Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “theology”

Singularity

Singularity (The Jevin Banks Experience, #2)Singularity by Steven James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three years ago I heard Izak Potgieter speak at TGIF about The Singularity. According to him,  The Singularity is a milestone in the foreseeable future where technology, or non-biological intelligenc-
e, will reach the ability of its human creators, themselves largely non-biological by that point, and then transcend it at a rate that “will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed”.

I had previously heard of singularities as some kind of mathematical thing relating to the topological characteristics of Mobius strips, but Izak assured us that this was not just any old singularity, but The Singularity. And he described himself as a Singularitarian,.

So when we went to TGIF last week, and I saw a book with the title Singularity, I was moved by curiosity to buy it.

What is it about?

A mysterious death, mysterious semi-government research institutes where some dodgy research is going on, hints of connections with organised crime and bent cops — mix those ingredients and you can be sure that the protagonist and those he loves will be getting deeper into danger as the story progresses.

The protagonist is Jevin Banks, a stage musician who performs in Las Vegas, and his associates Charlene Antioch and Xavier Wray. Xavier Wray, like Izak Potgieter, is a Singularitarian.

The “singularity” of the title concerns the development of Artificial Intelligence and the point at which it overtakes human intelligence, and the book raises several questions about that. But these questions are not new, and I recall reading books published more than 50 years ago on the same topic. And some of the elements were also found in speculative fiction, in novels like The Müller-Fokker Effect, which spoke of capturing someone’s consciousness and storing it as digital data.

And over the years I’ve often used that as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that when we die God has us all backed up on tape somewhere, and when the last day comes he’ll restore it in new and improved hardware and reboot us.

View all my reviews

Everyone’s talking about Jordan Peterson

It seems that everyone’s talking about Jordan Peterson, including Jordan Peterson.

Jordan Peterson was apparently invited (or, according to some accounts, invited himself) for a visiting fellowship with the Cambridge University Faculty of Divinity, and the invitation was subsequently withdrawn by the university, leading Peterson to get into a snit and invoke a biblical curse on the Cambridge Divinity Faculty, wishing it the obscurity it so richly deserved. In that article he comes across as petulant child having a temper tantrum.

Jordan Peterson

I first heard of Jordan Peterson at our monthly literary coffee klatsch a year ago, and have been debating with myself whether it would be worth the effort to find and read any of his books, and have discovered huge debates about him. It seems that he is a secular guru who is widely (and controversially) discussed in Christian circles, Some seem to regard him as a kind of prophet for our age, while others seem to regard him as a false prophet to be denounced. It seems, from what I’ve heard, that the Cambridge Divinity Faculty are about equally divided on this point.

So I am like Topol in the film Fiddler on the Roof, saying “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”, and being unable to decide.

One thing that prejudices me against Jordan Peterson is that he and another secular guru, Jonathan Haidt, appear to have overlapping fan groups, Saying that they have overlapping fan groups does not necessarily mean that they know each other, or agree with each other, or that they are in cahoots with each other, though since both are engaged in the same discipline (psychology) it is quite possible that they have met. I’m not even sure about their overlapping fan groups — that could be a misperception on my part. What I do know, however, is that Jonathan Haidt promotes a set of values that are very different from Christian values. And I do wonder about the wisdom of Christians running after fashionable Western secular gurus, particularly psychologists.

So I’m still thinking “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”.

On the one hand, why would a Faculty of Divinity invite someone from a different discipline, psychology, as a visiting fellow? Of course one can have interdisciplinary studies, but interdisciplinary studies should surely be founded on something more than celebrity. I am reminded of what another blogger once wrote:

Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.

There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.

So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..

Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss.

In both cases it seems to have been the celebrity of Peterson and Dawkins that led to the invitation.

On the other hand there is a sense in which theology is too important to be left to the professional academic theologians. Of all academic disciplines, theology should be most open to hearing from those from outside, because theology claims to be the Queen of the Sciences, the one that makes sense of all the others, That gives people like Dawkins and Peterson as much right to make pronouncements on theology as anybody else.

There is another aspect of this particular incident, however, which also seems to be ambivalent, and that is the reasons given for withdrawing the Fellowship at Cambridge — that Peterson’s views were not representative of the student body. That seems to go against the liberal ideal of a university as a place where different views can be vigorously debated, and seems to reflect a growing authoritarian tendency in many universities.

