25 February 2020

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 20th-century USA family saga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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14 February 2020

Star Wars: Theology and Popular Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that kind of thing can work both ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 February 2020

Blogiversary of Khanya blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 February 2020

Blue sheep and Buddhism in Nepal

The Snow LeopardThe Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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11 February 2020

Modern Paganism, Secularism and Syncretism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, there are two ways of looking at it.

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

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

What do you think?

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

10 February 2020

Reviving an old blog because WordPress is broken

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

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

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

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


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