28 March 2020

Lockdown Day 1: Water, Rats and Fire

27-Mar-2020, Friday

by Steve Hayes, Kilner Park in the Great City of Tshwane

Up at 1:01. The beginning of the strict "stay at home" disaster regulations. I can still hear traffic on the highway, though. I did more work on the Cowan family history and sent a descendant chart from Henry Cowan off to Peter Waddell who had written to ask about it a few days ago, At about 3:30 Pimen started barking. I looked out of the window but saw nothing. Later on our Neighbourhood Watch WhatsApp group someone reported seeing a hooded figure at their gate. They phoned Kilner Park Security, who in turn phoned the cops, who came and arrested the bloke. Presumably he'll be charged with breaking cufew. Later Val said that when Pimen's barking woke her she looked out and saw someone walking up Slater Street, but couldn't tell whether he was a hoodie or not.

Then went back to bed after feeding Pimen at 5:45, and slept again to 9:30. Now there is deep silence from the highway. Since Jethro is home from work I made us both Oats-so-Difficult for breakfast. I asked if we could use his drone to have a look at the traffic on the highway, but he'll have to charge the battery first. There seem to be fewer trains than usual. Eskom says there will be no load-shedding during the "lockdown" -- I'm still not very happy using that American prison term, but I suppose it's not much different from saying that we are all under house arrest.

Towards mid-morning the traffic on the highway picks up and there are lots of vehicles passing. It's the N1, so the main road to the north, three lanes each way, The trains seem to have stopped running altogether. The line across the road is the main line to the east, ending at Maputo. Normally there are 2-3 suburban trains an hour, going to Mamelodi, and several goods trains, going further. Today, nothing. How do essential workers get to work?

Val is watching cricket, matches from 11 years ago, which she recorded, when South Africa was touring Australia. Even if there were live cricket today we couldn't afford to watch it, because it's only on the most expensive channel. That's the trouble with retirement. Before you retire you have the money but no time, but once you are retired you have the time but no money.

Then the water pressure drops, and suddenly the Neighbourhood Watch WhatsApp group is filled with messages again. It's off in this street, it's off in that street. I recall that a couple of days ago someone reported a water leak up at the Casbah Roadhouse. perhaps the municipality has sent someone to fix it, the trouble is now no one can go up there to see if that is indeed the case. That gets someone else into a tizz -- surely that is an essential service? Why don't they fix it? But that's not what I said; I didn't say they couldn't go to fix it, I said we couldn't go to see if that's what they are doing. Simon brings in a whole lot of water containers so that we can fill them just in case there is a more serious problem with water. The containers are a relic of a few years ago when Jethro hired a trailer and drove down to Senekal in the Free State with 2000 litres of water when they were having a drought there.

I spent the afternoon reading The Horsemen, by Joseph Kessell, a novel set in northern Afghanistan before all the recent wars there. Come 4:30 and the rush hour, and the highway is quiet again, virtually no traffic passing. Another text message from a friend -- a warning from the dustmen -- wipe your dustbin handles with soap and disinfectant. We handle 2000 bins a day. Yet another vector for the virus.

We had supper, Gold Dish vegetable breyani from a tin. Thank God it's available again. For a long time one never saw it in the shops. Then at 7:00 we watched the "Pointless" TV quiz show, as is our custom, even though most of them are re-runs. When it ended at 8:00 Simon went out to see what Pimen was barking at, and it turned out to be a rat sitting on top of the fence. How it got there I can't imagine. Perhaps Pimen chased it there, and it has gecko feet. As we were going to see it, however, we noticed what seemed to be a fire to the north-east, over the railway line, where there is a scrapyard and the Koedoespoort railway workshops. I checked the WhatsApp neighbourhood watch group, and since no one else had mentioned it I did. Val phoned the fire brigade, and they said they already had a vehicle at the scene of the fire.

The rat on the fence was a brown one, and I took a photo of it. When Simon mentioned it I thought it might be an imbiba, but I couldn't see its back to make sure. It just perched there and looked through its beady little eyes and wiggled its rounded ears. I wonder -- isn't it brown rats that carry bubonic plague? Is its appearance a sign that if COVID-19 doesn't get us, bubonic plague will?

We went back inside and watched an episode of "Silent Witness" on DVD, and at about 9:00 pm went outside again to look at the fire. It was much bigger now, with smoke streaming away to the west, and occasional sirens heard. Will we ever know what it was? We can't go out tomorrow and buy the newspaper. Will they even be printing newspapers if no one is able to buy them, and the sellers can't appear on the streets? Perhaps the corona virus will be the end of print journalism.

We watched the second half of the "Silent Witness" episode, and at the end of it, about 10:15, the fire was still burning, the smoke was still streaming, and the smell was worse than it had been earlier. And so to bed, as Samuel Pepys would have said, and the evening and the morning were the first day of the lockdown.