When I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (now UKZN) in the 1960s it was regarded as a liberal institution in a very conservative society. It was, many would say, only comparatively liberal. But even that minimal liberalism seems more liberal than Cambridge University today. Students were open to hearing different views, at least to the extent that the government allowed them to. Every year the local committee of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) arranged a Reality Week, at which representatives of different political parties were invited to debate on campus. The National Party debated with the Liberal Party. The United Party was too afraid to appear on the same platform as the Progressive Party, so they spoke at separate meetings. The Communist Party, the ANC and the PAC were banned by the government, and so could not appear, but if they had been able to the students would have given them a hearing, as they gave to the others. Even though there was vigorous disagreement, the differing views were heard. At the root of that lay the liberal concept of academic freedom.

Of course there are limits to academic freedom, limits which quacks and loonies sometimes try to push by promoting bogus academic disciplines (one that did a lot of damage in South Africa, whose effects are still felt today, was Fundamental Pedagogics). But Jordan Peterson is not one of those. He’s a professor in a recognised department of a recognised Canadian university. So why is a British university apparently purging people whose views seem to differ from the official party line? Ought a university to have an official party line?

But though I think it bad that people should try to suppress the views of people like Jordan Peterson, I’m still not convinced that I should lash out money on any of his books, Not a good excuse, I suppose, because I did read Dan Brown’s The da Vinci code even though I knew beforehand that it was probably rubbish, and reading it only confirmed that. But mass-market paperbacks are cheaper than academic books. And lest anyone say that a lot of Peterson’s stuff is on YouTube, let me say that I don’t do YouTube because (a) it’s also expensive, like books, (b) it usually tells me my browser doesn’t recognise any of the formats available, and (c) even if it does recognise the format, it’s usually so broken up that I can’t hear it,

Update

Since writing all that stuff above I’ve come across a review that reminds me of the reservations I had about Jordan Peterson when I first heard of him. I had forgotten the lobster factor, which Duncan Reyburn had mentioned at our literary coffee klatch. But this review reminded me of it again: Review: 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson | Kate Manne:

Rule One is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, to avoid seeming like a “loser lobster”, who shrinks from conflict and grows sad, sickly and loveless – and is prone to keep on losing, which is portrayed as a disaster.

And I recall that that was what made Jordan Peterson’s stuff incompatible with, and indeed contrary to Christian values — it espouses worldly values, like being a winner. It is diametrically opposed to the Beatitudes, which tell us “Blessed are the meek”, but if we follow Peterson’s advice, that is all wrong, because in this world, Blessed are the pushy, for they shall get what they want.

Memoirs of a Guardian Angel (review)

Memoirs of a Guardian AngelMemoirs of a Guardian Angel by Graham Downs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found it a bit difficult to review this book, for several reasons. One is that it’s hard to classify — fantasy? Yes and no. General fiction? Well, yes, but not quite.

At one level it’s a series of vignettes of people at crisis moments of their lives, as observed by a guardian angel. Then it takes us to the corporate headquarters of Guardian Angels Ltd, where the angels are assigned their charges and disciplined if they fail, or if they break any of the rules, such as one that prohibits a guardian angel from being in charge of anyone they had known in their life on earth.

There is plenty of drama in the vignettes of life on earth, which initially seem quite separate, but are eventually tied up together to make a single story, which is quite readable and held my interest.

The dialogue seemed a bit jerky in places, with a strange mixture of South African and American English (“curb”, “the hospital”, “exit” as a verb). But perhaps that’s just a generational thing, as the author recently reviewed one of my books and found the dialogue old-fashioned, so it works both ways.

Another difficulty I had in reviewing it is that I am writing a book that features guardian angels, and I have a totally different conception of them, so I found it quite hard to get my around the idea that angels had lived as people on earth, and are arbitrarily assigned to people to guard and then are taken off the job and set to look after someone else. But that’s just me, it doesn’t affect the book itself, and the story needs to be taken on its own terms and not judged on other criteria as a story.

View all my reviews

As I often do with book reviews on GoodReads, when I transfer them to my blog I make additional comments that go beyond the book itself and deal with issues that the book raises for me. In this case, one of the issues is angels, what they are, and how they are portrayed in fiction. In the review on GoodReads I tried to be a bit postmodern about it, and treat the text simply as text, and the story simply on its merits as a story — who knows what GoodReads readers are looking for in a book, or what ideas they approach it with?

But I approach it with certain ideas, and that’s what I talk about here.

In the Orthodox Church we take guardian angels seriously. At every Divine Liturgy we pray for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies…”

In the book the guardian angel seems to be a guardian of bodies rather than a guardian of souls, and as for being a faithful guide, in the book the guardian angel looks on helplessly while people make bad decisions.

The guardian angels were at work.

