18 January 2021

Travelling in Tibet in the 1990s: colonialism and neocolonialism

Naked Spirits: A Journey Into Occupied Tibet

Naked Spirits: A Journey Into Occupied Tibet by Adrian Abbotts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read Magic and Mystery in Tibet, written by a western visitor who illegally entered Tibet in the early 20th century. This book is about a couple of western visitors to Tibet 75 years later, when it was under Chinese occupation. And at the same time I was reading Orientalism, on how to deconstruct western views of "the Orient".

The earlier visitor, [author Alexandra David-Neel], had a couple of advantages. She could speak Tibetan, and she had also spent several years in Tibetan monasteries. And though she was an illegal immigrant, she was seeing a relatively independent Tibet, where Tibetans were free to be themselves. She was, nevertheless, also seeing Tibet through western eyes, and even, at one point, described herself as an Orientalist.

But the authors of Naked Spirits were tourists in the 1990s, when Tibet had been under Chinese rule for 40 years, and while foreign tourists could roam relatively freely in China proper, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was closed to all but expensive organised tour groups, who were kept isolated from the Tibetan people, and only allowed to see what their tour guides would allow them to see. Adrian Abbotts and his wife Maria therefore spent a great deal of time applying for permits to go to this or that place, and describe their dealings with Chinese officialdom and bureaucracy, and at that point it all seemed very familiar indeed. Tibet under Chinese rule reminded me of nothing so much as Namibia under South African rule, which I experienced from I went to Namibia in 1969 until I was deported from there in 1972.

The parallels between Chinese rule in Tibet and South African rule in Namibia were amazing, especially the attitudes and reactions of government officials to whom one applied for various permits and permissions to visit or travel through places. There were many parts of the book where I thought "Been there, done that." And Adrian Abbots and his wife evidently learned the lesson that we learned in Namibia: it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

Also similar was the naked racism. The white South African rulers thought themselves superior to the native Namibians just as the Han Chinese rulers saw themselves as superior to the native Tibetans, and tried to make their language dominant.

There are differences too. In Namibia the South African rulers at least pretended to a kind of respect for local cultures, and encouraged them to "develop on their own lines" (the lines, of course, being lad down by the South African government). In Tibet there was no such pretence. Within Tibet all higher education was in Chinese and for Chinese. Tibetans who wanted higher education had to travel to China proper, and be immersed for several years in Han culture before they could return home, a policy that seemed more akin to that of Sheldon Jackson in Alaska than to the South African Department of Bantu Education.

So the book was particularly interesting to read in the light of the recent growth of Chinese economic activity in Africa, which looks suspiciously like neocolonialism. This includes the destruction of Namibian forest by Chinese logging, and, just over the border in Botswana, the threat of fracking in the Okavango Delta by a Canadian mining firm. It doesn't matter if the neocolonialism is Western or Eastern, there is little difference.

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16 January 2021

A Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books

A Reading Diary: A Year Of Favourite BooksA Reading Diary: A Year Of Favourite Books by Alberto Manguel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book.

It looks deceptively simple. The author reads 12 favourite books, one each month, and keeps a diary of the thoughts he has while reading them. Some thoughts are relevant, inspired by the book, and others come from current events, near or far, foreign or domestic.

The cat has not come to be fed for three days now.

But how often, when reading, does a book not inspire thoughts, some worth recording, perhaps, and some not? This is a book of such thoughts.

The cat returned during the night.

In another place there are thoughts inspired by waiting for, and during the Second Iraqi-American War of 2003. Some thoughts seem trivial, like the ones about the cat, while others are profound, but even the ones about the cat spark of my own thoughts and memories of cats I have known.

Silvia, my old schoolmate, tells me that in my school is a plaque to the students murdered by the military. She says I'll recognize several names.

Of the twelve books Alberto Manguel read I had read only two: Kim and The Wind in the Willows; my review of Kim is here Kim revisited: imperialism, Russophobia & asceticism.

Today, at breakfast, my brother tells me that "only" ten percent of the judiciary system is corrupt. "Of course," he adds, "excluding the Supreme Court, where every single member is venal.

While typing that I am listening to Peter, Paul and Mary singing "...and if you take my hand my son, all will be well when the day is done" and I am transported 1500 km away and 50 years back to Windhoek, St George's Church Hall, where Cathy Roark (now Cathy Wood) is teaching that song to the confirmation class, and I wonder where they are today. Not many murdered by the military, perhaps, but some forced into the military to kill.

Half an hour later I pick up Kim where I left off reading yesterday and find these word spoken by the Lama: "Thou hast loosed an Act upon the world. and as a stone thrown into a pool so spread the consequences thou canst not tell how far.

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05 January 2021



Orientalism by Edward W. Said
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been looking for this book for 20 years, and at last found a copy in a 2nd-hand bookshop. Since hundreds of people must have reviewed it in that period, I won't even attempt to write a review, which would simply be repeating what hundreds of other people have said. Rather I will comment on a few of the things that stuck me about it, and that I've learnt from it. 

