25 November 2022

1950s sf written in the 1960s: Chocky, by John Wyndham

ChockyChocky by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back in the 1960s, when I was young, I read quite a lot of science fiction. and in many ways the 1950s and 1960s were vintage decades for science fiction. Later I rather lost my taste for it, or else the genre itself changed, and the newer productions did not appeal to me so much. One of the sf authors I liked most was John Wyndham. I recently re-read a couple of his novels to see how well they had stood the test of time, and found them surprisingly old-fashioned. In hindsight, the writing seemed to have the flavour of the 1940s, very much mired in the time it was written, like the writing of Nevil Shute.

But when I found Chocky in a second-hand bookshop, I was interested because I had not read it before, and it was also published later than most of the others, in 1968, which was the year of student power and student revolution. So I wondered what the atmosphere of the story would be like. And it seemed to be describing British middle-class life in the mid-1950s.

One of my reasons for reading it now is that I am writing a series of children's novels set in the 1960s, and so I am interested in books published in that period, and the kind of language they used. One of the ones I've looked at is The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. In that one, the language has hardly dated at all, and it could have been written in almost any decade since then. Not so the works of John Wyndham.

Another thing that I found interesting from the point of view of a writer is that several of the people who have read my children's books have commented that in the stories the children seem to have a lot of freedom, and are allowed to roam around freely without adult supervision. They have suggested that this makes the stories seem rather unrealistic. So I was interested to see that in Chocky Matthew and his sister Polly are given what is possibly an even more unrealistic degree of freedom, even after being in danger. And this in a book that is not merely written about the period, but in the period itself.

In the story an 11-year-old boy, Matthew Gore, starts talking to an invisible friend. His parents are concerned, because though his younger sister had an invisible friend, it was at a much earlier age, and she had already got over it. Also, as the younger sister Polly informs the family, when she had an invisible friend, she talked to her friend, her friend did not talk back to her. Matthew, however, is heard arguing with his invisible friend as though the friend is talking back to him.

His parents are worried because "hearing voices" could be a sign of mental disorder, and their concern makes Matthew sometimes wonder if he is going mad. Then his teachers at school start complaining about his school work. He starts solving mathematical problems using unorthodoc methods, he argues with his geography teacher about the location of earth, and with his physics teacher about the speed of light.

The end of the story is predictable and slightly disappointing, and the thing I liked most about the story was the attitude and character of Matthew himself.

There is one other respect, however, in which the story seems dated, and especially not fitting its 1968 publication date, and that is the sexist language. I've read many other 1960s authors, and few of them are as sexist as this. Yet another characteristic that adds to the 1950s "feel" of the book.

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19 November 2022

Elon Musk, before you wreck Twitter, heed what happened to Yahoo! Tumblr & other Internet flops

I watched a TV news report about the upheavals at Twitter, and Elon Musk's plans for revamping it and his firing of more of the staff, which have got a lot of Twitter users in a bit of a tizz, wondering whether their fears that it is about to collapse are justified.

I suspect that a lot of their fears are justified. It has been very common in Internet history for a web site that does one thing, and does it well so that it attracts a lot of users, to be taken over by someone bigger and then wrecked, so that it no longer does the thing that made it successful in the first place. Or if it does do that thing, it does it badly and then flops.

One of the companies that specialised in doing that sort of thing was Yahoo! It was very big and a power to be reckoned with on the Internet about 20-25 years ago. It started off as a search engine, but when Google produced a better search engine they decided to diversify, and started buying up other web sites that did one thing, and did it well. Nothing wrong with that. But then they started to mess with those web sites without apparently understanding what had made them popular and successful in the first place. The list of things they took over and wrecked is a long and a sad one. Here aree some of them:

  • YahooGroups - Yahoo! took over Egroups, a mailing list host, and added a few useful features. Then they installed a new manager who had the brilliant idea of making it more like Facebook, It did what Facebook did very badly, and also did badly at what it had formerly done well -- mailing lists. Eventually groups.io sprang up to replace it in its original function, and YahooGroups closed
  • Geocities - a free webhosting site that had the novel idea of grouping the sites it hosted into communities based on common interests. The people at Yahoo! didn't get the community thing, which helped to make free webhosting profitable, and it collapsed
  • WebRing - another scheme that linked web sites into communities of web sites with similar themes and interests. Again, the people at Yahoo! didn't understand what had made it attractive, and wrecked and then closed it
  • BlogLog - something like WebRing, only applied specifically to blogs and online journals. It was a kind of communal blogroll, and became very popular, which made it attractive to the people at Yahoo! But the people at Yahoo! didn't understand what made it popular, and took that away and tried to replace with with something else, which flopped.-
Yahoo! lost an enormous amount of goodwill through this, and is now a shadow of its former self, and now Twitter users fear that something similar will happen to Twitter. Let Elon Musk study what happened to Yahoo! and learn from its history before he repeats their mistakes.

There have been plenty of other examples; they are not limited to Yahoo!

There was Technorati, a kind of communal blog tagging site. You could visit the site to see who had tagged particular themes in their blogs, and when. You can do something like that with search engines, but Technorati was much more efficient. You could find the most recent blog tags on a topic. But the people who took over Technorati had the Facebook mentality. They wanted people to stay on their site. Facebook doesn't object to people going to other sites if the owners of those sites advertise on Facebook, but if you post a link to a blog post on Facebook, Facebook will show it to very few people unless the first few people react to it by "liking" it. Technorati tried to do something similar, which was totally counterproductive. People went to their site to see what blogs had similar tags. The new owners tried to get people to stay on their site by providing articles to rival the blog posts, which they simply could not muster the expertise to do. As a result, people stopped visiting their site. They did one thing well, got greedy, and stopped doing the one thing they did well, and tried to do something else badly. Elon Musk, take heed! It doesn't work.

Another example is Tumblr. It offered a lot of attractive features. E-mail posting, blog aggregating, and so on. At one time I used to put my Tumbler address in my email signature, because I could tell people that if they went to Tumblr they could see all my stuff, It had links to all my recent blog posts on other sites too. But none of that works any more, and as a result I haven't visited Tumblr for months, perhaps years.

I'm not saying Twitter can't be improved. It does one thing well, but it could do it a lot better. Its algorithms, for example, can be enormously frustrating to users, and create a very bad user experience (#UX). So Twitter users have to spend quite a lot of time and energy trying to work around the algorithms, and resent being manipulated by them. The current crisis has helped to make a lot of Twitter users aware of a rival outfit, Mastodon, which is algorithm-free.

But before making changes, make sure you understand why people who use Twitter are there, and don't alienate them in the hope of attracting others -- Yahoo! Technorati and Tumblr tried that, and failed. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, 

08 November 2022

Why has Blogger lost its search function?

 Blogger now won't let me enter anything in the search box.

Are the people at Google out to kill Blogger and blogging?

Why this reduced functionality?

They made the "Blog This" function post garbage. See, for example, my Simple Links blog, which I used as a straight blog, that is, a web log of sites visited that I might want to refer to again. The "Blog This" feature worked well for that purposes, as well as for quoting extracts from other sites to quote in blog posts. Then Google decided to "improve" it, which made it useless for any purpose at all -- have a look at Simple Links to see how "improved" it is.

They made the editor a lot more difficult to use too. So much so that I went back to LiveJournal, until they decided to go one better than Blogger by making their editor not only more difficult but impossible to use.

All the blogging platforms seem to be in an intense rivalry to produce the worst UX (user experience) ever.

12 October 2022

Cross Purposes: A New Novel

I've written a new novel, Cross Purposes, was released as an ebook on 22 October 2022. It is available from Smashwords and other ebook retailers here..

It's intended to be a children's story for kids aged about 9-12, but adults who like books like C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories or books like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner might enjoy it too.