Of course the function of guarding bodies is quite important. An Anglican priest friend of mine (Fr Michael Lapsley). always invokes the guardian angels when he boards an aircraft. Many years ago I was returning to Windhoek from the Matchless Mine in the Khomas Hochland in Namibia. I had driven there in daylight, but returned at night. We came over a rise with the headlights up in the air, and by the time they were pointing to the road again the road was almost gone; it curved quite sharply to the right, and we were already on the loose stones on the outside of the curve. The bakkie spun and rolled, and we were shaken around inside. When the shaking and rolling stopped I was lying halfway out of the window on the passenger side, with my right hand stretched out into the gravel on the side of the road in a bunch of duwweltjie thorns, and the roof of the bakkie hanging over me. Would it fall on top of me, or wouldn’t it? It fell the other way, onto its wheels, facing back up the road we had come down, and I fell completely out of the window. Abraham Hangula, an evangelist, who had been in the passenger sear, came round from the other side of the bakkie, and said, “The Lord must still have work for us to do.” The other passenger, who had been in the back seat (it was a double-cab bakkie) was also largely unharmed. We all escaped with a few scrapes, sprains and bruises. And I thought yes, the guardian angels had been busy, and may be tipped the bakkie onto its wheels instead of on top of me. Guardian angels do guard bodies as well as souls.

There have been many portrayals of angels in fiction:

C.S. Lewis, in his Cosmic Trilogy, calls them eldila, and his portrayal largely fits my theological understanding too. In Memoirs of a Guardian Angel they are, as in Lewis, portrayed as bodiless powers, invisible to human beings, for the most part. But unlike Lewis, Memoirs of a Guardian Angel shows them as people who have lived on earth who become guardian angels after they die.

Tolkien shows, in his fictional Ainulindalë (published as part of The Silmarillion) how angels were created, with surprising theological accuracy. One class of angels, the Maiar, can also take on visible form, and are known among men as istari, or wizards.

In the Holy Scriptures angels take visible form and appear to people when they bring messages from God.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was to be the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the ikon of the Annunciation depicts him in human form, but with wings. We are not told if that is how Mary saw him, but she was aware of his presence and heard him.

But one thing is clear from Christian tradition: angels are a separate creation of God. They may sometimes appear in human form, but they have never lived human lives.

Is there a way of reconciling, or at least comparing these views?

The ancient Romans, for example, believed the idea of the Genius. The genius was a guardian spirit of an individual that was assigned to each individual at birth, stayed with them throughout life, and after death conducted their soul out of the mortal world. The ancient Romans were expected to make a birthday sacrifice to their genius. If one had a good relationship with one’s genius it would become a lar, or household god, after death. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth. If one had a bad relationship, however, the genius could become a troublesome spook, plaguing the living.

This is not all that far removed from the Zulu idea of amadlozi, the ancestral spirits who are also associated with the isiku, the hearth.

Now some might object that these are pagan notions, and Christians should have nothing to do with them. Some, who are interested in the history of folklore and transmission of ideas might wonder if the Romans got their ideas of lares from the Zulu amadlozi, or vice versa, and if so, how were the ideas transmitted? And the folklorists might conclude that the Christian idea of guardian angels came from the Roman idea of lares, and classify it as yet another “pagan borrowing”.

The Christian theological explanation is a little simpler: if everyone is assigned a guardian angel at birth (no transfers, as in Memoirs of a Guardian Angel), then every society and culture must have some experience of them, and though there might be some differences in the way people described this experience, there should be enough in common for one to recognise the commonalities.

This leads on to the concept of egregores, which I have discussed in other blog posts here and here.Someone recently came up with the interesting notion that one’s social media persona or profile could be a kind of egregore, so would that be one’s genius too?.

And what happens if one’s genius goes bad?

In Rabbinic Judaism this is attributed to the yetzer hara (Hebrew: יֵצֶר הַרַע‎). Though in Judaism, while the evil inclination is present from birth, the good inclination, the yetzer ha-tov, only appears at maturity (for more on this, see here). C.S. Lewis, however, personified the evil influence (the yetzer hara) as a kind of guardian devil in The Screwtape Letters, And in everyday English we still say, of someone who seems wedded to “the dark side”, that “he has an evil genius.”

So how does one represent this best in fiction?

 

South African Camelot

Today at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch we started off by discussing some of the problems of the country. Every day there is news of more political scandals and more corruption. The rich robbing the poor on a grand scale in the VBS bank scandal. Racism is making a comeback on a grand scale too, especially after being deliberately and assiduously promoted by the British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

There’s the story of land reform. One day our President is going around handing out title deeds to people and telling them how important and valuable they are, and the next day he is saying how expropriating land without compensation will solve all our problems, thus rendering the title deeds worthless. And expropriating land without compensation will make it much easier for the government to hand it over to foreign mining companies in places like Xolobeni.

