08 December 2023

Gaslighting God

God's Monsters: Vengeful Spirits, Deadly Angels, Hybrid Creatures, and Divine Hitmen of the Bible by Esther J. Hamori
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A rather disappointing book.

That's a personal opinion, of course. I was disappointed mainly because I didn't find what I was looking for, and the author doesn't have any obligation to the reader to provide what they are looking for. But I was also disappointed because what the book did provide, it provided in a very tendentious and rather misleading way.

What was I hoping to find?

I write, and enjoy reading, fantasy books that include various kinds of creatures that could fall under a general heading of "God's monsters" -- angels, demons, dragons and the like. I was hoping to get more insight into their character and activity.

The main aim of the book appears to have been to show that in the Bible God is a malevolent, capricious and extremely violent tyrant, and that the "heavenly host" are nothing more than a bunch of violent thugs employed as enforcers. Anything that doesn't fit this picture is either left out altogether, or twisted until it can be made to fit.

There are occasional useful insights, but they are suffocated by the overarching need to show the malevolent wickedness of God.

One of these useful insights was that Isaiah went to sleep in church one Sabbath, and dreamed about the seraphim. There was a seraph in the temple, which he was probably looking at just before he had his dream. It was called Nechushtan, and was made of brass. It was said to have been made by Moses and when the people of Israel were attacked by a lot of poisonous snakes (seraphim in Hebrew) in the desert, Moses held up the brass seraph and they were healed (Numbers 21:6-9). So this brass seraph quite possibly triggered Isaiah's vision in the temple (Isaiah 6).

But the point Hamori emphasises here is that the cruel and sadistic seraph, servant of a crueller and more sadistic god, deliberately and with malice aforethought literally goes and burns Isaiah's mouth with a burning coal. I thought this was taking literalism too far.

Next come the cherubim.

I think the first mention of a cherub in the Bible is the one that barred the entrance to the garden after Adam and Eve were expelled. Author Esther J. Hamori (correctly in my view) makes the point that cherubim are found all over the ancient Near East as guardians of holy places, but the problem is with what went before the expulsion. The story is twisted into something like its opposite. God deliberately tricks Adam and Eve by lying to them, and the snake tries to help them.
In the moments leading up to God’s deployment of the monstrous guard, he lies to his human creation, promises them a painful future, and gaslights them. No wonder they hide from him behind the trees. After this, stationing monsters at the door looks less like a new security feature warranted by the people’s actions, and more like the next threatening move of a controlling figure whose m.o. now includes bringing in thugs to do his dirty work.

When God stations his hybrid guardian monsters at the gateway to Eden, it’s the culmination of a story of divine danger. The garden of Eden, where the deity strolls among the trees as the human beings hide behind them, contains more danger than the world outside. Even in Eden, there is no Paradise.

 If, however, one takes Occam's Razor to Hamori's interpretation, one can find a simpler explanation. God says Adam and Eve can eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except that of one tree. They eat the fruit of that tree. Taking what it is not given is theft, and when the thief sees the rightful owner of the stolen goods coming the natural reaction is to hide, not because the owner is inherently dangerous but because of what one has done.

 And the Christian metanarrative (yes, I know postmoderns don't like metanarratives) is that this theft and abuse of hospitality breaks the relationship between man (male and female, should anyone quibble) and God, and, whatever else it is, the cherub at the gate represents the inhuman face of God, which is the result of the broken relationship and how God appears to man after the break, until, in Jesus Christ, God appears again with a human face to restore the relationship.

Hamori says that in this story God gaslights the first humans, but I think in this book Hamori gaslights God.

And the further one reads in the book the more obviously and relentlessly does the author press this Orwellian twist -- freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom, the oppressor is the victim and the victim is the oppressor. 

This becomes more obvious in dealing with the King of Babylon in Isaiah chapter 14. The obvious meaning is that in death the oppressor comes down to the level of those he oppressed -- he has no power in the grave. His victims can say, where is all your power now, with which you oppressed people? But Hamori presents God as the oppressor and the King of Babylon as the victim of oppression by creepy shades roused by God to gloat over his fate. Elsewhere Hamori talks of "monsterising" people we don't like, but here she monsterises the oppressed and presents their oppressor as the victim.

I would, however, be interested in discussing this book with others who have read it, and looking at it especially in terms of all the things that Hamori leaves out.

For example, Hamori must know, but fails to mention in the book, that Christians often interpret the fall of the King of Babylon typologically, as analogous to a fall of Satan. So much so that one of the epithets of the king of Babylon, Lucifer (in the Latin Vulgate) has been taken by some to be the personal name of the satan.

In discussing the book of Job Hamori points out, correctly, that "satan" is not a name but a job description, but then rather disingenuously claims that "Finally, the word becomes a name: Adversary, or Satan. Even then, he’s not the same as the Satan of the New Testament, who’s also called the devil (and a few other choice names). In the Hebrew Bible there’s no devil or hell. None. Zip. Devil-free territory."

Elsewhere Hamori claims that nowhere in the Bible is the satan called an angel. yet the Septuagint version of Job 2:1 says that the angels of the Lord came to stand before the Lord and the devil was among them. "Devil" (Greek diavolos) is the Greek translation of the Hebrew satan, and, like "satan", means adversary or accuser.

In the scene in Zechariah 3, where the high priest Joshua is on trial, Hamori emphasises the injustice done by God to the satan, rebuking the prosecutor for simply doing his job, thus obscuring the main point, which is that God's mercy trumps his justice. And this is clearly because it contradicts Hamori's main point, hammered in just about every paragraph in the book, that God is not merciful, but malevolent, vindictive, cruel and sadistic.

For what it's worth, a Christian metanarrative here is that the satan, who is indeed the prosecutor in the heavenly court, like many human prosecutors, takes his job too seriously. For him the overarching goal is the conviction rate; it is better that the innocent should suffer than that the guilty should escape. He regards the judge as too soft on sinners, and thinks he could do a better job, so aims to take over the judge's job. But he comes short with Jesus, who is found guilty in the magistrate's court (under Caiaphas), and likewise in the high court (under Pilate, even though Pilate has his doubts, he is not prepared to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt), but in the court of ultimate appeal Jesus, the high priest Joshua ("Jesus" is the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua) is vindicated because the filthy clothes he is wearing are not his but ours -- he put them on at his baptism in the Jordan -- and the ultimate court of appeal not only reverses the verdict of guilty, but it reverses the sentence as well, the sentence of death, and Jesus rises from the dead. Satan not only loses his case, he loses his job and is tossed out of court by Michael, who has become the bouncer (Rev 12:7-12), and there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for their accuser (satan, devil) has been fired.

Hamori's account is more interesting for what she leaves out than for what she includes, and the excluded bits tend to show that throughout the book she is gaslighting God.


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02 December 2023

My Two Facebook Accounts - FAQ

I have two Facebook accounts, one as Steve Hayes and the other as Stephen Hayes. 

As I am frequently asked about this I thought I should write a blog post to answer the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) to save a lot of typing every time I'm asked. 

The short answer is that I hoped to use the Steve Hayes account as a general one for keeping in touch with family and friends, and the Stephen Hayes account (which is linked to my author page on Facebook) for keeping in touch with people who have read books I have written, or might want to read them, or are generally interested in books, literature and writing. 

The story is more complicated than that, however.

At the time of writing this, I only have access to my Stephen Hayes account on my computer, and I only have access to my Steve Hayes account on my phone. 

Using a phone for Facebook is OK for  for quick scrolling to see what is happening and recording "reactions" to people's posts in the hope that that will encourage Facebook's algorithms to continue showing those people's posts to me. The phone also works for video links. The phone is not good for comments or replies other than facile one-liners. So anything that requires thoughtful replies longer than a line or two I save for my computer, and that means I'm using the "Stephen Hayes" account, which has fewer followers/friends, and therefore doesn't always work. 