The main characters, who appeared in my earlier books Of Wheels and Witches and The Enchanted Grove,  are Sipho Mdluli (13), Jeffery Davidson (12), Janet Montgomery (11) and Catherine Kopirovsky (10). Catherine is given a jewelled cross by he grandmother, an ancient family heirloom from Russia, which gives them mysterious signals when they go on holiday together. At first they think it might just be warning them of danger, but later it seems to be leading them on a quest, whose nature they must find out as they go along

I quote from one review (well, the only one so far, but I won't link to it because it has too many spoilers):

These books seem to me to be what (Charles) Williams might have written, had he been spared to do so, if he had decided to write children's novels, somewhat under Lewis's influence, South African children in the early 1960s (with, yes, all the social and political baggage that implies). They have (to me) the same sense of the blurring of the natural and the supernatural so that the natural becomes numinous and the supernatural sensorily immediate that I love in Williams.
You will be at a *slight* disadvantage if you start with this one; it is about four characters established in the earlier novels, and, perhaps as a courtesy to those who have read those other books, does not spend as much energy in setting up the children as another writer might. There are no plot summaries to explain how they, and especially Sipho, met and became friends; you just have to take it as given.

The stories are set in the mid-1960s, which is when apartheid was at its height in South Africa, so in a way that makes them historical novels, because any children, even South African children, who are in the age range of the target readership will have had no experience of what apartheid was like, and part of the aim of the first two books was to give children who didn't live through it some idea of what it was like to live under apartheid

This isn't really the aim of Cross Purposes, though, because most of the action takes place outside South Africa. But I've tried to make the historical background as accurate as possible without being too didactic about it.

This one is less ambitious than the immediately preceding one in the series, The Enchanted Grove. I made that one available in hard copy, and asked my son (an artist) to design a special cover, and made it available in a paperback edition as well, but it didn't sell enough copies for me be able to buy enough copies to send to the copyright libraries, never mind pay my son for the cover design. So this one is less ambitious: ebook edition only, and an el cheapo abstract cover. In the unlikely event of the sales of this one covering the production cost of The Enchanted Grove, I may think about new paperback editions of the other two with better covers. The only way that can happen is if this one gets a lot of good reviews. 

14 September 2022

The Dispossessed: an sf novel on two dystopian cultures

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of Ursula le Guin's better novels, I think.

Two planets orbiting the same sun act as moons to each other, and the inhabitants have split because of political and cultural differences. Anarres is dry and austere, and its inhabitants are libertarian and socialist. Urras is lush and green, and its inhabitants are authoritarian and capitalist, or propertarian, as the Anarresti like to call them.

Shevek, a physicist on Anarres , feels that his research and discoveries are unappreciated at home, and makes a journey to Urras to meet physicists there, but finds that the Urrasti want to use his discoveries to increase their own power.

The people of both Anarres and Urras have adopted a kind of apartheid, and want to keep their cultures and political systems separate, so that neither will be contaminated by the views and principles of the other. . The culture of Urras is closer to that of the world we live in and so is easier to depict; the culture of Anarres has no real life model, though certain aspects of it have been advocated by some anarcho-syndicalists, thus it is harder to depict in a convincing way. But authoritarianism manages to creep in there, under the guise of protection of liberty. Though I'm inclined to favour anarcho-syndicalism myself, I've never really tried to envisage just how such a society would work. Ursula le Guin makes a valiant attempt, but it is not quite convincing enough. For the most part Ursula le Guin does a fairly convincing job of showing how such diverse cultures might interact with each other.

Apart from space travel, le Guin does not envisage much technological development in society, and most of the technology -- transport, communications, computers, and the like, are much as they were in the mid-20th century on earth. Anarres has abandoned the week, and based its time measurement on units called decads, presumably of 10 days. But they also speak of "years" when referring to the age of people, and though it seems that these years must be fairly similar to earth years, it is nowhere stated that they are, or how it relates to the orbits of Anarres and Urras.

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10 September 2022

Diepsloot, a paradigm case of an informal settlement


Diepsloot by Anton Harber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Diepsloot is an informal settlement (shanty town) on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg and the southern outskirts of Tshwane. It began post-apartheid in the late 1990s and this study of it was made by journalist Anton Harber about 2010, so it is probably out of date now. At the time the author estimated that there were about 1700 similar settlements throughout South Africa, and there are now probably many more. This detailed examination of Diepsloot at a particular point in its history gives a pretty good picture of how a lot of South Africans live today, and the number of people who live in this way continues to increase.

Anton Harber analyses Diepsloot from many different points of view -- its history, how people came to live there, the difficulties of life, accommodation, transport, housing, schooling, municipal and government services and the lack of them, and protests against lack of "service delivery".

Diepsloot and its problems are rarely known to anyone outside, and the place is rarely mentioned in the news media other than from an outside point of view, the only exception to this being the Daily Sun, which, however, concentrates almost exclusively on crime stories.

Diepsloot consists mainly of shacks erected in unplanned fashion by those who live in them, and the shacks were erected before there was any infrastructure like roads, sewerage or electricity, so providing such services is difficult without disturbing or demolishing existing shacks, which of course evokes protests from the residents.

Crime is rife, and the police were absent for a long time -- the nearest police station was in Erasmia, 16 kilometres away in the City of Tshwane, though Diepsloot itself is in the City of Johannesburg. so by the time a crime was reported to the police, and the police had arrived on the scene, the perpetrators had long gone, if they had not been caught be people in the vicinity and often dealt with by vigilante justice, so by the time the police arrived the only people they could arrest were those who had punished the original criminals by beating them up or even killing them. Later a police station was built, but because of the difficulty of reaching places within Diepsloot by vehicle, the police could still not reach crime scenes quickly.

Places like Diepsloot illustrate the problem of housing in South Africa. The figures for the provision of housing are impressive, but the need for housing is growing faster. Harber analyses this, and shows, pretty convincingly I thought, that the need is not so much for housing as for accommodation, and the distinction is significant and important.

The provincial and local government have tried to provide "RDP" houses, which are single-family houses in the middle of their own plot of land, very much on the same pattern as the previous apartheid government sought to provide. There is a shortage of land for such houses, and that makes it difficult for Diepsloot to expand for its increasing population, which is also complicated by some nearby land being the breeding ground of an endangered species of frog.

Outside politicians and bureaucrats have tried to impose a "one family, one house, one plot" model, but the people of Diepsloot gravitate naturally to a pattern in which

...shacks are in small family clusters, bunches of them sharing small courtyards and fenced off as units... People have structured the space to serve their needs, and it means that child-headed households, for example, get the support and assistance of their neighbours.

Finding solutions is made more difficult because of bureaucracy. Money is budgeted by one agency and allocated for something like road improvements, for example, but that requires drainage and various other planning permissions from different departments, which takes longer, and so the allocated money is not spent and has to be returned to the Treasury. The City of Johannesburg decided some years ago to separate the provision of electricity, water, and rubbish removal into several autonomous "silos", each with its own bureaucratic structure, so coordinated planning is almost impossible. 

...the electricity, water, refuse removal and transport departments... (were) carved off into independent companies, known collectively as City-Owned Enterprises.... Coordination, though, is a nightmare. Now they have more silos than a Free State farming cooperative and getting them all to operate and implement, in harmony, is extremely difficult.

One harassed bureaucrat from the Development Bank of Southern Africa showed Harber a shelf full of files of completed development plans, waiting to be implemented.

Because of this, the people of Dielsloot have de3veloped their own structures and systems of authority, and these are often rivals, and there are rivalries within rivalries. The ANC, the dominant political party in Diepsloot, sees power struggles between the ANC itself and its alliance partners. There are also tensions between businesses -- small businesses and bigger businesses, and between local business people and foreign traders.

Harber tried to interview representatives of each, bureaucrats, business people, teachers, NGOs, politicians (local, municipal and provincial), teachers, health workers and others, to build a picture of the settlement. People like to speak of the "community", but in fact there are so many overlapping and often rival "communities" within a place like Diepsloot that it is a misnomer.

