31 March 2008

It's time to abolish toll roads, not extend them

Toll roads were introduced by the National Party regime so that they could rob the Road Fund to pay for the invasion of Angola and the destabilisation of neighbouring countries.

Part of the democratic transformation process should see the phasing out of toll roads, and the restoration of the road fund. The fairest way to pay for roads is through a tax on fuel. And in that way all roads can be maintained, and not just a few selected ones.

African Energy News Review - Poor will be most affected by N1/N2 toll road proposal
Capetonians have until 30 April to comment on the National Roads Agency's (Sanral) controversial plans to build toll roads on the N1 and N2 freeways outside Cape Town.

The move would further increase transport costs, which are already rocketing because of significant fuel price increases.

Sanral expects to put out the project to tender with the aim of starting construction within two years if the plan is approved by Minister of Transport Jeff Radebe.

30 March 2008

Juggling with Jelly: A new church

There's a lot of talk these days about the emerging church. Here's a story about church growth and the submerging church.

A church building closed for rebuilding, and the congregation split up and scattered, and, as it were, sank out of sight. Then it re-emerged after the building alterations were completed, and found they had added 100 members.

Juggling with Jelly: A new church
Before closing the church building our net annual growth had been an average of one person. Transfers out as people moved away, transfers in as people came to the area, new converts. Balanced. During our nine months without a building the net growth has been over 100 (yes one hundred). And that's just counting new converts. We have well-known evangelists amongst the congregation. They had little to do with these local converts being off elsewhere in the world.

I discovered this story accidentally in a moribund blog that hasn't been updated for years. I sometimes want to read something different, and went interest surfing in Blogger profiles. I click on one of my interests, and see who else is interested. In this case I clicked on one of my favourite books, The Greater Trumps. It seemed quite an interesting story and worth sharing.


For the last three months South Africans have been complaining about Eskom's failures in planning and bad management, as if it is the only organisation to suffer from such incompetence, and as if South Africa is the only country to suffer from such misfortunes.

So perhaps there was a certain sense of relief, not to mention malicious glee, in seeing that British Airways seems to be unable to organise the proverbial piss up in a brewery.

And there was the gent on Sky News muttering at 20 minute intervals about the damage it was doing to "brand UK".

At least we're not alone.

clipped from www.thetimes.co.za

British Airways said on Saturday that it was cancelling flights to and from London Heathrow airport’s new Terminal 5 for a third day running because of logistical problems.

“British Airways plans to operate 293 out of 347 scheduled flights to and from Heathrow Terminal 5 on Saturday,” the airline said in a statement on its website.

“All long-haul flights from Terminal 5 will operate as planned,” it added.

Hundreds of flights have been cancelled since the 8.7-billion-dollar (5.6-billion-euro) terminal opened on Thursday, delaying passengers and leaving many others without their luggage.

Terminal Five, the size of 50 football pitches, took 15 years to plan and build and is designed to handle 30 million passengers a year.
blog it

29 March 2008

Call for Papers - Sergii Bulgakov Blog Conference, September 2008

At the Land of Unlikeness we could think of no better way to break into Bulgakov’s Sophia thesis than to join forces with the rest of you and throw a Sergei Bulgakov Blog Conference to be held in September later this year. The details are still sketchy, but we already have a few participants and many others are pondering. More participation is welcome, both in the form of a 1500 word contribution or in the form of a response to a post. Please send your contribution ideas to The Land of Unlikeness.

This looks as though it might be similar to a synchroblog, and on an interesting topic.

Call for Papers - Sergii Bulgakov Blog Conference, September 2008 - Updated at The Land of Unlikeness:
In his aptly titled essay, “On the Holy Grail,” Sergei Bulgakov meditates on the meaning of the verse in John where Christ’s side is pierced with a spear and “blood and water flow out.” Bulgakov’s thesis is straightforward: It is not the legendary grail of Western mythos that is interesting or vital, but rather the fact that when Jesus spills his blood upon the earth, the earth is charged and changed and maintains the seeds of its own transfiguration even when Christ dies, descends, and ascends to heaven. Clearly, the church has always maintained that Christ is present in the Eucharist and in the Spirit which he bequeaths, but Bulgakov thinks that the fact that this presence resides also in the earth itself, which is the holy grail, needs to be thought about much more seriously.

Three cheers for Mike Huckabee

With all the hoo-ha about Barack Obama's former pastor's sermon (dredged up from five years ago, for crying in a bucket), one of the most sensible comments comes from rival US presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee on Wright: “I probably would, too.” � Monte Asbury’s Blog:
As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say, “That’s a terrible statement,” I grew up in a very segregated South, and I think that you have to cut some slack. And I’m going to be probably the only conservative in America who’s going to say something like this, but I’m just telling you: We’ve got to cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told, “You have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can’t sit out there with everyone else. There’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Here’s where you sit on the bus.” And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had … more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

‘Xenophobic’ attacks under the spotlight

Terrified immigrants fled to a church orphanage near Atteridgeville when gangs attached foreigners earlier this week, killing two men. After sheltering in the orphanage, they moved to a school, but had no food, and in some cases their shacks had been burnt.

The priest at the orphanage remonstrated with the attackers. He said they were not local people from Atteridgeville, but had come from Limpopo.

The Times - ‘Xenophobic’ attacks under the spotlight:
The SA Human Rights Commission will embark on a fact-finding mission in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, where two foreign nationals were killed in an apparent xenophobic attack, it said yesterday.

Spokesman Vincent Moaga said the commission would visit the Brazzaville informal settlement to day at 10am.

Two Zimbabwean nationals were killed when a mob burnt their shacks in separate incidents at midnight on Monday...

The department said it was in consultation with stakeholders to find a solution to the ongoing attacks.

Now that last sentence is weird... which "department" is that, and who are these "stakeholders"?

28 March 2008

Witchcraft accusations and exorcisms in DRC

BBC News | AFRICA | Congo witch-hunt's child victims:
Congolese children are being accused of witchcraft and made scapegoats for the country's many ills. Jeremy Vine reports from Kinshasa on the gruesome business of exorcism.

The sect - run by a free-thinking Congolese Bible teacher called Prophet Onokoko - has 230 children on its books. All are accused of witchcraft. Many have been thrown out of their family homes. All will have to undergo some kind of ritual exorcism to expunge the evil spirits.

I have a database of African Independent Churches (AICs) and would be interested in more information on this one, and on Prophet Onokoko. Does anyone have any more information on the history of this church, and its theology?

27 March 2008

Lessons from the Iraqi-American War

It seems that no lessons have been learned from the Iraqi-American War, which has dragged on for five years now.

It is said that Hermann Goering complained to the Nuremburg tribunal that they were on trial because they lost the war. And the answer was that they were not on trial because they lost the war, but because they started it.

after five years of war, it seems that no real lesson has been learned. Indeed, there's a refusal to even acknowledge why it was wrong to invade Iraq.

Sure, there's lots of criticism of the Bush administration for poor war planning, and for squandering US lives and "treasure".

All this is true, but it skirts a more fundamental problem — one that was barely mentioned in all the fifth-year anniversary commentaries last week — that the invasion was a war of aggression carried out in defiance of international law.