I used to have full access to my Stephen Hayes account (and my author page) from my laptop computer (using Firefox on Windows 7), but that was stolen in October 2023, and appears to be irreplaceable.

I used to have full access to my Steve Hayes account on my desktop computer (using the Maxthon browser on Windows XP), but since about September/October  2023 Facebook has been tossing me out after about 20-30 seconds, so I just have time to see that someone has a birthday, but not enough time to send them birthday greetings. And if I want to see if there is an update to the Maxthon browser that might work better, it takes me to the Maxthon Facebook page, which tosses me out after 20 seconds. And in case anyone asks about that, I used the Maxthon browser because it worked on Facebook when most other browsers didn't. It was the last resort.

I do have limited access to my Stephen Hayes account from my desktop computer, however, using Firefox Version 41 (less bloated than newer versions, and also more secure, since it runs NoScript). It keeps telling me that my browser is not supported, and that I'm not getting the full benefits of Facebook, but it does let me read and comment on posts. 

As for why I have two Facebook accounts, that goes back several years. 

I originally had only the Steve Hayes account back when Facebook was only for current students in tertiary education. Then suddenly Facebook blocked my access to my account unless I downloaded and installed an undescribed piece of software on my computer. I suspected that the thing they wanted me to install was some kind of spyware, and refused to download it, and opened another account in the name of Stephen Hayes as a kind of emergency account to keep in touch with people. If any of my friends on the other account asked to be friends on the new one, I accepted them, but I didn't solicit friends other than people I needed to be in frequent contact with.

After a few months Facebook unblocked the Steve Hayes account and dropped the demand that I install the unknown software, so I began using the Steve Hayes account for most things again, but kept the Stephen Hayes one for emergencies, and eventually started using it mainly for literary stuff, as described above. 

But right now (December 2023) I use whichever account gives me access on the device which I happen to be using at the moment, and the kind of access Facebook gives me to either account on which device seems to change from week to week. Last week when I tried to go into the Steve Hayes account from my computer, all I saw was a blank black screen. Today I can see everything on the screen, but only for 20 seconds or so. 

Tomorrow it may work, or it may not. It depends on whatever torments the UX (User Experience) boffins at Facebook are thinking up next. I just wish they would take seriously the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But that's too much to ask.

For more reliable communication, use email. 


29 November 2023

Digitisation is death to data

A few weeks ago my laptop computer was stolen, and since the insurance company asked me what it would cost to replace it, I've been stuck, because it is beginning to appear that it is irreplaceable.

The computer that was stolen was about 13 years old, a Toshiba Satellite laptop running Windows 7 32-bit. It came with 64-bit Windows, but with a set of discs for a 32-bit version. Using it for a couple of hours showed me that it would not run many of my older programs, which I used to access research data I had collected over the last 25 years,  so I quickly installed the 32-bit version of Windows and all was well. 

Now, however, it seems that 32-bit versions of Windows are extremely difficult or impossible to get. I can still access my data on my desktop computer that runs 32-bit Windows XP, but what happens if that dies?

Referring to a related issue, director Guillelmo del Toro pointed out the dangers of streaming serivces when he said:

Physical media is almost a Fahrenheit 451 (where people memorized entire books and thus became the book they loved) level of responsibility. If you own a great 4K HD, Blu-ray, DVD etc etc of a film or films you love... you are the custodian of those films for generations to come

But there is another bigger problem. Even if you possess the physical media, they are quite useless if you have nothing to play them back on. And for many of these things the hardware and software to read such physical media is becoming rarer all the time. 

For a long time people have been recommending the digitisation of paper documents, with or without the destruction of the originals, as a means to better preservation, but that depends on the availability of the hardware and software to access the digitised versions. Someone wrote a book a few decades ago called CD-ROM: the New Papyrus, but how easy is it to get a computer that can read a CD-ROM? Better stick to the old papyrus!

One thing that would go a long way towards alleviating this would be for historians, librarians, archivists and others who are concerned about preservation of information from the past to push for international agreements and legislation to ensure that whenever an operating system, or version of an operating system is no longer supported by its manufacturer, it should be put into the public domain, without copy protection, and possibly also made open source, so that people can adapt it to run on new hardware.

Something similar should be done with application software (apps) such as word processors and the like -- how many people can read a Multimate document nowadays?

A personal example: 

Since the age of 11 I have kept a diary, originally written in pen and ink in a series of notebooks. In 1985 I began digitising it. I typed out the entries for 1969 in Wordstar on an Osborne Executive portable (luggable!) computer running CP/M3, stored on 185k single-sided floppy disks. I did it because I wanted to collect memories of my grandmother that I had written back then when I had seen quite a lot of her. 

Later I realised that quite a lot of what I had written might be useful to historians of Namibia, so I continued to transcribe it beyond the period relating to my grandmother. In 1987 I got a newer computer running MS-DOS, and a better word processor called XyWrite. I converted the Wordstar documents to XyWrite (I still have the conversion program on my computer today) and carried on transcribing. In about 1990 I printed out an edited version of the Namibian portion and sent a bound copy to the Windhoek archives. 

In 1992 I began making notes for the current version of my diary using a then-popular "terminate-and-stay resident" program called Sidekick, which I would then use to write up the hard copy version. In about 1995 I started using a text database program called askSam, and stopped keeping up with the hard copy version. In 2001 I started using a different text database program called Inmagic, and began converting all the remaining Wordstar, XyWrite and askSam versions to that, and since 2006 have kept it in a single file. A couple of years later I had more or less finished transcribing all the hard copy ones going back to when I had started at the age of 11, and every morning I look at it to see what I was doing in the past going back at 10-year intervals. I can do that on a computer running 32-bit Windows, but not on one running 64-bit Windows. So 64-bit Windows is quite useless to me. 

That is just one example, but there are many other things, like research notes made from books, interviews with people, with research data that I've now been collecting for 35 years (and older data that I have digitised in a similar manner to the diary). but the planned obsolescence policy of software companies like Microsoft would require that I must give up all that. Perhaps I need to do a "Go Fund Me" appeal for the funds to print out all the stuff on my computer on hard copy in order to have continued access to it.

Digitisation as a means of preservation only makes sense in an open source and public domain environment.


26 November 2023

Books about enchanted things, and some unsolicited writing advice

The Enchanted Crossroads

The Enchanted Crossroads by Dora Blume
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm not sure where this book came from. When my daughter sent me her old Kindle, having got herself a new one, this appeared as one of the books I could read, so I began to read it

In this book Kaira, an up-and-coming lawyer, is followed home by her Lyft driver, Leif (who later makes an unexplained switch to Uber), and it's just as well because when she reaches her apartment she is attacked. Leif rescues her from her attacker, and takes her home to his apartment, where he tells her she isn't really human but a Mage, and that some equally inhuman creatures, called morrigans, are out to get her.

Kaira learns a lot about herself that she didn't know, but has a great deal more to learn, and wonders how this will affect her legal career. She is also attracted to Leif romantically. So there's conflict, drama and romance. What's not to like?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

First, the characters are irrational and predictably unpredictable, prone to inappropriate reactions and behaviour. 

In my experience one of the red flags for this is rolling eyes. In nearly all the books I've read, the only mention of rolling eyes is in terrified animals in immediate danger of losing their lives to predators, fire or similar perils. In The Enchanted Crossroads the human characters do it more than 35 times, for no discernible reason and the message, if any, that they are intended to convey is obscure.

Then the characters smirk at each other in situations where smirking seems inappropriate. None of the other things they have been doing leading up to the smirk seem to warrant such a reaction. They also saunter as if they had set out to go somewhere with a purpose, and then forgotten what they were going to do, but do it anyway.