Fire in Koedoespoort, Pretoria 27 March 2020
 ______
A group of us are sharing notes, observations and extracts from personal diaries relating to the COVID-19 epidemic. If you'd like to know more about this, and perhaps join in, or start something similar of your own, see here  Notes from underground: Physical Distance and Social Proximity in a time of plague


23 March 2020

Revising my blogroll

One problem with reviving an old blog is that the blogroll gets out of date. There are blogs on it that have been deleted, or some that haven't been posted on for 6, 7 or 8 years or more.

One great advantage of the Blogger Blogroll over the WordPress one, however, is that it lets you display the blogs in the order of most recent posts, so you don't go there, only to find that it's just stuff you've read already.

It's also possible to do some weeding out. Some people (like me!) have several blogs, and you find you have a link to one that is no longer being updated, so I've removed some of those and replaced them with the more active ones.

Having a blog on my blogroll doesn't mean that I endorse all the content, or any of it. I find it useful to read all kinds of things, even if I disagree with them. I find this a useful counter to the tendency of social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to reinforce confirmation bias. Twitter used to be better, when it showed you stuff posted by people you follow in chronological order. Now, however, it tends to give priority to people who have lots of followers who are liked by the people who like the things you like.Facebook has always done that, Those sites make choices for you about what you will see, but a blogroll lets me choose what I will see.

So I like to read blogs that express different views on various topics, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't. But do have a look at them -- chances are that if you find stuff you read on my blog interesting you might find some of them interesting too. Of course if you find my blog boring, you'll probably find those boring too, but you won't know till you've had a look.

21 March 2020

Love in a time of dictatorship

Of Love and ShadowsOf Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A love story in the grim shadow of a military dictatorship. Though she names no names Isabel Allende makes no attempt to disguise the setting, Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who came to power in a military coup on 11 September 1973 and remained in power for 17 years.

It is also the story of three families. Irene Beltran, whose mother runs an upmarket old-age home, has had a privileged upbringing, and is a journalist on on a women's magazine. She goes to write a story with photographer Francisco Leal, whose family background is very different; his parents were exiles from the Spanish civil war, and their three sons are far more politically aware. One of Francisco's brothers is a priest who works in a poor slum parish, and he himself had been involved in a radical political group when he was younger, though at the time of the story his political activities are more discreet.

Francisco and Irene go to cover a story on a young girl whose fits are reputed to produce miracles, and that is the beginning of their growing attraction for each other. The girl, Evangeline, has a brother in the police, whose senior officer is humiliated when he tries to arrest her, and she soon joins the ranks of the "disappeared", those who were taken into police custody and were never seen again. Irene and Francisco get drawn into a search for Evangeline and the other disappeared, several of them from her family, a search that becomes increasingly dangerous.

Isabel Allende was in Chile in the time of the coup, and was related to the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in the coup, so writes of the dictatorship from first-hand knowledge and her descriptions of life under a military dictatorship are amazingly authentic, and bear a remarkable resemblance to life in South Africa and Namibia under .apartheid. So much sounded very familiar indeed.


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17 March 2020

Physical Distance and Social Proximity in a time of plague

As the viral CoVid-19 infection sweeps the world, people are being asked to avoid spreading the virus by Social Distancing.

But this, it seems to me, is the wrong approach. What is needed to avoid spreading the virus is not social distancing, but physical distancing. Social media provide us with the means of keeping in touch socially even though we are physically separated. So please keep in touch: read this blog!

But this gave rise to another idea.

One of the things we can do in times of physical distancing and quarantine is read books, and there are some fictional books about similar circumstances. It could be interesting to read some of them and compare their times with out own. Here are some I can think of:

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. In 1665, the Great Plague swept through London, claiming nearly 100,000 lives. In A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe vividly chronicles the progress of the epidemic. We follow his fictional narrator through a city transformed-the streets and alleyways deserted, the houses of death with crosses daubed on their doors, the dead-carts on their way to the pits-and encounter the horrified citizens of the city, as fear, isolation, and hysteria take hold. The shocking immediacy of Defoe's description of plague-racked London makes this one of the most convincing accounts of the Great Plague ever written.

The Plague by Albert Camus. A gripping tale of human unrelieved horror, of survival and resilience, and of the ways in which humankind confronts death, The Plague is at once a masterfully crafted novel, eloquently understated and epic in scope, and a parable of ageless moral resonance, profoundly relevant to our times. In Oran, a coastal town in North Africa, the plague begins as a series of portents, unheeded by the people. It gradually becomes an omnipresent reality, obliterating all traces of the past and driving its victims to almost unearthly extremes of suffering, madness, and compassion.  

