Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “painting”

Sometimes there is a void (review)

Sometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an OutsiderSometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an Outsider by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve often found that I enjoy literary biographies and memoirs more than the works of the writers themselves, and this one is no exception. I had read one of Mda’s novels, Ways of dying but I knew him mainly as a newspaper columnist before I came across this memoir in the library. I found it very interesting, partly, no doubt because the life and times of Zakes Mda overlapped so much with my own. As I often do, I’m expanding my review on GoodReads here, adding some reminiscences of my own, and comparing Mda’s experiences of some events with mine, because that was what I found most interesting about the book

Like me, Zakes Mda was born in the 1940s, so we belong more or less to the same generation, one of the ones before Americans started giving them letters. He grew up in Johannesburg and in the Herschel district of the Eastern Cape, near the Lesotho border. His father was a political activist, first in the African National Congress (ANC), later in the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and had to go into exile in Lesotho, along with his family. So Zakes Mda finished his schooling in Lesotho after dropping out and going back to complete his high school education.

He describes one of his drop-out periods as follows

We saw ourselves as part of the international hippy culture. Make love, not war. Janis Joplin was our chief prophetess. “Mercedes Benz”. That was my song asking God to buy me the luxury German sedan. The one that I sang as Mr Dizzy strummed the guitar. I never learnt how to strum it myself, so he strummed it for me. And hummed along. Another prophetess was Joan Baez with her folk songs. And the prophets were Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix with his psychedelic rock. When we were around the shebeens of Maseru reverberated with some of their music instead of the traditional Sesotho songs that were a staple of drunken sing-alongs. And Mr Dizzy strummed his guitar.
Source: Mda 2011:159

And I can say much the same of when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg and Durham in the 1960s. Mda mentions Jeremy Taylor’s Black and White Calypso from the revue Wait a Minim, which I saw in Johannesburg in 1962 on my 21st birthday.  Mda heard it sung by his friend Mr Dizzy (Sechele Khaketla) in Maseru shebeens, and it seems that Jeremy Taylor’s satire was appreciated just as much there as it was by the all-white audiences in Johannesburg. And a few years later Bob Dylan’s satire had much the same effect, when he was singing about “you unpatriotic rotten doctor commie rat” — just how the South African government of the time thought of us.

Mda tells his story in a series of flashbacks — visiting places from his past, and then telling of past events in those places. And so I discovered that he was far more than a novelist and newspaper columnist. He had begun as an artist, hawking paintings to tourists in Maseru, and his fame was chiefly as a playwright. He also became a teacher, teaching literature and creative writing both in Lesotho and in the USA.

I knew vaguely that plays that were banned in South Africa were sometimes performed in Lesotho — my wife had once travelled from Durban to Maseru with her cousins to see Godspell, which was then banned in South Africa. What I was not aware of was that there was such a lively literary scene in Lesotho, with local authors and playwrights mingling with South African exiles, so Mda’s memoir reads like a who’s who of southern African writers.

I am more historically inclined, so what I found most interesting was Mda’s take on historical events that I had been aware of, but from a different viewpoint. The ANC/PAC split of 1959, for example, and its relation to the politics of Lesotho. I had then been living in Johannesburg and at university in Pietermaritzburg, where I had once tried to explain it to some of my fellow students, and I was interested to see that my explanations fitted pretty closely with Mda’s experience.

Mda’s father was critical of a preface to a book of his plays, written by Andrew Horn, which said that Zakes Mda questions the basic tenets of the PAC, saying that they rejected class analysis of South African society and adopted a narrower race-based Pan-Africanism, influenced by Marcus Garvey. Mda’s father rejected this analysis.