This is not a mere technicality. According to the Nuremberg Tribunal, set up by the Allies after World War II: "War is essentially an evil thing... To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime."

None of this seems to concern Senator Hillary Clinton, who stands a good chance of being the "anti-war" candidate in the US presidential election.

Of course, Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize an invasion of Iraq.

blog it

And Goering's is the lesson that many US supporters of the Iraqi-American War have failed to learn. They like to talk about "appeasement", but forget that in the 1930s the ones who were being appeased were the aggressors. In the case of the Iraqi-American War the appeasers were people like Tony Blair, who appeased George Bush, and did not stand up to his plans for aggression.

And Hillary Clinton apparently went along with her husband's bombing of Yugoslavia.

25 March 2008

Interpreting Amatomu

Today this blog reappeared on the Amatomu radar for the first time in more than a month -- it was ranked 200, and my other blog, Khanya was ranked 150 -- nice round figures, so I thought it worth remarking on them.

For more than a month now this blog has been ranked somewhere in the 230-240 range, so why did it suddenly shoot up to 200, and reappear in the top 30 in the News and Politics section? Not because there were any more readers, apparently. The number of readers has remained fairly constant for the last few days. So it must be because there was a drop in the number of readers of the other blogs on Amatomu, no doubt caused by the long weekend, and blog readers going away to where there are more interesting things to do than read blogs.

So where have all the blog readers gone?

I somehow can't imagine that most of them have gone to Moria, even though a very large number of South Africans do go there on the Western Easter weekend -- the top bloggers on Amatomu somehow don't seem to be the type. No doubt from today until the end of the week we will be able to read on their blogs what they have done, and this blog can sink back into obscurity again.

The other question raised by this is why the number of readers of this blog, even though it did not rise, apparently did not drop off as much as some other blogs. And perhaps that is answered by the Amatomu stats as well. Nobody seems to have read much that I have posted in the last week, and there haven't been many comments on recent posts. The most popular post, by far, remains one I wrote several months ago, commenting on a list of books to read before you die. It's still top with 232 reads over the last 30 days. The second one, Easter - Christian or pagan, which was posted even longer ago, has shot up, with 111 reads. Perhaps that explains why there hasn't been such a drop off.

The other thing that needs some explanation is why my Khanya blog, which I started a year ago, is more popular than this one -- it is ranked 150 on Amatomu, whereas this one is at 200.

The only reason I can think of is that WordPress blogs are more popular than Blogger blogs. I started the Khanya blog on WordPress at a time when many of the blogs I read were switching from Blogger to WordPress, because of the "new and improved" Blogger, in which many of the features no longer worked, and there seemed to be a mass migration to WordPress as dissatisfaction with the reduced functionality of Blogger increased.

But that doesn't explain why readers seem to prefer WordPress blogs to Blogger ones, and the Amatomu statistics don't give much of a clue about that. They reveal the phenomenon, but they don't explain it.

Any ideas?

Breaking Down Obama's And Clinton's Support By Religion - Poll Tracker

Breaking Down Obama's And Clinton's Support By Religion - Poll Tracker:
Jewish Democratic voters tilt slightly to Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama, leads him by a big margin over Catholic Democrats while Democrats who say they are Protestant divide about evenly, according to a Gallup poll conducted March 1-22. Among Jewish Democrats, Clinton leads Obama 48 percent to 43 percent with 8 percent expressing no opinion. The margin of error is 6 percent. (The New York Times recently did a piece on Obama's efforts to court the Jewish vote). Catholic Democrats favored Clinton 56 percent to 37 percent, with a 2 point margin of error, while Protestants favor Obama 47 percent to 44 percent, with a 2 point margin of error. Democrats with no religious preference favor Obama 54 percent to 40 percent.

They don't, however, say anything about the Orthodox, the Neopagans or the Muslims.

Hat-tip to Mainstream Baptist.

22 March 2008

The martyrdom of the Iraqi Church

Let this be a kind of postscript to the Blogswarm post of the 5th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraqi-American War, to which there is no end in sight.

Did the neocons think about this when they unleashed the dogs of war in Iraq? Do they care?

One ancient Christian Church will have no difficulty identifying with the Passion of Jesus during Holy Week: Iraqi Christians, who – thanks to Muslim persecution and Western indifference – may be forced underground, as they were in the days of the Roman Empire.

Iraqi Christian woman
An Iraqi Christian outside the Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad

Thousands of Iraqis attended the funeral of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose remains were discovered two weeks after his kidnap. A few years ago, the crowds would have been bigger. That is because half of all Iraq’s prewar population of 1.2 million Christians have left the country since the invasion of the country. Did that possibility ever occur to the American neocons? Do they even care?

blog it

Hat-tip to the Western Confucian.

Media spin on the Vatican's sins

I keep getting new confirmation of the thesis that the media just don't "get religion", or perhaps that they are out to "get religion".

There have been numerous reports with moronic headlines like "Recycle or go to hell" about "the Vatican's" or "the Pope's" new "list of seven deadly sins".

Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace: More bad religion reporting for this corrective.

Taki’s Magazine, edited by Taki Theodoracopulos:
To everyone who got exercised about the “Vatican’s” new so-called “list of deadly sins” for the modern age, I have some good news--or bad news, if you’re a jaded secularist looking to pick a fight: The Vatican didn’t publish anything of the kind. In fact, if I might explain a little about how things work here in Rome (just a few blocks away from where I’m sitting now, over at St. Peter’s): “The Vatican” rarely issues anything, other than parking tickets and stamps; that name refers to the government of the micro-state known as Vatican City, created in 1929 by the Treaty of the Lateran, to guarantee the Church’s independence of the Italian State.

And here's the heart of the matter:
The list of new “deadly sins” came from none of these sources. In fact, it was compiled by a journalist, Nicola Gori, who was interviewing a bishop, Gianfranco Girotti, for the quasi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. In the interview, published March 9, the journalist teased out from Bishop Girotti his ideas on how to apply Catholic morality to contemporary questions, such as economics and the environment. Bishop Girotti has some competence to address these issues; as regent of the tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, he is in charge of offering guidance to priests around the world when they hear Catholics’ confessions. But the good bishop has no (and would claim no) authority to update the moral theology of the Church and re-orient it toward social issues, instead of one’s personal moral life. That’s just how the media spun it. It’s as if a prominent rabbi in Israel, in an interview, spoke about a serious moral issue, and the secular media presented it as “Jews Add 11th Commandment.”

But I think John Zmirak underestimates the media's propensity for spin; that's just how they would spin it.

21 March 2008

Celtic spirituality

At various times I have come across and even got involved in discussions about Celtic spirituality and the Celtic Church, topics that seem to be very popular in certain circles.

One of the things that surprised me was the misinformation and disinformation circulating about the topic. People expressed interest in the Celtic Church, but when they came to give reasons for their interest, the reasons were often spurious, and their understanding of the Celtic Church was often completely a-historical.

Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for giving a pointer to this article, which gives a good historical summary: Celtic Spirituality: Just what does it mean? [Thinking Faith - the online journal of the British Jesuits]
But what would St Patrick - arguably the most famous Celtic saint - make of the practices and beliefs called 'Celtic Spirituality' today? Liam Tracey OSM examines whether the Celtic church was really anything like the romantic picture often painted of it.