In his book Edward Said examines the Western academic discipline of Orientalism, or, as it is sometimes called, Oriental Studies. He notes that it is entirely a Western discipline. It is a study of the way the people of "the West" study the people of "the Orient", which is that part of the world that lies to the East of "the West". In other words, it is all subjective. 

Said also looks at some of the terms the West uses to describe "the Orient" -- Near East, Middle East and Far East. Because they are subjective, these terms are rather vague, and can have different meanings at different times. Like so many subjective terms they tell you more about the people who use and devise them than it does about the people they purport to describe. If someone speaks of a place as "the Near East", that tells you little about the Near East, but tells you a bit more about the person wo whom the Near East is nearer than the Far East. To a person living in India, the "Near East" is actually the "Middle West".

Because of this particular viewpoint, therefore, the people of "the Orient" never get to talk about themselves. In "Oriental Studies" they are described and discussed as seen by outsiders. Actually, as Said points out, Orientalism was originally not much concerned with people at all; it was mainly concerned with literature and manuscripts. 

Much of what Said says in this book rang a lot of bells for me, though they are not directly related to the content of the book, which is why I'm writing about them in a blog post instead of in a review on GoodReads.

My own academic field is Missiology, the study of Christian mission, and one of my particular interests in that field is African Independent Churches (AICs). African Independent Churches were studied and defined by academics who belonged to Christian denominations that had been founded by Western Christian missionaries, and therefore, like Said's Orientals, had been studied from the outside and defined from the outside -- see African Independent Churches: Judgement through Terminology.

I wrote that article before I had even heard of Edward Said's book, but what I said in it, it seems to me, is reinforced in many ways by what Said  says in his book, even though he is writing about Muslims and I was writing about African Christians.

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01 January 2021

The Last Warrior: book & film review

The Last Warrior

The Last Warrior by Clair Huffaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fifty years ago I saw a film called The Last Warrior, which I now discover has been renamed to Flap. I enjoyed the film very much, so when I saw the book in a second-hand bookshop last month I had no hesitation in buying it.

In the film a hard-drinking, reckless-living Indian named Flapping Eagle decides that his people have been pushed around by the white man long enough. Mounting his horse H-Bomb, Flap proceeds to hijack a railroad, lasso a helicopter, and begin the Last Great Indian Uprising. His assaults on the Establishment provide an earnest indictment of Indian neglect by the U.S. government. And that pretty much summarises the plot of the book as well. If my memory has not faded too much over the last fifty years, the film stuck pretty closely to the book

The story is both funny and sad, and well worth reading.

So much for the book review, but there is a deeper story behind why I had no hesitation in buying the book when I saw it. 

When I saw the film I was living in Windhoek, Namibia, and working at a local newspaper, the Windhoek Advertiser for money, and otherwise for the local Anglican Church whose bishop, Colin Winter had an American secretary named Marge Schmidt. Marge had seen the film in the USA, and insisted that I must see it, so we went together to see it.

And I could see why she insisted I must see it. The film is mainly set in an Indian Reservation near Phoenix, Arizona (where Marge Schmidt now lives) And almost every weekend I visited poor rural communities like those shown in the film -- the Ovitoto Reserve for Hereros to the north, Rehoboth for Basters in the south, and in between there were small camps for road and railway workers, which closely resembled the places in the film.

Ovitoto Reserve, north of Windhoek, 1971

 The time, 1971, was also a turning point for Namibia. The World Court had just declared South Africa's rule over Namibia illegitimate. The Lutheran Churches, who scarcely ever criticised the government, circulated an open letter declaring, in effect that South African rule of Namibia was misrule. And The Last Warrior was showing at a local cinema, which showed an analogous situation in the USA.

The effect on the cinema audience was profound. 

In those days cinema audiences in central Windhoek were all white. And at the end of this film there was dead silence. People left in hushed silence. Usially people chatted with each other when leaving, about the film they had just seen or something else. They would greet people they knew. Some would laugh, some would call to others. But this time there was none of that. It seemed that no one missed the message of the film. It was not far away in the USA. It was here, and now. 

I have never seen a cinema audience behave like that before or since. And that is why I think the film was worth seeing, and the book worth reading.

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26 December 2020

Lost Horizon and Shangri-La

Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon by James Hilton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, first published in 1933, is a kind of throwback to the kind of late-Victorian and Edwardian adventure novels exemplified by those of H. Rider Haggard, but also includes, for example, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It follows the convention of a story within a story, where several gentlemen gather for cigars or port after dinner in a club or restaurant and one of them tells a story of his own adventures, or those of a mutual acquaintance. The story often involves a far-away place with a society cut off, either partly or completely, from the outside world -- in this case a monastery called Shangri-La in a hidden valley in Tibet.

By the time James Hilton wrote this story, most such stories had already moved into the realm of science fiction, and had moved to other planets, other solar systems, other galaxies, or even other dimensions as most of the surface of our planet had been mapped.

