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.


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