And at this point David Levey asked why we weren’t talking about books, and I thought that it was actually a good lead in to a book I have just been reading, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the original Inklings literary discussion group, many of whom were very interested in the mythos of King Arthur. They incorporated elements of the Arthurian legends into their own writing. There are echoes of it in C.S. Lewis’s novels, especially in That Hideous Strength. Charles Williams retold many of the stories in his poetry. Much of their work on this topic was collected here: Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso.

Roger Lancelyn Green retells many of the stories in prose, for children. They have been retold many times, by many authors, in both prose and poetry. Since they are told for children there is no critical apparatus: no footnotes or cross-reference or explanations. Such explanations as are needed are incorporated into the text. But Green tells the stories in such a way as to bring out more clearly the Inklings’ take on them. One of the things that many of the Inklings emphasised was the distinction between Britain and Logres.

King Arthur’s adventures did not end when he had defeated the Saxons and brought peace to Britain: for though he had set up the realm of Logres — the land of true good and piety, nobleness and right living — the evil was always breaking in to attack the good. It would need many books to tell the story of every adventure that befell during his reign — that brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages…

And that is where I see a parallel with South Africa. In the mid-1990s we experienced a brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages. Apartheid, like the Saxons, had been driven out. “And the Saxons throughout the whole of Britain, and in Scotland also, fled away in their ships, or else swore to be King Arthur’s loyal subjects.”

In this way peace came to the whole island for a great many years: though still there were robbers and outlaws, cruel knights and evil magicians dwelling in the depths of forests and deep among the mountains, ever ready to break the peace and stain the realm of Logres in one wicked way or another.

The evil that threatened Logres was not merely external. It came from within. The Realm of Logres was set in the land of Britain, and Britain kept breaking through and threatening Logres. And so we read of the magic of Nimue and Morgana le Fay, how Nimue buries Merlin, and Morgana le Fay provokes fights between friends. The whole story is a kind of analogy of South Africa, where in 1994 we had a brief glimpse of our Logres, but even during the glimpses it was tainted with evil. How Jacob Zuma, who was once a loyal knight of the Round Table, became a usurper, and allowed evil to flourish. Could Winnie Mandela be cast in the role of Morgana le Fay, or perhaps the cap would fit Victoria Geoghegan better.

It’s not, of course, an allegory of South Africa, but there are many symbolic analogies, and one could probably find similar analogies to life in other countries as well. Maybe this is why the stories of King Arthur are told and retold, because they have an almost universal appeal and applicability.

Another version I have also been re-reading is The Quest of the Holy Grail. It concentrates on only one aspect of the mythos, the quest of the Grail. It’s also full of medieval moralising. Perhaps that’s why I prefer Green’s version — his modern moralising is more to my taste. But maybe I ought to heed the medieval moralising as well. The modern one deals with sins I am more aware of in others, the medieval one makes me feel uncomfortable because it reminds me of sins that I am more aware of in myself.

Times and Seasons: Happy Equinox!

Today marks the Spring Equinox (in South Africa, anyway). It is also, in the Gregorian Calendar, the Feast of the Conception of St John the Baptist. And, though it doesn’t coincide exactly this year, it is at about this time that Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the new year, the birthday of the universe (Orthodox Christians celebrate the new year and creation on 1 September).

The Conception of St John the Baptist, which roughly coincides with the birthday of the universe in Jewish tradition, also, for Christians marks the beginning of God’s new creation, which we are reminded of in the southern hemisphere because it’s the middle of spring. It’s also symbolic because henceforth the days are longer than the nights, reminding us of the words of the Holy Forerunner and Baptist John that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it (John 1:5).

Six months after the conception of St John the Baptist and Rosh Hashanah, on 25 March, the angel Gabriel came to Mary, and told her she would be the Theotokos, the birth giver of God (Luke 1:26). Mary went to stay with Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist, until he was born, which the Church celebrates on 24 June (Luke 1:56f), and then we celebrate the birth of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ on 25 December.

There are all sorts of speculations about the date on which Jesus was born, and what I’ve written above is my speculation, which is probably no more valid than any of the others, but I don’t think it is any less valid. In this matter there is no proof, only vigorous assertion, which is not quite the same thing.

Troparion — Tone 4

Rejoice, O barren one, who formerly did not bear a child
for you have conceived the Lamp of the Sun
who is to illumine the whole universe darkened by blindness
Rejoice, O Zachariah
and cry out with boldness:
“The prophet of the Most High desires to be born!”