The weirdest reaction, however, is swooning. Kiara's mother's reaction, on first meeting her daughter's new boyfriend Leif, is to swoon. She recovers almost immediately, without the aid of smelling salts, or having her face fanned or her pulse taken, and carries on talking as if nothing had happened, and nobody else present shows the least concern, or even seems to notice that she had swooned.

Kaira also learns that Mages, unlike humans, bond for life. She is romantically and sexually attracted to Leif, but there can be no question of a one-night stand. Divorce is not an option. Bonding is irrevocable. After knowing Leif for a couple of days she decides to take the plunge and be irrevocably bonded to Leif for life. A day or two later she discovers that nothing like this has ever happened to her before -- the fact that it happened yesterday has slipped her mind -- and she is faced with the choice of  making an irrevocable decision to bond with Leif for life. And then it happens again a third time. Three irrevocable life-changing decisions in as many days! The mind boggles.

It seems that Mages (and Sages and Verities, their allies, and morrigans, their enemies) are familiar with and use modern technology like cellphones and motor vehicles. But when it comes to actual fighting, it is sword and sorcery only, no firearms in sight. So when Kaira discovers she is a Mage, and the morrigans are out to get her, she has to learn to defend herself by fencing and potions. What's wrong with that? After all Harry Potter and the Hogwarts crew learn that kind of stuff. Yes, but in Harry Potter there is at least an explanation -- a prohibition on the use of Muggle technology. Here this, and many other things in the story, are not explained to the reader. The characters switch from mawkish love to exasperation and anger, and back again, within a couple of sentences, and they do this not once but many times, all the way through the book.

Now I'm not an expert on how to write books. I have been an editor of non-fiction for more than 50 years (mostly newspaper reports and articles and academic texts), but that doesn't qualify me to edit fiction. Nevertheless, I think I can recognise bad writing in fiction even if I'm not qualified to suggest improvements. I've read several books on how to write books, and they warn against using things like adverbs and the passive voice and telling rather than showing, but none of them warns against having more rolling eyes than a load of marbles falling off a moving truck.

So unqualified as I am, I do make some suggestions to authors of fiction:

1. Avoid giving your characters violent and unexplained mood swings without explanation (eg passionate love followed by exasperation and anger)

2. (Which follows from 1) If you are going to describe facial expressions or bodily gestures, like rolling eyes, smirks, grimaces or even swoons, make sure the reader understands the reason for them, and do try to make the reason sound convincing. 

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14 November 2023

Now that I have an ebook reader...

My daughter had a spare Kindle, and when I mentioned that such a thing might be useful for reading during load shedding, she sent it to me, and I've just finished reading this book on it:

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain, #1)The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not quite fan fiction, but a story in the setting of the Mabinogion with some of its characters, like Math, son of Mathonwy, in background roles. I found it an enjoyable read, so I gave it 5 stars on GoodReads.

It's a book I've been hearing about for a long time. On GoodReads, people who liked books I liked also liked this one. In online forums where people discuss books, several people have mentioned this one, but I've not been able to find a copy in a library or bookshop. But I found one for the Kindle reader, which could also be read during load shedding.

I won't go on to the next book in the series immediately, because there are other series that I want to read as well, like The Dark is Rising. That one interests me more, not because it's better written or anything, but because several readers have compared my children's books to it.

Some people have asked why, if we can't find books locally, we don't just order them from suppliers like Amazon, which seem to have everything. Well, yes, that is where I got the first two books in the The Dark is Rising series, but getting physical copies of books from overseas is very expensive and a big schlep. If you don't collect them from the post office within a certain time, they send them back, and we don't go to the post office very often, partly because there isn't much post, and partly because the City Council of Tshwane has turned most of the parking space near the post office into no-stopping zones, and the few parking spaces left are 15 minutes only, if they aren't full, and it takes more than 15 minutes to collect overseas parcels from  the post office, so you are likely to return and find your car has already been towed away. So fetching the post is such a schlep we don't do it very often, and most of it is commercial bumpf anyway. 

So that gives ebooks two big advantages right now: (1) you can read them during load shedding and (2) you can get books that are unobtainable in hard copy.

But I still prefer hard copy books when I can get them, and when there's light to read them by.

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26 September 2023

Coming to faith through Dawkins

Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity

Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity by Denis Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this was a very good book and well worth reading.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the book launch where Denis Alexander, one of the editors, introduced it by interviewing three of the authors, and the following morning I heard him speak on genetic determinism, which happens to be his academic field. Dr Alexander, and the authors, made the book sound interesting, and so it was.

What bothers me a bit about writing a review, no matter how much I enjoyed the book, is that it is in effect a collection of twelve reviews of a book that I haven't read, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Note: Though this piece is based on a review I wrote on GoodReads, it goes beyond the review in being more wide-ranging, and also more personal

The God Delusion is a polemic against religion in general and Christianity in particular, and in this book all twelve authors describe how reading it had the opposite of the intended effect on them.

Obviously not all readers will find Dawkins's book counterproductive, and indeed for some of these authors it initially wasn't; but in all of them it ultimately produced the opposite effect to what the author intended. Many of these authors were looking for something to confirm or reinforce their atheism, but instead The God Delusion had the opposite effect and made them doubt it.

Several of the authors had also read, and been similarly influenced by others of the so-called New Atheists, notably Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I haven't read any of their books either. The nearest I got was picking up The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris in a book shop one day, and glancing through it. I was curious to read what he had to say on the topic, but I didn't want to spend any money on it, so thought I'd wait till I could find someone who had a copy of the book and was willing to lend it to me. From my skimming through it I couldn't see anything new about the "new" atheism though; it all looked very much like the "old" atheism I'd learned about as a first-year university student through the arguments and the tracts handed out by members of the university Rationalist Society led by the redoubtable Dr Eddie Roux. These arguments and tracts were more rational, more logical, and more coherent than a lot of the stuff put out by the "New Atheists" and their followers seems to be.

Some of the contributors to Coming to Faith through Dawkins are working in the same or related academic fields as Richard Dawkins, and admire his work as an evolutionary biologist, and say how disappointed they were when they read The God Delusion, which fell far below the standard of his scientific works. Celebrity in one discipline does not necessarily make one an expert in another, unrelated, field. For more on that, see here.

Though I haven't read any of the works of the "New Atheists", I have encountered some of their disciples and fans online. I usually try to avoid being drawn into arguments with them, as most of them tend to be more dogmatic than their heroes, and their logic tends to be even more simplistic, so that the arguments go round in circles. They love to recite the creed of valid and invalid arguments, often just before asking question-begging questions or setting up a straw man, so one thing I learned from this book was that even the models they base themselves on do that.

One of the best examples of that came from a colleague at work who was an agnostic, and tried to join an online group for discussing atheism, agnosticism and so on. But he was blackballed because he had a heretical view of the nature of God. It turned out that in order to join the group one had to not believe in the god that Sam Harris didn't believe in, having exactly the same nature and characteristics. No other god would do. 

One reason I haven't read any of the works of the New Atheists is that I'm not much interested in the question of the "existence" of God. I have never been convinced by any of the arguments for the existence of God, and I suspect that most Christians are unaware of them, much less convinced by them. Some parts of Coming to Faith through Dawkins mentioned the Cosmological Argument and a couple of others. I'd have to look them up to find what they are, so I just skimmed through those parts of the book. 

That is also another of the reasons I try not to get involved in arguments with soap-box atheists online or in person. The arguments wouldn't convince me, so why would they convince them? The only times I do comment are when the atheist asks a question-begging question, or demonstrates some other logical flaws.

One such question, however, I did relay to Dr Denis Alexander when he spoke on genetic determinism, because it seemed to be right in his field. Someone who bills himself as a talented sceptic asked on Twitter (alias X) "What is the biological cause of the fear of death?"

I took his question at face value, and answered: "Natural Selection. Those who do not fear death do not survive long enough to reproduce."