This story is one of the better examples of the genre, and probably one of the last of those set on earth, so much so that the name of its hidden place, Shangri-la, has become part of popular culture, and has found its way in to pop songs and the names of holiday resorts and the like.

I've been reading this book in parallel with a couple of others on related topics, notably Orientalism by Edward Said, and Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel. I'll write more about those in their own place, perhaps with some reference to this one, but Lost Horizon is in some ways a very Orientalist book.

In Lost Horizon the protagonist, Conway, finds himself de facto leader of four refugees from a revolution, who are subsequently victims of a hijacking. Conway, we are told, unlike at least one of his companions, "...had no race or colour prejudice, and it was an affectation for him to pretend, as he sometimes did in clubs and first-class railway carriages, that he set any particular store on the 'whiteness' of a lobster-red face under a topee." 

But the youngest member of the party, Mallinson, was very much steeped in Orientalism, colonialism and "whiteness", and almost as soon as they had arrived at Shangri-La was demanding "porters" so they could get back to "civilization". And even the unprejudiced Conway seemed to think that "porters" would be a necessity to enable them to leave. It seems a curious demand, since they had been refugees and subsequently hijackees, and thus had no luggage to carry. 

So while Said's book gives a history of the growth and development of what he calls "Orientalism", Hilton's fictional account probably gives a better idea of how it worked in practice in its heyday. Sangri-La may be a fictional place, but it serves to project the image of the Western world and its attitudes in the 1930s, just before the rise of Hitler.

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19 December 2020

Even Steven (book review)

Even Steven

Even Steven by John Gilstrap
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book for the second time after reading Writing the Thriller by Tricia Macdonald Skillman. It was 18 years after my first reading, so I remembered very little of the plot or the characters, and. since John Gilstrap was mentioned in and contributed to Writing the Thriller as an established thriller writer, I wanted to see how well one of his books fitted into the genre, and how Skillman's advice was applied. My conclusion was that it wasn't applied very well.

Reading Even Steven therefore left me with a somewhat higher opinion of Writing the Thriller (my review here) as I think that if some if the advice in there had been consistently applied, Even Steven would have been a better book.

Spoiler Alert If you haven't read Even Steven, be warned that what follows constains spoilers

Even Steven seems to belong to three of the sub-genres mentioned in Writing the Thriller: Psychological suspense, and Women and Children in Jeopardy suspense. There is also a certain element of Action/Adventure Suspense.

The psychological suspense is seen mainly in the first part of the book, where the characters spend a lot of time worrying about what might happen to them. The danger they are in is largely imagined future danger rather than actual present danger.

The basic plot is quite simple: Bobby and Susan Martin are on a camping trip in a nature reserve trying to work through their grief at the loss of a stillborn child. A child who has escaped from kidnappers comes into their camp[, chased by one of the kidnappers trying to recapture him. Bobby kills the kidnapper in a fight, discovers that he has a police badge on him, and they return home in a panic, taking the child with them. Susan sees him as a heaven-sent substitute for their lost son Steven, and names the kidnapped child after him.

The child had been kidnapped by contractors to gangsters as an incentive for his stepfather to pay his drug and gambling debts and his mother, April Simpson, is unable to pay them. She pleads with the gangsters who don't care how she gets the money, and will allow her son to die in the wilderness if they don't get the money -- the debt, plus interest, plus expenses -- the fee paid to the sub-contractors who carried out the actual kidnapping, one of whom had been killed by Bobby Martin, leaving only his mentally defective brother, Samuel, who has now lost the child and must try to get him back.

There are several info-dumps of the backstories of the characters. The backstory is important in a psychological thriller to explain the motivation of the characters. The problem is that a lot of this psychological build-up is simply glossed over in the end. Throughout the story the reader is impressed with Susan's psychological need which leads her to see the kidnapped child as her own and her fear and refusal to give him up, but the reader is not told how this was resolved.

There are long descriptions of Samuel's mental state, and how he alternates between being more stupid and less stupid than he looks, but in the end we learn nothing of his fate. The daughter of one of the gangster leaders is injured in a scene in which her father is killed by a rival gang leader, but we learn nothing of her fate either.

The problem is that far more information is given about some of the characters than is needed to explain their motivation and behaviour. If we are told about them in that much detail we begin to care about what happens to them, but then the author simply drops them without explanation. The book either needed a couple of extra chapters to tie up the loose ends, or it should have been cut by about a third, sparing the reader the unnecessary psychological details.

I suspect that if I had not read Writing the Thriller I might have been a lot less critical of this book, but it can, as I hoped it might, also make me more critical of my own writing, even if I'm not writing thriller/suspense novels. And perhaps thrillers are just not my kind of reading. Perhaps lovers of thrillers will be less critical than I was. Many of the things that others see as genres (suspense, horror, action, mystery etc) I tend to see as story elements. If one of those elements predominates or is absent the story seems unbalanced to me. 