My father believed that in a free and democratic South Africa there would be only one race, the human race. He spoke of non-racialism as opposed to multi-racialism long before it became the trend in South Africa and wrote against “narrow nationalism”. Race as defined by the social engineers of the apartheid state came into play when he discussed the intersections of class and race. Even ardent Communist leaders like John Motloheloa came to him for his class analysis of the South African situation. Although I am not an authority on my father’s writings, as people like Robert Edgar and Luyana ka Msumzwa are, I’ll be so bold as to say Marcus Garvey never featured in any of them.
Source: Mda 2011:353

And that was how I tried to explain it to white South African students in 1965. The predominant perception among whites at that time was that the PAC was racist and anti-white (and anti-coloured and anti-Indian). And the PAC, being banned, could not correct this impression. No doubt some rank-and-file members saw it that way, and their opposition to communists in the ANC was that most of the communists were white. But that was not how Robert Sobukwe expressed it, and he had been a lecturer at Wits University when I was a student there. Sobukwe said that whites were Africans too, as long as they saw Africa as their home, and did not have one foot in Europe. In his book Mda reports that the PAC later did become more narrowly racist and chauvinist, and he then switched his support to the ANC, but at that time Robert Sobukwe was in prison, and could not influence its direction so easily.

I was disillusioned with the PAC, though I still believed in two of its three guiding principles, namely continental unity and socialism. It was with the leadership’s interpretation of the third principle, African nationalism, that I had a problem. It was quite different from the way in which my father used to outline it for us at one of his family meetings. His was not a narrow nationalism. It was all inclusive of all South Africans who identified themselves as Africans and paid their allegiance first and foremost to Africa. But the way my PAC comrades understood the concept it became clear to me that the rights of citizenship of a future Azania, as they called South Africa, would be limited only to black people of African descent. In the meetings which we attended, especially when I was staying at the Poqo camp, the leaders did not make any bones about that. I saw this position as a misrepresentation of the tenets of African nationalism as propounded by my father.

The PAC wrote extensively against tribalism: African nationalism was essentially about embracing Africans regardless of which cultural, linguistic or ethnic group they belonged to. But our PAC and Poqo cadres in Lesotho, who were predominantly amaXhosa, had a negative attitude towards their Basotho hosts. They viewed themselves as naturally superior to other ethnicities.
Source: Mda 2011:250

I had visited Maseru a few times in the 1960s when attending student conferences over the border at Modderpoort in the Free State. On free afternoons groups of us went to Maseru just to enjoy a freer atmosphere. There we sometimes met a bloke in a pub, Desmond Sixishe, whom we didn’t quite trust, and thought was a South African government spy. On one such visit we saw a procession of vehicles, mainly LandRovers, with flags waving, hooting and celebrating. They were from the Basutoland National Party (BNP), which had just won a by-election. We stood at the side of the road as they went past, giving the hand signals of the opposing parties, the Basutoland Congress Party and the Marema-tlou Freedom Party. A few hours later in the pub Desmond Sixishe told us he had seen us, as he had been in the procession. It turned out he was a big BNP supporter. And from Zakes Mda’s memoir I learned that he had become a cabinet minister. But he later died in an ambush on a mountain road.

I was in Namibia when the BNP lost the 1970 general election, but continued to rule by staging a coup. I was then far away in Namibia, but Mda confirmed that it was just as nasty from close up as it looked from a distance, and after that Lesotho immigration and other border officials went from being the friendliest and most welcoming on the subcontinent to being the surliest and most arrogant and officious.

Another link that I found was that Zakes Mda had stayed at my Alma Mater, St Chad’s College, Durham. Same place, different times. I was there from 1966-1968, and he was there 25 years later.

The following year I went to Durham, England, as a writer-in-residence at the Cathedral there. I was the guest of an organisation called Lesotho-Durham Link which was itself linked to the Anglican Church. My brief was to write a play that would be performed in the Norman Cathedral as part of its nine hundredth anniversary celebrations. I was based at St Chad’s College just across the street from the Cathedral and I spent a lot of time taking walks along the Wear River. It was during these walks that my character Toloki was born.
Source: Mda 2011:357

Durham Cathedral, above the banks of the River Wear, where Mda’s character Toloki was conceived

His character Toloki is the professional mourner who is the protagonist in Ways of dying, and I recall many walks along the banks of the River Wear (as it is called locally — the “Wear River” is a South Africanism). My friend Hugh Pawsey would give names to the strange alien vegetation that I had previously read about in books, but could not have identified or even imagined — beech trees, rhododendrons and so on. Rhododendrons are a bit like oleanders and azaleas, which we do know. I recall the “Count’s House”, a tiny dwelling once the home of a man who was only three feet tall. But I can picture the place where Toloki was born. .

