer that most of the authors of the book disapprove of the rather loose way in which many fantasy writers use mythological themes and tropes, or at least Celtic ones.

Without having read the essays themselves it is hard to tell, but I don't think that in writing fiction one can treat mythology and folklore as if one were documenting them for an academic study. Alan Garner, for example, borrows eclectically from Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic and 20th Century English mythology and folklore, and stirs the mixture quite vigorously. Though the blurb mentions "Celtic mysteries", he freely links the Anglo-Saxon Herlathing with the modern notions of ley lines and the "old straight track" with nothing Celtic about either. He does include Celtic mythology in the mix, but also Norwegian (the strömkarl), more old English (mara - related to nightmare), Nordic (the lios alfar and the svart alfar, as well as Ymir, whose maggot brood they were). The Morrigan is Irish, and hence Celtic, and the bodachs and brollachan are Scottish but Garner gives each of them some characteristics derived from his own imagination, to suit his story.

I haven't made much use of specifically Celtic mythology in my own writing, but as most of my stories are set in southern Africa, there are other mythologies to draw on, but I assume that what the essaysts say about Celtic mythology would apply, mutatis mutandis, to any other system of mythology.

07 August 2023

Trouble Pug -- a fun book for kids aged about 8-10

Trouble PugTrouble Pug by Kathryn Judson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two girls, Morgan and Kisa, find a stray dog in a park, and decide to adopt it. Kisa already has a dog, so they decide it is Morgan's dog, but Morgan's mother doesn't like dogs, so Kisa keeps it for her.

Trouble begins when they discover that the dog can travel in time and take people with her, and Kisa and Morgan have some scary trips until they can communicate to the dog where they want to go.

Adult readers, even those who normally enjoy children's books, might be put off by the way some characters are overdrawn so as to appear almost as caricatures. Morgan's mother, for example, is rude and abrasive, and has a sense of entitlement that seems larger than life. But kids of the target age usually don't notice such things, and subtlety tends to be lost on them. It's the kind of story that most children aged about 8-10 would enjoy reading, even though some adult readers might think it's a bit over the top.

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31 July 2023

Impersonating, hacking and hijacking on Facebook

I have often seen people on Facebook announcing "I've been hacked", which is a very unwise thing to do, and also probably untrue.

If they had really been hacked, they would not have been able to access their account and post that message. But what I have noticed recently is that posting such a message immediately attracts swarms of hackers like bees to honey, and they swamp such posts with comments promising to rescue the poster's account from the clutches of the hackers, or to know someone who can do so. These messages are thoroughly disingenuous,  because the account in question hasn't been hacked, but copied.

Spammers like to impersonate Facebook users by creating a page that looks just like theirs, and then invite their friends to become friends so they can spam them with ads for shady financial deals (usually involving cryptocurrencies), links to porn sites and the like. This is not hacking, it is impersonation, and is much more common than hacking. 

If you suspect someone has been trying to impersonate you on Facebook, just search for your name. If you find a person with the same name as you, who has created a page that looks just like yours, using your photos etc., then report it to Facebook, and they will take the fake site down.

Similarly, if you get a friend request from someone you are already friends with on Facebook, ask your friend if they have opened a new account, and if they haven't, warn them that they haven't been hacked, but someone is trying to impersonate them. It's important to warn them that they haven't been hacked, so that they won't announce "I've been hacked" which is a sure way to invite real hackers to come buzzing around. If the new account does not belong to your friend, then you or they can report the bogus account to Facebook, and they will take it down.

But, whatever you do, don't say "I've been hacked" because if you do, you probably will be.

The hackers who come and offer to rescue your account, or recommend someone who can do so, will probably ask you for your login and password information so that they can "recover" your account, and that will make it easy for them to hack it, change your password, and hijack your account for their own purposes.

Remember, if you post a message saying "I've been hacked", then you probably haven't been, because if you had been hacked you wouldn't have been able to access your account to post the message that you had been hacked.