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Kivrin is a history student at Oxford in 2054, and is given an opportunity to travel back to the fourteenth century to study the period at first hand. But something goes wrong. The technician who operates the time machine that sends her back is suddenly taken ill and cannot explain what has happened. His illness proves highly contagious, and results in Oxford being placed under quarantine, and it becomes a race against times (plural) to get Kivrin back. 

But there's more.

In addition to reading about it, how about writing about it?

What about a group of friends and friends of friends keeping in social contact by means of an electronic forum and sharing news of each other, which could become a kind of joint journal of a plague year?

We may be keeping physical distance, but that does not mean we have to keep social distance. Use electronic media to keep in touch.

And so I have started an electronic forum called Social Proximity -- socprox for short. To learn more about it and apply to join it, see here. In order to join you need to know at least one other member of the group.

Participating doesn't have to be complicated, or require great literary efforts. You can give a link to a blog post, if you have a blog. Just describe what your day was like -- did you go shopping? What was different from usual? Were there shortages of anything in the shops? Have you or anyone you know been infected by the corona virus? How is it affecting you? Are you going to work or working from home? If you are staying home, how do you fill your time? What books have you been reading? What's happening in your neighbourhood?


16 March 2020

Supernatural superheroes in literature

Lovecraft Country: TV Tie-InLovecraft Country: TV Tie-In by Matt Ruff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Set in 1950s racist America, this is magic realism at its best.

The title is slightly misleading; it might lead one to expect a pastiche of Lovecraft and the Lovecraft school of horror, but though the story begins with a journey to Lovecraft country , its style is altogether different. I don't recall seeing a single "eldritch". Most of the action takes place in and around Chicago, with a couple of side trips to distant galaxies and supernatural realms.

Atticus Turner, his uncle George Berry and friend Letitia travel to the Lovecraftian town of Ardham in Massachusetts where they discover that Atticus's father is being held prisoner by a coven of white occultists. George is a travel agent, and editor of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and it soon becomes apparent that it is safer for Negroes to travel to the farthest reaches of the galaxy or to demonic realms than it is on the roads of 1950s America.

Most of the main characters are related to each other, and even to the chief villain, Caleb Brathwhite, a white man with ambitions to become the chief witch in America.

Neil Gaiman fans, among others, might enjoy it.

View all my GoodReads reviews

Going beyond a review of the book itself, however, there is also the social milieu in which it is written and set.

Two years ago we saw the film Black Panther, which featured a black comic-book superhero, and it sparked several discussions at the time. Comic-book superheroes were a product of America of the 1930s, and probably reached their zenith in the 1940s and 1950s. But at that time the characters in them were all white Americans. Lovecraft country shows that in that period there were many black Americans who enjoyed reading about comic-book superheroes with science-fiction type powers, and Lovecraft-type horror stories, dealing with supernatural powers. But all the characters were white.

This book depicts black fans of such literature, in the social milieu of the time, who then themselves have the kind of adventures depicted in the superhero comics and in Lovecraftian stories. In my review above I said that if you liked Neil Gaiman, you would probably like this book. I'll extend that by saying that if you liked Black Panther the movie you'll probably also like this book.

In the 1950s, when Lovecraft Country is set, black American fans of such literature were on the outside looking in, but what about Africa? African culture is different from American culture, and most of the literature of that kind that we have to read is from overseas somewhere. I was once reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to some black South African children, and there were many foreign cultural references that needed to be explained. The only African literature that seems to me to be comparable is Amos Tutuola's My life in the bush of ghosts, but I think that is more for adults than for children.

But I'd be interested in seeing this kind of magic realism in southern African literature, in books for both adults and children.

13 March 2020

Time Traveler by Merriam-Webster: Words from the year you were born

A friend posted a link to this site, which shows when certain words first appeared in print. I found quite a few surprising ones. Time Traveler by Merriam-Webster: Words from 1980:
When was a word first used in print? You may be surprised! Enter a date below to see the words first recorded on that year. To learn more about First Known Use dates,
My friend was born in 1980, and some of the ones I found surprising for that year were: BIOS, expansion slot, freewriting, green fingers, gridlock, heavy lifting, Usenet, and yuppie.

I really thought that most of them were older. Then I went back to the year I was born, 1941. There were a few surprises there, but perhaps there were some words that could be said to have defined my life in some ways, such as:

anti-totalitarian -- I was born in South Africa in 1941, and in 1948 the National Party, with its totalitarian policy of apartheid, came to power.

apparatchik -- linked to the previous one. The struggle against the apparatchiks, the petty authoritarian bureaucrats of the apartheid state.

existentialism -- philosophy of my youth, especially Kierkegaard

identity crisis -- spin-off from apartheid. Apartheid told you that your racial identity was the most important thing about you. Without racial identity you were nothing and nobody.

kissing cousin -- I became interested in family history because I wanted to know who my cousins were. I'm still not sure how kissing cousins differ from other cousins, though.

klatsch -- for the last four years one of the highlights of our month has been a literary coffee klatsch.