Mda does not tell us how he felt, as an atheist, being asked to write a play to commemorate the centenary of an Anglican Cathedral, but he did leave before his term as writer-in-residence was up.

When I was a student in Durham in 1967 there was a civil war in Nigeria, and the Eastern Region broke away from the federation and became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Someone from the Nigerian High Commission in London came to Durham to speak to the university African Society about the civil war, and noted that the Igbo people of the Eastern Region had a legitimate grievance, because 30000 of them had been killed, but he said that was not a sufficient reason to break up the federation.

I found  it interesting that Mda and I both supported the breakaway state of Biafra, though for quite different reasons. Mda and his friends supported the secession of Biafra from Nigeria in 1967, in spite of its being contrary to Pan Africanism. They knew the Igbo people well because of Chinua Achebe’s books, and did not know of any other of the peoples of Nigeria. In 1967 the only book by a Nigerian author I had read was My life in the bush of ghosts by Amos Tutuola, who was a Yoruba from the Western Region, It was a kind of magic realism story.

At independence in 1960 Nigeria was a federation of three regions. The Northern Region was Muslim and feudal and dry savannah or semi-desert, where Hausa and Fulani people dominated. The Eastern Region, where the Igbo people lived, was around the Niger Delta, largely forest, rich in oil, and the people were mostly Christian. Igbos from the Eastern Region migrated to the north for trade and business, but because of religious and cultural differences were regarded as exploitative foreigners, and were increasingly subject to xenophobic attacks similar to those on Nigerians and Somalis in South Africa in the 21st century. Eventually in a pogrom some 30000 were killed, which led to a civil war, and the secession of the Eastern Region as Biafra. And in the northern part of Nigeria the killing of Christians by Muslims has continued to this day.

Mda notes that such a thing went against his Pan Africanist sentiments. He wanted the countries in Africa to be united. He mentions admiring Julius Nyerere, who united Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form Tanzania. What he does not mention, however, is that Julius Nyerere supported Biafra, one of the few African leaders of the time to do so. After the secession of Biafra ended, and Nigeria ceased to be a federation and became a unitary state with the aim of avoiding such secessions in future, Nyerere published a kind of elegy for Biafra, explaining why he had supported it. He said it was an elementary matter of justice. But in this world oil counts far more than justice.

A couple of years later I was living in Namibia, where South Africa was busy tightening its control, and planning to apply the apartheid policy in Namibia as it was doing in South Africa. I saw each of these closer links as a retrograde step, and was glad to see the independence of Namibia. So I am not a strong pan-Africanist. And one of the reasons for that is apparent from Mda’s own life. He was able to escape the clutches of the apartheid security apparatus precisely because Lesotho was not part of South Africa, and though the South African security forces made incursions into neighbouring countries, and kidnapped or killed people, Mda and his family found a safe refuge there. An advantage of having a lot of small countries rather than just one big one is that there are more places where one can take refuge from an oppressive government.

Mda also makes some interesting observations about developments in South Africa since the end of apartheid. He describes attending his mother’s funeral:

Throughout the ceremony I wear a white Xhosa ceremonial blanket, which makes me feel rather silly. These are some of the traditional innovations that have been introduced by Cousin Nondyebo into our lives. We never used to practise any of these customs when my father was alive. We didn’t even know about them. But, what the heck, it’s only for a few hours. I might as well humour the neo-traditionalists in the family and wear the ridiculous blanket. It all has to do with the movement that is sweeping the country of black people trying to find their roots after having “lost” their culture due to colonialism and apartheid. The problem with this movement is that it does not recognise the dynamism of culture but aims to resuscitate some of the most retrogressive and reactionary, and sometimes horrendous, elements of what used to be “tribal” culture but have long fallen into disuse..
Source: Mda 2011:543

This neo-traditionalism and attempts to resuscitate the culture of an imagined past has been much promoted by the SABC, and has led to the phrase “our culture” being used to justify all kinds of dubious practices. A few years ago a student who had studied in another country was told by the college authorities that he would not be readmitted as he had committed adultery with a married woman whose husband had vowed to kill him if he ever saw him again. On being asked about this the student attempted to justify his adultery by saying “it’s our culture”. I wonder what King Shaka, who had no compunction about putting adulterers to death instantly, would have thought about that.