 I found it particularly interesting  because some members of our church in Atteridgeville live in such an informal settlement, Phomolong in Atteridgeville West, and they sometimes mention similar problems. And sometimes our diocese has tried to negotiate for places for building temples in such places, without understanding the complexity of political structures and power relations. Some of that is unique to Diepsloot, of course, but the complexity is universal. We have been trying for 20 years to get a church site in Soshanguve, but the land, earmarked by the City of Tshwane as a church site, is registered in the deeds office as owned by the Gauteng Province, and before the site can be allocated and developed, someone must pay the conveyancing fees, and is it the municipality or the province? So people tell us to make like an informal settlement, and just build something on it before someone else does.
This book is important reading for South Africans, both those who live in places like Diepsloot, and perhaps even more, those who don't.

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04 September 2022

Academic versus spiritual knowledge

Someone asked on Twitter
Academic Bible readers, how do you separate the head knowledge from feeding the spiritual, contemplative side of your faith?

My short answer was that I try not to separate them, but to integrate them, but it deserves a longer answer, which is not possible in the 240 or so characters allowed by Twitter, because it's not really as simple as that. 

Academic theology tends to be book knowledge, learned from reading a lot. But Evagrius of Pontus said that a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.

In the Orthodox Church there is book learning, certainly, but you cannot really learn about Orthodoxy from books, or from searching stuff on the Internet, because the core of Orthodox theology is enacted theology. Yes, people wrote theological books, but the people who wrote the books also participated in the Divine Liturgy. They followed the rhythim of the liturgical day, week and year. They fasted and prayed, and that shaped the books they wrote and the way they wrote them.

Western theologians often fail to understand this, and tend to get things very wrong when writing about Orthodox theology. For an example of this, see here: Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Book Review).

So trying to separate the academic head knowledge from the spiritual and devotional knowledge of the heart can be a dangerous and limiting thing. The very title of the book was misleading, "constants in context", because in the Orthodox case the context is Orthodox liturgy and worship, so in that particular book the Orthodox constants were taken out of context.

Theology can also be anecdotal, or, as the academic theologians like to say, narrative. So here is an anecdote or narrative from my own experience. 

As an undergraduate in the 1960s I studied theology at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and our lecturer for both New Testament II and Doctrine II was Vic Bredenkamp, who was also a Methodist minister. He was teaching on Ephesians 6about St Paul's reference to "principalities and powers", and what he said blew my mind. 

My conception of "principalities" was places like Monaco and Andorra, and  "powers" were the USA and USSR (in the 1960s the Cold War was at its height). So I asked Vic Bredenkamp about this, and he pointed out that St Paul was referring to these principalities and powers (rulers and authorities) in the heavenlies

He referred me to a book, Principalities and Powers by G.B. Caird, which explained the context of St Paul's teaching on the topic. The context was the institution of divine kingship, and the Roman religion of emperor worship. The Romans did not worship the flesh and blood emperor, but they worshipped his genius. The emperor's authority (exousia) was a spiritual power in the heavenlies. 

The point here is mythical and symbolic. When a traffic cop holds up his hand on a busy highway, he can stop a 26-wheeler truck. It is not his flesh and  blood that stops the lorry -- if he tried that, it would squash him flat. It is his exousia, his authority, that stops the truck. If he were not wearing the uniform that symbolises his exousia, and were naked, or wearing pyjamas, the truck would not stop. It his his exousia, symbolised by the uniform, that stops the the truck.

The "powers", like the USA and the USSR, had their angels, their archons, in the heavenlies. Nations had "national spirits" (archons) in the heavenlies (cf Daniel 10:12-17), as did most earthly power structures. The "prince (archon) of the king of Persia" was analogous to the "genius of Caesar". This made clear to me the meaning of some other Bible texts, like Deuteronomy 32:8-9, and Psalm 81/82. YHWH, the "great king above all gods", speaks to the assembled gods and tells them they have messed up, and the psalmist prays "Arise O God, judge the earth, for to thee belong all nations" -- a prayer that Jesus answered in John 12:31-32.

But this is all experienced in the context of Orthodox worship on Holy Saturday, when the vestments  etc are changed from Lenten purple to Paschal white, and during the singing of Psalm 81/82 the priest bursts from the holy doors scattering bay leaves while shouting "Arise O God, judge the earth, for to thee belong all nations" and the congregations sings the refrain and the reader chants the rest of the psalm, and everyone bangs on the floor or the benches or anything that will make a noise, symbolising the earthquake.

Vic Bredenkamp's dry academic lecture opened my eyes to that, and also to the demonic nature of the contemporary government policy of apartheid, which, in the words of Psalm 81/82, failed to give justice to the weak and needy, or deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Many years after I had graduated, I saw Vic Bredenkamp again, and thanked him for opening the holy scriptures to me, and was greatly disappointed to realise that he didn't get it. He wittered on about "ripe scholarship" and it became clear to me that for him, what's said in the classroom stays in the classroom, and had nothing to do with the world outside, or spiritual and devotional life. What he had said in his class all those years ago was to remain locked up in the academic ivory tower. 

I close with another tweet:
Electric man has no bodily being. He is literally dis-carnate. But a discarnate world, like the one we now live in, is a tremendous menace to an incarnate Church, and its theologians haven’t even deemed it worthwhile to examine the fact (Marshall McLuhan, 1977).

03 September 2022

Bog Child

Bog ChildBog Child by Siobhan Dowd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is classified as "young adult" -- at least I found it in the Young Adult section of the library, but i can say that this old adult enjoyed it immensely, and I think it can be read by adults of any age. When I picked it up and started reading the blurb, I immediately thought of The Barrytown Trilogy and others by Roddy Doyle, but it wasn't really like those, though it does deal with Irish family life.

Fergus McCann is 18 years old, living with his parents and two younger sisters in Northern Ireland. His brother Joe is in jail for IRA activities, and thinking of joining other prisoners in a hunger strike. While out with his uncle digging for peat Fergus discovers what appears to be the body of a child. The place where they are digging is close to the border, so they notify the police from both sides, but the pathologist recons the body is old, and so they call in an archaelogist.

Fergus has a lot on his plate. He is writing his A-level exams and hopes to go to Scotland to study medicine. He's also learning to drive and hopes to pass his driving test. One of his brother's mates asks him to take dubious packages across the border, so he feels under pressure from all sides. The book is about how he tries to cope with all this, and all the way through you can feel the pressure on Fergus, feel for him as he tries to cope with several dilemmas and no sooner has he dealt with one than the unfinished business of one of the others crops up. And thoughout it all he dreams of the bog child, and shat she might have faced.

Not quite a Bildungsroman, but the picture of a young man at a particularly intense and stressful period of his life.

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25 August 2022

The Client (book review)

The ClientThe Client by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eleven-year-old Mark Sway and his younger brother Ricky go for an illicit smoke in the woods when they come across a man trying to commit suicide. Before he succeeds he reveals to them that he was the lawyer of a man who murdered a US senator, and knows where the body was hidden - the vital evidence needed to convict the killer. Mark soon finds himself being hunted, both by the killers who want to silence him, and the prosecutors and police who want him to talk.

John Grisham is a well-known author of crime fiction, and, having been a lawyer, usually with a legal twist and quite a lot of courtroom drama. I've read several of them, but this is the only one I've read three times. I first bought it at an airport bookshop to read on a plane -- a 17-hour flight to Russia. A few years later I saw the film on TV, and re-read it then, about 20 years ago.

This time my interest was more technical -- I'm writing a book, and wanted to see how Grisham handed the dialogue of kid versus cops. But after 20 years I'd forgotten many details, so I enjoyed reading it again, and I think it is one of Grisham's better books. From the point of view of technique, it was not a great deal of help, but interesting none the less. The book I am writing is set in the past, before South Africa had television, and so I was struck by how much of Mark Sway's interaction with cops was shaped by what he had seen on TV. In many places in the story he saw himself almost as an actor in a TV drama.