Klein bottle -- today at TGIF we discussed the mystery of consciousness. I've been thinking about it for quite a while. If you want to know what Klein bottles have to do with consciousness, see here.

metalinguistic -- I've been interested in language and culture for most of my life, and quite a lot of my blog posts have been about the relation of language to culture.

multiethnic -- one of the defining periods of my life was when a group of us set out to establish a multiethnic Orthodox Church in Johannesburg in the mid- to late 1980s.

So those are some of the words of my lifetime, and my life. 




05 March 2020

Not the last literary coffee klatsch

Four years ago a group of us gathered at Cafe 41 in Arcadia (Et in Arcadia ego) for a discussion of Christianity and literature, in imitation of the Oxford Inklings, except that they met in a pub, and we met in a cafe, so our gathering was more in the nature of a coffee klatsch, and for four years we met on the first Thursday of every month. Sometimes there were 3 or 4 of us, sometimes 8 or 10 -- the bigger numbers mainly during university vacations, when university lecturers (and students) could join us.

But one of our regular members was taken ill, and another died, and so it looked as though our fourth anniversary gathering today might be the last. So we had a "Meeting for Business", as the Quakers say, to discuss whether we should continue, and decided that we would. But we also thought that there must be more people in the Great City of Tshwane who liked the Oxford Inklings and their writings, and might like to chat about them, or the kind of things they talked about, over a cup of coffee. So if you are reading this and know anyone like that, please tell them about us.


This time we discussed quite an eclectic range of books, yet there also seemed to be a common theme. I had read one called The Horse Road (review here) about a horse-mad girl in Central Asia in the first century BC whose mother would not allow her to keep slaves as she herself had been a slave. They were nomadic horse breeders, and we talked about the Khoi of the Western Cape, who were originally nomadic pastoralists and moved around.

Janneke Weidema had been reading a book about the Sovietising of outer Mongolia, which she thought had similarities to the enclosure movement in England, perhaps related to a verse:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
The Mongols too were nomadic pastoralists and the Soviet Russians had tried to force them to settle on collective farms and grow crops. I had not long ago read a book that dealt with the other end of that process, The last disco in Outer Mongolia.

Nick Middleton visited Mongolia in 1987 and in 1990, shortly before and shortly after the switch from Communist bureaucracy to a more liberal and democratic society. As a geographer on his first
visit he was working on hydrography, on his second he was planning for ecotourism. He catches a society in transition from one mode to another.

So Janneke had read a book relating to the beginning of the Bolshevik period, and I read read a couple relating to the end of it. But I had also read one relating to the middle of it, and that tied up a lot of loose ends. The book relating to the middle of it was Journey into Russia by Laurens van der Post -- see my review here, especially the last couple of paragraphs.

There was a common thread running through all of them -- in both communism and capitalism it was the common people who were being screwed by the bureaucrats, the apparatchiks, the managers, the MBAs. Whether it's the goose on the common, the pastures of the Khoi in the Western Cape or the Mongolian nomads, or the people who are being called on to pay ever more for electricity because of the follies of Eskom and the modern equivalent of enclosures -- land reform in South Africa. It's basically the same at root.

Van der Post put his finger on it when he wrote about the state and the collective farms of the USSR:
The revolution had worked a confidence trick on them all. They had revolted in order to have the land to themselves. But no sooner was the revolution consolidated than a far more inflexible landlord, the State, had taken it away from them again in the name of collectivization. And, judging by the show pieces I saw, there were few farmers in charge of farms. Party secretaries, accountants and factory foremen were the types one usually found in positions of command.
Back in the old days, when Eskom was Escom, the ESC, the Electricity Supply Commission, it was mainly run by engineers. In those days, the 1960s and 1970s, most electricity was generated from coal, and rather than transporting coal to the power stations, they built the power stations where the coal was, in what is now the Highveld of Mpumalanga, which came to be called "Kragveld" for that reason.

Then in the 1980s came the mania for privatisation (the Reagan/Thatcher years).  Escom was privatised and became Eskom, a State-Owned Enterprise (SOE), though since it was still owned by the State one could say it was semi-privatised. But the coal mines that the power stations were built on were fully privatised -- some of them ended up in the hands of the Guptas -- and they found it was more profitable to sell the coal overseas than to sell it to Eskom, and so Eskom had to buy coal where they could, often of the wrong quality and at vastly inflated prices. And the privatised Eskom was run by managers, by bureaucrats, not by engineers, just like the Soviet state and collective farms that Van der Post wrote about.

