30 November 2020

Christianity and Trumpism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Smith 

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

28 November 2020

15 Years Old

Notes from Underground blog is 15 years old today. 

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

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

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

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

Blogging is not as popular as it used to be. 

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

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

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

Stoneheart: winners and losers

Stoneheart (The Stoneheart Trilogy, #1)

Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

13 November 2020

Horror as a genre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 November 2020

Why Trump lost Christian voters in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    10 November 2020

    Madame Bovary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     View all my reviews

    04 November 2020

    Paint-by-numbers novel writing

    What should the opening page of a novel look like? If you read many of the recently-published books about how to write fiction, the first page should plunge you into action, and any story that doesn't conform to the template isn't worth publishing. That certainly seems to be the view of this blogger Flog a Pro: Would You Pay to Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?:
    Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre or content—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength. This novel was number one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for October 18, 2020. How strong is the opening page—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?

    The cognitive dissonance here is that this book, which the blogger clearly thinks the agent should have rejected, is a best seller. In other words, the agent picked a winner by not conforming to the stereotype. 

    The blogger invites you to read the first page of the novel and indicate whether you would like to read further. Most readers of the blog voted no, but people still bought the book and gave it 4,6 stars on GoodReads. 

    If I were a literary agent (which I'm not), I would turn the page. I won't say I "couldn't wait" to turn the page, but my reaction to the first page would be that the narrator tells ways in which he has changed and that provokes me to want to know more about what those changes were, and what brought them about, and thus to read at least a few more pages before dismissing the book. 

    The book I finished reading recently, Tristram Shandy, is without doubt the most discursive book I've ever read. I really cannot imagine any literary agent accepting it for publication if it were submitted today. Yet it goes on being reprinted year after year, 250 years after it was first published. 

    A while back I re-read the first Enid Blyton fiction story I owned as a child (see The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton) | Notes from underground), to try to see what factors had made it attractive to children, and whatever it was, action on the first page wasn't one of them. The action only began on page 80. The beginning was Enid Blyton food porn,. and condescending remarks about the funny speech habits of Welsh people. Nevertheless child readers seemed to love it.

    But there seem to be a few incestuous "how to write a novel" memes floating around, and "action on the first page" seems to be one of them. So never mind that the book is a best seller. Readers won't buy it, because the first page is a turn-off. Never mind that it got 4.6 stars on GoodReads. Readers won't like it, because the first page is a turn-off. This fashionable factoid seems to be doing the rounds of the "how to write a novel" blogs and books. And it's incestuous because they all seem to copy from each other. And it's untrue, because if it were as true as the article linked above says, it would have got fewer than 3 stars on GoodReads, and never have been a best seller. 

    Some stories work with tension on the first page, but many of the ones I've enjoyed most have a gradual build-up of tension. Make a list of your ten favourite novels, ones that you've read three times or more, and see how many of them have dramatic action on the first page.

    The other common meme among the "how to write a novel" crowd, which is related to the first, is is the nead for the main character to have goals. I won't say much about that, because I've written about it here On writing: conflict and goals in fiction | Khanya

    But it strikes me that all this incestuous advice, if would-be authors take it seriously, is going to lead to a lot of monochrome and monotonous books, a bit like the "paint-by-numbers" pictures you used to see, where if you filled in the numbered spaces with the paint of the same number, you'd get a picture of sorts, but one you wouldn't want to hang on your wall. 

    If you want to write novels worth reading, read 500 novels written by other people for every "How to write a book" you read. You'll learn far more that way.


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