He didn't comment, but I suspect that that was not the kind of answer he was looking for. There may have been a hidden sub-text; there usually is a hidden sub-text to such questions.

And most questions asked by soap-box atheists seem to start in the wrong place and with questionable assumptions, like "What evidence do you have for the existence of God?" (I learned from Coming to Faith Through Dawkins that the demand for "evidence" is a prominent characteristic of the New Atheists).

Any response is likely to be met with "The onus is on you to provide evidence." But who determined the onus? The onus-putters. The question belongs to Humpty Dumpty; it's really "Who is to be master? That's all."

The authors of Coming to Faith through Dawkins come from many different Christian traditions, and many different academic fields. They come from five different countries (three of them are South Africans -- the ones who were at the book launch). Some of the contributions appealed to me more than others, but because of the variety anyone who has any interest in questions of science and faith, or related questions, should find this book interesting.

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23 September 2023

Institutional Memory: Remembering the Good and the Bad

Yesterday morning we participated in TGIF[1] via Zoom, where Nick Koning spoke on "The good and bad of institutional memory." He said he had gone to Selborne College, a high school in East London, and would be taking that as an example, as the whole place was full of reminders of the past. 

The perimeter fence was marked with the names of old boys. There was a Jubilee Tower, a new structure, but it was meant to look old, and to be a reminder of the past. The school hall was full of sporting pictures of the past. He had walked into all this as a 14-year-old boy, and was filled with the sense of past achievements, which helped to give him the ambition to achieve similar things.

Every new pupil at the school had to pass a test on all this historical tradition before they could wear the school uniform, and that was a mild form of initiation. Among the names was one who had been awarded the Victoria Cross because he had killed a lot of Nazis. Another was Mark Boucher, a former pupil who was celebrated as the best wicket-keeper in the world, and had learned to pay cricket at Selborne College. Nick himself played hockey, and was inspired by this to be the best.

The way the past is remembered is the superpower of such institutions, inspiring people to raise their horizons.

There was the annual Founders Day ceremony, full of pomp, highly traditional and very colonial. The head boy was called the Custodian of the Keys, a practice that dated back to when the war memorial, called Bob, was erected after the First World War, and the Administrator of the Cape handed over the keys to it to the head boy. So on Founders Day two lists of names were read out -- that of past Custodians of the Keys, and that of those who had died in the First and Second World Wars. This reinforces the idea propagated by the school motto -- that reward is to the brave, who save the world from bad people.

But there were no people of colour on the lists that were read out, because back then it was an all-white school, and it was only in 2002 that there was, for the first time, a black Custodian of the Keys.  We all know the reason for this, it is a familiar thing, but still an ugly one, and we need to remember the ugly facts of our past too.

What is forgotten is as interesting as what is remembered. White exclusivity is not remembered. The horror of SA society, and the shock of it is forgotten. The glorious past is not as glorious as has been remembered. There were good things to remember, but the way we remember it is better than  it actually was.

There were also some bad things, some bad traditions. Among the lists of names were detention lists, which were mostly of black children, and so a problem. Why were black children more often in detention than white children?

In 2017 one of the pupils drew a caricature of Hector Pieterson, where the people in the famous picture of him being carried after he was shot were portrayed as dogs. There was the continuing use of racial slurs by teachers, but little is said about these things in the institutional past, though they could be used as an educational opportunity.

Though Selborne College was only one school, there are many others that preserve institutional memories and traditions in various ways, yet I thought how different it was from my own school life. 

When I went to St Stithians College in 1953 it was a brand new school. There was no past, no tradition. There were no new boys to initiate, because we were all new together. The headmaster, Wally Mears, said there were no rules, and that we, by our own behaviour would make the rules. The first founders day, on 11 August 1953, was marked by the laying of the foundation stone of the school chapel, and yes, it was an all-white affair. But the only names remembered were those of businessmen who had left money in their wills for the school to be started, or those other businessmen and lawyers who had administered the trust fund. There were no past pupils, only present ones.

In more recent years I have attended the Founders Day services, usually at five-year intervals, so this year was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the school. But it struck me that the remembered past is not much like the real past, and there is not much interest in the real past. I had suggested that they should try to arrange a reunion gathering of the foundation pupils who were there in 1953, and they suggested one for those who had been in my matric class in 1958, which was not at all the same thing.

In 2008 I had gone to a head boy's lunch, where some of the current pupils met some of the past pupils and teachers. I ppoke to Tshegofatso Rangaka, then head of Collins House, who was keen to know about traditions, but I had had to tell him that I couldn't think of any, because the school had been so new. I got the impression that there was a kind of hunt to discover traditions, and perhaps he was under some pressure to pump the past pupils for traditions. 

By that time St Stithians was 55 years old, and there were lists of names on boards up in the dining hall, and the one who had been head boy in my matric year, Bruce Young, was the first on the list, but his name was spelt wrongly, as B. Going, and no one had noticed or bothered to check. The remembered past was not the real past, and an imagined past would do just as well as the real past, as long as it was a tradition.

There are mixed memories of the past, some good, some bad. I don't recall the teachers ever being racist -- they gave us "a liberal education with a Christian teaching" in accordance with the wishes of the businessmen who had left money for the school to be established. 

We ate in the school dining room, wearing school uniforms with blazers even in midsummer. On one particularly hot evening, when the headmaster's wife, Nan Mears, was sitting alone at the high table supervising us, someone dared me to go up and ask if we could take off our blazers. 

"Certainly not!" she replied. 

We were all white, and had to learn to behave like gentlemen. There were black waiters, who brought our food and cleared the tables afterwards. One day one of the waiters appeared with his head shaved, and we all remarked on his new hair style. Only many years later did I learn, to my shame, that in his culture it was a sign of mourning, and that someone in his family must have died recently, but instead of expressing sympathy, we kids insensitively teased him about his hair style. Such things could have become educational opportunities, as Nick Koning suggests.

The best example of forgetting the bad is illustrated in the way St Stithians treated its second headmaster, Steyn Krige. He was my geography teacher from 1954 to 1958, and was only deputy headmaster when I was there, and he died in 2011 -- my memorial for him is here. The school named a hall after him, and published an obituary for him, and noted that when he left St Stithians he went on to found Woodmead School, the first fully non-racial school in South Africa. What they did not mention, and what seems to have dropped out of the institutional memory, is why he left St Stithians. He was fired in an acrimonious row that made the front pages of the Sunday newspapers back in 1969. What was never made public was the reason for his firing, and that has been conveniently swept under the carpet.

I think it is important to remember the past. Shakespeare said "The evil that men do live after them, the good is oft interred with their bones" (yes, I learned that at St Stithians). While that is often true of individuals (think of what people recalled on the recent death of Gatsha Buthelezi), in institutions the reverse tends to be true -- the good things are remembered, especially by the people who enjoyed them, the bad things tend to be forgotten. Partly for that reason I at one time wrote a series of blog posts, Tales from Dystopia, to remember some things that might otherwise be forgotten. Unfortunately I had to give it up, because the Wordpress platform became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible to use. But have a look, and maybe it will jog your memory about the past. 



[1] TGIF, in this context is a gathering that takes place in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Stellenbosch early on Friday mornings, so people can come and get some mental stimulation before they go to work. There are speakers on various topics.

13 September 2023

Missing persons: fact and fiction

Missing PersonsMissing Persons by Nicci Gerrard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnny Hopkins goes off to university and disappears. His family and friends embark on a frantic search for him.

The book concentrates on the effects of Johnny's disappearance on his friends and especially on his family, which is rather unusual in such books.

Many novels feature missing persons as part of their plot, but most concentrate on the search for them, or on the missing persons themselves. The reaction of their friends and family usually form part of the story and are not the central element of the plot.