Mda also has some interesting comments on the tendency to refer to the people who used to be called Bushmen in English as “San”:

You’ll notice that I keep referring to these vanquished people as the Bushmen instead of the politically correct term that is used for them today, the San people. The reason is simply that these people never called themselves the San. They merely referred to themselves as “people” in the various languages of the tribal groups. The clans or tribes did indeed have names: the !Kwi, the /Xam and so on. The San label has the same weight as Barwa or abaThwa or Bushmen, it was what other people called them. They were called the San by the Khoikhoi people (who did call themselves the Khoikhoi) and the name referred to those people who were vagabonds and wanderers and didn’t own cattle,. The Khoikhoi even called fellow Khoikhoi who were poor and didn’t have cattle San. So the name, though generally accepted, has derogatory origins.
Source: Mda 2011:306

I found the last hundred or so pages a disappointment, however. Mda was going through an acrimonious divorce, and lets a lot of the acrimony spill over into the pages of his memoir. During much of that time he was teaching at a university in Ohio in the USA, but he says little about his classes or what he was teaching, or the literary characters he met. It was all about his wife and his marital problems. I’ve no doubt that that played a big part in his life and affected his creative work, and so could not be left out. But there seemed to be too much self-justification, and trying too hard to persuade the reader that his wife was an evil villain. But for that I might have given it five stars on GoodReads.

Mda was also asked by many why he lived in Ohio and taught at a university there, now that South Africa is free. Why did he not return home to help build the nation? And he explains that there was no place for him in South Africa, dominated as it is by crony capitalism, where who you know is more important than what you know and in applying for a job party affiliation trumps competence every time, whether one is talking about membership of the board of the SABC or running a municipal sewage purification works:

Though Mda doesn’t explicitly say so, it seems reasonable to me to infer from what he does say that the ANC has learned a great deal about how to govern from the Broederbond, and in this respect has confirmed the observations of Paolo Freire in his Pedagogy of the oppressed — that the oppressed interrnalises the image of the oppressor.

 

White writing, dark materials

On Thursday 4th January 2018 we got together at Cafe 41 with David Levey and Tony McGregor for our monthly literary coffee klatsch.

David said he had been reading a book by Philip Pullman. La Belle Sauvage, that was supposed to be a prequel to His Dark Materials, and thought it lacked a sense of purpose. Pullman is apparently also planning to write a kind of postquel, or requel, as he calls it.

That got us chatting about other books where a book was followed by others to form a trilogy, which wasn’t as good as the first book, or the first trilogy. I thought of Dune, where the sequels were mediocre at best, and didn’t nearly live up to the original. Val mentioned Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, where the first trilogy was quite good, but the second seemed to be running out of ideas. Another was William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, which was followed by five others, each one worse than the one preceding it. And probably the worst of all was the sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the best science-fiction books I have read, whereas the sequel was one of the worst. Some people have only one book in them. David said he thought that Madeleine l’Engle’s books worked with sequels, though I haven been able to read more than the first two, because they are hard to find in book shops.

I have been reading J.M. Coetzee’s White writing and I find it more interesting than his novels, and David agreed that he thought Coetzee a better critic than author, in spite of his having won the Nobel Prize for literature and all. I have learned quite a lot about European art history from the book — Coetzee points out that the first writers about the southern African landscape were schooled in the European picturesque style, and nothing in southern Africa fitted it.

We talked a bit about the plaasroman, which Coetzee deals with in some detail, and Val mentioned three in the genre by Elizabeth Vermeulen (none of them mentioned by Coetzee), She had had one of them as a school set book, and it was the most interesting of their school set books, far more interesting than Thomas Hardy, which they also had. . She had mentioned this to a work colleague, who had found her copies of Vermeulen’s trilogy: Towergoud, Fata Morgana and Reënboog in die skemering.

Tony McGregor mentioned Alan Paton’s account of a journey to Malawi in search of the Mountains of the Moon, and David promised to send us a copy of his thesis on Alan Paton’s early writing, which was very different from his later works. I had thought that the Mountains of the Moon were further north than Malawi, and once read an adventure story about an expedition to find them that involved airships, probably written in the 1930s, about the same period as Alan Paton’s expedition.

