30 August 2008

Wireless hotspots

We've been on holiday for a couple of weeks, and have been without Internet access for much of the time. Then we went to stay in the Formula I hotel in Durban, which had signs in every room saying that it was a wireless hotspot on the Vodacom WirelessG network. I thought we might be able to catch up with e-mail and do a bit of blogging, but that proved to be a snare and a delusion.
Most of the time the signal ranged from "very weak" to nonexistent, and so all that one could see was a lot of messages saying that servers could not be found or had timed out. Eventually after two days of trying I've managed to connect, but how long it will last is anyone's guess.

Perhaps Vodacom need to beef up their transmitting power before they advertise their wireless hotspots.

21 August 2008

Did the devil make him do it?

The parents of a schoolby charged with killing a fellow pupil said that he was "into satanism", as did some newspaper headlines.

The trouble is, these allegations are tossed about, but never followed up. There were similar reports a few months ago in the Eastern Cape, but we have heard no more.
clipped from www.thetimes.co.za
The parents of Morne Harmse, accused of stabbing a fellow pupil to death with a sword, in their first public statement since the incident, said their son was a victim of bullying.

The Harmses said "to our regret, it seems like he had started experimenting with Satanism".

The mask he wore is said to be similar to masks worn by heavy metal band Slipknot which has been accused of producing Satanic music.

blog it

19 August 2008

On holiday in Pietermaritzburg

We're on holiday in Pietermaritzburg. If you're interested in details and some of our holiday photos, see our family history blog.

13 August 2008

Holy Poverty

In 1920 R.H. Tawney published his book The acquisitive society, in which he criticised capitalist morality and values. Fifty years later Lawrence Lipton, the chronicler of the Beat Generation, wrote:
The New Poverty is the disaffiliate's answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honourable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused
with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an
advertising job: 'I'll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.' It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.

In the 1970s Western Christian theologians wrote a lot about "contextualisation", to such an extent that it became an almost meaningless piece of theological jargon. But the main idea is quite simple. It is an image taken from the weaving of cloth. The warp threads are stretched out along the length of the cloth, and the weft threads are woven in crosswise, so that in the finished piece of cloth the warp and the weft are inseparably woven together. So, the contextual theologians said, the gospel must we woven into society. Christianity must be a part of the society in which it finds itself.

For some contextual theologians, especially in South America, this meant a "preferential option for the poor". If the gospel of Christ could not speak to the poor and become part of their lives, it would never be heard. In North America, on the other hand, a movement arose to contextualise the gospel for the acquisitive society. And this led to what is called the "prosperity gospel". And so we discover that "contextualisation" doesn't solve the problem, it just shows it. Do Christian values shape and inform society, or are they shaped by it?

That, in North America, often leads on to debates about "separation between church and state", but I don't want to go into that now. The more important question, the prior question, remains: what are my values? Are they shaped by the gospel, or by the world, by the acquisitive society?

The other side of the contextualisation coin is that in many ways the Church is called to be countercultural. St Paul said "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Romans 12:2).

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of contextual theology is that it sometimes leads to a conformity to the world's values. In traditional Christian morality we recognise that we have to struggle against sinful behaviour. This spiritual struggle, spiritual warfare, is called podvig in Russian and ascesis in Greek. But contextualisation can sometimes lead to a different way.

Instead of struggling against sins like lust and greed, one simply redefines them as virtues. So for some in the West fornication is no longer a sin to be repented of or stuggled against, but rather extolled as a virtue, in the name of "inclusion". For others, lust remains a sin to be denounced (sometimes self-righteously, especially in others), but it is greed that has been transformed into a virtue in the new "prosperity gospel". And very often the pro-lust group and the pro-greed groups find themselves opposed to one another. The secular world has no such problems. Lust and greed go hand in hand in a symbiotic relationship, and the porn industry flourishes as never before. People from poor countries and regions are traded as sex slaves, and make their pimps very, very rich.