There have also been quite a lot of TV series on missing persons, where the reactions of friends and families of the missing have been central, but these have usually been documentary, or re-enacted documentary rather than fiction. I don't know whether it's the influence of such TV series, but I think I prefer such themes not to be fictional, but rather to be based on real people and real events. You can make up a story about why someone would want to disappear, or why some villains would want to make someone disappear (Shatter by Michael Robotham is a good example of that genre), but making up a story about how people react somehow doesn't strike me as being as interesting as the real thing.

I realise that this is a personal preference, perhaps also driven by my interest in family history, which is a search for missing persons over several generations. So this is not about this particular book, which I thought was interesting and well written; it's rather about my own personal preferences.

One example is Re: Beaglehole, a court case that established the South African law of missing persons. Absalom Beaglehole went missing in England, but his brother died in South Africa, and their sisters in England wanted the missing Absalom declared dead so that they could claim his share of their brother's inheritance (in this instance, real life diverges quite widely from the fictional story). If you're interested, you can read about what happened in the Beaglehole case here: Deceased Estates, Probate Records and Missing Persons

But, my personal preferences aside, the characters in Missing Persons are believable, and its worth a read.

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06 September 2023

Good Advice for Fiction Writers

More on How to Write a MillionMore on How to Write a Million by William Noble
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I got a job as an editor of academic texts I began looking at books in the university library with advice to writers and editors. I could recognise bad writing when I saw it (even as a student, having to read obfuscatory prescribed texts), but as an editor my job as to improve it, and turn a bad text into a good one.

As a result, I read quite a lot of books on writing, both fiction and nonfiction, and when I saw this one going cheap on a book sale, I bought it. I would not have bought it at the full price, because the title put me off. I thought someone really needed to edit that (a million what?). But on sale it was cheap enough that there was nothing to lose, and I'm glad I did, because it really is one of the better books on the subject.

It is actually 3 books in one, by three authors I had never heard of. The three books in one binding have separate page numbers, indexes and tables of contents. They are on Description, Revision and Setting. As an editor, I read the Revision one first, and also used it when revising my first novel, Of Wheels and Witches, and have just reread it for working on a second edition.

They give sensible advice. For example, nearly all books on writing give the advice (or sometimes a command) to "Show, Don't Tell", and this one covers it from three points of view -- in description, revision and setting. But here it is not overly prescriptive about it. It is more helpful than that, and gives advice on when to show and when to tell, and also how to do both showing and telling, when each is most appropriate.

I recommend it for both beginning and experienced fiction authors, but nonfiction authors and editors could also benefit.

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03 September 2023

Utopia as Dystopia: R.A. Lafferty's "Past Master"

Past MasterPast Master by R.A. Lafferty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bit like Brave New World and 1984 on steroids.

Astrobe is the new Earth, and a paradise where poverty is unknown, and wealth and comfort are freely available to all. The paradise is marred, however, when increasing numbers of people, like the savage in Brave New World, reject this, and opt for a life of voluntary poverty, deprivation and disease.

A group of leading citizens decide to bring Sir Thomas More, the English lawyer and martyr who wrote the original Utopia from the past, as the eponymous "Past Master" to help them to solve this problem. More arrives, and discovers that the paradise is not all that it seems. Those who doubt the vision become the target of programmed killing beasts and are eliminated from the society, rather as More was eliminated from his own English society back in 1535.

The Astrobian Utopia has a far better surveillance system than 1984 and can detect treasonous thoughts before even the thinker is aware of them. This seems to be significant for the role of so-called "AI" in our current society, and it is worth reading for that reason. R.A. Lafferty raises the kind of questions we should be asking about "AI".

There are more interesting parallels with out society. In South Africa there is a widening gap between rich and poor, though in Astrobe it is large still yet entirely voluntary. Thomas More, after first encountering the contrast, remarks:
I was never an advocate of wealth and fineness. I believe fully in holy poverty. But I say that poverty is like drink: a little of it is stimulating and creative; too much of it is depraved and horrifying.
And More has a better name for what we misleadingly call "AI" -- eloquence machines.
At this one thing for which Astrobe has a hunger now, high oratory, we were the professionals and you are the amateurs. I know that you have analyzed the thing and broken the personal aura down into its elements. It is like chopping up a bird, but can you make a bird? Perhaps you can, since you made the Programmed Persons, but we recognize them as artificial. I know you have built intricate eloquence machines, man, but they ring false. The laughter of the people at them like autumn leaves blowing is evidence of this. I've heard the eloquence machines, and I've heard the people's response. I've heard human and programmed orators who have studied under the eloquence machines. I've heard a lot of things in one week on Astrobe. People are hungry for the real thing...
And then there was the tantalising hint of more: "Evita had been battling principalities and powers for a long time, and it showed on her. And yet she didn't appear more than seventeen."

10 August 2023

Celtic themes in fantasy literature and literary genres

Here's an interesting review of a collection of essays on the influence and use of Celtic mythology, or themes from Celtic mythology in fantasy literature. 

I'm unlikely to find the book in a bookshop, or to be able to afford it even if I could, but I found the review itself very interesting and informative, and it sparked off several ideas. If you find these things interesting, you might like to read the review. and possibly the book if you can get hold of it. Strange Horizons - Imagining the Celtic Past in Modern Fantasy edited by Dimitra Fimi and Alistair J.P. Sims By Debbie Gascoyne:

In her introduction to this useful and insightful collection, co-editor Dimitra Fimi writes: “This edited volume aims to open a conversation about fantasy's multifaceted and enduring fascination with the Celtic past, and its various perceptions” (p. 4). Fimi notes that, while previous scholarship (including her own 2017 monograph) has focused on work written for children, the essays in this volume examine texts aimed at adult readers. The collection is divided into four sections: the first deals with what is loosely defined as “intrusion fantasy,” in which a Celtic “otherworld” overlaps with our own; section two looks at “worldbuilding” and the way authors use Celtic elements to create a fantasy world; section three has discussion of works in languages other than English; and the fourth and final section looks at how “the fantastic is situated within cultural practices perceived as Celtic” (p. 5).

The first thing that struck me about that was the notion of "intrusion fantasy", a term that I was unfamiliar with, but which seems to me an apt description of the novels of Charles Williams and the early children's novels of Alan Garner, which are among my favourites. It also seems to describe most of the fiction I have tried to write (examples of which you can see in the side panel on the right).

 Since  I had not heard of "intrusion fantasy" before I did a web search to make sure that it meant what I thought it did, and came across some interesting web sites, such as this one: Bring These 5 Intrusive Fantasy Books Into Your World

If you’re wondering what intrusive fantasy is—apart from sounding like something very rude and impatient—you’re not alone. In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn argues there are four categories of fantasy, one of which is “intrusive.” (The others, in case you’re interested, are portal, immersive, and liminal.) If a portal fantasy is one in which the protagonist and the reader travel from the ordinary world into a magical one (Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are classic examples), then an intrusive fantasy is the reverse. In intrusive fantasy, magic comes from an Elsewhere into the ordinary world, changing it and the protagonist forever.

Of the five books mentioned there, I've read 1.15. I read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova about 12 years ago -- see my review here: At last, a good vampire story. I did find Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell among the new books in our local library, but it is an enormously long book, and after reading 150 pages and realising it would take forever to finish, I returned it to the library to give other readers a chance.

For more on Farah Mendlesohn's four categories of fantasy, see here.

Concerning Celtic mythology and its use by fantasy authors, Debbie Gascoyne goes on to say:

Several of the chapters in this volume make it clear how many of the most popular ideas about “Celtic mythology” or “Celtic traditions” actually arose from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Robert Graves and Jessie Weston (among others) have a lot to answer for. For example, I was quite shocked to learn from Gwendolen Grant’s chapter on Alan Garner that the “triple goddess figure” he weaves through his Weirdstone trilogy owes more to The White Goddess (1948) than to any Irish or Welsh source material (p. 44). Juliette Wood’s chapter on “The Celtic Tarot” describes an “imaginative, though unhistorical link between current ideas about Celtic myth and a divination device that dated back only to the eighteenth century” (p. 175).