When he realises the difficulty of his position, Mark thinks he needs to hire a lawyer, which is what the characters in TV dramas do. He first tries to see an ambulance-chasing lawyer whose advertising he has seen on TV, but is turned down because he doesn't have a potentially lucrative actionable injury. He randomly knocks on the door of another lawyer who has an office in the same building, who happens to do a lot of work for children, and so begins the relationship between lawyer and client that is central to the story. Mark had to learn that the law and lawyers are not always what they seem to be on TV, and the lawyer, Reggie Love, has to learn how to handle legal battles that are not usually the ones that children are faced with.

It made me think about media and children's perceptions of the law. I can remember two films I saw when I was Mark's age, one in a cinema and one in the social hall at Mount Edgecombe, then a little village isolated in the cane fields somewhere north of Durban. One was called Knock on any Door, and was dark and quite violent. The other was The Lavender Hill Mob, which was light and humorous, and had the most memorable car chase of any movie I have ever seen. Neither seemed much of a basis for shaping one's perceptions of police, lawyers and criminal law.

Mark Sway, on the other hand, seemed to see shows like LA Law frequently. But in a sense, he was the last of a generation; 1993, when The Client was published, when the Internet and mobile phones were moving from being the prerogatives of a few to becoming available to the masses, which would change to role and focus of broadcast TV. So perhaps the post-TV generation would relate to the law, the police and crime differently.

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04 August 2022

Fever: a Dystopian Novel about a Pandemic and its Aftermath

FeverFever by Deon Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read and enjoyed several books that envisage a scenario in which the world's human population is drastically reduced following some cataclysmic event. In Fever the cataclysmic event is a pandemic which seems uncanny in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, which started two years after the book was published, and the book also predicted a Covid variant.

I can't help comparing it with others in the sub-genre that I have read, Earth Abides by George Stewart and The Stand by Stephen King. Earth Abides, which I read in the early 1960s, introduced me to the concept of ecology and the effects that the presence (or absence) of human beings have on the environment.

One effect of such a cataclysm, envisaged by all three of the authors I have mentioned, is a new Dark Age, where humanity is divided into isolated pockets of people struggling to develop a new community. In Fever some of these attempts were constructive, and others destructive. As in the European Dark Ages, there is an incipient feudalism, with marauding predatory gangs of bikers, who might, if they developed along those lines, become warlords and protectors that evolved into the aristocracy of the High Middle Ages. Meyer reminds us that most of the aristocracies of Europe originated in the medieval equivalents of the leaders of biker gangs.

The story is told mainly from the point of view of a teenager, Nico Storm, whose father, Willem, is aware of this danger, and tries to gather people who want to rebuild a productive community, and chooses a site by a dam on the Gariep (Orange) River which has hydro-electricity, plentiful water, and potential for irrigation of crops. They produce leaflets to inform other survivors of their community, and distribute them as widely as they can, as a result of which small and large groups of people join them.

Some of the people who join them have useful skills for maintaining the electrical generating equipment, or producing diesel fuel from plants. One, who chooses to be known only as Domingo, has military skills, to ward off the attacks of biker gangs,

The different characters of the leaders of the community also reflect different trends in society. Willem Storm, the ethical humanist, wants an inclusive society in which people of different backgrounds and interests can live together in peace and freedom, and wants the community to be governed democratically. Domingo, the militarist, thinks a benevolent dictatorship would be better, especially in the chaotic times in which they are living, Pastor Nkosi, representing the religious interest, longs for a utopian community of dedicated Christians living in a theocracy. But somehow they manage for the most part to balance these different visions.

Nico Storm sees all this through the eyes of an impetuous teenager, with volatile emotions, whose loyalties and suspicions keep jumping from one person to another. Willem Storm, perhaps aware that the Dark Ages got that label because of the absence of historical information about them, is determined to prevent that happening in their community, which they call Amanzi (Zulu/Xhosa for "water"), and starts a history project of recording the history of the community and its members, and so the story is not told entirely from the point of view of Nico Storm, whose impetuous judgements and misjudgements and mood swings could give a distorted picture.

I thought Deon Meyer told the story very well, and found it an enjoyable read. The events all seemed believable in the context of the story, until the last 25 pages or so. Then it jumped the shark, and I found the ending of the story disappointing, and almost an anticlimax. It reminded me of another TV series, Dallas, which did something similar when one of the characters returned from the dead. If it weren't for the weak ending, I would have given it 5 stars on GoodReads.

 But I also found The Stand by Stephen King disappointing, and more disappointing than this one, because the disappointment came much earlier in the story -- it was the introduction of a villain who smacked of cheap melodrama, the kind of opponent that Batman would have to deal with, rather than the characters in Stephen King's novel. The villains in Fever are far more convincing, and just as villainous.

In Earth Abides George Stewart has, in some ways a more pessimistic vision, though there is less overt violence than there is in the other two books. But in that book the random survivors have no special skills, and when a community does form, it takes longer, and there is no Willem Storm to provide the vision and lead it. Most attempts to rebuild a community according to a plan fail, because there are simply not enough people with the necessary skills to carry out anything planned, and the community develops in a largely unplanned but possibly more organic way.

Earth Abides was first published in 1947, and is set on the west coast of the USA, and for years after reading it I tried to imagine what I would do in similar circumstances, if such a cataclysm occurred in South Africa. Deon Meyer was obviously wondering the same thing, and his book is the result. My imaginings were similar in some ways, but different in others. I pictured roads deteriorating rapidly, as they tend to do without traffic, and envisaged travelling by rail, using steam engines, which could be made to burn wood if necessary, and so be less dependent on imported fossil fuel.

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27 July 2022

Writings of Nadine Gordimer

The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and PlacesThe Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places by Nadine Gordimer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nadine Gordimer was a South African author, of a generation before me. I had read one of her novels, of which I could remember little, and a couple of her short stories. I had heard of her, and even met her once, but wasn't particularly drawn to her books. I picked up this one, a collection of essays, and a couple of others in the library in haste, and thought I'd read a couple of the essays and bring it back a week or two later.

When I started to read it, however, I found that it was the story of my life. Well not quite, but it dealt with times I lived through and remembered. And Nadine Gordimer's memories were much the same as mine. The 23 essays were collected and annotated by Stephen Clingman. His introductions and explanatory notes also tell it like it was. The introductions give enough of the historical background to each piece to enable the reader to place it in context, and the explanatory notes give information about people and events mentioned in the text of each piece.

The essays are arranged roughly in chronological order, with the first group dealing with events and people up to the schoolchildren's revolt of 1976, There follow some articles about travels elsewhere in Africa and Madagascar, and finally more pieces on South Africa between 1976 and 1985, which Gordimer felt was like living in an interregnum.

The penultimate article, the eponymous "essential gesture" deals with the responsibility of a writer to society, something which South African writers find hard to escape. Several of the articles are diatribes against censorship, which Gordimer fiercely opposed, and one point she makes in that connection is worth repeating:
Art is on the side of the oppressed. Think before you shudder at the simplistic dictum and the heretical definition of the freedom of art. For if art is freedom of the spirit, how can it exist within the oppressors? And there is some evidence that is ceases to. What writer of any literary worth defends fascism, totalitarianism, racism, in an age when these are still pandemic? Ezra Pound is dead. In Poland, where are the poets who sing the epic of the men who broke Solidarity? In South Africa, where are the writers who produce brilliant defences of apartheid?

I can't recall a single work of fiction, whether of any literary merit or none, that extolled the virtues and glories of apartheid, though there were plenty that attacked and criticised it.