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17 December 2020

Writing the thriller (book review)

Writing the Thriller

Writing the Thriller by Trish Macdonald Skillman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took this book out of the library and read it because I'm in the final stages of editing a children's book I've been writing, and I wanted a reminder of some of the things I should look out for in editing. I say this as a warning, because if you are setting out to write a thriller from scratch, my review will probably be less helpful to you than those of some other people, because the things I was looking for in the book would be different from yours.

The book begins by defining the genre: the thriller or suspense novel is primarily about danger to characters in the story. It also defines several sub-genres of the thriller: (1) action/adventure; (2) Legal thrillers; (3) Medical Thrillers; (4) Political Thrillers; (5) Romantic relationship suspense; (6) Women or children in Jeopardy; and (6) Techno-thrillers.

The focus is entirely on the USA, so it will be most helpful for people writing stories set in the USA which will be submitted to US publishers and intended for readers in the USA. This doesn't make the book useless for writers in other countries, though there are some things that they will need to be aware of. 

For one thing, publishers and booksellers in different countries have different ideas about the boundaries of genres and though there is probably a large overlap in the case of thriller/suspense novels in different countries, they don't always overlap completely. The same applies to the tastes and expectations of readers in different countries. I find the US categorisation of the various subdivisions of juvenile fiction particularly confusing.

The book also makes the point that thrillers are commercial fiction, as opposed to literary fiction, and so the primary concern is that it should entertain readers, fulfil their expectations of the genre, and sell well enough to turn a good profit for the publisher and author. These considerations for outweigh the literary quality of the work in question. The advice given on writing, editing and preparation for publication is therefore given with these considerations in mind. Some of the advice will be different, or at least differently weighted for other genres.

My interest was somewhat different from that of the intended readership. I've been writing a children's book, which most publishers regard as belonging to a different genre, though as some parts of the book involve action/adventure and suspense, a lot of the advice in the book can be applied. I found it most useful as a kind of check-list of things to look out for in editing -- things like pacing, tone, characterisation and the like. People looking for advice on how to write a book from scratch might see it somewhat differently.

The second part of the book is devoted to interviews with some successful published authors of thrillers, explaining how they write and what works for them, and recommendations of things to emulate or pitfalls to avoid. The main body of the book also contains examples from the writings of these and other authors. I found these useful because I had read some of the books mentioned, and thus could see how it works out in practice. Among these authors are Clive Cussler, Tess Gerritsen, John Gilstrap and Richard North Patterson.

The book will therefore be most useful to those writing thrillers for the US market, but it is still useful generally and has a lot of good advice, even though it may need some adaptation for other circumstances.

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15 December 2020

Requiem for YahooGroups

YahooGroups, one of the largest public mailing-list servers on the Internet, is closing permanently on 15 December 2020, marking the end of an era in computer communications.

Mailing lists are one of the oldest communications tools on the Internet, allowing easy many-to-many communications. They are a tool for online discussions whose potential has never been fully realised. The concept is simple: instead of sending an e-mail to a bunch of different people, and hoping that copies of their replies will all be seen of all of them, you send your e-mail to the listserver, which distributes it to all members, and replies are also sent to the list server, which also distributes them to all the members.

The snag was that you had to run a server to set up a mailing list, so most were run by universities or business firms that ran their own servers. But then some people started making public mailservers available. One of these was E-groups, which was eventually taken over by Yahoo! and became YahooGroups. Later GoogleGroups offered a similar service, but GoogleGroups has been plagued by spam, and many groups have been totally hijacked by spammers, which Google does little to discourage.

Yahoo! initially made some very useful enhancements to YahooGroups, providing ancillary web services, but unfortunately around 2014 some new techo-whizzkid tried to improve them. ignoring the old adage "If it ain't broke don't fix it" and YahooGroups lost a lot of functionality, but the core mailing list function still worked. Nevertheless many YahooGroups users migrated to a new public listserver, groups.io, which made some improvements to the original YahooGroups concept.

So now Yahoo!, which has a history of buying up new ideas, mangling them into uselessness, and then closing them down, has finally decided to close YahooGroups completely. 

As a result of the closure I have moved several of the groups that I used to run on YahooGroups to the listserver at groups.io, and invite anyone who is interested in any of these topics to join them:

  • Christianity and Society -- for discussing how Christians interact with society around them, including art, literature, philosophy, current affairs, politics, and mission, evangelism and missiology
  • Inklings - specifically for discussions of literature and theology, with special reference to the Oxford Inklings, and members can also discuss their own writing, especially in genres used by the Oxford Inklings
  • Orthodox Missiology -- mission, evangelism and missiology in the Orthodox Church
  • Off Topic -- for anything that might be off-topic in more specialised groups and general chit-chat with friends and friends of friends
  • New Religious Movements -- an academic group for those studying new religious movements (started in the last 200 years). It was started by Prof Irving Hexham and originally hosted by the University of Calgary.
  • Family History and genealogy -- there are groups for discussing families such as the Growdon and Ellwood families and also one for discussing African genealogy and family history in general -- the entire continent.