...from which I infer that most of the authors of the book disapprove of the rather loose way in which many fantasy writers use mythological themes and tropes, or at least Celtic ones.

Without having read the essays themselves it is hard to tell, but I don't think that in writing fiction one can treat mythology and folklore as if one were documenting them for an academic study. Alan Garner, for example, borrows eclectically from Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic and 20th Century English mythology and folklore, and stirs the mixture quite vigorously. Though the blurb mentions "Celtic mysteries", he freely links the Anglo-Saxon Herlathing with the modern notions of ley lines and the "old straight track" with nothing Celtic about either. He does include Celtic mythology in the mix, but also Norwegian (the strömkarl), more old English (mara - related to nightmare), Nordic (the lios alfar and the svart alfar, as well as Ymir, whose maggot brood they were). The Morrigan is Irish, and hence Celtic, and the bodachs and brollachan are Scottish but Garner gives each of them some characteristics derived from his own imagination, to suit his story.

I haven't made much use of specifically Celtic mythology in my own writing, but as most of my stories are set in southern Africa, there are other mythologies to draw on, but I assume that what the essaysts say about Celtic mythology would apply, mutatis mutandis, to any other system of mythology.

07 August 2023

Trouble Pug -- a fun book for kids aged about 8-10

Trouble PugTrouble Pug by Kathryn Judson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two girls, Morgan and Kisa, find a stray dog in a park, and decide to adopt it. Kisa already has a dog, so they decide it is Morgan's dog, but Morgan's mother doesn't like dogs, so Kisa keeps it for her.

Trouble begins when they discover that the dog can travel in time and take people with her, and Kisa and Morgan have some scary trips until they can communicate to the dog where they want to go.

Adult readers, even those who normally enjoy children's books, might be put off by the way some characters are overdrawn so as to appear almost as caricatures. Morgan's mother, for example, is rude and abrasive, and has a sense of entitlement that seems larger than life. But kids of the target age usually don't notice such things, and subtlety tends to be lost on them. It's the kind of story that most children aged about 8-10 would enjoy reading, even though some adult readers might think it's a bit over the top.

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31 July 2023

Impersonating, hacking and hijacking on Facebook

I have often seen people on Facebook announcing "I've been hacked", which is a very unwise thing to do, and also probably untrue.

If they had really been hacked, they would not have been able to access their account and post that message. But what I have noticed recently is that posting such a message immediately attracts swarms of hackers like bees to honey, and they swamp such posts with comments promising to rescue the poster's account from the clutches of the hackers, or to know someone who can do so. These messages are thoroughly disingenuous,  because the account in question hasn't been hacked, but copied.

Spammers like to impersonate Facebook users by creating a page that looks just like theirs, and then invite their friends to become friends so they can spam them with ads for shady financial deals (usually involving cryptocurrencies), links to porn sites and the like. This is not hacking, it is impersonation, and is much more common than hacking. 

If you suspect someone has been trying to impersonate you on Facebook, just search for your name. If you find a person with the same name as you, who has created a page that looks just like yours, using your photos etc., then report it to Facebook, and they will take the fake site down.

Similarly, if you get a friend request from someone you are already friends with on Facebook, ask your friend if they have opened a new account, and if they haven't, warn them that they haven't been hacked, but someone is trying to impersonate them. It's important to warn them that they haven't been hacked, so that they won't announce "I've been hacked" which is a sure way to invite real hackers to come buzzing around. If the new account does not belong to your friend, then you or they can report the bogus account to Facebook, and they will take it down.

But, whatever you do, don't say "I've been hacked" because if you do, you probably will be.

The hackers who come and offer to rescue your account, or recommend someone who can do so, will probably ask you for your login and password information so that they can "recover" your account, and that will make it easy for them to hack it, change your password, and hijack your account for their own purposes.

Remember, if you post a message saying "I've been hacked", then you probably haven't been, because if you had been hacked you wouldn't have been able to access your account to post the message that you had been hacked.

26 July 2023

Over Sea, Under Stone redux

Over Sea, Under Stone

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my second time of reading, and if anything I liked it even more on the second reading than on the first, so it still gets 5 stars, and much of what I said in my review of an earlier edition also applies to this one, apart from the comments on the illustrations, since this edition is not illustrated.

I was prompted to reread it on reading the announcement of a course on it at Signum University in September 2023, which I can't afford to participate in, but looks interesting nevertheless.

I first heard of this book, or rather of The Dark is Rising series, of which it is the first part,  when a number of readers of my children's books (listed in the sidebar) compared them with that series, and that made me keen to read them, but I failed to find any copies in either libraries or bookshops. Eventually I ordered the first two from Amazon, but before they arrived I found a copy of Over Sea, Under Stone in our local library and so read that one first. Having read it and liked it, I also liked the comparison readers had made with my books, especially as other readers had compared my books with Enid Blyton's Famous Five, a comparison I liked less.

When re-reading a book, one has more time to pay attention to smaller details, perhaps influenced by what other people tell you. Even on my first reading I was influenced by online comments that the language was old fashioned, and I commented on that in my review after my first reading. 

This time round, I was influenced by discussions about advice given to authors to avoid adverbs. There seems to be, at least among some authors of advice-to-writers books, an absolute taboo on adverbs. I noticed that Susan Cooper uses adverbs quite a lot, even the dreaded "Tom Swifties" that are used to qualify "said". But I'm pretty sure that I would not have noticed if I had not been consciously looking for them. I agree that some writers use too many adverbs, or use then inappropriately, but I don't think Susan Cooper is among them. When I was looking out for them, she seemed to use them well, and there was nothing that struck me as wrong about them. And when I wasn't looking out for them, I didn't notice them.

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23 July 2023

Fecund fertility in the Appalachian mountains

Prodigal SummerProdigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Creatures lived and mated and died, they came and went, as surely as summer did. They would go their own ways, of their own accord."

A book about sex and death, seen through the eyes of of three characters in a fecund fertile summer in a small farming community in the Appalachian Mountains of the USA, and the adjacent forest reserve.

Deanna Wolfe is a forest warden, concerned about predators, and develops a relationship with a man whose main aim is to hunt predators. Lusa Landowski is a young widow, who has inherited her husband's farm after he was killed in a motor accident, and feels the burden of her sisters-in-law's envy. Garnett Walker is a farmer and a widower, but old, and forever quarreling with his neighbour for allowing weeds from her property to infest his.

All three are concerned about and have studied sex and reproduction, but in species other than their own. Deanna is concerned about the reproduction of predators, and especially of coyotes, which are new to the area. Lusa is an entomologist, and has studied the sex life of moths. Garnett is concerned about the American chestnut trees, virtually extinct from an imported disease, and is trying to breed a new variety that will be resistant to the disease. But their own efforts to reproduce have been unsuccessful for various reasons. Over the summer, however, their lives gradually become intertwined, and many changes are evident in their attitudes and relationships.

I found the characters interesting. As I often find with Barbara Kingsolver's books, the characters a quite difficult to relate to at first, but then one becomes absorbed, and wants to learn about their fate, and, in the case of this book, one also learns quite a lot about the ecology of the area, and the environmental effects of different farming methods.

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22 June 2023

Gods of Power - allegedly

Gods of Power

Gods of Power by Philip M. Steyne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is quite extraordinary. The author presents a kind of Platonic ideal of animism, as he sees it, and then criticises it from the point of view of "biblical Christianity". As I read it I kept reminding myself of the saying, "To the person whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so, for this author, everything looks like animism.