26 July 2023

Over Sea, Under Stone redux

Over Sea, Under Stone

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my second time of reading, and if anything I liked it even more on the second reading than on the first, so it still gets 5 stars, and much of what I said in my review of an earlier edition also applies to this one, apart from the comments on the illustrations, since this edition is not illustrated.

I was prompted to reread it on reading the announcement of a course on it at Signum University in September 2023, which I can't afford to participate in, but looks interesting nevertheless.

I first heard of this book, or rather of The Dark is Rising series, of which it is the first part,  when a number of readers of my children's books (listed in the sidebar) compared them with that series, and that made me keen to read them, but I failed to find any copies in either libraries or bookshops. Eventually I ordered the first two from Amazon, but before they arrived I found a copy of Over Sea, Under Stone in our local library and so read that one first. Having read it and liked it, I also liked the comparison readers had made with my books, especially as other readers had compared my books with Enid Blyton's Famous Five, a comparison I liked less.

When re-reading a book, one has more time to pay attention to smaller details, perhaps influenced by what other people tell you. Even on my first reading I was influenced by online comments that the language was old fashioned, and I commented on that in my review after my first reading. 

This time round, I was influenced by discussions about advice given to authors to avoid adverbs. There seems to be, at least among some authors of advice-to-writers books, an absolute taboo on adverbs. I noticed that Susan Cooper uses adverbs quite a lot, even the dreaded "Tom Swifties" that are used to qualify "said". But I'm pretty sure that I would not have noticed if I had not been consciously looking for them. I agree that some writers use too many adverbs, or use then inappropriately, but I don't think Susan Cooper is among them. When I was looking out for them, she seemed to use them well, and there was nothing that struck me as wrong about them. And when I wasn't looking out for them, I didn't notice them.

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23 July 2023

Fecund fertility in the Appalachian mountains

Prodigal SummerProdigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Creatures lived and mated and died, they came and went, as surely as summer did. They would go their own ways, of their own accord."

A book about sex and death, seen through the eyes of of three characters in a fecund fertile summer in a small farming community in the Appalachian Mountains of the USA, and the adjacent forest reserve.

Deanna Wolfe is a forest warden, concerned about predators, and develops a relationship with a man whose main aim is to hunt predators. Lusa Landowski is a young widow, who has inherited her husband's farm after he was killed in a motor accident, and feels the burden of her sisters-in-law's envy. Garnett Walker is a farmer and a widower, but old, and forever quarreling with his neighbour for allowing weeds from her property to infest his.

All three are concerned about and have studied sex and reproduction, but in species other than their own. Deanna is concerned about the reproduction of predators, and especially of coyotes, which are new to the area. Lusa is an entomologist, and has studied the sex life of moths. Garnett is concerned about the American chestnut trees, virtually extinct from an imported disease, and is trying to breed a new variety that will be resistant to the disease. But their own efforts to reproduce have been unsuccessful for various reasons. Over the summer, however, their lives gradually become intertwined, and many changes are evident in their attitudes and relationships.

I found the characters interesting. As I often find with Barbara Kingsolver's books, the characters a quite difficult to relate to at first, but then one becomes absorbed, and wants to learn about their fate, and, in the case of this book, one also learns quite a lot about the ecology of the area, and the environmental effects of different farming methods.

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22 June 2023

Gods of Power - allegedly

Gods of Power

Gods of Power by Philip M. Steyne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is quite extraordinary. The author presents a kind of Platonic ideal of animism, as he sees it, and then criticises it from the point of view of "biblical Christianity". As I read it I kept reminding myself of the saying, "To the person whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so, for this author, everything looks like animism.

There is page after page about what "animist man" believes and does, because that is that the author tells us "animist man" believes and does. One page of vague generalisations follows another, often quite contradictory. "Animist man" we are told feels powerless in a universe where everything is controlled by powerful spirits, but with the right rites "animist man" can control and manipulate these spirits and become omnipotent. So the picture emerges of "animist man" as simultaneously powerless and omnipotent.