Tracey says of this phenomenon:
What is so attractive about these long forgotten figures and cultures? Why has there been such a remarkable renaissance in interest in what ultimately is a small windswept island on the Western fringes of Europe? It’s hard to know and one sometimes gets the impression in looking at the phenomenon that is called ‘Celtic Spirituality,’ that what you are encountering is a screen on which is projected many contemporary desires, anxieties and preoccupations, little to do with the past and more especially with the past of these islands. Of course, one of the major problems with many of these treatments of things ‘Celtic’ is the lack of historical awareness that groups all manner of practices and writings together, with little reference to the social, religious and political context of the past and a failure to note that the same thing, seen as ‘Celtic’ was happening right throughout Western Christianity.

Scottish Presbyterians, have, of course, long been interested in Celtic Christianity, and may have been partly responsible for the popularity of the topic, because it was Irish missionaries who first took Christianity to Scotland, and in fact the Scots were originally immigrants to Scotland from Ireland, displacing the native Picts. Calvinists are not usually given to naming churches after saints, but Celtic saints, like St Columba and St Mungo are exceptions, and one sometimes finds Presbyterian churches named for these saints.

Anglo-Catholics, too, have sometimes stressed the role of the Celtic Church in evangelising the heathen Anglo-Saxon invaders, to diminish the idea of the Church of England's dependence on Rome. The Roman mission to Kent, led by St Augustine of Canterbury, cannot be denied, but it was mostly Celtic missionaries who evangelised the northern English.

All this is interesting from the point of view of church history, especially if one lives in the British Isles, or is a member of a Christian denomination that had its origins there. It has even been made the subject of a popular historical novel, Credo by Melvyn Bragg.

But it is also interesting missiologically.

An interesting book to read is The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England by Henry Mayr-Harting (London, Batsford, 1991). ISBN: 0-7134-6589-1. It gives a good example of premodern mission methods, and the differences and similarities between the methods used by Celtic and Roman missionaries. They were far more similar to each other than either were to modern mission.

As with Kievan Rus some centuries later, mission began with royal courts. It was King Oswald, who had just united Deira and Bernicia into the kingdom of Northumbria who asked for a missionary. He had become a Christian before he had become king, while he was living among the Irish. The first missionary proved unsuitable, so Oswald chose another, Aidan, who established a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Though he was bishop of the Northumbrians, he appointed an abbot to rule the monastery to whom he himself, as a monk, was subject. This was a characteristic of Celtic Christianity that has often been distorted in modern telling.

Both the Irish and English societies, like that of Kievan Rus, were warrior and tribal societies, with economies based partly on trade, and partly on conquest and looting. In such a society a "royal mission" can seem almost a contradiction in terms. The kings in such a society were warlords whose authority in the eyes of their followers was based, at least in part, on their success in conquest. After a war raid, the warriors would return with their booty and have a feasts to celebrate. The generosity of kings in giving such feasts for their victorious followers was what cemented the bonds between leader and followers. Today we would call it "organised crime".

Christianity, with its ethic of love and meekness, hardly seemed calculated to appeal to such people. Yet it did appeal, and, once accepted, it transformed the societies into something else. Prince Vladimir of Rus, for example, abolished capital punishment, and though he still gave feasts and banquets, he invited the poor and weak, and not just the strong, the warriors.

The contrast between the royal courts and monasteries was perhaps significant in this. Many of the monks, including the abbots of important monasteries, refused to ride horses, but rode donkeys. Monasticism was thus a counterbalance to royal power. And several kings in that era retired to monasteries in their old age.

Monastic missionaries in the medieval period seemed to use similar methods, from the forests of northern Russia to the British Isles, and south into the mountains of Ethiopia. The monastic missionary was

  • the exorcist, delivering people from the power of evil spirits
  • the angel, living the angelic life, constant in prayer
  • the healer, taking no money
  • the lion tamer, protecting people from dangerous wild animals

And, unlike modern medical missionaries, they did not heal by building clinics; they healed through prayer, fasting, the sign of the cross, holy water, saliva and miracle-working ikons.

I've sometimes wondered what might have happened if the court of King Shaka in Zululand had he had a missionary like St Aidan in Oswald's court, rather than the post-Enlightenment missionaries with their many words and rationalising arguments.

My to-do list

  • 1. Destroy marriage
  • 2. Destabilise family life
  • 3. Flush civilization down the drain
That is what my to-do list must look like, if this blog is to be believed:

Contact Online Weblog: How the decline of marriage is destroying our pupils:
Do we realise that the liberal agenda is destroying our children and probably our civilisation is going down the drain too....faster than we think - in South Africa as well.
And it goes on to quote an article that says

The decline of marriage is leading to widespread underachievement and indiscipline in schools, teachers warned yesterday.

Children with "chaotic" home lives turn up at school too troubled to learn, wrecking their prospects of success in exams, they said.

Growing numbers are being brought up in splintered families by mothers with children by different fathers, leading to behaviour and mental health problems including eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, a teachers’ conference heard.

Since I am a liberal, and those are the items on "the liberal agenda", they must be high on my to-do list too.

Now with all due respect to my blogging friend who wrote that (and he is a friend), terms like "the liberal agenda" used like that do not facilitate communication, but impede it.

The use of the definite article -- "the" liberal agenda -- imply that those items are high on the list of priorities of every single liberal in the world. All liberals everywhere are out to destroy marriage, families and civilization.

Well, I know Mr Vorster believed that, but as Jonty Driver, a South African student leader, said when Mr Vorster called him a "leftist", "It is no shame to be called a leftist by such a prominent rightist".

It was Mr Vorster's National Party government, with its conservative right-wing agenda, that deliberately set out to destroy family life through influx control and the migratory labour system. And it was a prominent South African Liberal, Alan Paton, (who was national president of the Liberal Party, so if anyone's agenda was liberal, it was his) who ran a school for juvenile delinquents and was fully aware of the effects of the destruction of family life in hindering children's learning.

I am heartily sick of the calumniation of liberals and liberalism in this fashion, by such vicious lies and innuendoes.

19 March 2008

Iraq, Five years later

The Iraqi-American War started five years ago today, and the end is not in sight.

It seemed that nothing could be more unnecessary and insane than Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, until George Bush II trumped it by invading Iraq. Truly the world seems to be run by lunatics. Just about every reason or excuse George Bush gave for invading has proved to be false. There were no weapons of mass destruction.

American apologists for Bush's insane behaviour like to say that the Iraqis are better-off than they were under Saddam Hussein. But how much better off are they?

Analysis: Iraq, Five years later, a hidden crisis: Report of the IRC Commission on Iraqi Refugees, Field Reports: Iraq, Five years later, a hidden crisis: Report of the IRC Commission on Iraqi Refugees:
The war that was launched in Iraq five years ago has produced one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time. Yet this crisis is largely hidden from the public and ignored by the international community. More than four million Iraqis of different religions, ethnicities and backgrounds are estimated to be uprooted by horrific violence and death and are in dire need of help. About half have fled to Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.