In the abstract of his thesis David notes:

Paton’s earliest, fragmentary novel, ‘Ship of Truth’ (1922-1923) is read in some detail; his second, and only complete early novel, ‘Brother Death’ (1930), is commented on in as much detail as its frequently rambling nature warrants. A chapter on shorter fiction discusses his short story ‘Little Barbee’ (1928?), his short story ‘Calvin Doone’ (1930), his third novel, ‘John Henry Dane’ (1934), and a novel or novella, ‘Secret for Seven’ (1934). From all these readings it emerges that the Paton of his early fiction is markedly different from the Paton generally known: his concepts of human identity, of God and of religion, though earnest, are unformed and frequently ambivalent; his characterisation often stereotyped and wooden; his political views usually prejudiced and his stylistic and other techniques, though adequate in a young writer, highly repetitive

Perhaps that can form the basis of future discussions. I tend to find the concept of “identity” rather vague and problematic
as I have noted here.

Tony told some stories about his ancestors in the Eastern Cape, and David also seemed interested, so we recommended that he get the RootsMagic genealogy program and link it to the FamilySearch site.

 

 

The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism

The following article was originally published in Ikon, Vol 1, No 1, Winter 1969. I am republishing it in this blog. Readers should remember that it is over 40 years old. See the end of the article for explanatory notes

The most fundamental division between Christians has been that between East and West. The differences between churches of the West, ‘Catholic’, ‘Protestant’ and even ‘Pentecostal’ have been almost insignificant by comparison.

The Reformation has been seen as one of the most formative experiences of Christians in Western Europe. It changed not only the Protestant churches, but in the Counter Reformation the Roman Catholic Church experienced a similar process. But the Reformation took place in the context of social and economic changes in Europe, and one factor that had great influence on the Western churches was the invention of printing.

Marshall Mcluhan, one-time Professor of Literature of the University of Toronto, has made a study of the effects of different communications media on society. Before the Renaissance, he claims, the culture of Europe was primarily aural. Communication was through the ear rather than the eye. Written documents were in manuscript and could reach wider audiences only by being read aloud in public. The Christian art of both East and West was similar in pattern and style. Both East and West used ikons – generally in mosaic – to proclaim the Christian gospel. The mosaic ikons in 13th century Italian churches do not differ markedly from those in the Byzantine churches in Greece and Asia Minor. The pictures were standardised, and followed a set pattern. Later, when in the Eastern Churches the ikons came to be painted on wood, the style changed to accommodate the new medium, but the theology remained basically the same.

The West, however, moved from an ear culture to an eye culture. The ear has no ‘point of view’ – sounds come from all directions and are accepted as an inclusive environment, in which several things happen at once. The eye, however, does have a ‘point of view’. Western art came to emphasise perspective, which made the beholder the point of reference for the picture. This was also true in architecture. As Mcluhan puts it, the watchword of the Renaissance was ‘a piazza for everything and everything in its piazza’.

The invention of printing played an important part in extending the new visual stress in the West. Printed books meant that more people could have copies, more people could learn to read. The portable book could be read in privacy and isolation from others. Reading became a private, individual activity rather than the public, communal one of the manuscript culture. The private, fixed point of view became possible, and literacy conferred the power of detachment, non-involvement. The Protestant idea of ‘private interpretation of the scriptures’ presupposes a visually-oriented culture. In the Eastern churches the Scriptures are still read in public, and the ikons in the churches bring the heard word to life. The liturgy is a communal public action. In Protestant churches the liturgy loses its meaning. Public worship is based on the word. Instruction becomes more important than participation. People go to church, not so much to participate in the worship of the body of Christ, as to be instructed, edified, uplifted. In the Roman Catholic Church a similar process follows, but it is not quite so obvious. The old liturgical forms remain, but they take on a radically different meaning. Again the individual, with his private point of view, becomes the centre. The worship as a communal action disappears, and is replaced by private devotion. ‘I’ make ‘my’ communion.

The recent objection to A message to the people of South Africa by the Baptists reflects this cultural background.i The doctrine of individual, personal salvation, which, the Baptists claimed, the Message ignored in favour of a more social conception of salvation, only appeared at the Reformation. It could not have arisen before the invention of printing, when the reading of scripture became a private rather than a public activity. Jesus Christ ‘my’ personal Saviour is not a Biblical concept. In the Bible, Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world.