And so, as George Orwell wrote at the end of his fable Animal Farm, the ordinary animals looked from men to pigs, and from pigs to men, from capitalists to communists and from communists to capitalists, and could no longer tell the difference.


03 March 2020

The Horse Road (book review and some reminiscences)

The Horse RoadThe Horse Road by Troon Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is an interesting mix of genres.

It is set in Central Asia in the first century BC, so it is basically a historical novel. The protagonist, Kallisto, is a horse-obsessed 14-year-old girl, and there is an entire literary genre aimed at horse-mad 14-year-old girls. It is also a Bildungsroman. because she has to cope with a series of crises when her father is away on business and her mother is ill, so she has to grow up fast. The crises include war, famine and earthquake.

The Horse Road also has cultural and racial diversity. Kallisto's father is a Greek merchant, her mother a Sarmatian horse breeder, and they live in the Fergana valley in what is now Kyrgyzstan, at the meeting place of East and West.

For the horse-obsessed 14-year-old girls there is plenty of detail about the horses, their care and grooming, their gaits, harness and training, their character and the skills of the rider. At times I thought it went a bit overboard on the details. One horse is described as an Appaloosa, a specifically American breed which would be very unlikely to have been found in Central Asia in that period. And cruppers are mentioned several times -- the leather loop attached to the rear of the saddle that goes under the horse's tail and stops the saddle from sliding forward over the horse's withers. I'm not sure that cruppers had been invented at that time. But those are the kind of details that appeal to the horse-mad young.

It's now 20 years since I last sat on a horse, and so this book took me back to times long past. One of the priests in our diocese, Father Justin Venn, was a farrier by trade, but he recently gave it up because it required too much travelling in the Johannesburg area, and he too observed that in today's urban society the only people who keep horses are middle-aged middle-class women and 14-year-old girls, but  perhaps the range of readership of books about horses is slightly wider.

I certainly enjoyed reading about horses at the age of 10 or 11, and perhaps the interest of boys in horses peaks slightly younger than among girls, at about 11 or 12. At that age boys are big enough to mount a horse bareback, but not so big and heavy that they are a burden to the horse.

Steve Hayes, Brassie & Elizabeth Dods, Aug 1952
When I was 11 I had a horse called Brassie, and he became to object of attraction to a 14-year-old girl, Elizabeth Dods, who asked if she could ride him. She rode him so much that I had to go by bicycle, which did not have off-road capability. Fortunately a riding school across the road closed and sold off all their horses cheaply, and so I acquired a pony called Tom as a Christmas present, and the first ride on him on Christmas day was to St Nicholas Church in Sandringham, Johannesburg with Elizabeth. That was the first church service I had ever been to (apart from a couple of family baptisms which I was too young to remember).

A few months later Elizabeth turned 15, and lost interest in horses, but she had a marvellous collection of horse books that she had acquired during the period of her obsession, which I eagerly borrowed and read. One of my favourites was Silver Snaffles by Primrose Cumming, which also had an element of fantasy.


The Horse Road has all the details that horse book addicts seem to love, but there is also enough drama, excitement and danger to make it a gripping adventure story for those who wouldn't know a crupper from a martingale..







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25 February 2020

In The Beauty Of The LiliesIn The Beauty Of The Lilies by John Updike

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A 20th-century USA family saga.

A couple of months ago I asked in the Inklings forum about suitable books for teaching theology through literature, and David Levey, a former professor of English literature at Unisa, said,
For the essential text I would recommend anything by John Updike, a celebrated novelist and believing Christian who dealt with matters of sexuality as well as issues of faith. His 'Rabbit' series should still be obtainable.
So I started reading books by John Updike, though I have to admit that I can't see how either the first one I read, BrazilBrazil by John Updike nor this one, would be suitable for the purpose I had in mind.


In this book John Updike follows four generations of an American family through the 20th century, concentrating on one member in each generation, showing how their lives changed as the century progressed.

It begins in 1910, with the moment that Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister, loses his faith and becomes an encyclopedia salesman. His son Teddy (named after US president Theodore Roosevelt), has no faith at all, and becomes a postman. Teddy's daughter Esther becomes a film star, a screen goddess and so an object of worship for some, in the heyday of Hollywood of the big studios. Like many stars of that era, she has numerous marriages and divorces.

Esther's only son, Clark, drifts rather aimlessly until he inadvertently joins a Seventh-Day Adventist breakaway sect living in a commune in Colorado, where a personality cult develops around the leader, who is clearly modelled on David Koresh, and from that point on the story becomes rather predictable. There is a stand-off with the local police, a siege, and in the end the buildings burn and a lot of people die.

At the beginning and the end there is quite a bit of theology.