Because they are not huddled together in a camp or traveling as a group across a windswept plain, these refugees are not receiving the attention and help they deserve from the international community. Much of the reporting about them has been wrong, perpetuating myths that they are wealthy or that the crisis is over and that many are returning to their homes in Iraq. The solutions put forward by major donors have been wholly inadequate. Meanwhile, many of the refugees have been severely traumatized and now lead desperate lives in foreign cities such as Damascus, Amman, Cairo and Beirut.
There is one other thing that the invasion seems likely to achieve, though -- the eradication of Christianity from large parts of the Middle East. It survived Zoroastrianism, it survived under Islam, it survived under Saddam Hussein, but will George Bush finally finish it off? Perhaps that will be George Bush's legacy, and what he will be remembered for in time to come.

This posting is part of a Blogswarm on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war.

Frank Schaeffer: Obama's Minister Committed "Treason" But When My Father Said the Same Thing He Was a Republican Hero - Politics on The Huffington Pos

US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has been attacked because the minister of his church criticised the US government and society, as if it was some heinous crime. Here Frank Schaeffer, the son of prominent US evangelical teacher Francis Schaeffer, points out the illogicality and inconsistency of such accusations.

Frank Schaeffer: Obama's Minister Committed "Treason" But When My Father Said the Same Thing He Was a Republican Hero - Politics on The Huffington Post:
When Senator Obama's preacher thundered about racism and injustice Obama suffered smear-by-association. But when my late father -- Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer -- denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr.

Every Sunday thousands of right wing white preachers (following in my father's footsteps) rail against America's sins from tens of thousands of pulpits. They tell us that America is complicit in the 'murder of the unborn,' has become 'Sodom' by coddling gays, and that our public schools are sinful places full of evolutionists and sex educators hell-bent on corrupting children. They say, as my dad often did, that we are, 'under the judgment of God.' They call America evil and warn of immanent destruction. By comparison Obama's minister's shouted 'controversial' comments were mild. All he said was that God should damn America for our racism and violence and that no one had ever used the N-word about Hillary Clinton.

17 March 2008

Peace is kosher and halaal -- but is it nistisimou?

The Times - Peace is kosher and halaal:
"Muslim and Jewish students got together yesterday to cook up a storm at the University of Johannesburg.

The Centre for Islamic Studies and the SA Union of Jewish Students joined forces to promote peace by cooking a meal together.

Caylee Talpert, chairman of the Jewish organisation, said: “This event is meant to mend bridges and to make us all realise that we are all the same. This will ensure that we develop friendships based on knowing each other.”

The cafeteria kitchen at the university was filled with eager students in aprons and chef’s hats.

While I'm pretty certain some Lenten fare (nistisimou) is decidedly not kosher, like shellfish, the vegan style of Lenten fasting food is probably both kosher and halaal as well.

And while some food products are marked Kosher, and some are marked Halaal, I've never seen any marked as Nistisimou. I've been to conferences and meetings where Kosher and Halaal food has been offered and served, but never Lenten fare.

Even in Greese, I've found it difficult to find fasting food. The exception, ironically enough, was MacDonalds, which offered a "McLent" special (MacSarakosti): a veggie burger or six spring rolls. One hopes that the chips weren't flavoured with beef (a Hindu sued them in the USA over that), and that the potatoes weren't genetically modified with genes derived from rat fat.

15 March 2008

The world's 50 most powerful blogs | Technology | The Observer

When I see this list of the most influential blogs in the world and realise that I've not read any of them, I know how far out of touch I am with popular culture.

Of course I've always thought being countercultural was better, but being countercultural when you don't even know the culture you're being counter to is rather difficult. So over the next fortnight or so, time and Telkom bandwidth caps permitting, I hope to go through this list and fill in the gaps in my education.

The world's 50 most powerful blogs | Technology | The Observer
From Prince Harry in Afghanistan to Tom Cruise ranting about Scientology and footage from the Burmese uprising, blogging has never been bigger. It can help elect presidents and take down attorney generals while simultaneously celebrating the minutiae of our everyday obsessions. Here are the 50 best reasons to log on

Brit teachers teachers told to rewrite history of Iraqi-American War

In a week in which it is estimated that the number of civilian casualties in the Iraqi-American War has passed 1 million...

Iraq: teachers told to rewrite history - Education News, Education - Independent.co.uk
Britain's biggest teachers' union has accused the Ministry of Defence of breaking the law over a lesson plan drawn up to teach pupils about the Iraq war. The National Union of Teachers claims it breaches the 1996 Education Act, which aims to ensure all political issues are treated in a balanced way.

Teachers will threaten to boycott military involvement in schools at the union's annual conference next weekend, claiming the lesson plan is a 'propaganda' exercise and makes no mention of any civilian casualties as a result of the war.
... and a week after military personnel at a base near Peterborough were advised not to wear their uniforms when going to town, because of the hostility of the general populace to the war. The media were presenting this as something bad because military personnel should be proud of their uniforms, but everything that has happened over the last few years suggests that they should be ashamed of wearing them, and this report reinforces that impression.

14 March 2008

The Times - Muti-killing arrests imminent

The Times - Muti-killing arrests imminent:
Police are on the verge of arresting two traditional healers who bought the body parts of seven of the 17 women murdered in the Eastern Cape.

Police spokesman Superintendent Mike Fatyela said yesterday that the police would arrest two suspects before the end of the week and charge them with conspiracy to murder and with dealing in human flesh.

The two traditional healers’ “order” for women’s genitals is thought to have prompted a killing spree in Mzamba village, Bizana, that resulted in 18 people being murdered in the past five months.

A 24-year-old man appeared yesterday in the Bizana Magistrate’s Court to answer to three charges of murder, one of rape and one of attempted murder.

In a case like this, "traditional healers" seems to be a misnomer. It would be more accurate to call them sorcerers, or even witches, because the muti is probably used to make someone's business prosper, or to harm a rival's business. Healing has nothing to do with it.

But 18 murders in five months in a single village is quite mind-boggling.

Kansas Woman Cut Free After Two Years On The Toilet |Sky News|World News

Kansas Woman Cut Free After Two Years On The Toilet |Sky News|World News:
Police are investigating whether a woman who reportedly sat on her boyfriend's toilet for two years was mistreated.

The 35-year-old stayed on the lavatory in Ness City, Kansas, so long that her skin had grown round the seat by the time her partner finally called police.

Hat-tip to Juliet Pain.

13 March 2008

Seven deadly sins?

This is the 500th post in this blog, and deals with the magnificent seven -- deadly sins, that is.

The media have made much of a so-called "new list of seven deadly sins" supposedly issued by the Vatican.

Bishop Alan’s Blog: Return of the Magnificent Seven:
Thanks to the Wonderful Jessica Hagy, (h/t Maggi Dawn), everything you always wanted to know about those deadly sins that have been in the news recently.

The diagram also demonstrates the distinction between “sins” as things inside which drive us to do wrong things and the symptoms, which surely aren’t, any of them, “sins”.