In many of the essays, letters and speeches, however, Nadine Gordimer emphasised that she saw herself primarily as a writer of fiction. " I have to offer you myself as my most closely-observed specimen from the interregnum; yet I remain a writer, not a public speaker. Nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction."

So I thought I should read some more of her fiction, and read this:

Get a LifeGet a Life by Nadine Gordimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book about a white middle-class family living in Johannesburg in the early 21st century. Paul Bannerman is an ecologist, an environmentalist, with a wife, Berenice, who works in an advertising agency, and a small pre-school son.

Paul has cancer, and has to have radiation treatment that makes him temporarily radioactive and a danger to others with whom he comes into contact, so he has to live in quarantine, and does so in the house of his parents, Adrian, a businessman, and Lyndsey, a lawyer.

The family responds to various internal and external crises, the first of which is Paul's cancer and enforced isolation. Berenice has two personas. At work she is Berenice, at home she is Benni, and there are hints of a conflict between the interests of the clients of her agency whose business can be a threat to the environment that Paul is trying to protect.

When Paul recovers, he returns to work, and his parents go on an extended holiday to Mexico, where his father, beginning retirement, can indulge in his interest in archaeology. The family relations change in various unexpected ways as a result of subsequent events.

I found it a difficult book to read. Nadine Gordimer's prose, which was lucid and flowing in her essays, letters and speeches, which I had just read, was awkward and jerky. I had to go back and re-read passages because I either couldn't understand them, or because they seemed to change their meaning halfway through a sentence. Eventually I attributed this to bad punctuation. Commas were missing, or in the wrong places. Perhaps Gordimer's writing had slipped badly in the 20 years since the book of essays I had just read, or else she had been very badly served by an editor who had decided to mangle her sentences and had no feeling for language.

Another problem with Get a life was that it was too expository.

It feels strange for me to say that, because someone quite recently criticised my own writing on that ground, using that very word. By that they meant (I think) that there was too much detail extraneous to the story, and in the one example given I agreed with them. I probably tend to err in giving too much detail, partly because I am concerned that readers not familiar with the setting or social and political background might not follow the story because of that, and that forms part of the story. So when I say Nadine Gordimer's writing is too expository, I feel like the pot calling the kettle black.

Nevertheless I think Nadine Gordimer does this to excess, giving excessively repeated details of plans to build a toll road or mine the dunes of the Wild Coast, and build dams in the Okavango Delta, in ways that go way beyond the needs of the story, even if one of the aims of the story is to raise awareness of these things among readers. And this is not an early work by a novice writer, it is a late work of a much-respected writer with a long career. Were it not for these faults, I might have given it 5 stars on GoodReads, and there was a time, in the early chapters when I was thinking of giving it 3.

So what can I say about Nadine Gordimer as a writer, and as a person?

I met her once, back in 1972. It was at a kind of press conference. Most of the Ovambo contract workers in Namibia had gone on strike, and the people the police claimed were "ringleaders" were arrested and  put on trial in Windhoek. There was an observer from the International Commission of Jurists, a black judge from the USA, William Booth. You can read about the background to this here.

This was something of a media sensation in the apartheid era, and the Anglican Bishop, Colin Winter, with whom the judge was staying, held a sort of open house for the press and black leaders to meet the judge. Nadine Gordimer was there.  Some of the journalists present seemed disappointed that, as a black visitor from the USA, Judge Booth had not provoked a racial incident, and had been well received by white people he had met. Nadine Gordimer suggested that that that might be because he was very light-skinned himself, and though he might be regarded as black in America, in South Africa he could pass for white, or as a very light-skinned coloured. 

That struck me at the time as being very colour-conscious, something that the South African government, which ruled Namibia at the time, was trying to instill into all the people it ruled. The first thing one had to know about a person, that would determine your relationship towards them, was their racial classification by the South African government. For one opposed to apartheid, Nadine Gordimer, struck me as overly colour-conscious, and that comes out in her essays, letters and speeches too.

On the other hand, one could not ignore such things entirely. Being "colourblind" was not a solution. Skin colour mattered, partly because the government made it matter, and Gordimer had useful things to say about white privilege, which perhaps still need to be said in a time when many white people deny that such a thing exists or ever existed.

As of now (1986), the power structure remains the same: the whites make the law, and the blacks must direct their lives in accordance...

Of course there always has been some recognition that the privileged whites are not quite so privileged as they like to think, that while the Dorian Grey reflected in the swimming pool remains eternally bronzed and fit, fear, guilt, shame of that coarsening and blunting of the spirit that is the price of indifference, presents a different picture when he is alone with himself. Many psychological studies have pointed out that segregation is harmful both to those who impose it and those who submit to it. Yet we who live here see around us that any white man, whatever the state of his soul, lives the dolce vita in comparison with the black man bulldozed out of his home by resettlement, or the Indian banished from his livelihood by the Group Areas Act.

The Essential Gesture is a pretty good introduction to South African history between 1956 and 1986, and a good guide to South African writers and writing in that period as well.Contrary to what she suggests, I think I like her non-fiction better than her fiction. 

15 July 2022

Biblical Literalism

Someone posted the following diagram on Twitter, with a note that it was the Bible's description of the universe: 

That struck me as being the ultimate in Biblical literalism. 

The problem with taking metaphors too literally is that you fail to see the wood for the trees, and miss what is actually being said. And there is also the danger of reading into a text a lot of things that are not being said.

In my youth there we often used other metaphors for the world (cosmos) we live in. One was "Spaceship Earth". I wonder whether, in about three millennia's time, someone will produce a drawing of whatever their current conception of a spaceship is, and say, in all seriousness, that that is how the ancients of the 20th century pictured the earth?

Another metaphor that I have often used in sermons, is based on a song by the Beatles that was popular about the same time as the "Spaceship Earth" one. I din't know if the Beatles themselves conceived it that way, but I used it in sermons describing the world in the time of Noah: We all live in a Yellow Submarine. Combine the metaphors and you get a submarine capable of travelling in outer space, which, of course, is what the Polaris missiles of those days did. 

The point of those metaphors, of course, is that both submarines and spaceships have limited resources and a confined space in which to preserve the life of the occupants. And in the days of Noah, men were filling the earth with violence .in a confined space. Do that in a submarine, and sooner or later an armour-piercing projectile will make a hole in the hull and the waters above the roof and below the floor will come flooding in. Not windows in the firmament, but bullet holes in the hull. The effect is the same. It lets in the water. But it's a metaphor. 

If anyone has a problem with biblical literalism, and wants to go beyond it to see the big picture, I recommend reading a book by Anglican bishop John Davies, called Seven Days to Freedom, which gives a better understanding of the creation story in Genesis chapter 1.

14 July 2022

The taking of Annie Thorne (book review)

The Taking of Annie ThorneThe Taking of Annie Thorne by C.J. Tudor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A horror story.

Like Stephen King.

After reading the blurb and the first couple of chapters it is clear that this story shares tropes with some of Stephen King's horror novels. From It comes the trope of middle-aged people being summoned back to their old home town to face an old evil that they had had to deal with when they were at school there. And from Pet Sematary comes the trope of the revenant, someone who returns from the dead, but is not quite the same.

That isn't a spoiler, it's right there in the blurb, and becomes evident in the first couple of chapters. And in the acknowledgements the author acknowledges her debt to Stephen King, and he himself wrote an endorsement of the book. So if you liked those two books by Stephen King, you'll probably like this one, and if you didn't, you probably won't.

Having said that, it also isn't written by Stephen King. The setting is different, the characters are different, and the way they interact is different. Above all, the style is different.

It is set in a small former coal-mining village called Amhill or Arnhill (the typeface isn't clear) in Nottinghamshire in England. It is written in a first-person, present-tense style, though the flashbacks to the past are written in the past tense, and the narrator, who is the protagonist ("hero" would be something of a misnomer) lies not only to most of the people he meets, but also to the reader as well. And most of the other characters lie to him too. As a result there are several unexpected plot twists, with some suspected villains turning out to be less villainous than the unsuspected ones.