As Clarence Wilmot wrestles with his faith, or lack of it, contemporary Presbyterian theological trends are cited. John Updike seems to have done quite a bit of research into this, but I don't really know enough about Calvinism at that period to know whether he got it right or not.

I do, however, know enough about Seventh-Day Adventism to think that he got some aspects of their theology seriously wrong. Updike portrays the dwellers in the commune as willing to die because they believe that they will go straight to heaven after suffering martyrdom, but this contradicts a key point of Seventh-Day Adventist theology. They explicitly and emphatically do not believe that Christians, even Seventh-Day Adventist Christians, go straight to heaven when they die. Rather they believe that all men will rot in their graves when they die, and at the second coming of Christ they will be resurrected to face judgement. In this, Updike appears to have got it wrong.

Of course he could possibly, as part of his plot, have this sect in his story diverge from bog-standard SDA theology, but in that case he owes it to the reader to explain this divergence. He does not shy away from some of the obscurer details of Calvinist theology at the beginning of his story, so why does he skip it with SDA theology at the end? Or perhaps if I knew more about Calvinist theology, I would see that he got that wrong too.

Apart from the theological background, however, I think Updike gives a portrait, through his four main characters, of 20th-century America, which was to lead, 30 years later, to the America of Donald Trump.



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14 February 2020

Star Wars: Theology and Popular Culture

This week we've been watching the Star Wars movies in preparation for hearing Thorsten Marbach speak about The Theology of Star Wars at TGIF.

We watched the first six films over the preceding week, in chronological order rather than in "publication order", which gives a somewhat different view of it than one would have if one watched each one as it came out.

Thorsten in his talk noted that the films had made a high cultural impact (don't blame Thorsten for all that follows in this article, however. It was inspired by seeing the films and hearing his talk, but does not necessarily reflect what he said).

We never saw the films when they first came out, and so our first contact with the Star Wars universe was through its indirect cultural effects rather than the stories themselves. Popular phrases like "the Dark Side" and "may the Force be with you" (with its concomitant date pun, "May the Fourth be with you") circulated widely, even among those who had never seen any of the films.

Tropes from the films have permeated Western popular culture and beyond, so that they have influenced popular perceptions of Christianity and expressions of Christian culture. Christians often speak of choosing an evil course of action rather than a good one as "going over to the dark side" without giving much thought to what "the Dark Side" signals or symbolises in the films.

Some of this integration of Star Wars with Christian tropes can be seen in the following picture.


Even people who haven't seen the films might get the metaphor of the laser swords, though those who have seen the films might know enough to call them lightsabers, and to see more clearly the analogy of a group of bishops with the order of Jedi knights.

Star Wars, then, provides several metaphors and links to (Western) secularised popular culture to explain the Christian faith to those unfamiliar with it.

But that kind of thing can work both ways.

Christians can use metaphors from Star Wars to help explain the Christian faith, but people who come to the Christian faith with the Star Wars views of values and meaning and of the nature of reality are just as likely to get it seriously wrong if they approach Christianity with some of those presuppositions.

The Star Wars phenomenon coincides with the rise of computer gaming, and there is a large overlap between gaming technology and that used to produce Star Wars. And programming computer games requires that different characters in the story be given different quantifiable powers. And so people ask which is more powerful. The Jedi or the Sith? Lucifer or Satan? A witch, a wizard, a warlock or a mage? The last lists of characters don't appear in Star Wars, but the Star Wars values and worldview leads people to ask the same sorts of questions about them.

Spoiler Alert: if you haven't seen the films and want to, you might want to skip what follows
.
There is something of a controversy over whether one should read C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories in publication order, or in the chronological order of the events in the human world. If you read The Magician's Nephew first, you lose the surprise of the discovery of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the same thing applies in Star Wars.

If  you begin with Episode 4 (the first released) you don't know that Darth Vader is the father of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia until the end of the second episode (Episode 5). But when you see Episode 1 (The Phantom Menace) immediately following Episode 6 (The Return of the Jedi), you already know that the innocent young Anakin Skywalker, prophesied as the Chosen One who will "balance the Force", will achieve that balance by opting for the Dark Side.

So in Star Wars there is a conflict between two worldviews: one that sees good and evil as aspects of the same impersonal Force that must be kept in "balance", and the other that sees love as stronger than power and good as something to be chosen in preference to evil. At one point it is said that evil is needed so that we can know good by contrast.

This is in contrast to the Christian worldview, which sees good as the primary reality, and evil being no more than a twisting of the good. Evil is always parasitic on good -- one can have a system of good money without counterfeit money, but one cannot have counterfeit money without a system of good money for it to be parasitic on.