There is page after page about what "animist man" believes and does, because that is that the author tells us "animist man" believes and does. One page of vague generalisations follows another, often quite contradictory. "Animist man" we are told feels powerless in a universe where everything is controlled by powerful spirits, but with the right rites "animist man" can control and manipulate these spirits and become omnipotent. So the picture emerges of "animist man" as simultaneously powerless and omnipotent.

The main problem with such an approach is that "animism" appears as a purely external construct. The ubiquitous "animist man" is never asked for his opinion of what his beliefs and practices are, and there aren't even any empirical examples. The "Gods of Power" of the title is an abstraction, because none of the gods referred to is named or described.

"Animism" is a term used by anthropologist Edward Tyler (1832-1917) to describe and explain the beliefs of some people, who were not raised in the culture of Western modernity, that non-human life forms, such as animals and plants, and even objects regarded as inanimate by Western man, such as rocks, mountains and rivers, had their own personality or soul. Since it is an attempt to interpret one kind of culture in terms of another, such attempted interpretations often tell us as much or more about the interpreting culture than about the one ostensibly being interpreted. 

Steyne, however, tells us nothing of this, but instead asserts, "Animism's chief presupposition is the sovereignty of man." This is almost diametrically opposed to Tyler's point, which was that animism's chief presupposition is that humanity is merely one life-form among many, and that other life forms have their own purposes which might not necessarily coincide with human ones.

There are lots of references and the book has a fairly comprehensive bibliography; one would only have hoped that the author had made better use of it.

I said at the beginning that this was an extraordinary book. Most of it is extraordinarily bad, in that one will learn very little about animism or a Christian evaluation of it from its sweeping over-generalisations, and even less about gods of power. The first 14 chapters range from mediocre to very bad. Chapter 15 is somewhat better, but of questionable relevance. The final chapter, however, is quite extraordinarily good, and contains some excellent missiological advice, whether one is evangelising animists or not.

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Well, that's my review though why anyone should now be interested in a review of a 30-year-old book I'm not sure. But for anyone interested (and if you've read this far you might be), here are some more personal thoughts on and inspired by the book. 

I spotted this book on the library shelf and took it out because I was attracted by the title, Gods of Power. I was attracted by the title because I'm exploring a theme, or a trope, in a novel I'm writing. Yes, I am a missiologist, and that no doubt influences my fiction writing when it touches upon missiological topics, as in this case.

The theme that I'm writing about in my novel is what happens to gods of people when they lose their power? Neil Gaiman wrote on a similar theme in his American Gods, about what happens to gods when their worshippers are transported to a new environment. My theme is somewhat different, though -- it's more what happens to the gods of vanished empires who have lost their worshippers. Will they go searching for new sources of power in other lands?

Unlike Steyne, I don't think all such deities are "animist", or that they were worshipped by "animist man". Several religions in the ancient Near East had notions of divine kingship, where a god personified the power of the state, and was linked to the king. Regarding rocks, mountains and rivers as personalities, or at least as occupied by spirits, is animist, but seeing abstract entities, like the state, in the same way, it seems to me, falls outside the definition of animism. So Steyne's labelling them all as animist, without giving any specific instances, was of little use to me. So his book didn't suit my purpose, but does that mean that my reaction to it is just sour grapes? I don't think so. I think that if he had stuck to the generally accepted understanding of animism and based it more on empirical evidence of actual animist beliefs and practices to justify his description and labelling, it would have been a better an more useful book generally.

And in the mean time I'm still looking for stories of gods who have lost their power because no one worships them any more.

17 June 2023

Vampire stories: the good, the bad, and the mediocre

Twilight (Twilight, #1)

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd heard a lot about Twilight, but most of what I had heard was not good, and I borrowed a copy to see what it was like. It's about a group of vampires attending an American high school, and one of the other pupils, Bella Swan, gets a crush on one of them.

I found the first three-quarters of the book very slow paced. It was full of teenage angst and gut reactions to Edward Carlisle, the vampire. It was slightly better than the vampire books of Anne Rice, but not much. It seemed to take the "show, don't tell" advice given to authors to ridiculous lengths, and just made the book tedious. The pace speeded up a bit towards the end, which is why I gave it three stars rather than two. 

It also had some weirdnesses that had nothing to do with vampires. Some distances were given in miles, others in meters [sic]. I didn't expect American high school kids to think of distances in meters, or even metres. Do they?

If you'd asked me 15 years ago, I would have said I liked vampire stories, but now I would say I like some and hate others, and some are just "meh!". This was one of the meh! ones. . For more on that, see At last -- a good vampire story

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05 June 2023

St Boniface of Crediton, church history, and missiology

Today (June 5) is the feast of St Boniface of Crediton, Apostle of Germany. 

As a missiologist, I've always found him interesting, and one of the most interesting missiologial things about him is that most missiologists pay little attention to him, and quite a lot of them are perhaps not even aware that he existed. 

He was born in Crediton in Devon in England about AD 680, and died a martyr's death in Frisia about 754. His original name was Wynfrith and he became a Benedictine monk. He went on a missionary journey to Frisia but found that no one was interested in his message there and the King opposed the Christian message.

He then travelled to Rome, and got the support  of the Roman Pope to reorganise and beef up the infant German church (which had been established by earlier rather haphazard Irish missionaries) and get it more active in mission. He did this with considerable success in Thuringia, Bavaria and Hesse. The Roman Pope Gregory II, on getting news of this summoned him to Rome and gave him more enthusiastic support. 

Boniface then returned to Germany, and the Hessian Christians, we are told, approached him with a problem. Some were pure in their faith, but others still retained practices that the purer ones thought were not compatible with the Christian faith, such as divination using the entrails of sacrificed animals, or from the flight of birds, and engaging in incantations and sacrifices. They urged Boniface to cut down a large oak tree that was much revered by pagans, and as he began to do so, amid the angry mutterings of the pagan spectators, a "blast from above" felled the tree without any human help, and we are told that most of the pagan spectators were so impressed that they converted on the spot. Boniface himself, however, in a report to Pope Gregory II, said that this account was exaggerated.

Boniface went on to reform the Frankish Church, and later became Archbishop of Mainz. Perhaps he found that too dull, and felt that he wasn't cut out to be an administrator, so he resigned and went back to being an active missionary again, on the scene of his earlier unsuccessful mission to the Frisians. He was reading the scriptures to a group of new Christians when a group of pagans attacked and killed him.

The treatment of Boniface by church historians and missiologists

My daughter, Julia Bridget Hayes, has painted an ikon of St Boniface, and he is remembered in the Orthodox Church as well as in the Western Church, though not perhaps as well as he might be, but the different treatment by church historians and missiologists is something else. 

I had done a BA degree at the University of Natal, majoring in Biblical Studies and Theology, with a couple of years of secular history as well. Later I did a BTh degree at Unisa, majoring in Church History and Missiology, which I found more interesting. The church historians made quite a big thing of Boniface, and went into some detail, and I wrote an assignment on him. 

Some time later I mentioned him in a missiology assignment. I thought it was perhaps significant that Boniface was English, and that the English had migrated to Britain from Germany over the preceding 200 years, and their kingdoms in southern Britain eventually amalgamated to form England. 

Boniface therefore went to the land that the English had originally come from, and so the language and culture of the people would not be entirely alien to him. We can still read and understand the English of the 1820s now, and so Boniface would hot have had any more difficulty in making himself understood than a US evangelist in the UK would today. He might annoy people with his message and some of his new-fangled cultural ideas, but he would be understood. 

I mentioned this in a missiology essay on cross cultural mission, and my professor, David Bosch, was quite astounded. It was clear that such a thing had never occurred to him before. He had no doubt heard of St Boniface, but obviously had never thought of him as missiologically significant. 