The main problem with such an approach is that "animism" appears as a purely external construct. The ubiquitous "animist man" is never asked for his opinion of what his beliefs and practices are, and there aren't even any empirical examples. The "Gods of Power" of the title is an abstraction, because none of the gods referred to is named or described.

"Animism" is a term used by anthropologist Edward Tyler (1832-1917) to describe and explain the beliefs of some people, who were not raised in the culture of Western modernity, that non-human life forms, such as animals and plants, and even objects regarded as inanimate by Western man, such as rocks, mountains and rivers, had their own personality or soul. Since it is an attempt to interpret one kind of culture in terms of another, such attempted interpretations often tell us as much or more about the interpreting culture than about the one ostensibly being interpreted. 

Steyne, however, tells us nothing of this, but instead asserts, "Animism's chief presupposition is the sovereignty of man." This is almost diametrically opposed to Tyler's point, which was that animism's chief presupposition is that humanity is merely one life-form among many, and that other life forms have their own purposes which might not necessarily coincide with human ones.

There are lots of references and the book has a fairly comprehensive bibliography; one would only have hoped that the author had made better use of it.

I said at the beginning that this was an extraordinary book. Most of it is extraordinarily bad, in that one will learn very little about animism or a Christian evaluation of it from its sweeping over-generalisations, and even less about gods of power. The first 14 chapters range from mediocre to very bad. Chapter 15 is somewhat better, but of questionable relevance. The final chapter, however, is quite extraordinarily good, and contains some excellent missiological advice, whether one is evangelising animists or not.

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Well, that's my review though why anyone should now be interested in a review of a 30-year-old book I'm not sure. But for anyone interested (and if you've read this far you might be), here are some more personal thoughts on and inspired by the book. 

I spotted this book on the library shelf and took it out because I was attracted by the title, Gods of Power. I was attracted by the title because I'm exploring a theme, or a trope, in a novel I'm writing. Yes, I am a missiologist, and that no doubt influences my fiction writing when it touches upon missiological topics, as in this case.

The theme that I'm writing about in my novel is what happens to gods of people when they lose their power? Neil Gaiman wrote on a similar theme in his American Gods, about what happens to gods when their worshippers are transported to a new environment. My theme is somewhat different, though -- it's more what happens to the gods of vanished empires who have lost their worshippers. Will they go searching for new sources of power in other lands?

Unlike Steyne, I don't think all such deities are "animist", or that they were worshipped by "animist man". Several religions in the ancient Near East had notions of divine kingship, where a god personified the power of the state, and was linked to the king. Regarding rocks, mountains and rivers as personalities, or at least as occupied by spirits, is animist, but seeing abstract entities, like the state, in the same way, it seems to me, falls outside the definition of animism. So Steyne's labelling them all as animist, without giving any specific instances, was of little use to me. So his book didn't suit my purpose, but does that mean that my reaction to it is just sour grapes? I don't think so. I think that if he had stuck to the generally accepted understanding of animism and based it more on empirical evidence of actual animist beliefs and practices to justify his description and labelling, it would have been a better an more useful book generally.

And in the mean time I'm still looking for stories of gods who have lost their power because no one worships them any more.

17 June 2023

Vampire stories: the good, the bad, and the mediocre

Twilight (Twilight, #1)

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd heard a lot about Twilight, but most of what I had heard was not good, and I borrowed a copy to see what it was like. It's about a group of vampires attending an American high school, and one of the other pupils, Bella Swan, gets a crush on one of them.

I found the first three-quarters of the book very slow paced. It was full of teenage angst and gut reactions to Edward Carlisle, the vampire. It was slightly better than the vampire books of Anne Rice, but not much. It seemed to take the "show, don't tell" advice given to authors to ridiculous lengths, and just made the book tedious. The pace speeded up a bit towards the end, which is why I gave it three stars rather than two. 