Ralph Winter, a Christian missiologist, once adapted the Star Wars terminology to illustrate this. Episode 5 of Star Wars is subtitled The Empire strikes back. In it, evil, having been driven out, returns. Winter turns this around, pointing out that in the Bible history is divided into two parts. The first part, Genesis 1-11, tells how God made the world good, and evil entered and took over God's good creation and twisted it. The rest of the Bible, from Genesis 12 to the end, which could be subtitled The Kingdom strikes back, tells how the good came back. Such an allusion to Star Wars also shows the influence it has had on popular culture. 



13 February 2020

Blogiversary of Khanya blog

Today is the blogiversary of my Khanya blog, which I started 13 years ago today.

Unfortunately I can't post this, or anything else, there any more, since the WordPress user interface is broken. It has been broken for about a week now, so I've reverted to blogging here,

Probably the most significant posts in those 13 years have been the series of Tales from Dystopia | Khanya, which are some memories of the apartheid era in South Africa. As it recedes further into the past fewer and fewer people will remember what the apartheid period was like -- no one under 30 can have much memory of it, and those who experienced the whole period will soon no longer be with us. So I hope others will be moved to blog about it, or record their experience in some other way.

I've written about many other things on the Khanya blog in the last 13 years -- theology, literature, history and politics. Just today someone commented that they had enjoyed reading a book I had reviewed: Another man’s war | Khanya. Fortunately the comment function still works, at least for those who have previously commented on it. Unfortunately comments from people who have not previously commented are put on moderation (to prevent comment spam), and approving of comments is one of the things that no longer works in WordPress.

Nevertheless, I post these stories and ideas in the hope that people will respond to them, and we can have a conversation. There are tag and category "clouds" in the right-hand margin of Khanya blog to find topics you are interested in, and a search function where you can enter a few key words to see what comes up. If you can't comment on the blog posts you can email me at shayes@dunelm.org.uk

I hope the people at WordPress will soon fix their broken user interface, but until they do, I'll continue blogging here.




12 February 2020

Blue sheep and Buddhism in Nepal

The Snow LeopardThe Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Reading this again after 25 years, I decided to give it one more star.

Peter Matthiessen travels with George Schaller to the land of Dolpo in north-west Nepal, on the Tibetan plateau, to study the mating habits of blue sheep, and also to search for the elusive snow leopard. Matthiessen is a Buddhist, and is therefore also interested in the Buddhist customs, practices and beliefs found among people along the way, and also those of Lama Karma Tupjuk at
Shey Gompa, the monastery at Crystal Mountain.

I enjoyed it more on the second reading. The tip required a month's travel on foot to reach the place where they were to do the research, and quite a bit of it dealt with the difficulties in finding and hiring porters to help carry the equipment and supplies they needed for the trip -- and at times Pater Matthiessen's descriptions were reminiscent of the conversations of white South African housewives of the 1950s discussing "the servant problem", and sounded more than a little paternalistic. Being a baas on the southern African subcontinent or a sahib on the Indian one seemed not all that different.

His Buddhist experiences in the mountains, however, were reminiscent of some of Jack Kerouac's ones in The Dharma Bums. I found it helped me to see more clearly some of the differences and similarities between Christianity and Buddhism.




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11 February 2020

Modern Paganism, Secularism and Syncretism

American Christians who support Donald Trump have warned of the danger of modern paganism, American Paganism | Commonweal Magazine:
... pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president. Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public square. Rod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.
But this article suggests that they are looking for the danger of modern paganism in all the wrong places, and seeks to show where the real danger lies. The article is written from a Roman Catholic point of view, but there is little in it that I, as an Orthodox Christian, can disagree with, and it deserves a careful reading by all Christians.

Bur before going any further, some clarification of terms may be needed, and especially the terms paganism, secularism. and syncretism. David Albertson does this to some extent in the article, but not really enough.

Paganism is Christian slang for anything not Christian. As the historian Robin Lane Fox puts it in his book Pagans and Christians,
In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani... In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians' usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians' view of life.
Since the middle of the 20th century there have been various groups who call themselves Pagans, and are sometimes called Neopagans, who have sought to revive pre-Christian religions in predominantly Christian or post-Christians societies. Albertson's article is not referring to such groups, and Eliot almost certainly wasn't.

Secularism is pagan in the sense that it is not Christian, but about 50 years ago Harvey Cox, in his book The Secular City, made an important distinction between secularism, which is an un-Christian (and sometimes anti-Christian) ideology, and secularization, which is a social process that is quite compatible with the Christian faith and indeed in many respects springs from it.

For example, in 1538 the government of England ordered every parish in the Church of England to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. Thee hundred years later, in 1837, the English government introduced secular registration of births, marriages and deaths. That was secularization, which relieved the church of the burden of having to collect records on behalf of the government (though it could still do so, on its own terms, to keep track of irts own members).