Most of the media reports of these "new seven deadly sins" have been rather facetious and flippant. One has to go halfway down the page of some of the reports to discover that

No official list of new sins has been issued by the Vatican, though the Bloomberg wire service reduced Girotti's interview to a catalogue of 'Seven Social Sins': birth control, stem cell research, drug abuse, polluting, helping widen the gap between rich and poor, excessive wealth and creating poverty.

In fact, these are all issues the church has struggled with for years while trying to apply ancient teachings to modern ethical dilemmas.

(TheStar.com | Religion | Thou shalt not pollute or clone).
There's a web site devoted to the premiss that "The press... just doesn't get religion", and they have published an analysis of some of the reporting on The Seven Sensationalist Sins. As in the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks on Sharia, the standard of reporting has been abysmal, and it's interesting that the chief culprits appear to be The Times and the BBC, which have in the past been held up as models of good reporting. How have the mighty fallen!

After reading some of these reports, I think that the problem is not that the press "doesn't ... get religion". I think rather that the media, the Western media in particular, are actually out to get religion.

This story gets a little bit too close to home. Western values promote a culture of entitlement -- "You deserve it!" say so many ads. After all you worked hard for it, or perhaps you didn't, but you deserve it anyway. Who cares if your luxury creates poverty for others? Creating poverty is cool, as long as it makes you rich, therefore those who, like the church, say it isn't cool must be mocked and ridiculed.

But now it is Great Lent, and it's not really time to dwell on the sins of the media. If we didn't ourselves believe so many of their lies, they wouldn't be able to peddle them so easily.

The so-called Seven Deadly Sins are actually not so much sins, nor, as Bishop Alan suggested, are they symptoms. Rather they are passions, and the sins are the behaviours that spring from them, including contributing to pollution and poverty. Even if the media regard it as ridiculous that we should examine our behaviour and see how much of it is driven by the passions, we should do so anyway.

Orthodox Christians pray the prayer of St Ephraim a lot during Lent:

O Lord and Master of my life
take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, untio ages of ages. Amen.

12 March 2008

Treasures old and new -- synchroblog on new monasticism

I've written quite a bit about "new monasticism" over the last few years, and thought that for this synchroblog I would write about it as the history of an idea, in the sense of my personal experience of the idea.

One could write a history of the idea in general, but that would need a book, perhaps of several volumes, rather than a blog post. So I'll concentrate on the idea of the new monasticism as I've encountered it, through reading, or discussion or trying to live it, or observing other people trying to live it.

The "new monasticism" of the title has gone under several names at various times, and "new monasticism" is probably the least useful, though it does seem to be the one most commonly used right now. Others I've heard are: Christian communities, Christian communes, intentional communities, semi-monastic communities, and there are several more.

What is common to all these is the idea of Christians living in a community wider than the family, often with a particular purpose of mission or ministry.

When I was a university student in 1964, two things got me thinking about such communities. One was getting the Catholic Worker newspaper, which had news of communities associated with the Catholic Worker movement. Another was attending an Anglican lay conference.

I was then an Anglican, and the Anglican Bishop of Natal invited people to attend an annual lay conference, held at a church school during the holidays. The conference was by invitation only, and a person was only ever invited to attend once. I had attended student conferences that ran on a similar format, but this was different. There were people of all ages, social classes and races there; not just students, but workers, teachers, housewives and others. For a few days we followed the rhythm of a community life, sleeping in school dormitories, having meals together, worshipping together. That was not unusual, but some of us began talking about the possibility of doing something like that for a longer period, of having a core community at a place where one could have courses in things like Christian non-violent action, similar to the Catholic worker communities.

It was just a dream or a vision, but it wouldn't go away, and I kept on thinking about it. The following year I visited the Charles Johnson Memotial Hospital at Nqutu in Zululand with some friends. It was an Anglican mission hospital, and the medical superintendent, Dr Anthony Barker, showed us round. Most of the staff lived as a community, not only working, but eating and praying together as well. We were impressed. It felt like a place that would almost be nice to be sick in. There was a community dedicated to a Christian healing ministry. A few years later it was nationalised by the government, and was bureacratised and institutionised, but in the 1960s and early 1970s it was a beacon of hope because of the Christian community at its core.

A few years later an opportunity came to put the vision into practice, and I was myself part of such an experiment in Christian communal living in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We called ourselves the Community of St Simon the Zealot, in Windhoek, Namibia.

Dr Anthony Barker was an indirect influence on this. He spoke at student conferences, and suggested that students, after they graduated, and before going on to make their fortunes, should spend a year or two using their skills to improve the lot of the poor by working in such places as church hospitals. A friend of mine, Dave de Beer, did just that. After graduating with his Bachelor of Commerce degree he went to St Mary's Hospital at Odibo on the Namibia/Angola border as hospital secretary, getting the finances of the hospital in order. He was only there a week when the government withdrew his permit and kicked him out. He stopped in Windhoek on his way home to say goodbye to the bishop, but the bishop urged him to stay, saying that the diocese needed some help with its finances too. Dave stayed.

Over the next couple of months he became aware of the mission opportunities in a town like Windhoek, and wrote a short paper on it, The city: a mission field, in which he outlined a vision of a missional community, living together, with some working in secular jobs, and others in full-time mission service. Some would form a permanent community, but others could join them for a short time. He sent this to several friends for comment. A few months later, having been fired by the Anglican bishop of Natal, I went to join him, and we started the Community of St Simon the Zealot.

The local Anglican bishop, Colin Winter, was quite supportive to start with, and made a house available. We opened a joint building society account in the name of the Community, which we would use for living expenses. Dave worked in the diocesan office, I got a job with the department of water affairs, and after being fired from that, with the local newspaper. In the evenings and at weekends we would lead Bible study groups, services in road workers or mining camps, teach catechism classes and so on. Some students from South Africa came to join us for the summer vac. One had a vac job, and so contributed to the common fund. Two others didn't have jobs, but helped with cleaning the house and cooking.

But a problem arose. Dave and I saw it as important that we should have daily prayers in the community. As it was an Anglican community we thought we should be doing Anglican morning and evening prayer together at the house. But the bishop wanted and expected us to attend services at the cathedral, a couple of miles away. He saw Dave and me as members of his staff, and regarded our desire to pray together as a community as "divisive" and even elitist. We thought that common prayer was essential to the life of a Christian community. The result was that Dave and I went to services at the cathedral, while the rest of the people in the house stayed in bed. It became more like a common lodging house than a community. Our community worship was reduced to agape meals that we held about once a fortnight, usually with a number of people invited from outside as well.

I won't go into the full history of the Community of St Simon the Zealot here, but just mention that as one of the main problems, and we were not the only ones to discover it. In other circumstances too I have discovered that bishops do not understand the needs of communities or monasteries, and the relationship between a community, whether a monastery or some other form of intentional community, and the local church, whether diocese or parish, needs to be carefully worked out.

Among other things we published (together with friends in other places) a magazine called Ikon, and a newsletter, The Pink Press (it was printed on pink duplicating paper). These we exchanged with other publications worldwide through The Cosmic Circuit, which had about 60 participating publications, described as "underground, upground and overground". It was an amazing mixture of what today would be called 'zines, small-press publications usually dedicated to some or other vision of an alternative society. Among them was Communes, published by a neopagan community in Wales, but with news of all kinds of experiments in communal living, religious and secular.