I began wondering about church historians and missiologists living in separate silos, each being unaware of the others were doing. The church historians found Boniface tremendously important, but not for his missionary work or his missionary methods. No, what they found important was not what he did in Germany, but the fact that he went to Rome. The significant thing about this for church history was that it marked a stage in the growing influence and power of the Pope of Rome, and it was therefore a stage in the development of the papacy.

But as a missiologist I thought there were other things worth noticing. The wandering Irish missionaries who had preceded Boniface were travelling evangelists, perhaps like the tent evangelists of the 20th century; they may have made converts, but they did not plant functioning churches. Boniface was a church-planting missionary, and one of his priorities was to establish Benedictine monasteries ans centres of Christian life and growth. He was so good at this that the Roman Pope asked him to reorganise the whole Frankish Church.

And one more thing worth remembering is that it was monastic missionaries who took the Christian message throughout Europe, and the tool for the evangelisation of Europe was forged in Africa, where Christian monasticism first developed. Long before Europeans evangelised Africa, African Christians created the tools that evangelised Europe.

15 May 2023

Rites & Ceremonies: The Coronation of King Charles III

I watched the coronation of King Charles III on TV, I was interested in it primarily as ritual, a liturgical spectacle. I wanted to see what kind of theological understanding of kingship, rulership and authority it expressed. On the whole I was rather favourably impressed.

On the other hand someone who is a Tolkien scholar, commented on Twitter

I am forced to conclude that no fantasy author has ever conjured up a more ostentatiously outlandish ritual than a real-world British coronation.
I found that rather strange. I somehow think Tolkien would have approved of the rite.

Christian theology, like Jewish theology before it, has been rather suspicious of kings. When the people of Israel told Samuel they wanted a king, he was unhappy about it. If Israel was God's people, they didn't need an earthly king. But God was prepared to compromise. Let them have a king, but tell them they should not be surprised if the king introduces things like taxes and military conscription. For the surrounding nations kings were a part of their religion. They had a mystique of political power, and saw it as divine, and therefore those who held such power were, at the very least, semi-divine. Kings were very much a pagan thing.

When Christianity got going the Roman empire was one of the most powerful the world had ever seen, and the emperor cult was also a political loyalty test. Christians, however, reinterpreted the principalities and powers that the Romans and others worshipped. As the lesson read at the Coronation service pointed out (read by the Hindu prime minister -- I wonder what he made of it) the principalities and powers, the rulers and authorities, were not independent and autonomous powers: they were creatures, created by the creator God, who made all things, whether visible (like the flesh and blood bodies of kings and emperors) and invisible (like their power and authority).

When Christians became emperors of Rome, or Roman emperors became Christian, there was a conflict of interest. The pagan idea of a divine emperor clashed with the Christian notion of a creator God who was "Almighty", YHWH Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, the ruler of the powers. In the later Roman Empire (the so-called "Byzantine" empire) the ideal of a Christian emperor developed -- of a ruler who was to make the earthly kingdom as much like the heavenly kingdom as possible, ruled not for the benefit of the rulers, but of the ruled, to establish justice and mercy. The earthly empire was to be an ikon of the heavenly kingdom. 

Most of the flesh and blood emperors and empresses failed, of course, but the ideal was there. And this notion that political power was not absolute came out quite strongly in the coronation ceremony of King Charles III. The king was responsible to God and not for him, he was responsible for establishing justice and mercy in the land. The theme of justice and mercy was repeated again and again; the only jarring legalistic note came when he had to promise to maintain the establishment of the Protestant faith by law.

That particular feature is described in the "Liturgy" blog as "an excellent example of Anglicanism as protestant software running on catholic hardware" and

But in this, actions (as in liturgy generally) speak louder than words. The coronation procession was led by a cross. Two shards of wood given by Pope Francis, shards that the Vatican says are from the “True Cross” on which Jesus Christ was crucified, had been incorporated into this new processional cross.

Mitred bishops, indistinguishable in attire from Roman Catholic bishops, were front and centre. The chrism oil, central to the coronation rite, was made from olives of the Mount of Olives at the Monastery of the Ascension, and the Monastery of Mary Magdalene [The Monastery of Mary Magdalene is the burial place of Charle’s grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece]. It was pressed in Bethlehem. This chrism was consecrated in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Jesus died and rose again). It was consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, and the Anglican archbishop in Jerusalem, Hosam Naoum.
Things strike people in different ways. We see what we want to see. The symbolism of the cross in the ceremony, for example. To some the symbol of the cross above the orb symbolises Christianity as a conquering imperialist religion, embedded in colonialism, going out to conquer the world. But in the context of the coronation rite as a whole, it appeared to me in its true light, that Christian kings (as the rite assumed Charles is) are to rule in the spirit of Jesus as he explained to James and John: The rulers of the nations lord it over them, but it is not to be so among you. Christians often get it wrong, and invert this, falling back into the way of the world (if you want to see just how wrong Christians can get it, there's a good example here: Beware the Christian Prince).

As another Anglican hymn puts it:

Conquering kings their titles take
from the lands they captive make
Jesus, by a nobler deed
from the thousands he has freed
but for more on that, see here: The Church as the Liberated Zone.

11 May 2023

The Island by Victoria Hislop -- book review

The Island

The Island by Victoria Hislop
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is really about two islands, the bigger island of Crete, and the small island of Spinalonga, just off its north-eastern coast, which, in the time that the story opens, is used as a leper colony. It is also a book about family history, especially of two families that live on the coast of Crete opposite Spinalonga. Giorgias, the paterfamilias of the Petrakis family, is a kind of go-between -- he operates the ferry between Plaka, the village on the Cretan shore, and the lepers' island.

The book is full of description: description of Cretan life, society and customs, description of leprosy and its effects, physical, psychological and social. Where it describes things I know about, it seems pretty accurate, so I assume that the accuracy extends to things that I didn't know about before reading it. It seems to me that part of the purpose of the book was to describe these things, and inform the reader about them. The problem I found with the book, though, is that the description tended to dominate the story, so that the story became a kind of embellishment to the description, rather than the description being a setting for the story. In some places, therefore, the story becomes unconvincing, and the plot seems contrived. When things seem to be going well for the characters, and it seems they are all going to live happily ever after, disaster has to strike, and just when everyone starts to have a good time, something must go wrong. A kind of diabolus ex machina, as it were.

The story covers four generations of the families, and begins when Alexis Fielding, of the youngest generation, goes from London to Crete with her boyfriend, whose unattractiveness is becoming more and more evident to her. She decides to visit her mother's home village at the other end of the island, and, encouraged by her mother, visits her grandmother's best friend, who tells her the family saga, which takes up most of the book. In the family story, each generation has kept secrets from the next, for reasons that are never adequately explained. The symptoms and treatment of leprosy are explained in some detail, but the symptoms and secrets of the family malaise are not.

I first learned about leprosy at school; being a church school we had evangelistic meetings on Sunday evenings with invited speakers, and one of the regular speakers, who spoke about once a year, was Mr Ford of the Mission to Lepers, which later changed its name to the Leprosy Mission -- so I was interested to see that The Island was not at all squeamish about using terms like "lepers" rather than some euphemism like "people living with leprosy". Mr Ford told us about the (then fairly recent) discovery of a cure for leprosy, and distributed little plastic money boxes to collect money for the lepers, labelled "SOS", which stood for send over sufones -- the drugs used to treat leprosy. Though the drugs were effective, they were expensive, and many poor people could not afford them. Much of this information is given in the book, and in that way it reads a bit like a documentary.

Other things that seemed to be fairly accurately described were the rites and ceremonies of the Orthodox Church, and the place they seemed to hold in the life of the people and in community life generally. 

It was from such things that it seemed to me that the information given in the story was generally accurate. It was just that the documentary side and the story side did not seem to be very well integrated, which is why I gave it four stars rather than five.

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