Click on any of the links above to learn more about that particular group and apply to join if you are interested.

Some History 

Back in the late 1980s some improvements were made to the mailing list format in BBS networks that used Fidonet technology. In BBS "echo conferences" as they were called, the poster's initials were shown, so in long multiway conversations it was easier to see who had said what in reply to whom. Unfortunately dial-up BBS networks transmission was inadequate, and it was replaced by the TCP/IP technology of the Internet, with a consequential reversion to the old mailing list format, where, in order to see who said what you have to count reply quote marks -- > is replying to >> who in turn is replying to >>>

Nevertheless, for longer multiway discussions are vastly superior to web discussion boards, like those on sites like Facebook, or blog comments.

08 December 2020

Will the trains ever run again?

 One of the little-remarked casualties of the Covid-19 epidemic has been passenger train services. And it seems doubtful that they will ever run again. 

Passenger trains stopped running during the lockdown, and the entire network will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch if they are to run again, because much of the infrastructure has been stolen or vandalised.

Hatfield Station 28 Jul 2014. Gautrain on left, |Metrorail on right  

Last time I looked the Gautrain still seemed to be running, but Metrorail trains were not. In the picture above, of Hatfield Station in Pretoria, the Gautrain tracks on the left are 4ft 8.5 inches, while the Transnet tracks on the right, with a Metrorail suburban train passing on its way to Mamelodi is on 3 ft 6 in tracks. On the far right are the Gautrain feeder buses. Will we ever see such a sight again?

Metrorail train in Kilner Park 6 August 2014

The Metrorail suburban train above was one of those that passed our house, just across the street from us, at least twice an hour throughout the day. But no more. Soon after the lockdown began, the overhead wires were stolen. Three or four times a week we heard the sound of gunfire when cops and private security company employees battled it out with cable thieves, and clearly the cops lost. 

Last year we saw mysterious new trains in blue livery, running around empty, apparently being tested. Then they about a year ago they appeared carrying passengers, so these were apparently Metrorail's brand new rolling stock in new livery. But when the lockdown started in February 2020 they stopped running, and now they can't run, because the wires are all gone. 

Brand-new Metrorail suburban train 11 Oct 2019

The new trains can only have been in passenger service for about 6-8 months, and now they have been rendered useless. How much did they cost? Who made them? Have they been paid for, or are we still paying for them?

What appears to have happened is that when the lockdown began at Level 5, all train services were cancelled, and no trains ran at all, so the current in the wires was turned off to save electricity, but that also made it easier to steal the wires, so that when the lockdown eased, the trains service could not be resumed, because the wires were gone. Now the goods trains are running again, drawn by diesel locomotives, but it seems that the "new normal" will be without passenger trains altogether. 

But that is not the whole story, because long before Covid-19 had been heard of or identified, back in 2019, much of the overhead wiring had already been stolen from the main Pretoria-Johannesburg line, at least from Kloofsig to Pretoria central station. But no one seemed to notice, and no one seemed to care. 

There was little mention of it in the media -- the most prominent article I could find about it was this Stripped bare: Looting till there is nothing left of Gauteng's Rail Network, and it doesn't seem to have caused much of a stir. The trade unions seem to have had little to say, but what has happened to all the Metrorail and Prasa workers whose jobs, apparently, have gone for ever?

30 November 2020

Christianity and Trumpism

I've never before had a guest post on any of my blogs, but today I've made an exception for the following post by David Smith, a retired South African academic and Anglican layman.

The last few years have seen the growth of the Trumpist cult, which some have claimed to be Christian, or at least as something that Christians are not merely justified in supporting, but even obliged to support. But Christian leaders, perhaps fearing the division that might be caused, have said very little about this, and given very little guidance to their flocks. David Smith's plea for such guidance deserves to be heard.

‘What’s on your mind?’ And what disturbs your heart? A concern that has been pursuing me in the past months, but particularly in the last few weeks, is the question of how followers of Christ can be as deeply divided as they are along political lines, without top-level opposition emerging among churches. That at least is my observation, the perspective of a lay-person.

I am not sure how it is connected, but let me start with the rank ‘prosperity gospel’ of various new churches (Bushiri’s can stand for many of them, right down to its ‘enlightened’ self-understanding). There seems to have been from the established churches a decrying of this phenomenon without any strong moves to contain it. Perhaps it would have flourished as it has, whether or not it was effectively anathematised. But the profiles of its leaders – people like Bushiri and T B Joshua, for example, and a host of US-based ‘pastors’ who work chiefly through television and online means – strongly suggest personality cults: not just influence and ‘leadership’, but charisma and grip.

Now, strange as it may seem to extend this rough model to a figure far outside the ‘pastorate’, there appears to be a personality cult among Christians that has taken hold around Donald John Trump that needs to be examined and – if the political lessons of the Book of Revelation are anything to go by – resolutely opposed.