It also had some weirdnesses that had nothing to do with vampires. Some distances were given in miles, others in meters [sic]. I didn't expect American high school kids to think of distances in meters, or even metres. Do they?

If you'd asked me 15 years ago, I would have said I liked vampire stories, but now I would say I like some and hate others, and some are just "meh!". This was one of the meh! ones. . For more on that, see At last -- a good vampire story

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05 June 2023

St Boniface of Crediton, church history, and missiology

Today (June 5) is the feast of St Boniface of Crediton, Apostle of Germany. 

As a missiologist, I've always found him interesting, and one of the most interesting missiologial things about him is that most missiologists pay little attention to him, and quite a lot of them are perhaps not even aware that he existed. 

He was born in Crediton in Devon in England about AD 680, and died a martyr's death in Frisia about 754. His original name was Wynfrith and he became a Benedictine monk. He went on a missionary journey to Frisia but found that no one was interested in his message there and the King opposed the Christian message.

He then travelled to Rome, and got the support  of the Roman Pope to reorganise and beef up the infant German church (which had been established by earlier rather haphazard Irish missionaries) and get it more active in mission. He did this with considerable success in Thuringia, Bavaria and Hesse. The Roman Pope Gregory II, on getting news of this summoned him to Rome and gave him more enthusiastic support. 

Boniface then returned to Germany, and the Hessian Christians, we are told, approached him with a problem. Some were pure in their faith, but others still retained practices that the purer ones thought were not compatible with the Christian faith, such as divination using the entrails of sacrificed animals, or from the flight of birds, and engaging in incantations and sacrifices. They urged Boniface to cut down a large oak tree that was much revered by pagans, and as he began to do so, amid the angry mutterings of the pagan spectators, a "blast from above" felled the tree without any human help, and we are told that most of the pagan spectators were so impressed that they converted on the spot. Boniface himself, however, in a report to Pope Gregory II, said that this account was exaggerated.

Boniface went on to reform the Frankish Church, and later became Archbishop of Mainz. Perhaps he found that too dull, and felt that he wasn't cut out to be an administrator, so he resigned and went back to being an active missionary again, on the scene of his earlier unsuccessful mission to the Frisians. He was reading the scriptures to a group of new Christians when a group of pagans attacked and killed him.

The treatment of Boniface by church historians and missiologists

My daughter, Julia Bridget Hayes, has painted an ikon of St Boniface, and he is remembered in the Orthodox Church as well as in the Western Church, though not perhaps as well as he might be, but the different treatment by church historians and missiologists is something else. 

I had done a BA degree at the University of Natal, majoring in Biblical Studies and Theology, with a couple of years of secular history as well. Later I did a BTh degree at Unisa, majoring in Church History and Missiology, which I found more interesting. The church historians made quite a big thing of Boniface, and went into some detail, and I wrote an assignment on him. 

Some time later I mentioned him in a missiology assignment. I thought it was perhaps significant that Boniface was English, and that the English had migrated to Britain from Germany over the preceding 200 years, and their kingdoms in southern Britain eventually amalgamated to form England. 

Boniface therefore went to the land that the English had originally come from, and so the language and culture of the people would not be entirely alien to him. We can still read and understand the English of the 1820s now, and so Boniface would hot have had any more difficulty in making himself understood than a US evangelist in the UK would today. He might annoy people with his message and some of his new-fangled cultural ideas, but he would be understood. 

I mentioned this in a missiology essay on cross cultural mission, and my professor, David Bosch, was quite astounded. It was clear that such a thing had never occurred to him before. He had no doubt heard of St Boniface, but obviously had never thought of him as missiologically significant. 

I began wondering about church historians and missiologists living in separate silos, each being unaware of the others were doing. The church historians found Boniface tremendously important, but not for his missionary work or his missionary methods. No, what they found important was not what he did in Germany, but the fact that he went to Rome. The significant thing about this for church history was that it marked a stage in the growing influence and power of the Pope of Rome, and it was therefore a stage in the development of the papacy.