It's a good story, if you like that kind of thing, and I do.

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14 June 2022

Introduction to Mythology (book review)

Introduction to MythologyIntroduction to Mythology by Lewis Spence
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this book in the local library, and after reading the first few pages I nearly took it back unread, because it simply reeked of the spirit of arrogant modernity. It was first published a century ago, in 1921, at the height of modernity, and the attitude of the author is shown in passages like this:
It will now be clear that in the present volume our concern is with the science of myth alone -- tht is with religious beliefs and conjectures as to the nature of things of primitive, ancient or barbarous peoples and not with modern religious science, philosophy or theology.
And in this the author displays the temporal chauvinism that is characteristic of modernity at its arrogant worst. The author's own time and culture are civilised, intelligent and wise; others are barbarous, savage, irrational and stupid. And so the author displays his own sense of supreiority by the frequent use of terms like "barbarian", "savage" and "lower races" for the people he is discussing. The arrogance is shown by the frequent use of words like "obviously" and "undoubtedly" when discussing a debatable or speculative point for which he has given no evidence. And so the author excludes from discussion the modern myth of progress, in which he so obviously and undoubtedly believes.

I once made a similar criticism of another book, Bantu Prophets in South Africa by Bengt Sundkler. That book was about African Independent Churches, and my article was Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism. In that case, however, Sundkler gave a lot of very useful factual information. It was his opinions, interspersed between the facts he gave, that needed to be deconstructed. So I decided to read Spence's Introduction to Mythology in the hope that the usefulness of the facts would outweigh the arrogance of the opinions. And so, to some extent, it was.

.One of the more useful pieces of information I found in Spence's book (p 24f) was on fetishes and fetishism:

... a fetish is an object which the savage all over the world, in Africa, Asia, America, Australia, and, anciently, in Europe, believes to be inhabited by a spirit or supernatural being. Trees, water, stones are in the "animism" phase considered as the homes of such spirits, which, the savage thinks, are often forced to quit their dwelling places because they are under the spell or potent enchantment of a more powerful being. The fetish may be a bone, a stone, a bundle of feathers, a fossil, a necklace of shells, or any object of peculiar shape or appearance. Into this object the medicine man may lure the wandering or banished spirit, which henceforth becomes his servant; or, again, the spirit of its own will may take up residence there. It is not clear whether, once in residence or imprisonment, the spirit can quit the fetish, but specific instances would point to the belief that it could do so if permitted by its "master."

We must discriminate sharply between a fetish-spirit and a god, although the fetish may develop into a godling or a god. The basic difference between the fetish and the god is that whereas the god is the patron and is invoked by prayer, the fetish is a spirit subservient to the individual owner or tribe and if it would gain the state of godhead it must do so by long or marvellous service as a luck-bringer. Offerings may be made to a fetish, it may even be invoked by a prayer or spell,; but on the other hand it may be severely castigated if it fail to respond to the master's desires.

I was both a contributor to and editor of a book, African Initiatives in Healing Ministry, in which one chapter, by Lilian Dube, described the ministry of a Christian prophet from an African Independent Church, Agnes Majecha, one of whose ministries was the neutralising of a kind of fetish called a chikwambo. These were popular in parts of Zimbabwe, where a n'anga (traditional healer) would trap the spirit of a dead person in a chikwambo and sell it to people who wanted to prosper in love or business. The problem was that as time passed, the chikwambo wanted sacrifices, usually blood sacrifices, initially of small animals, but later of larger and more valuable animals, and eventually of human beings. At this point, if not before, the owner would approach someone like Agnes Majecha to neutralise it. I found Spence's description of that general class of objects, fetishes, quite useful.

Spence also gives useful descriptions and summaries of various myths and mythologies from various cultures around the world, and also of the ways in which mythologists in preceding generations, up to his time, had evaluated them. But I found his own evaluations more repellant than many of the others.

In the end, I fall back on the Orthodox philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev, and prefer what he said about myth in his book Freedom and the Spirit:

Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality... The creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and creative energy of the people... it brings two worlds together symbolically.

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09 June 2022

Who are the "Evangelicals"?

Someone recently posted a link an article by Nathaniel Manderson: So who are "evangelicals"? And how did they become such massive hypocrites? in a Facebook Group on Progressive Orthodox Christianity. According to that article,

What are these evangelicals? Currently and historically, they are nothing more than a political action committee. They have nothing to do with the foundations of the Christian faith. Their political agenda is based on hate, rejection, condemnation and self-righteousness.

Now to me it seems that that article embodied what is commonly called "hate speech" -- it was calculated to stir up prejudice, bigotry, and hatred, and to judge from the comments it elicited in the Facebook group, it succeeded.

Let's start with "historically". 

Historically, those who call themselves "evangelicals" sprang from the evangelical revival of the 18th century, led by people like John and Charles Wesley, the early leaders of the Methodist movement. Evangelicalism had some roots in earlier Protestant Christian movements, like Puritanism in the UK and Pietism in Central Europe, but was essentially about responses to the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

People like the Wesley brothers (both of them Anglican priests) were concerned that many of the people who attended their church services did not appear to respond to the Gospel, the Evangel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. It did not seem to make any difference to their lives. 

The evangelical movement then spread, emphasising the need for a personal response to the gospel, and a changed life. This, and not "a political agenda based on hate, rejection, condemnation and self-righteousness," is the core of historical evangelicalism. And it is right there in Orthodoxy too. The Gospel, the  "Good News", the "Evangelismos" of Jesus Christ is proclaimed on the Holy Doors of Orthodox temples throughout the world, showing the Archangel Gabriel announcing the good news to Mary, the Mother of God, and the four Evangelists who wrote it down afterwards, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

And the core of evangelicalism is right there in the Orthodox baptism service, where the priest asks the candidate not once, but three times, "Do you unite yourself to Christ?" and the candidate answers "I do unite myself to Christ?” And just to make sure, the priest then asks three more times "Have you united yourself to Christ?" and the candidate again answers three times "I have united myself to Christ".

And the priest asks "Do you believe in him?" and the candidate answers "I believe in him as King and God."

And that is the core of evangelicalism, which in Protestant Evangelicalism has been ritualised as the "altar call". 

In Protestant Evangelicalism the person who does that is said to have been "born again", but in Orthodox theology the person is not actually born again until they have been through the baptism that follows.  In Orthodox theology everyone who is baptised in an Orthodox Church is a "born-again Christian" and this is known as "baptismal regeneration" (John 3:5; Titus 3:5 -- "regeneration" is just a fancy Latin word that means "born again").

The difference between Orthodoxy and Protestant Evangelicalism does not lie in uniting oneself to Christ and believing in him as King and God, but rather in what follows. One could say that the Orthodox Church often appears like a ladder with the bottom four rungs missing. The way baptisms are often performed rushes through  these questions and answers without explanation, and often in a language not understood by anyone present, so that their significance is obscured. Protestant Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to emphasise these beginning steps almost to the exclusion of anything else. The ritual of the "altar call", in some Evangelical churches, is repeated every Sunday, so that Protest6ant Evangelicalism often looks like a ladder with only the bottom four rungs and nothing above. They substitute decisional regeneration for baptismal regeneration, and regard "decisions for Christ" as the measure of success in evangelising.

So for Protestant Evangelicals "evangelism" meant preaching for a verdict, the aim was to get a person to make a decision for Christ. But Jesus didn't say "collect decisions", he didn’t say “make converts”; he said "make disciples". The early Methodists recognised this, and tried to make disciples with their class system. They recognised that conversion needed to be followed by "sanctification", which is not all that different from the Orthodox notion of theosis. But eventually the Methodists abandoned that, and many of the other evangelicals never adopted it in the first place.