I arrived at this conclusion when I was confronted on social media with the utterances, not of a vociferous right-wing American booster, but of a local young woman, a former student in my university department and someone with whom I had worked in preparation of advanced exams. She seemed at the time like a well-adjusted person and her appointment upon graduation as a school teacher seemed like a natural progression. So I was taken aback, a fortnight ago, to read her mouthing the ‘voting fraud’ agenda that Trump has been promoting, and in very uncompromising terms.

When one of her friends expressed shock at her ‘hurrah’ stance for this unbeatable force, and pointed out that, as the person and Christian she knew, she should surely find ‘reprehensible’ the notions and energies radiating from Trump’s career, she blithely came up with the old line that, while his personal values might be unattractive, the policies he was propounding were fine. In this exchange, she was egged on by her brother, both of them looking to God to vindicate the instrument of his purpose, etc. Only re-election would suffice to fulfil the divine plan. It was no comfort to me to discover soon after that a one-time acquaintance (also a teacher) who has since moved to New Zealand, shared these exact opinions.

I have been assured that there are other South Africans of this persuasion, and that they are not all church-goers. (They are, so far as I know, all white.) But a personality cult maybe cuts across lines like believers vs. agnostics. And it is the Christian support for this man that repulses me. I admit that that goes back a long way, indeed, to the time before he was elected in 2016, so it is nothing new. But it was new to me to realise that it had a foothold in this country, where the president’s policies surely have (at most) tangential relevance. The personality cult diagnosis has become a cliché among the commentators who are critical of Trump, the White House, the GOP, and those Protestant evangelicals and Catholics who have been rallying to his cause. That doesn’t make the diagnosis less ominous, when one thinks of the modern national leaders who historically have been considered to rule by this special power: Stalin and Hitler in Europe, Haile Selassie (the object of a relatively benign messianic cult), Idi Amin and Mobutu Seseseko in Africa, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, and Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos (could you call them a couple cult?) in Asia, Che Guevara (a guerrilla leader) and Evita Peron in S America (both divinized by the Left, and by impoverished populations). Narendra Modi appears to have the same degree of hold across India at present. So the list continues...

How are we, members of a politically restrained church, to relate to this? Have the churches that reject this subjugation of believers to personified movements been vocal enough in distancing themselves from this phenomenon? Or is it a temptation to be drawn too deeply into these confrontations, even if it is by way of resisting? When does the time come when the lines of rejection have to be clearly and institutionally drawn? Or is the idea of taking a stand an illusion, the sort of thing that people who feel impotent before this strange darkness try to draw strength from? 

David Smith 

I've shared some of my own thoughts on this in the past -- here, for example Notes from underground: Why Trump lost Christian voters in 2020, but I think it is something that Christians should be talking about more.

28 November 2020

15 Years Old

Notes from Underground blog is 15 years old today. 

When it started, this platform was easy to use, and provided a quick and easy way to link to web sites with interesting ideas and to comment on them.  It also had a useful search facility, so that one could find blog posts on interesting topics by searching on tags. As my academic field was missiology, I searched on that, and found that quite a lot of bloggers who wrote about missiology also wrote about "emerging church". I followed that up, and found quite an interesting phenomenon, which seems to have died out now, but was quite strong 15 years ago. You can see some of my blog posts on  the emerging church here.

However the host of these blogs at Blogspot decided to make improvements -- they never could learn the truth of the slogan "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". They made everything harder to use, and broke the beautiful tool for searching for blog posts on a topic, replacing it with the clunky Google+ (which they subsequently abandoned) and eventually it became so hard to use that I moved this blog to Wordpress, a different blogging platform that was then easier to use. So most of the posts between 2010 and 2020 will be found there. 

But then the people at Wordpress, also neglecting the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage, messed up their user interface, making it more difficult to use than the Blogspot one, so, I moved this blog back here. You can still see my blog posts on the WordPress site, only there haven't been any new ones since February 2020, because all I can see when I try to post a new one is "A Script on this Page is Busy".

The current favourite posts, which people have been reading recently are these:

Blogging is not as popular as it used to be. 

The best years for blogging were probably 2007-2012, when the Web was really a web that connected people. There were sites like Tumblr, which aggregated blogs, so you could give people one Tuimblr address and they could see a kind of index of all your blog posts  on various platforms. But Tumblr lost most of its functionality years ago. There was Posterous, where you could post on the fly and on the move to various blogs and blog platforms, but that disappeared as well. There were tools to help you find blog posts, like Technorati, MyBlogLog and BlogCatalog, but these were gradually taken over by big conglomerates like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Amazon, who didn't like the connectivity of the web, and preferred to break the strands and keep you in silos instead. So blogs tend to become isolated -- one blogger, one silo. GoodReads is breaking its link with Twitter, so the web is becoming less of a web as one strand after another is broken. 