The Community of St Simon the Zealot came to an end in 1972 when Dave de Beer and I were deported from Namibia (along with Bishop Colin Winter and another member of the community, Toni Halberstadt).

A couple of years later I came across the Children of God when I was in Durban North, in the Anglican parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields. They lived in communes which they called "colonies", spread all over the world. They arose from the Jesus freaks of the 1960s, and were led by Dave Berg, who called himself Moses David, or just Mo.

They were fairly typical of the Jesus freaks of the early 1970s. I first encountered them when walking down a street in central Durban, where one of them handed me a copy of their publication New Nation News. He said they were living in a commune in Durban North, not far from where I lived, and so a couple of weeks later I went with a friend to see them there. There were six of them, a married couple with a baby, and four singles. Three were from the USA, the other three South Africans. One of the US ones, Shemaiah, had been at the University of California at Berkeley, where the Jesus freak movement started. They all took biblical names. They were certainly a missional community, and spent their whole time witnessing, out in the streets or on the beach, distributing literature and talking to people. They said time was precious, and though there were lots of good things one could do with one's time, like reading the Bible, witnessing was the best use of time. They lived on donations they received.

We stayed for a meal with them, and they told us more about their life. They gave us lists of Bible verses that they memorised (from the King James version). New Nation News was a monthly publication, and they published a local version, but much of the material was common to all the "Colonies" around the world. They lived on money that was given to them as they went around witnessing. They pooled it, and used it for rent, food, clothes etc. They showed us their handbook, which was not public, but something they just used among themselves, called Revolution for Jesus -- how to DO it. It was exactly the kind of thing I had dreamed of doing at the lay conference ten years previously. In addition to the public literature there were also "Mo letters" from the founder, mostly addressed to the members of the "colonies". The members we met referred enthusiastically to the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon on the life of Francis of Assissi, which they said was what they were trying to achieve.

At the first encounter the Children of God seemed an almost idyllic community. They seemed to have achieved what we had failed to achieve in Namibia. We invited them to speak to our youth groups and Sunday School classes at St Martin's.

But among them too things began to go wrong. Moses David became increasingly authoritarian and erratic, and as time went on, his "Mo letters" of instructions became stranger and stranger. Eventually he came up with the idea of using kinky sex to proselytise (one can hardly call it evangelism). Members of the "colonies" of the Children of God were urged to become "hookers for Jesus" and engage in what they called "flirty fishing". But before they had reached that stage, we had moved from Durban North to Utrecht, and lost touch with them.

There were many hippie communes in that period (the late 1960s and early 1970s). Some, like the Durban colonly of the Children of God, were Christian. Others were secular, others New Age, others Neopagan. Some were Hindu in inspiration, modelled on ashrams in India. The Christian ones were very much like the communities called "new monastic" communities today.

It was also the heyday of the charismatic renewal movement, in which many manifestations of the Holy Spirit that had hitherto been more or less confined to Pentecostals began appearing in non-Pentecostal churches. This movement also gave rise to "intentional communities" of various kinds. One of the better-known ones, through their publications, was the Word of God community in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

There is an indirect Orthodox connection to these in a book written by Michael Harper, describing some of these communities. His book A new way of living is about communities that developed in an Episcopal (Anglican) parish in Texas, USA, though it appears that these communities no longer exist. Michael Harper is now an Orthodox priest in Britain, though he was not Orthodox at the time he wrote the book. The Church of the Redeemer in Houston was typical of many downtown parishes where people had moved away from the neighbourhood of the church to outlying suburbs, but continued to worship there. Poorer people moved into the neighbourhood, but the church was not reaching them. Then when the parish was affected by the charismatic renewal, people started buying houses near the church and moving back into the neighbourhood, living in intentional communities, and having an outreach to their neighbours.

It seems that charismatic intentional communities in Western churches also flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, but then died out. Does all the talk of a "new monasticism" indicate a revival of interest -- or is this just old hippie nostalgia?

A related idea was that of the missiologist Ralph Winter, who spoke of two redemptive structures: the local church and the missionary band, which he called "modality" and "sodality". Bearing in mind that for 1000 years, from about 500-1500 most Christian mission had been monastic, Winter suggested that the missionary band required a special commitment over and above the local church. When Protestants abandoned monasticism in the 16th century, they did virtually no mission, and it was only with the formation of missionary societies in the 18th century that Protestants became active in mission. The missionary societies had a degree of intentionality not found in the local church.

In addition to monks, in the Roman Catholic Church missionary orders developed. Monks devoted themselves primarily to prayer, but the missionary orders were formed for the purpose of mission. When the religious life revived among Anglicans in the 19th century, many of their religious orders too were intentionally devoted to mission. The Kelham fathers even called themselves the Society of the Sacred Mission, incorporating "mission" into their name.

In the Orthodox Church there is no equivalent of the "orders" that one finds in the Roman Catholic Church, or even among the Anglicans, with several monasteries or religious houses grouped together under a common rule and name. Each monastery is more or less independent, with its own abbot (hegumen). A monasetry may start daughter monasteries, but eventually these will become independent. But there are also Brotherhoods that gather people from different places for a particular task, and the tasks of these brotherhoods may include mission. They are not monastic, but they do reflect Ralph Winter's "sodality" structure.

The Orthodox brotherhoods and Protestant missionary societies do not necessarily have the feature of communal living that one finds in the Christian communes or "new monasticism", but they do share the characteristic of intentionality. People decide to join them to identify with their purposes. Community living takes the idea one stage further.

My own view is that whether one calls this urban monasticism or new monasticism or anything else, at least in the Orthodox world it needs a solid foundation in traditional Orthodox monasticism.

Would someone like Moses David have gone off the rails (and derailed the entire "Children of God" movement) if he had had an Orthodox spiritual father from a traditional monastery? The trouble was that he was trying to be "spiritual father" to hundreds of "colonies" of the Children of God thoughout the world, but he had no spiritual father of his own. In Orthodox monasticism spiritual fathers (and mothers) are not on their own. There have been some charismatic intentional communities, including some in South Africa, where the leaders have become quite abusive. Dave Berg is by no means the only one.

Eventually people in the charismatic renewal movement realised that something was missing. Some of them gave a name to it; they called it "covering", or "discipleship". But who was to cover the coverers, or disciple the disciplers? The maverick authoritarian leaders didn't take too kindly to coming under authority themselves, and I suspect that that played a role in the "charismatic burn-out" of the 1980s.

But the answer has been there all along in traditional Orthodox monasticism. And some Protestants discovered this answer. Fr Jack Sparks, editor of Right on, one of the Christian underground magazines of the 1970s, published by the Christian World Liberation Front, came to Orthodoxy. Not that Orthodox monasticism is idyllic either -- Fr Ephrem, a monk of Simopetra monastery on the Holy Mountain, said that more people go to hell from monasteries than from anywhere else. But at least Orthodox monasticism is aware of the dangers, and has had over a thousand years of experience, and teaches about the dangers of losing one's nipsis (watchfulness).

So I think a new monasticism or an urban monasticism might be a good idea, but it needs to be backed by traditional monasticism is it is to develop in a healthy way.