But as a missiologist I thought there were other things worth noticing. The wandering Irish missionaries who had preceded Boniface were travelling evangelists, perhaps like the tent evangelists of the 20th century; they may have made converts, but they did not plant functioning churches. Boniface was a church-planting missionary, and one of his priorities was to establish Benedictine monasteries ans centres of Christian life and growth. He was so good at this that the Roman Pope asked him to reorganise the whole Frankish Church.

And one more thing worth remembering is that it was monastic missionaries who took the Christian message throughout Europe, and the tool for the evangelisation of Europe was forged in Africa, where Christian monasticism first developed. Long before Europeans evangelised Africa, African Christians created the tools that evangelised Europe.

15 May 2023

Rites & Ceremonies: The Coronation of King Charles III

I watched the coronation of King Charles III on TV, I was interested in it primarily as ritual, a liturgical spectacle. I wanted to see what kind of theological understanding of kingship, rulership and authority it expressed. On the whole I was rather favourably impressed.

On the other hand someone who is a Tolkien scholar, commented on Twitter

I am forced to conclude that no fantasy author has ever conjured up a more ostentatiously outlandish ritual than a real-world British coronation.
I found that rather strange. I somehow think Tolkien would have approved of the rite.

Christian theology, like Jewish theology before it, has been rather suspicious of kings. When the people of Israel told Samuel they wanted a king, he was unhappy about it. If Israel was God's people, they didn't need an earthly king. But God was prepared to compromise. Let them have a king, but tell them they should not be surprised if the king introduces things like taxes and military conscription. For the surrounding nations kings were a part of their religion. They had a mystique of political power, and saw it as divine, and therefore those who held such power were, at the very least, semi-divine. Kings were very much a pagan thing.

When Christianity got going the Roman empire was one of the most powerful the world had ever seen, and the emperor cult was also a political loyalty test. Christians, however, reinterpreted the principalities and powers that the Romans and others worshipped. As the lesson read at the Coronation service pointed out (read by the Hindu prime minister -- I wonder what he made of it) the principalities and powers, the rulers and authorities, were not independent and autonomous powers: they were creatures, created by the creator God, who made all things, whether visible (like the flesh and blood bodies of kings and emperors) and invisible (like their power and authority).

When Christians became emperors of Rome, or Roman emperors became Christian, there was a conflict of interest. The pagan idea of a divine emperor clashed with the Christian notion of a creator God who was "Almighty", YHWH Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, the ruler of the powers. In the later Roman Empire (the so-called "Byzantine" empire) the ideal of a Christian emperor developed -- of a ruler who was to make the earthly kingdom as much like the heavenly kingdom as possible, ruled not for the benefit of the rulers, but of the ruled, to establish justice and mercy. The earthly empire was to be an ikon of the heavenly kingdom. 

Most of the flesh and blood emperors and empresses failed, of course, but the ideal was there. And this notion that political power was not absolute came out quite strongly in the coronation ceremony of King Charles III. The king was responsible to God and not for him, he was responsible for establishing justice and mercy in the land. The theme of justice and mercy was repeated again and again; the only jarring legalistic note came when he had to promise to maintain the establishment of the Protestant faith by law.

That particular feature is described in the "Liturgy" blog as "an excellent example of Anglicanism as protestant software running on catholic hardware" and

But in this, actions (as in liturgy generally) speak louder than words. The coronation procession was led by a cross. Two shards of wood given by Pope Francis, shards that the Vatican says are from the “True Cross” on which Jesus Christ was crucified, had been incorporated into this new processional cross.