In South Africa, most of the evangelisation was done by literate Christians from Western Europe. They found they had to teach people to read before they could proclaim the Gospel to them. But the Africans had no written language – they lived in a tribal, aural culture. This has led to many difficulties in the churches, and the tension between these two cultures has certainly influenced the formation of Zionist Churches, which are trying, among other things, to express Christianity in a form that has meaning for people living in an aural culture.

Many of these problems might not have arisen if Southern Africa had been evangelised by the Eastern churches. The oldest African churches – those of Egypt and Ethiopia – have retained the Eastern pattern. In Eastern churches, literacy is not a prerequisite for hearing the gospel. Indeed, many of the clergy are barely literate. The Gospel is communicated by participation in a Christian community. And this is the only way in which the Gospel can really be communicated. Jesus did not leave a book of teachings – he left no writings at all – only a community filled with the Holy Spirit.

The Eastern Orthodox Christians, when they enter a church building, first kiss the ikons. To the Western, literate Christian, this seems like superstition and idolatry. But idolatry is more of a Western phenomenon. The Western church has its images – statues, which are often very lifelike. Candles are lit in front of them, and personal devotion is paid to them. A statue is three-dimensional; it is a thing in itself. You can walk around it, and it is still there. The ikons of the Eastern churches are two-dimensional. They are not there to draw attention to themselves, but to point to something beyond themselves. They are windows rather than pictures. So if I enter an Orthodox Church at Easter, I might kiss the ikon of the resurrection, and I do this to greet the risen Christ. I might light a candle in front of the ikon for the same purpose. But it is not enough just to light a candle in front of the ikon or to kiss the ikon. So I must light a candle in front of my brother who stands next to me. On Easter morning the whole congregation kisses the priest, and they Exchange the Easter greeting: ‘Christ is risen: He is risen indeed’. They kiss the ikons and the book of the Gospel and they also kiss each other, exchanging the same greeting. They kiss the ikons of the saints too, for they are also part of the congregation.ii The Eucharist looks forward to the Messianic Banquet in the New Jerusalem – when all the dead have been raised, when the final victory over evil had been won, and the new creation is consummated.

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order – Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Now according to Mcluhan the age of literacy, which has so moulded the Western churches and accentuated their schism with the East, is ending. And it is the advent of electric technology that has killed it. Electric light, the telephone, radio and television have made communication global and all embracing. News of events on the other side of the world reach us at the same time as news from the other side of town. Electric technology is turning the world into a global village. Through a medium such as television one can participate in events as much as, if not more than, one could if actually present. The same event might be seen through three, four or five differently-placed cameras – and so the individual point of view is abolished. Sound radio is, paradoxically, more ‘visual’ and akin to the printed word than television. Radio is the medium for the monologue, the instructive sermon. With the advent of television the whole concept of church broadcasting had to be altered. For radio, the printed script is adequate – the Protestant type of service, with its emphasis on the word is made for radio. On television this appears boring and static. A liturgical service, with its greater sense of participation and involvement is more suitable. With this type of communication, literacy becomes more important. We are moving into an age of symbolism, an age of neo-tribalism. A new generation is appearing whose life is built on mythical and symbolical involvement. This new generation will communicate less through the rationalist perspective of literate culture and more and more through myth and symbol.

Modern theology is at present dominated by the demythologisers, and the demythologisers are the last fling of a literate era – the culmination of the Protestant refusal to understand things in terms other than language. These bourgeois theologians of the age of literacy tell us that ‘modern man’ can no longer accept concepts like incarnation and resurrection and that we must demythologise the account of the resurrection of Jesus. But despite the modern, or rather not quite modern theologians, modern man finds it only to easy to believe in resurrection – and if they are told that they can no longer believe that Jesus rose from the dead, they will nevertheless proclaim that ‘Che Guevara lives!’, ‘Camilo Torres is not dead!’, and ‘Chairman Mao will live for 10000 years!’

Here in South Africa we are still clinging to the age of print. Verkramp politicians have sworn that we will not have television. We still cling to sound radio – a medium that reached its zenith with Hitler and Mussolini. Social researchers must find South Africa a fascinating field for study, a living fossil in a new world shaped by a new medium of communication.