This post is part of a synchroblog on the new monasticism.

Here are the other contributions to this month's synchroblog:

Phil Wyman at Square No More: SynchroBlog on Neo-Monasticism
Beth at Until Translucent
Adam Gonnerman at Igneous Quill
Jonathan Brink at JonathanBrink.com
Sally Coleman at Eternal Echoes
Bryan Riley at at Charis Shalom
Cobus van Wyngaard at My Contemplations
Mike Bursell at Mike's Musings
David Fisher at Cosmic Collisions
Alan Knox at The Assembling of the Church
Sam Norton at Elizaphanian
Erin Word at Decompressing Faith
Sonja Andrews at Calacirian

To see what others are saying or have said about the new monasticism, click on the Technorati tag here: .

11 March 2008

Circumcision and Aids

clipped from www.thetimes.co.za
Circumcision is a cultural practice and should not be used as a preventative measure in the fight against HIV-Aids, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said yesterday.

It had therefore sought to discuss the matter with traditional leaders to “inform and enlighten all concerned”.

Tshabalala-Msimang told traditional leaders and healers that cultural practices should not be used for “purposes other than those for which they were meant for at the beginning”, her department said in a statement.

“She also called on all role-players to guard against sending confusing messages that would encourage people to get circumcised with the hope of not getting HIV infected,” it said.

The minister again called on traditional leaders to “assert their role” in the fight against HIV-Aids.

blog it
The Minister's ideas on what should and should not be used in the fight against HIV/Aids have been pretty weird in the past. Circumcision has been practiced for various reasons, and male circumcision has often been practised because it was believed to be "healthy", though this is in itself a cultural belief.

One of the problems with using it in the fight against HIV/Aids is that it is believed to reduce the incidence of male infection, though does nothing to reduce the spread of infection from infected males. Thus circumcision could in fact encourage male promiscuity (because males think they are "safe") and do nothing to stop the general spread.

10 March 2008

Facebook works!

A couple of weeks ago I got exasperated when those silly jiggling advertisements saying "You are the 999 999 visitor. This is no joke" invaded Facebook as well.

Some months ago I blogged about it here: Notes from underground: You are the 999999th 999999th visitor, but that had little effect

I'd seen them on Technorati, on Photobucket, and on several other places in the web. But seeing them on Facebook was too much.

I started a Facebook group called You are the 999999th 999999th visitor -- this is not a joke!, which gathered 5 members. It pointed out that such ads were an insult to the intelligence of anyone who read them. The moment you saw any of them twice, you'd have to be very stupid indeed not to realise that it was untrue, and if it wasn't a joke it was a very stupid lie.

Guess what -- within two days, the ads had stopped.

Well, they'd stopped saying "You are the 999999th visitor" or "Your are the 10000th visitor". They used other more plausible numbers.

I still don't click on them, though, because I still find it annoying that they jiggle.

But I'm impressed by the power of public opinion -- all five of us. You know who you are. See, Barack Obama is right - Yes we can!

Bush vetoes anti-torture bill

BBC NEWS | Americas | Bush vetoes interrogation limits:
US President George Bush says he has vetoed legislation that would stop the CIA using interrogation methods such as simulated drowning or 'water-boarding'.

He said he rejected the intelligence bill, passed by Senate and Congress, as it took 'away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror'.

Need one say more?

Well, I could add this: Red Star Coven: Death to America

08 March 2008

The Gaza bombshell

The hypocrisy of the USA is astounding. It recognises the "independence" of Kosovo led by the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army), yet encourages boycotts of Hamas-led Gaza. It complains about genocide in Darfur, yet stands idly by while Israel rains cluster bombs on the children of Lebanon.
clipped from www.vanityfair.com
After failing to anticipate Hamas’s victory over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. With confidential documents, corroborated by outraged former and current U.S. officials, David Rose reveals how President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.
The United States has been involved in the affairs of the Palestinian territories since the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel captured Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan. With the 1993 Oslo accords, the territories acquired limited autonomy, under a president, who has executive powers, and an elected parliament. Israel retains a large military presence in the West Bank, but it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

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In the mean time
Earlier this week, American peace group Jewish Voice for Peace expressed outrage at the terrible loss of life in the latest escalation of violence in the Middle East in Gaza and Sderot. We also called for an immediate joint ceasefire, and an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza, which has barred food, medical supplies and fuel from an already desperately poor and malnourished 1.5 million Palestinians.
Today, we mourn the loss of 8 students at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Jewish Voice for Peace believes the loss of just one person is one life too many. There is no difference in the immeasurable heartache felt by the parents of dozens of children killed in Gaza last week, or the parents of the 8 students killed yesterday in Jerusalem. All killings must stop.

07 March 2008

Evangelising atheism: Philip Pullman

One of the things I noted when reading Philip Pullman's His dark materials was that though he accused C.S. Lewis of being preachy, he was in fact far more preachy himself, especially in the third book of the series, The amber spyglass.

When I mentioned this in discussion forums, several people said that that was just my Christian prejudice. So I was interested to find a review from someone more sympathetic to Pullman's worldview saying the same thing. Reason Magazine - A Secular Fantasy
While Pullman has said that he is interested in “telling a story, not preaching a sermon,” he slides more and more frequently into preaching as the story goes on. Some of his favorite ideas—for instance, that the human body with its senses is far superior to the fleshless spirit of the angels, or that the best afterlife is to become one with nature—are stated again and again and again and again. The idea that the transition from childhood innocence to adult experience should be welcomed, not feared, is illustrated by a heavy-handed plot twist in which Lyra and Will’s sexual awakening proves to be the key to the world’s salvation. When ideology and literature collide, literature suffers. The Amber Spyglass is not quite on a par with the first two novels: Its new characters and worlds are generally less interesting, far too much space is given to sententious musings about the meaning of life in a post-God world, and eventually you start to feel that Pullman is trying to cram too many messages into his narrative, even if that means unnecessarily dragging it out.

I recently reread the books, after seeing the film The Golden Compass, which is based on the first book of the trilogy, Northern Lights. I enjoyed it more on the second reading, but the preachiness was still there. So too was what seemed to me the biggest weakness in the whole plot -- that Pullman, after making clear that he rejects the ideas of Christian asceticism, has his protagonists end up adopting something very similar. They end up like Abelard and Heloise, or Leon Bloy and his love.

On the notion that adult experience should be welcomed, not feared, however, it seems to me that Pullman's message is ambiguous. I recently read Lisa Chaney's biography of J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. Barrie had a horror of children growing up, yet recognised that Peter Pan was somehow inhuman, because he was deprived of so much of human experience. But in His dark materials there is something similar. Pullman's protagonists go on to live rather dull adult lives, forever separated from each other, and can look back on their childhood as a time of joy, excitement, adventure and love. Growing up doesn't seem to have all that much going for it.

Creeping nihilism

One day at work some years ago there was a reorganisation in our department, and one person Nadia (not her real name) was designated as the "HR person".

Some time later there was a quarrel between two co-workers that was disrupting the work of the department and it was being discussed at an executive meeting. I suggested that Nadia should deal with it, since "she is, after all, the Human Relations person."