Mitred bishops, indistinguishable in attire from Roman Catholic bishops, were front and centre. The chrism oil, central to the coronation rite, was made from olives of the Mount of Olives at the Monastery of the Ascension, and the Monastery of Mary Magdalene [The Monastery of Mary Magdalene is the burial place of Charle’s grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece]. It was pressed in Bethlehem. This chrism was consecrated in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Jesus died and rose again). It was consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, and the Anglican archbishop in Jerusalem, Hosam Naoum.
Things strike people in different ways. We see what we want to see. The symbolism of the cross in the ceremony, for example. To some the symbol of the cross above the orb symbolises Christianity as a conquering imperialist religion, embedded in colonialism, going out to conquer the world. But in the context of the coronation rite as a whole, it appeared to me in its true light, that Christian kings (as the rite assumed Charles is) are to rule in the spirit of Jesus as he explained to James and John: The rulers of the nations lord it over them, but it is not to be so among you. Christians often get it wrong, and invert this, falling back into the way of the world (if you want to see just how wrong Christians can get it, there's a good example here: Beware the Christian Prince).

As another Anglican hymn puts it:

Conquering kings their titles take
from the lands they captive make
Jesus, by a nobler deed
from the thousands he has freed
but for more on that, see here: The Church as the Liberated Zone.

11 May 2023

The Island by Victoria Hislop -- book review

The Island

The Island by Victoria Hislop
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is really about two islands, the bigger island of Crete, and the small island of Spinalonga, just off its north-eastern coast, which, in the time that the story opens, is used as a leper colony. It is also a book about family history, especially of two families that live on the coast of Crete opposite Spinalonga. Giorgias, the paterfamilias of the Petrakis family, is a kind of go-between -- he operates the ferry between Plaka, the village on the Cretan shore, and the lepers' island.

The book is full of description: description of Cretan life, society and customs, description of leprosy and its effects, physical, psychological and social. Where it describes things I know about, it seems pretty accurate, so I assume that the accuracy extends to things that I didn't know about before reading it. It seems to me that part of the purpose of the book was to describe these things, and inform the reader about them. The problem I found with the book, though, is that the description tended to dominate the story, so that the story became a kind of embellishment to the description, rather than the description being a setting for the story. In some places, therefore, the story becomes unconvincing, and the plot seems contrived. When things seem to be going well for the characters, and it seems they are all going to live happily ever after, disaster has to strike, and just when everyone starts to have a good time, something must go wrong. A kind of diabolus ex machina, as it were.

The story covers four generations of the families, and begins when Alexis Fielding, of the youngest generation, goes from London to Crete with her boyfriend, whose unattractiveness is becoming more and more evident to her. She decides to visit her mother's home village at the other end of the island, and, encouraged by her mother, visits her grandmother's best friend, who tells her the family saga, which takes up most of the book. In the family story, each generation has kept secrets from the next, for reasons that are never adequately explained. The symptoms and treatment of leprosy are explained in some detail, but the symptoms and secrets of the family malaise are not.

I first learned about leprosy at school; being a church school we had evangelistic meetings on Sunday evenings with invited speakers, and one of the regular speakers, who spoke about once a year, was Mr Ford of the Mission to Lepers, which later changed its name to the Leprosy Mission -- so I was interested to see that The Island was not at all squeamish about using terms like "lepers" rather than some euphemism like "people living with leprosy". Mr Ford told us about the (then fairly recent) discovery of a cure for leprosy, and distributed little plastic money boxes to collect money for the lepers, labelled "SOS", which stood for send over sufones -- the drugs used to treat leprosy. Though the drugs were effective, they were expensive, and many poor people could not afford them. Much of this information is given in the book, and in that way it reads a bit like a documentary.

Other things that seemed to be fairly accurately described were the rites and ceremonies of the Orthodox Church, and the place they seemed to hold in the life of the people and in community life generally. 

It was from such things that it seemed to me that the information given in the story was generally accurate. It was just that the documentary side and the story side did not seem to be very well integrated, which is why I gave it four stars rather than five.

View all my reviews

23 April 2023

What is Extremism?

The use of terms like "extremism" and "extremist" seems to be increasing, but frequency of use seems to be inversely proportional to clarity of meaning.