But this article is not about lust -- that was just to show that the unintended consequences of contextualisation can take different forms. Whatever form it takes it means that one no longer even needs to pay lip-service to Christian values. But sometimes even lip service is better than nothing, and leads, however imperfectly, to an attempt to shape society by Christian values. St Constantine is often vilified nowadays since his introduction of religious toleration opened the way for the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. One result of the Christianisation of the Roman Empire was the attempt, at least to some extent, to manifest Christian values in public life.
The emperors participated personally in the care of the needy, e.g. by anointing lepers or sharing meals with the hungry. This must have provided them with political public relations benefits, but it also represents a crucial emphasis in Orthodox spirituality. To be complete, a charitable work cannot deal only with structures and institutions but must involve a direct relation between persons, who bear the divine
image. Thus Romanus not only funds the feeding of the masses but also invites a few at a time to his own table. Whether he does this out of genuine compassion or only from a desire to appear compassionate, he shows his respect for a spiritual and ethical principle which his society values highly (Harrison 1990:24).
The difference is that the acquisitive society does not value that spiritual and ethical principle.

Let St Ambrose of Milan have the last word
How far, ye rich, will you carry your insane cupidity? ... why do you reject nature's partnership of goods, and claim possession of nature for yourselves? The earth was established to be in common for all, rich and poor; why do ye rich alone arrogate it to yourselves as your rightful property? Nature knows no rich, since she brings forth all men poor. For we are born without clothes and are brought forth without silver or gold. Naked she brings us to the light of day, and in want of food and covering and drink; and naked the earth receives back what she has brought forth, nor can she stretch men's tombs to cover their possessions. A narrow mound of turf is enough for rich and poor alike; and a bit of land of which the rich man when alive took no heed now takes in the whole of him. Nature makes no distinctions among us at our birth, and none at our death. All alike she creates us, all alike she seals us in the tomb. Who can tell the dead apart? Open up the graves, and, if you can, tell which was a rich man. . . .

But why do you think that, even while you live, you have abundance of all things? Rich man, you know not how poor you are, how destitute you would seem even to yourself, who call yourself wealthy. The more you have, the more you want; and whatever you may acquire, you nevertheless remain as needy as before. Avarice is inflamed by gain, not diminished by it...

You crave possessions not so much for their utility to yourself, as because you want to exclude others from them. You are more concerned with despoiling the poor than with your own advantage. You think yourself injured if a poor man possesses anything which you consider a suitable belonging for a rich man; whatever belongs to others you look upon as something of which you are deprived. Why do you delight in what to nature are losses? The world, which you few rich men try to keep for yourselves, was created for all men. For not alone the soil, but the very heaven, the air, the sea, are claimed for the use of the few rich. . . . Do the angels in heaven, think you, have their separate regions of space, as you divide up the earth by fixed boundaries?

How many men are killed to procure the means of your enjoyment! A deadly thing is your greed, and deadly your luxury. One man falls to death from a roof, in order that you may have your big granaries. Another tumbles from the top of a high tree while seeking for certain kinds of grapes, so that you may have the right sort of wine for your banquet. Another is drowned in the sea while making sure that fish or oysters shall not be lacking on your table. Another is frozen to death while tracking hares or trying to catch birds with traps. Another is beaten to death before your eyes, if he chances to have displeased you, and your very viands are bespattered with his blood...



Harrison, Verna, 1990. Poverty in the Orthodox tradition, in St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, Vol. 34(1). Page 15-47.


This post is part of a "Poverty, as seen from God's perspective".

Here are links to others blogging on this topic this month:

Phil Wyman: A theology of poverty and our personal biases
Adam Gonnerman: Echoes of Judas
Cobus van Wyngaard: Luke: The Gospel for the Rich
Lainie Petersen at Headspace
Steve Hayes: Holy Poverty
Jonathan Brink: Spiritual Poverty
Dan Stone at The Tense Before
Jeremiah: Blessed are the poor... churches...
Alan Knox: Boasting in Humiliation
Miss Eagle: Poverty and the hospitable heart
Jimmie: Feeding the poor
Calacirian: Fully known and fully loved

12 August 2008

Growing up in Durban

I've just finished reading Barbara Trapido's Frankie and Stankie -- a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Durban. A few days ago I wrote about it in Notes from underground: Evocation of a Durban childhood. That was after I'd just read the first few chapters.

I found it quite fascinating, and it made me put my project of reading Ulysses on hold, because it gripped me so much. There was so much that I could identify with, especially my own childhood up to the age of seven, and then the university parts in the early 1960s, because though I wasn't on the Durban campus, but in Pietermaritzburg, it was the same university, and I knew some people from there.

Plus, as Trapido would say, some of the people were real people with real names, like Ken and Jean Hill, whom I did not know well, but I had met them a few times. And Francis Cull, whom she referred to as a 35-year-old Anglican priest, and who in my time, three years later, was doing English Honours in Pietermaritzburg, and seemed nearer to 70 than 60, as old as I am now, perhaps, except that I don't feel as old as he seemed to me then.