For this reason Anglican Evangelicals were called "Low Church" -- they thought that the church was not so important. What was important was "decisions for Christ". What came after the decision did not matter so much.

The problem was what one sociologist described as "the routinisation of charisma". A new generation grows up with something that was new and fresh to the previous generation, and so there is a need for revival, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries travelling evangelists would go round preaching revival, and setting up tents in various towns where they preached.

One branch of such revival movements found that something that was neglected in the eagerness for "decisions for Christ" was that the first followers of Jesus did not really begin preaching until they had been filled with the Holy Spirit, and so the Pentecostal movement started at the beginning of the 20th century, as an offshoot of the Evangelical movement, emphasising the need for being filled with or baptised in the Holy Spirit. And they developed a new doctrine, that the "initial evidence" that a person was filled with the Holy Spirit was "speaking in tongues".  Many traditional Evangelicals disagreed, and so "Evangelicals" came to be distinguished from "Pentecostals". Many of the Pentecostals were kicked out of Evangelical and other denominations, and so a number of new Pentecostal denominations started and spread their message.

At about the same time, there was also the rise of Fundamentalism. which was quite different. Some 19th-century German Protestant theologians began, as a result of historical and linguistic studies, to question some of the events recorded in the written gospels, and some of the doctrines based on them. Fundamentalists opposed this doctrinal revisionism, and demanded a return to traditional doctrine, to the doctrines they saw as fundamental, like the virgin birth of Christ, the inerrancy of Holy Scripture and so on. Some Evangelicals were drawn into that, but they were different movements. Evangelicals thought Fundamentalists were so concerned about doctrine that they neglected the importance of commitment to Christ. Fundamentalists thought that Evangelicals were so concerned about emotional conversions that they were vague and woolly about the importance of right doctrine. 

Fifty years after the appearance of the Pentecostal movement, a new version of it began to appear among non-Pentecostal denominations, which came to be called the charismatic renewal or charismatic movement. Like the early Pentecostals, they became aware of the downplaying of the Holy Spirit. Like the Pentecostals, they had a renewed awareness of the importance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the Pentecostals, however, they believed that any of the spiritual gifts mentioned in I Corinthians 12:8-10 could be evidence of being baptised in or filled with the Holy Spirit, and not speaking in tongues only. In some cases, these spiritual gifts appeared spontaneously among groups of non-Pentecostal Christians and they had to find a way of dealing with them. It appeared in many Western Christian groups, including Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Baptists and even among explicitly Evangelical denominations. Many charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations sought advice from Pentecostals, and some of them simply took over Pentecostal pneumatology uncritically. This also happened with some Orthodox who were involved in the charismatic renewal, and they were regarded with suspicion by other Orthodox mainly because of their attempts to import Pentecostal pneumatology into Orthodoxy, whole and undigested.

I met one such person from the USA, who visited South Africa as a self-invited evangelist. He objected to singing Orthodox hymns in any language other than Greek, but was keen on teaching Orthodox Christians to sing Protestant Evangelical hymns in English. In his mind there was a complete separation between the two. For him, Orthodoxy was Greek, and no English or Zulu was allowed to touch it. But for him the Holy Spirit was English, and had nothing to do with Orthodoxy. 

 The charismatic movement flourished from about 1950 to 1980, and then began to split up. Some charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations, unhappy that their denomination did not accept everything they said, went off and formed or joined one of the many Neopentecostal denominations that were springing up around that time. The 1970s were also the age of the cassette tape, and many spiritual loose cannons appeared, announcing that they had new revelations of the Holy Spirit, which were not tested by the Church because of the fissiparousness of Protestantism, but spread all over the world by means of cassette tapes, both audio and video. 

Such were Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland, who came up with the “prosperity gospel”, which was adopted and adapted by many (though not all) of the Neopentecostal denominations (which often, somewhat misleadingly, called themselves “nondenominationaal). 

Traditional Evangelicals often initially opposed the charismatic movement, believing that spiritual gifts had ended after the time of the first apostles. Many Evangelicals had been influenced by another Protestant movement, Dispensationalism, which believed that different parts of the Holy Scriptures were written for different periods of time, called “dispensations”, and so were not applicable to others. They tended to become especially concerned with one of these “dispensations”, which they called the “End Times”, about which various theories were developed, with names like premillennial, postmillennial and amillennial (Orthodoxy, by the way, is amillenial, regarding millennialism, also known as chiliasm, as a heresy). 

Along with the rise od the “prosperity gospel”, the late 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the “moral majority” movement in the USA, which attracted some evangelicals. and developed into “religious right”, and which the US media now, misleadingly and inaccurately, call “Evangelicals”. And the article by Nathaniel Manderson uncritically adopts their terminology and the spin they put on it. 

I had some acquaintance with one of these former evangelicals who became an enthusiastic supporter of the religious right. This was James D. Kennedy, who, as an evangelical Presbyterian minister, developed a method of training lay people in evangelism, called “Evangelism Explosion” or EE III. When he became part of the religious right, however, he had little to say about evangelism, and nearly all his publis statements were moralistic and political. And it is in this that we can see that the people that Nathaniel Manderson writes about are not Evangelicals, but pseudo-Evangelicals. Because James D. Kennedy appears to have undergone a transformation. 

Evangelicals take that epithet from the Gospel. True Evangelicals tend to see Gospel and Law, Evangelism and Moralism, as essentially opposed to each other. But James D. Kennedy clearly shows a change of focus, from being evangelistically minded to being moralistically minded. He appears to have undergone a kind of conversion. He seemed to stop evangelising and start moralising. 

Before 1980 many Evangelicals tended to be a-political. They regarded political involvement as a distraction from the main task of preaching the Gospel. At the time I thought their attitude was counter-productive. How can you preach good news to the poor and oppressed while removing the “good” from the news? But during the 1980s in South Africa, many Evangelicals were becoming woke -- that is, aware of social injustice, and the irrelevance of their manner of preaching the gospel to the poor and oppressed, and many sought ways to remedy that. But at the same time the message of the US religious right, made up of ex-Evangelicals and others, was spreading around the world. So I believe that the article by Nathaniel Manderson is dangerously simplistic, and promotes prejudice and bigotry that feeds hatred. 

Orthodox Christians do have theological differences with Protestant Evangelicals, but should not get their information about Evangelicals from such simplistic caricatures. It would be better to meet real Evangelicals, and not the fake ones of the US religious right, who have abandoned their evangelical faith for the political pottage of this sinful world, and have failed to realise, as one Evangelical pastor put it, when writing about the US civil rights struggle in the 1960s, that “what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us”.



This article was written primarily for Orthodox Christians, who often know little about non-Orthodox Christians, including Evangelicals, and are often unaware of the differences between Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Fundamentalist, Dispensationalists and the Religious Right. Though there are some overlaps, those are all distinct groups. Not all Evangelicals are members of the Religious Right, and vice versa. I am aware that some deprecate the use of phrases like "not all". But I believe that though not all those who deprecate the phrase are bigots, many of those who do deprecate it are bigots, and do it in order to promote bigotry. 

Dr Stephen Hayes is an Orthodox deacon living in Tshwane, South Africa. 

He has degrees and diplomas in church history, history, theology and missiology from the Universities of KwaZulu-Natal, Durham and South Africa. 

23 May 2022

The Origins of Racism

Someone asked me on Twitter what I thought the origin of racism was. Was it just a matter so skin colour, or was it more an economic thing?

That's a big questiopn, and can't be properly answered within Twitter's 250 or so character limit, so I just said it was a matter of both, but the proportions of the mix might vary according to circumstances. The bloke who asked wasn't too happy with that, so I thought I'd try to respond at greater length. He asked for my personal view, but I hadn't given too much thought to the origin of racism, seeing it more as a thing that is there and that we have to deal with whenever and wherever we find it, regardless of its origin.