But I still keep blogging, and as I say at the top of the page:

The main aim of this blog is to interpret the Christian Order in the light of current affairs, philosophy, literature and the arts -- and vice versa. So it's about ideas. Social, political and religious comment. Links, notes on people, places, events, books, movies etc. And mainly a place where I can post half-baked ideas in the hope that other people, or the passing of time, will help me to bake them.
And for those who would like to say more about such things, and more interactively than is possible in blog comments, please consider joining the Christianity and Society forum

Stoneheart: winners and losers

Stoneheart (The Stoneheart Trilogy, #1)

Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A couple of weeks ago I read Jack Flint and the Redthorn Sword and gave it two stars (my review here), now I read Stoneheart and give it four, yet I see their overall ratings in GoodReads are not dissimilar. What's the difference?

On the face of it there are a lot of similarities: both books have a protagonist about the same age. Jack Flint is 13, George Chapman in Stoneheart is 12, In both the protagonist steps out of the normal world of school and teachers and homework into a strange fantasy world full of danger. And both encounter a rather aggressive girl in the other world. But of the two I enjoyed Stoneheart more. So I'm trying to put my finger on the difference.

George Chapman and Jack Flint are both bullied in the everyday world, but learn to be brave in the fantasy world. There are other similarities. There is a quest, a task that must be accomplished before normality can return. There are allies and enemies, and there are betrayals and suspected betrayals. There is a talisman, or a mcguffin if you prefer, an object that has to be sought that is supposed to solve the main problem.

There are also differences in the setting. Jack Flint's other world is really other, with different geography, different rulers and government, different society and social structure. George Chapman's world is London in the 21st century (though one which still has Routemaster buses with a rear platform), but it is a London in which statues come to life and war among themselves, though the everyday citizens of London are quite unaware of it. The premiss is even more fantastic than Jack Flint's world, but I think the main difference is that it is more consistently handled.

Another similarity is that both books are described as forming part of a trilogy. I'm not sure that that is the best description, though. They are more like The Lord of the Rings, a single book divided into three volumes for convenience. The story continues from the first volume, and I don't think I'll finish either, because I didn't see the second volume in the library I borrowed them from. In the case of the Jack Flint one, that does not bother me much, but I would like to read the sequel to Stoneheart.

Both these books belong to the same general genre of children's fantasy stories, and one reason for my interest in reading such stories at the moment is that I am writing sequels to my own children's fantasy story, Of Wheels and Witches, and I'm busy putting the finishing touches to the second volume, The Enchanted Grove. So I'm reading books in a similar genre to see what I like about them and what I don't, what seems to work and what doesn't. 

One thing that strikes me about the character of George Chapman is that it reminds me of Jordan Peterson's ideal of being the top lobster. George's character development in the story seems to be from Peterson's loser lobster in the beginning to something more resembling the top lobster by the end of the book. And that seems to encapsulate the secular values espoused by Jordan Peterson and personified by Donald Trump, and admired by Trump's admirers and supporters. For such people, winning is not the most important thing, it's the only thing. Winners are to be admired, and losers are to be despised, which is why Donald Trump simply cannot face the fact of losing the 2020 US presidential election.

Such a view has also been sacralised in the new prosperitarian theology that has come to dominate much Western (and African) theology since about 1980 -- the gospel contextualised for Neoliberalism.

So though I think Stoneheart is better written, and "works" as a story better than the Jack Flint one, I do have reservations about the kind of character George Chapman seems to be becoming and the values on which that is based.  

View all my reviews

13 November 2020

Horror as a genre

Horror has long been assumed to be a literary genre. We all know what horror is -- or do we? A couple of years ago I reviewed a book on horror as a genre (see here Horror as a literary genre (review) | Khanya), and the author failed to come up with a satisfactory definition.

My introduction to horror literature came at the age of 9, when I read a book called Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories, which belonged to my cousin. I found most of the stories absolutely horrific. See here Children’s literature: fantasy or moral realism?

Later I developed a taste for horror | Khanya after reading an anthology of short stories called Detection, Mystery, Horror edited by Dorothy Sayers.

Then I read my first full-length "horror" novel, Dracula. I read various books described as "horror", many of them compilations of short stories, some good, some dreck. I also read a few longer novels classified as "horror"; one of the best of them was Stephen King's zombie story, Pet Sematary. But what was the horror genre? I wasn't sure.

I read a few books about the horror genre -- see here for my reviews of some of them Horror as a literary genre (review) | Khanya, which gave no satisfactory definition of horror at all, and Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life | Khanya by Stephen King, where he did define monsters, but do they define "horror" as a genre? Lots of books have monsters of various kinds, but we don't classify them all as "horror" -- The Hobbit, for example.

Then comes a page on GoodReads celebrating the horror genre. But are all the books listed there really "horror"? 50 Most Popular Horror Novels on Goodreads - Goodreads News & Interviews:

For Horror Week, Goodreads set out to reveal the most popular horror stories. To create our list, we focused on the books that have been added the most to Goodreads members' shelves.

From literal monsters to purely psychological terrors, these are tales of madness and pandemonium, retribution and absolution. Long heralded as the "Master of Horror," Stephen King reigns supreme, with five books on our list, but his son Joe Hill is not far behind, nabbing four spots. And along with classics from Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Kirkman's end-of-the-world comic, The Walking Dead, made the cut as well as an award-winning children's ghost story, The Graveyard Book, from Neil Gaiman.