There were some anachronisms, or at least so they seemed to me -- she referred to the university as "uni", an Australianism that came in long after the time. Perhaps people speak of it as the "uni" today, but in my -- our-- time it was always "varsity". Another term I don't remember using at that period is "airhead", though the description is accurate enough. John Vorster did not become Minister of Justice until 1961, though the book suggests that he held that position in 1960, at the time of the Sharpeville massacre.

Her description of the freshers reception committee also rang true, though since I was somewhat older by the time I got to the University of Natal, I was in a position not to take it very seriously, unlike the 17-year-olds straight out of school. But I think she had them well sussed out, and the thing about freshers having to wear hair ribbons and bow ties was spot on, though in my day they were yellow and purple, which for various reasons entirely unrelated to fresher integration, I happened to like. On the Durban campus the Philistines were the engineers, while in Pietermaritzburg they were the agrics. I remember an agric friend once railing against "liberals" and how he hated them, and when I asked him why he replied, "Because they're against integration". It was just the opposite of the usual complaint -- that liberals were against segregation -- so I was quite gobsmacked (yes, that's an anachronism too), but it turned out that he was talking about fresher integration, not racial integration.

I couldn't identify quite so much with the high-school period of the late 1950s, perhaps because by then my family had moved to the Witwatersrand and we lived on a smallholding in Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg, whose expansion into the surrounding countryside I viewed as an assault on my freedom. Plus (is that term catching or what?) I was at a boys' boarding school, so fashion in clothing played a much smaller role in my life as a teenager than it did at a Durban girls' day school. Nevertheless, there were enough parallels to make it interesting.

I suppose the book is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up, or a "coming of age" novel. And in that it succeeds. It may be fiction (or at least semi-fiction), but it is also a piece of social history, a memoir. Such was the segregated nature of South African society in those days that it is the memoir only of a Woozer [1] upbringing in the post-war era, the period 1945-1965. Trapido (whose husband was the well-known South African historian Stan Trapido) sets her story of growing up against a background of real historical events. She tells it as it really was; much of it is just as I remember it.

In my earlier post I noted that I had met Babara Trapido, and now I'm rather puzzled, having come to the end of the book, since that was nine years after she had left South Africa for good. So now I wonder just who it was that I met.


[1] Woozer - a White Urban English-speaking South African (WUESA). The experience of other South African cultural groups might be quite different. For White Rural English-speaking South Africans of roughly that period, for example, the classic Bildungsroman is The power of one by Bruce Courtenay.

11 August 2008

The paganism of Narnia

The post-Christian man of our day differs from pagans as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin, said C.S. Lewis. Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for the link.

Comment: The paganism of Narnia:
'When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, 'Would that she were.' For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads.

'If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin.'

10 August 2008

The Western Confucian: M�nster and Nagasaki

The Western Confucian reminds us that more Japanese Christians were killed by US bombing in one day that were killed in four centuries of persecution by the Japanese government

'At 11:02 AM, two-thirds of Japan's Catholics were annihilated,' wrote yours truly last year about today's grim anniversary in a brief history of Japan's historic center of Catholicism — The Holy City of Nagasaki. 'On that day that will live in infamy, more Japanese Christians were slaughtered than had been martyred in four centuries of brutal persecution.' Urakami Cathedral, the largest Christian church in Asia, was the siting target.

07 August 2008

GAFCON: Peddling Smut for Jesus with J. Mark Brewer

There has been much discussion of J. Mark Brewer's controversial takeover of the SPCK bookshops in the UK, where, among other things, he banned the sale of the Qu'ran, but seems not to be so selective in some of his other outlets: GAFCON: Peddling Smut for Jesus with J. Mark Brewer:
Certainly, Mark Brewer’s new range includes titles the old SPCK would have never dreamed of carrying: as just two screenshots from my most stimulating morning’s shopping reveal:

Spanking - A subject shamefully neglected in modern Seminaries

Mark Brewer - restoring traditional Christian literature to SPCK stores

Clearly Orthodoxy J. Mark Brewer style is a whole lot more fun that anyone realised, and I must commend the SSG trust for recognizing that they’ll make more selling copies of 'Sinful Sex: The Uninhibited Guide to Erotic Pleasure” (another title that caught my eye this morning) than they can ever hope to get from “Great Beards of Byzantium” or whatever it is that’s usually topping the Orthodox bookseller’s charts.