He also asked for my personal view, so what follows is what I think, and not necessarily what anyone else thinks.

One way of answering the question is by evolutionary biology, which can be used to give an explanation for the origin of racism, xenophobia and prejudice. Human beings seem to be hard-wired with a distrust of things that are strange. Strange people, strange animals, strange plants, strange or unusual events. If you see something strange, treat it as dangerous until it is proved to be safe. In terms of evolutionary biology, in the past, some people didn't do this, and they died, because the strange thing turned out to be dangerous. If they died as children, they did not grow up to have kids of their own, and so those with the trustfulness gene did not pass the gene on to their children, and those with the supicion gene lived to pass that on.

It's also a learning thing. Once, when I was about 4-5 years old, we came home and found a large puffadder lying stretched out in the garden path. I thought it was dead and my parents called me away and said it was only sleeping. And so it proved, when it woke up. And so I learned to distrust apparently sleeping snakes. If my parents had not been with me and warned me, I might not have lived long enough to write this. And so we learn prejudice. I am prejudiced against sleeping snakes. And those who learn prejudice young tend to live longer than those who don't. It is an evolutionary survival trait.

And so we learn to distrust strange people, those whose language, customs appearance etc differ from our own. And that is partly learned behaviour. amd partly an inherited evolutionary characteristic. Those who are suspicious of strange things tend to live longer and to breed more. So much for evolutionary biology.

But there is also a mythical/theological explanation.

One of the best descriptions of this is in C.S. Lewis's science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet. In the story two men, a mad scientist and a greedy financier, build a spaceship to go to Mars, which they want to colonise and exploit. They kidnap a philologist, who quickly learns the language of Mars, whose population is in three races that live in harmony. Mars, which the locals call Malacandra, has a spiritual ruler, a planetary angel, called the Oyarsa, and it turns out that earth, the "silent planet" of the novel's title, has a bent Oyarsa, who has corrupted his planet and its inhabitants. The mad scientist speaks to the Oyarsa of Malacandra, a racist rant about the human racve being superior to all others, and so destined to dominate and displace them. The Oyarsa of Malacandra says he sees what the bent Oyarsa of earth has done -- he has taken one good, the love of kin, which is not the greatest good, and twisted it to persuade the human race that it is the only good. In other words, racism comes from the devil.

While I see the explanatory value of both of these -- the evolutionary biological, and the mythic/theological, it is only the latter that enables us to fight racism. From the point of view of evolutionary biology, racism is neither good nor bad; it just is.

The National Party (NP), which ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994, defined "nationalism" as "love of one's own". The NP claimed that its policy of apartheid was based on "Christian Nationalism". But what is "Christian Nationalism". B.J. Vorster, who became Minister of Justice in the NP government in 1961, and Prime Minister in 1966, said in 1942, when the NP was still in opposition:

We stand for Christian Nationalism, which is an ally of National Socialism. You can call the anti-democratic system dictatorship if you like. In Italy it is called fascism, in Germany National Socialism, and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.
But it was very clear that in spite of the "Christian" epithet that they tacked on to it, race trumped Christianity. One's "own". in the NP worldview, were not one's rellow Christians, but one's fellow white Afrikaners, who could accept other white as allies, provided they served the Afrikaner nationalist cause, but not fellow-Christians of other colours or races. The blood of kinship, of volkheid, was thicker than water, even than the water of baptism. "Christian Nationalism" meant that the "volk" came first, and Christ was second or lower, and certainly did not count in determining who was "one's own". And this the God who said "thou shalt have no other gods before me".

And so, in C.S. Lewis's story, after the mad scientist has ranted on about the superiority of the human race, its civilization, its science, medicine, law, armies, architecture, commerce, and the right to succeed other races as the right of the higher over the lower, the Oyarsa of Malacandra says.

I see now how the lord of the silent world [the devil] has bent you. There are laws that all hnau [intelligent creatures] know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly, and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little blind oyarsa in your brain.
And that is the essence of racism, "love of one's own" blown up out of all proportion until it becomes thoroughly evil.

The Herstigte Nasionale Party, a far-right breakaway from the NP, put a further twist on the concept of "one's own" when they coined the slogan "eie volk, eie land", and I wonder if the irony of the English translation escaped them or was intentional -- "own people, own land", when owning people, of course, is slavery. They seem to have dropped the Christian epithet by then, because their concept of owning land took no account of the God who said "Woe to those who add house to house and field to field until there is no more room" (Isaiah 5:8).

So yes, I believe that the ultimate origin of racism is the devil.

But what about the relation of racism to skin colour and economics?

That varies from place to place and time to time.

I suspect that a lot of white racism in America is economic in origin. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade period thousands of black slaves were exported from Africa to America. During that period in the Americas nearly all black people were slaves, and nearly all slaves were black people. And slaves were ipso facto at the bottom of the economic pile, and so inferior in status, in power, and in almost every other way to non-slaves. And so in the Americas slavery became associated with blackness, and blackness with slavery, and hence with inferiority. This, in itself is probably sufficient to account for racism in the Americas. There may have been other causes too, but the historical link between blackness and slavery is certainly the main cause.

Something similar happened in southern Africa. Slavery in the Cape Colony, which lasted until 1835, was mostly of black people from other parts of Africa and people from southern Asia. But it differed from America in that on the eastern border of the Cape Colony, during the slave period and after, there were large umbers of free and independent black people, who outnumbered both the slaves and the free people of the Cape Colony.

It is also worth noting that white racism increased exponentially at the time of the New Imperialism, which lasted from about 1870 to 1914. White Christian missionaries who came to Africa from Europe before 1870 may have had a certain amount of ethnocentric chauvinism, in preferring their own customs and culture to those of Africans they encountered, but they had no problems, for example, with appointing a black Yoruba ex-slave, Samuel Crowther, as Anglican bishop in Yorubaland, which later became part of Nigeria. But their successors during the New Imperialism denounced that as unwise and premature, and it was a long time before there was another black bishop in Nigeria. This was not so much economic, as about skin colour and culture. The New Imperialist white missionaries (and colonial officials, and businessmen) were imbued with a sense of their own superiority as white men.

There was a connection with economics too, but skin colour drove economics rather than the other way round. In the British colony of Natal laws were passed to diadvantage black farmers and favour white ones, limiting cattle trading and the like. And in the Union of South Africa in 1913 the Natives Land Act prohibited black people from acquiring any more agricultural land. And later, in the 1950s-1970s the NP government tried to deprive black farmers even of the little land they had, simply because they were black.

But the question of the origins of racism arose in the context of a different discussion on Twitter, when Jay Naidoo observed that he went to a restaurant where the food was good and the garden was good, but he was the only darkie there, and he wondered why that was.

I commented that at most of the restaurants I've been to recently there have been people of all colours there. But most of the restaurants I've been to in the last 10 years have been in the middle-class eastern areas of the City of Tshwane, Other places may differ. But (and this is where the economic factor comes in) most of the patrons of those restaurants, regardless of colour, have clearly also been middle class. That particular part of the city is also embassy territory, so in any given middle-class restaurant, on any given occasion, there might be a fairly cosmopolitan clientele.

But imagine if a homeless person, dark or pale, came in for a meal. Middle-class people, whether black or white, would ne likely to notice and wonder what was going on. They might think it too rude to stare, but they would notice. And perhaps some of the proprietors might invoke "right of admission reserved" notices to turn away someone of an obviously different class, lest the middle-class patrons be put off and not return, because they feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is so obviously not one of them.

So, regardless of the origins of racism, and though I think it is still a factor in South African life, I think class is a more important factor, which is why in South Africa the gap between the rich and the poor is among the highest in the world, and the attitude of many seems to be that expressed in the following verse, sung to the tune of "The Red Flag" (O Tannenbaum):

The working class can kiss my arse
I've got the foreman's job at last.


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