Everyone looked at me as if I was mad, and the head of department asked me what I meant. I said she had been designated as the "HR" person, which I had taken to mean "Human Relations". Everyone else said, Oh, no, HR means "human resources".

I then remembered seeing an advertisement in the Sunday Times a few years before, for the post of "Human Resources Manager", and I'd even written something about it at the time -- that the spirit of capitalist exploitation was entering our language to indoctrinate us. The Nationalist government had been doing it for years in their apartheid policy, of course, trying to dehumanise black workers and job-seekers by referring to them as "labour units", who could be sent back to the homelands when they were surplus to requirements.

I was quite shocked to discover that such language had crept into a university, and had become so natural and familiar that everyone referred to it by an abbreviation, apparently known to everyone except me. Such dehumanising language seemed to be the very antithesis of the much-vaunted ubuntu, which was supposed be the philosophy of the new South Africa.

I was reminded of this this morning by a discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup about the "harvesting" of human organs for transplanting. That too seems crassly insensitive and exploitative.

In that case it is not just me, but several people seem to find it so. One found the term "extremely distasteful". Another said, "Sounds like you're going at the body with a scythe, an unfortunate image. Or a grain harvester, even worse, perhaps."

Another said:
It also sounds as if the donor was cultivated for the purpose, which isn't impossible in these days.

At any rate, I wouldn't support required organ donations. There is a big crew of workers who make a great deal of money transplanting organs. Why should any random individual be required to donate free organs to support this business? If it's a question of requiring donations based on the need of the potential recipient, then shouldn't the crew of workers be required to donate their efforts free of charge when the recipient doesn't have insurance coverage?

There was some discussion of alternative words, though most thought they wouldn't pass the public relations test: "salvage" and "cannibalise", for example. Cannibalise is used analogously in the motor trade, when one cannibalises a scrap vehicle for spare parts to use on one that it still running.

The last word in that discussion so far is: "To me, the word is disrespectful towards the Grim Reaper."

But these are just two instances of dehumanising language, words and phrases that become common currency. We may talk all we like about the spirit of ubuntu, but the very structure of our language is driving it out. Creeping nihilism, I call it.

06 March 2008

On the futility of arguing with atheists

Elizaphanian has been posting a series on atheism, and reading the comments on one of his posts has convinced me more strongly than ever of the futility of arguing with atheists.

An agnostic friend of mine came to the same conclusion, and I blogged about it in Militant atheism goes West. Since he puts the case much more convincingly than I can, I won't repeat his arguments here.

But one thing I will repeat. A blogging friend wrote in his LiveJournal about the new brand of atheist TV evangelists. He has now deleted his LiveJournal, so links to it will no longer work, and I hope he won't mind if I reproduce his post on That fool Dawkins
Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.

There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.

So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..

Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss.

Obama versus Clinton

Hat-tip to Thormonger, over on LiveJournal, for this one -- you might need to go and look at it there to see it properly.

05 March 2008

Women march for mutilation

clipped from www.thetimes.co.za

Some 800 women in the Sierra Leone town of Kailahun have paraded in favour of genital mutilation and told donors opposed to the practice to keep their money, demonstrators and witnesses said.

Women wearing colourful beads and adorned with seashells chanted songs in the local dialect that warned authorities and foreign organisations against "any attempt to take away our traditional ritual."

The United Nations World Health Organisation says FGM - the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and related injury - is recorded in 28 African nations and opposes the practice on medical grounds.

blog it

This has some interesting missiological implications.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Western missionaries to Africa and Asia were sometimes accused of attacking and destroying the cultures of people they came in contact with. Some of these cultures had customs of bodily mutilation, which the missionaries thought were cruel and inhumane.

In China Christian missionaries started the Natural Foot Society, to discourage the custom of binding the feet of young girls to make them grow up with smaller feet. In Kenya they discouraged the practice of female circumcision. There are various bodily mutilations where various parts of the body are altered. Bits are cut off genitals or fingers. Teeth are knocked out, ears or nostrils pierced, necks are lengthened, cheeks are cut, lips are made to protrude.

Nowadays it is no longer only the province of Christian missionaries to object to such things. Even secular Westerners do so, and this leads to the suspicion that there is a link between such interventions and cultural imperialism.

In Kenya Protestant schools, in particular, demanded that teachers take an oath against female circumcision. The Kikuyu people saw this as part of a general colonialist attack on their culture, closely linked with dispossessing them of their land. Some broke away from the Protestants and became Orthodox.

And even when it is secular groups and NGOs that object, there is a whiff of cultural imperialism. Africans must make their behaviour conform to Western norms, even when Western norms are changing, as can be seen in the continuing disintegration of the Anglican Communion. And whether the Western norms relate to female circumcision or structural adjustment programmes motivated by neoliberalism, the underlying assumption is that the West knows best.

Western values may change over time, but even when they change, Africans had better get in step. And in some of these issues it seems that the Western value, unstated but implied, is that the human right that takes precedence over all others is the inalienable right to an orgasm.

To some extent, I can sympathise. I remember the absolute horror I felt when I first learnt of female circumcision, and what it entailed. It was more than 50 years ago, when as a schoolboy I was reading the book Blanket boy's moon. A friend had told me it was like Cry the beloved country, only it would make one feel even more revulsion against the system, and then I read this:
The first night of the (circumcision) school is known as the Marallo, the secret night. This night is spent outside the village in the dongas, where ritual dances are taught and new code names are given to the girls -- so that they can afterwards challenge the claim of any woman who states that she is circumcised.

At Marallo, too, the Khokhobisa-tsoene, or "Hiding-of-the-monkey" is encompassed. The girls are cut with a blade in their outer sexual organs, and a flap of flesh is drawn down to cover that mischievous "monkey" which can be the source of much pleasure to uncircumcised girls. The performance of this rite tends to encourage chastity among the women, for a circumcised girl can know little of the joys and passions of physical love. During this ceremony when the blood flowes from the wounded flesh, black magic medicine is rubbed in as a protection against bewitchment.

It can perhaps be said that the circumcision of women not only denies the girl great pleasure and joy in the sexual act, buit must in consequence lessen the happiness and exaltation of the man, and thus shut out any upliftment of the spirit -- lying with a woman, then, becomes a selfish rather than a mutual pleasure. Here in the very homeland, in this circumcision of women, lie the seeds of the physical love of man for man, which is brought to flower in the living conditions imposed on African mine workers by the white man.

As a schoolboy I was shocked and horrified at the thought that people could treat others like that. It seemed unbelievably cruel. Reading the book made me feel revulsion against capital punishment, but the revusion I felt against female circumcision was far stronger, perhaps because it was the first time I had heard of it.

But now I've thought about it a bit more, and I remember that the countries that protest most strongly against such practices hardly protest at all when children are mutilated by cluster bombs and landmines, and go on making more cluster bombs and land mines to rip children apart.

The countries that protest so vociferously against female circumcision very often kill hundreds of thousands of children in abortions, all in the name of a putative right of women to control their own bodies. Isn't it ironic that women in Sierra Leone are protesting that very right, to control their own bodies, a right they want to exercise in female circumcision?


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