Whether we like it or not we are moving into this new age, but it is an age of opportunity. It is an age when myth and symbol can easily be understood, and when the pre-literate myths and symbols of Christianity can once again be understood. And new myths and symbols can be found to express the Gospel in the new ikonic age. In every age the Church is to be the ikon of the New Jerusalem, the new human community of a world set free from sin and evil, injustice and oppression.

Epilogue

As I noted at the beginning, I wrote this article in 1969, when I was 28 years old. Quite a lot of things have changed since I wrote it, including me, and so if I were writing it today, I would not write it in the same way, though I generally stand by what I wrote back then. So I have written these notes to explain how some of the changes of the last 40 years might have affected what I wrote then.

Pentecost

One thing I would have added were I writing it now would be the ikon of Pentecost, which illustrates some of the differences. I noted that in Western Renaissance and post-Renaissance art there was an emphasis on perspective, stressing the single, individual point of view. The Orthodox ikon of Pentecost, on the other hand shows multiple perspectives. It does not show what we would have seen had we been there, but rather what most people did not see. It shows the apostles sitting in a semi-circle, receiving or waiting to receive the Holy Spirit.

The semicircle is incomplete. It shows people who were almost certainly not present on the occasion — St Luke holding the scroll of his gospel, which had not been written yet. St Paul, who was to be a persecutor of the church before he joined the circle. And because it is not a closed circle, but an open semicircle, the viewer is part of it, the circle of the apostles extends to embrace the church in which the ikon is.

In the centre of the floor is a window, and while the floor is horizontal, the window is vertical, in a dual perspective. It shows an old and weary king, Cosmos, representing the world. Like the stable in C.S. Lewis’s book The last battle the inside of the upper room is bigger than the outside, because it contains the whole world. The apostles are sent into all the world, not out to all the world. And as we look at it, we see Cosmos as our own reflection in a mirror — we are part of that old and weary world, waiting for the good news of liberation, and we are also part of the circle of the apostles, charged to take the good news into all the world. The ikon therefore has a great deal to tell us about mission.

Other differences

Here are some of the other differences, and some explanations of some of them, and some background information.

  • I was moved to republish this old article after reading an article in Matt Stone’s blog “Joureys in between”, called Tribalization and Cultural Identity. Reading Matt’s article made me realise that many concerns now being expressed in emerging church circles were similar to those we had back in the 1960s.
  • One of the changes in me since I wrote the article is that when I wrote it I was an Anglican, and I am now a member of the Orthodox Church, for reasons that should be clear from what I wrote in the article. I wrote the article for the first issue of Ikon, an “underground” Christian magazine started by me and some friends. Ikon ceased publication in 1972 when all the editors had been banned by the South African government.
  • In 1968 I returned from England, where I had studied at the University of Durham. An experimental drama festival was held at Durham, with participants from all over the UK, and from some of them I learnt about the works of Marshall McLuhan, such as The medium is the massage, Understanding media, and The Gutenberg galaxy. Not everything that McLuhan wrote about media was true or useful, but some of it was, and it helped me to appreciate some of the differences between Orthodox and Western Christianity.
  • In 1968 I attended a seminar on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students at the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Study Centre in Bossey, Switzerland, ending with Holy Week and Pascha at St Sergius in Paris. It sparked an interest in Orthodox theology that grew over the years until I joined the Orthodox Church.
  • We now have words to describe what I wrote about then. What McLuhan called “preliterate” would now be called “premodern”, and much of what I thought would subsequently happen, which I called “neotribalism”, is now called “postmodernity”. But back then we did not have those words.
  • The death of literacy did not occur. Back in the 1960s the idea of the personal computer was quite remote. McLuhan, with his talk of the “global village” foresaw globalisation, and that it would also be both global and tribal. Computer communications have spread rapidly over the last 20 years, and people who would never had typed their own letters have learned to do so. E-mail, computer discussion forums and SMS have meant that more people are using written communication than ever before.
  • In his article Matt Stone also raises questions about the relation between tribalisation and globalisation, which are not really dealt with in the article above. I hope to return to them in a later blog posting.
  • For more background, and for a tracing of developments from the 1960s to the present, see my article on Christianity, paganism and literature

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