Most people who use the terms frequently seem to think extremism is a bad thing, but they rarely say what it is that they are denouncing as bad.

I assume, since the opposite of extremism is moderation, middle-of-the road, mediocrity or sitting-on-the-fence, that people who denounce extremism favour vagueness, and not holding strong opinions about anything. One gets the impression that the role model for anti-extremists is Wither, the deputy-director of N.I.C.E. -- the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments in C.S. Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength.

It is the custom of some Christian bishops to sign their official correspondence with a self-designation like "the humble mediocrity", or words to that effect, and this might give the impression that the Christian faith is anti-extremist, until one reads the words in the Revelation of St John the Divine:

And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.

Whatever the Church of Laodicaea was back then, it certainly could not be accused of extremism, but its lack of extremism brought not praise, but denunciation. And people like Christian saints seem to have bee characterised by extremism. Most of us mediocrities admire them, but do not really seek to emulate them. That would be over-the-top. The safest position is a moderate disapproval of evil, and a moderate approval of good, but nothing extreme, you understand. 

Being extremist is, in fact, neither intrinsically good not intrinsically bad. It is not being it extreme that is good or bad, but rather what you are being extreme about.

Extremism and extremist are weasel words. Avoid using them, and be wary of people who use them too much. Those who are extremely anti-extremist are themselves being extremist.

12 April 2023

Life Off the Grid -- then and now

We were off the grid for 42 hours this week  It was quite scary.

On Monday morning I woke up early, as I often do. It was dark, and there was no electricity. Nothing unusual, I was prepared for that, it was one of Eskom's scheduled load-shedding periods, so I booted up my laptop, lit a candle and worked for a couple of hours. Some time between 4:00 and 4:30 am the power should come on and charge up my laptop, and I'd copy my work to a USB flash drive, boot up my desktop computer and continue working there. Only by 4:30 the power had not come on again. and my laptop began beeping that its battery was getting low. There must be a fault in the power supply, so at 4:34 I sent an SMS to the municipal Electricity Department to report it. 

Usually when one sends such an SMS to the Electricity Department a reply comes back in a couple of minutes saying "Your reference number for the power failure at (your address) is xxxx", but this time it didn't. That usually means that the power failure is widespread and the system is jammed with lots of such messages. 

At about 7 am our son Simon got up, and said the power had gone off at about 9:00 pm on Sunday evening -- Western Easter Sunday. That might mean that a lot of the staff of the Electricity Department might have gone off for the long weekend so repairs might take a bit longer. T thought I'd better go on to Facebook and warn family, friends and acquaintances that I might not be replying to email for a while, so I switched on mobile data on my phone and tried to get on to Facebook. "Connect to a network" it tells me. Oops, that must mean that the standby batteries  in the cell phone towers have run down (perhaps with all those SMSs reporting the power failure). 

My wife Val went to the shop to buy bread. Because of load shedding they have generators, and perhaps they use gas for baking the bread, so they had bread, but cash only. Their card machines won't connect to the bank, and no one uses those old zip-zap card thingies any more. It seems like we're well and truly off the grid. Our other son has Whatsapp on his phone and had managed to connect to the neighbourhood watch group, where someone had heard that some pylons had blown down in a storm on Sunday night.

We went to the Alkantrant library to renew our books -- we used to be able to do it by email. On the way we tried to charge our phones with a USB cord plugged into the cigarette lighter (does anyone actually light cigarettes in cars any more?)  The robot was working in Stanza Bopape Street, and the lights were on in the library, so it was only to the north of that that the power was off. The librarian said that, though the lights were on, the library computer was down because the server was in the area where the power was off. She also told us that the pylons that had blown down in the storm on Sunday night were on the highway between Simon Vermooten and Solomon Mahlangu Roads, and that the power had been off in Mamelodi where she lived too. 