In the same way there is a distinction between a secular state, which is neutral with regard to religion, and a secularist state, which is actively anti-religious.

Syncretism is the blending of two or more religions so that a new religion results which is different from either. Puritans often claimed that Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter were either pagan or syncretistic, and at times tried to suppress them. For more on this see Evangelicals and Hallowe’en | Khanya.

Having dealt with the definitions, let's get back to the modern paganism and syncretism, and look at some examples of the paganism and syncretism that Albertson is talking about. One example is an article that was widely circulated quite recently -- 5 Reasons Socialism Is Not Christian - The Christian Post:
To socialists, all that really exists is the material world. In fact, Karl Marx, the father of socialism/communism, invented the notion of dialectical materialism — the belief that matter contains a creative power within itself. This enabled Marx to eliminate the need for a creator, essentially erasing the existence of anything non-material.

To socialists, suffering is caused by the unequal distribution of stuff — and salvation is achieved by the re-distribution of stuff. There's no acknowledgment of spiritual issues. There's just an assumption that if everyone is given equal stuff, all the problems in society will somehow dissolve.
The article is thoroughly disingenuous, full of misleading assertions like this one, and in fact tries to fuse the pagan ideology of Neoliberalism with Christianity to form a syncretistic mixture.

I far prefer what Nicolas Berdyaev, the Christian philosopher, has said about this:
It was the industrialist capitalist period which subjected man to the power of economics and money, and it does not become its adepts to teach communists the evangelical truth that man does not live by bread alone. The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbours, for everybody, is a spiritual and religious question. Man does not live by bread alone, but he does live by bread and there should be bread for all. Society should be so organized that there is bread for all, and then it is that the spiritual question will present itself before men in all its depth. It is not permissible to base a struggle for spiritual interests and for a spiritual renaissance on the fact that for a considerable part of humanity bread will not be guaranteed. Such cynicism as this justly evokes an atheistic reaction and the denial of spirit. Christians ought to be permeated with a sense of the religious importance of the elementary needs of men, the vast masses of men, and not to despise these needs from the point of view of an exalted spirituality.
To expand a bit on what Berdyaev said, the article displays a lack of knowledge of what socialism is.

As Berdyaev points out, it was capitalism that introduced a thoroughly materialistic world view. Socialism, in its varied forms, is a reaction to capitalism, largely with a view to remedying its defects.

Capitalism, as Berdyaev points out, subjected man to the power of economics and money.

Socialism came up with objections to this, and most of the objections are based on the principle that as the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, so the economy was made for man, not man for the economy. .

The principle behind most forms of socialism is that man should control the economy rather than be controlled by it. That doesn't mean that every form of socialism is automatically good, but it does mean that it should not be simplistically dismissed as "materialistic" as this article does.It is materialistic because it is responding to a materialistic system, namely capitalism.

Capitalism arose in history out of a set of economic circumstances, generally in the 15th & 16th centuries. It wasn't really a matter of conscious human design, it just happened.

Later people tried to analyse how it worked -- Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others. Some, like Adam Smith, thought it would work OK if you left it alone. Others, like Marx, pointed out that it caused widespread misery -- and between Smith and Marx came the industrial revolution, which may have affected their analysis.

Socialism was a human reaction to the social effects of impersonal economic forces, and came up with various proposals for remedying the defects of capitalist society.

So saying that socialism is antithetical to Christianity really means that Christianity should never criticise capitalism.

Well, there are two ways of looking at it.

One is that the economic powers are among those referred to in Romans 13
as ordained by God, and to which man must therefore be subject.

Another is that they are among the weak and beggarly elemental spirits
that St Paul thinks have bewitched the Galatians (Gal 3:1-4:9).

What do you think?

Another aspect of Albertson's  article that is very interesting is that though he deals primarily with the USA, there are some notable similarities between the Cult of Trump and the Cult of Rhodes in southern Africa -- it ios the same kind of pagan impulse driving both.




10 February 2020

Reviving an old blog because WordPress is broken

It looks as though I may have to revive this old blog on Blogger.

I moved it to WordPress when the editor here at Blogger became increasingly clunky and difficult to use, but even a clunky editor is better than none at all.

I seem to have been locked out of my WordPress blogs Khanya, Notes from Underground (that last a replacement for this one) and Hayes and Greene Family History. Though I can still read them, I can't write to them, edit them, or approve new comments. Whenever I try to access them for those purposes, I get this message:
And after finding it broken for several days, with no apparent attempt being made to fix it, there is little alternative but to return to Blogger.

I'll still post links to the WordPress blogs from time to time if they answer questions that people ask and so on, but won't be able to post any new stuff there until WordPress fix their user interface, which they've showed no sign of doing so far.

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