I've commented on the missiological aspects of this on my Khanya blog, but with each new revelation it seems to go from bad to worse.

Evocation of a Durban childhood

Yesterday I went to the Unisa library and found a novel by Barbara Trapido, called Frankie and Stankie. I saw it on the end of a shelf and was intrigued by a review quote on the cover that said, "There aren't many novelists whose stories one doesn't want to read, but Barbara Trapido is one of them." It seemed a strange enough recommendation, so I took it out.

In the evening I read the Barbara Trapido book, and read bits aloud to Val, because it was a very good evocation of a Durban childhood, and actually some of the people were real too -- it mentioned people I knew or knew of, like Ken and Jean Hill, who were members of the Liberal Party, and Eileen Krige, the anthropologist, whom I had heard of. I checked the cover blurb again, and found that it was not what I thought it was -- it said "There are very few novelists whose books one doesn't want to end", not "doesn't want to read", so I'd taken it out under false pretences. But I was glad I had; it brought back a lot of childhood memories, like this

Dinah continues to be a non-eater throughout her childhood. When one of her dad's colleagues visits with a packet of biscuits, he says they're 'for Lisa to eat and Dinah to play with. The biscuits are called Iced Zoological but the girls call them Animal Biscuits. Each biscuit is a scalloped rectangle with pastel icing on the top and an animal piped on to it in a contrasting colour. There are yellow giraffes on rose-pink icing and white tigers on sky-blue icing.

And this:

By eight Lisa is judged too big for the sleigh-ride through Santa's grotto in Greenacre's department store, and has to walk around to the exit to collect her present from Santa, just as Dinah comes helter-skeltering to conclusion in a cloud of fake snow and piped jingle bells.

Both Val and I remember the sleigh ride in Greenacres, though it belonged to Father Christmas rather than Santa; but that could be explained in the book by Lisa and Dinah's father being Dutch. And then

The school wash basins are all furnished with shiny pink chunks of slimy carbolic soap that look like sections of human lung.

I haven't seen Lifebuoy soap for years, but its appearance after being left in a wet soap dish can never be forgotten.

I think I spotted a few anachronisms, but they were minor ones: Cadbury's Crunchies appeared later on the scene than the time described in the book, as was the girl Julia Painting being bitten by a shark.

The name of the author, Barbara Trapido, sounded vaguely familiar, so I Googled, and found she was born in the same year as me, 1941, so it's no wonder her evocation of post-war Durban as seen through the eyes of a child was so familiar. I also checked my diary, and found I had actually met her once, on 19 August 1973:

In the afternoon there was an incredible party where there were 12 kids and 19 people altogether in the house, having separate little tea parties. Andy Argyle arrived with her children and Barbara Trapido, and Roger Aylard came round with two of his boys, and Gill Browne was there with her children. In spite of the numbers, it was amazingly peaceful, and it could hardly be noticed that so many people were

And at the time I was banned, and not supposed to attend any social gatherings. Of course it was my landlady's gathering, not mine, but still. And at that time my landlady's children also attended the Berea Road Girls School, described in detail in the book.

06 August 2008


Miss Eagle writes: The Eagle's Nest: Transfiguration:
To-day is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Three years ago, the fruit tree beside my home office window was covered in blossom (the picture is from 2005) but my fruit trees have very few blossoms at this time and my magnolia seems to have blossom as a permanent condition since they have been there so long without flowering.
And Miss Eagle's tree looks beautiful, and a reminder that Spring is around the corner, and soon there will be new life bursting out every where, and the world will be transfigured too.

Thou wast transfigured on the mount. 0 Christ God, revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as they could bear it. Let Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinners. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee (Troparion).

On the mountain wast Thou transfigured, 0 Christ God, and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could see it; so that when they would behold Thee crucified, they would understand that Thy suffering was voluntary, and would proclaim to the world that Thou art truly the Radiance of the Father (Kontakion).

But this year here too there is no sign of spring yet. Up the road from us the grass is still blackened from winter fires, and the willows are still bare and leafless. An image of the Church, perhaps, torn apart by fighting and disfigured by sin. But perhaps the fire is also a purifying one, and we will yet see some green shoots.

04 August 2008

The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks

The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks: Frequently Asked Questions: "This blog is 'great!' You 'are' so 'funny!'

Yeah, nobody's ever said that before. Good one."


One from our neighbourhood -- buses going around with 'Rent "a" bus' painted on the side.

I've often wondered what it was intended to mean.


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