I've come to the conclusion that horror, as a genre, is confined to short stories, and even there it is often combined with other genres. In longer works, like full-length novels, horror is an element, but does not a genre make. In The Lord of the Rings there are horror elements, at the gates of Moria, when Frodo encounters Shelob and so on. But these do not make it a book in a horror genre.

Among short stories, Stephen King's "The Jaunt" or "The Mist" are horror, but they can also be classed as science fiction. The stories in the Horror section of Dorothy Sayers's anthology were definitely horror, but in most of the longer works that end up being classified as horror the actual horrific episodes are usually no longer within the larger works than a standalone horror short story.

12 November 2020

Why Trump lost Christian voters in 2020

It appears that US President Donald Trump lost a significant amount of support among Christian voters in the 2020 US presidential election. In other aspects of the election, such as that for the Senate and House of Representatives, there was not such a significant loss of support. See here Trump%20lost%20religious%20voters%20%u2014%20and%20it%20cost%20him%20in%20multiple%20states%3A%20analysis%20-%20Alternet.org:
President Donald Trump's overwhelming support from evangelical Christians slipped during the 2020 election as President-elect Joe Biden managed to sway a substantial margin of those voters. Now, Trump's campaign team is searching for someone to blame for its election defeat, according to Politico.

Initially, Trump's campaign advisors and Christian allies dismissed the poll projections that suggested a decline in his support among religious voters, insisting the president delivered for his religious supporters throughout his term.

Political analysts have been seeking the reasons for such loss of support, but for Christians the reasons are simple and not far to seek. 

 Jesus said, "By their fruits you shall know them." In their appearances on TV, which of the two, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, showed more of the fruit of the Spirit, which St Paul lists in Galatians 5:22?

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-Control

  • And which of them, Joe Biden or Donald Trump, showed more of the works of the flesh, which St Paul lists in Galatians 5:19ff?

  • Immorality
  • Impurity
  • Licentiousness
  • Idolatry
  • Sorcery
  • Enmity
  • Strife
  • Jealousy
  • Anger
  • Selfishness
  • Dissension
  • Party Spirit
  • Envy
  • Drunkenness
  • Carousing

  • It has been reported that some of President Trump's supporters ascribed his loss of the election to demonic influence, and they are probably right, because one of the things that demons do is tempt people to behave in ways that display the works of the flesh rather than the fruit of the Spirit. 

    The way that they do this has been documented in C.S. Lewis's book The Screwtape Letters, which politicians who wish to gain the support of Christian voters could profit from reading.

    None of this says anything about the policies of the parties that these two men represent. That is often a factor in the political choices that Christians make, and much of it has to do with exercising one's judgement to balance the good and the bad in the various policies. 

    Some may have voted for Biden because they thought his policies on healthcare were more Christian than those of Trump, while others may have voted for Trump because they thought his policies on abortion were more Christian. But that is a matter of judgement and weighing up the probabilities, and in the end it probably balanced itself out. 

    But in the question of the fruit of the spirit and the works of the flesh, there was no need for such balancing. In previous elections it could be said that voters had to choose between the evil of two lessers. But this time around the issues were more clearcut. You could vote for the works of the flesh, or for the fruit of the Spirit.


    10 November 2020

    Madame Bovary

    Madame BovaryMadame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    Looking for something to read during the Covid lock-down, with all the public libraries closed, when I found this in a second-hand bookshop I bought it, mainly because I thought I had seen it on one of those "books to read before you die" lists.

    The blurb, however, did not sound promising -- the fantasies of a bored small-town bourgeois housewife did not sound particularly interesting. Nevertheless I started to read it.

    What hooked me first was the style. Even in translation, Gustave Flaubert's descriptions -- of settings, people, their thoughts and emotions -- were brilliant. So I read it slowly, a chapter at a time, and then went off to read something else. It seemed to be the best way to read it, to savour the prose style.

    It was only about three-quarter5s of the way through that I began to get hooked into the plot, and thought I must finish this book before I read anything else. The book has been around long enough that there must be spoilers everywhere, but it should still be possible to avoid them.

    It reminded me of The Great Gatsby, which I read 60 years ago, and so have largely forgotten, but what stuck with me about it was that fantasy love can be so much more powerful than real love, and that one's fantasies of a person can grow until the real person becomes disappointing. And this is similar in a way to what happened to Emma Bovary in this story. 

    One of the things I've been thinking quite a lot about recently is the advice given to writers of fiction that characters need to have goals -- see here On writing: conflict and goals in fiction | Khanya. Well, Emma Bovary certainly has goals, though she might find them hard to articulate to herself, but the main one is defined in the US Declaration of Independence as "the pursuit of happiness". And one of the questions this novel raises is which is the goal -- happiness, or its pursuit.

     View all my reviews


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