We drove out along the highway to see the scene, and see the progress, if any, on repairs. There were a few vehicles at the side of the road, and in a gap in the bush I caught a quick glimpse of a fallen  pylon, but no sign of progress on repairing them. It looked like it might not be a matter of days, but more like weeks, or even months, before it could be repaired. 

We went to The Grove shopping mall, and while Val was inside she left the car engine running to carry on charging the phones, and I took advantage of the signal to put a message on Facebook that we might be incommunicado for an indefinite period. We got a newspaper at another shop, and there was report on what had happened. About six pylons, weakened by the depredations of metal thieves, had blown over in a storm on Sunday night, The mayor was quoted as saying that the public would be kept informed about when the power was likely to be restored, though how that information was to reach those most affected, he did not say.

So all the things that we have become dependent on that rely on electricity are suddenly no longer there, indefinitely. No phones -- cell phones won't connect, and even if they did, the batteries would soon be flat. The landline won't work -- since it was converted from copper to optical fibre it needs electricity for the ONT. Get a UPS, they say, but does a UPS last for 42 hours? We'll be scared to go out because the burglar alarm battery will be flat. You can't draw cash from an ATM, so you can't buy anything at the shop, no card, and no cash either. It's a daunting prospect. 

Yet in my youth, between the ages of 8 and 12, I lived off the grid for more than four years, and survived.

We lived on a smallholding in  Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg/ The municipal boundary ran along George Avenue, Sandringham. South of George Avenue was Sandringham, which got municipal electricity, north of it was Sunningdale, which did not. We'd have to ask Escom, which had no plans to supply the area for several years to come. The house had a 32V DC system, driven by a petrol generator, with a bunch of car batteries, but it soon stopped working. So we used paraffin lamps for light -- ordinary ones with wicks for bedrooms and bathrooms, Coleman lamps with mantles for the kitchen, dining room and sitting room. For music we had a wind-up gramophone that played 78 rpm records. There was no telephone. We applied for one at the post office, but their waiting list was four years long, and, like Escom, they didn't have wires in the area, and would have to erect the infrastructure if enough people applied. We did eventually get a phone when I was about 11 I'd almost forgotten how to use one; the last time we'd had one was when we'd lived in Westville, near Durban, when I was 6. The number we got, 45-1870, is the only previous phone number I've ever had, apart from the current one, that I can still remember.

We had an ice box, a real icebox, a wooden affair that you put a big block of ice in, with a drip tray underneath to catch the water as it melted, Fortunately for us, my father was a chemist and the factory where he worked made dry ice -- frozen carbon dioxide at -78 degrees, but whether F or C I can't remember. It didn't drip, it evaporated, and my father brought it home in a cardboard box once a week. We'd just take out the old empty box and put in the new full one. When my parents had parties they filled the bathtub with water, put in a few dozen bottles of beer with a chunk of dry ice in it. It bubbled away as it evaporated, and there was a plentiful supply of cold beer.

We also had cows and chickens and fruit trees and almond trees and (cape) gooseberry bushes. In school holidays I would go round with my mother in her little Wolseley 8 helping to deliver eggs, butter and cream to customers all over Sandringham and Sydenham.

When I was 12 we got a diesel engine and generator which produced 220V electricity, and suddenly the appliances that had sat gathering cobwebs for 5 years began to be used again -- the washing machine, the radiogram, the electric sowing machine (in the mean time my mother had got used to using a treadle one).

But back then, living off the grid wasn't a big deal. People paid by cash or cheque, no credit cards. Accounts came by snail mail, no email (I've just heard a rumour that the post office has filed for bankruptcy -- is it true? Another of Maggie Thatcher's chickens coming home to roost).

When we lived off the grid my father took me to school in the morning, to Fairmount Government School, a mile away. In the afternoon I'd walk home, at the age of 8, over the bare veld, which is now the leafy suburb of Glenhazel. But now we have become so dependent on electronic devices that living off the grid becomes so daunting as to be almost unthinkable.


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