For more see the Conception of the Honorable Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John.

Racism as an Orthodox problem

Someone recently posted a link to an ostensibly Orthodox web site that seems to be pushing a racist and white nationalist agenda. 15,000 White South Africans Flee Racist Persecution, Plan Move to Russia – Russian Faith:

…the whole notion that Boers see Russia as a possible new homeland is telling and it is huge in its implications. It is happening, as I predicted a few years ago, that white Christian peoples (which is by definition–a European root) will increasingly see Russia as their salvation.

The racism in that article is bad enough, but the idolatry is worse. The Orthodox Church teaches salvation in Jesus Christ, not salvation through Russia.

I’ve followed links to the “Russian Faith” web site in the past; it often has pictures of pretty Orthodox Churches, and a veneer of Orthodoxy. But looking to Russia for salvation rather than to Christ really is idolatry. There’s even a Russian word for it, dvoeverie — dual faith, double mindedness. Believing in Christ and something else; putting your faith in Christ and… Christ and Russia; Christ and whiteness; because Christ alone is not enough. Which is perhaps why St James tells us that a double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).

So I’ll no longer be following or sharing links to the Russian Faith website on social media, because it seems to be promoting the Russian faith, that is faith in Russia, rather than the Orthodox faith, which is faith in Christ.

In pointing out the errors, the phyletism, the heresy, of web sites like Russian Faith, however, one must be careful not to be sucked into the opposite error — the currently-fashionable Russophobia of the Western media, where anything linked in any way to Russia is seen as ipso facto evil. In the eyes of the Western media, to say that someone has “Russian connections” is enough to damn them. I believe that there is such a thing as Holy Russia, exemplified by countless Russian saints, but Holy Russia was the Russia that followed the Orthodox faith, faith in Christ, not faith in whiteness or in Russia itself.

This is Orthodoxy: the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, His Beatitude Theodoros II, visiting the Diocese of Kisimu in Western Kenya, whose bishop, His Grace Anthanasius (on the Pope’s left), served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria for 13 years, and was beloved by all his parishioners, black and white (Photo by Amadiva Athanasios).

Just because this article was sparked off by something posted on a Russian website does not mean that Orthodox Christians who are not Russian are exempt from the danger of falling into heresies like phyletism, I once heard someone say, at coffee after Divine Liturgy at a church in Johannesburg, “The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture.” And there is that slogan I have heard from many people Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism. That too is phyletism, and dvoeverie.

 

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

View all my reviews

The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea

Last night I watched a BBC TV programme on The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea – BBC News, and was struck by the similarity with witch hunts that have taken place in South Africa in the last 25 years or so.

The programme had interviews with people who had been accused of witchcraft, and with some of the accusers, and there were many similarities. You can also read more about the Papua New Guinea witch hunts here: Malum Nalu: Papua New Guinea has a witch hunt problem.

I don’t know if there were any attempts by Christian groups to deal with the problem in Papua New Guinea, but in South Africa there was a reluctance to discuss it in missiological circles. The only Christian groups that seemed to have come up with a way of dealing with it were some Zionists, and most Zionists don’t have an academic bent, so not much has been written about it.I did write one journal article, which you can read here: Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery, but there has not been much response to it.

The Western Canon

I took this book out of the library because I had read about it and its author online, and was curious to know more. I won’t, however, be adding it to my books on GoodReads because I doubt that I’ll finish it, which means that it would stay forever in my “Currently Reading” queue.

Is “The Western Canon” a thing? That’s what I was hoping to find out by reading The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, except that the opening chapter is “An Elegy for the Western Canon”, so apparently if it was a thing, it is so no longer, and all that is left is a lament that it is no more.

I resorted to two of my favourite reference books for such things to find out whether the Western Canon is a thing, and if so what kind of a thing it is. But neither The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature nor The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought had anything to say about it, either under “Western” or “canon”. The latter did note that “western” was “a perennially popular genre in American cinema since 1903”, but that was about it.

So what am I to make of the Western Canon, other than that it is a list of books that Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale University in the USA, happened to like? And his elegy seems to be a lament that there were other people who either didn’t like those books, or who liked other books that didn’t happen to be on his particular list.

In my youth I studied English at university for three years. I never got to be an English Major, however, because I repeated English I three times, twice at Wits University, and once at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (UNP, now UKZN). I passed each time, but they wouldn’t give me credit for it.

At UNP I learned all about canons. Back in the 1960s the English Department there followed the Leavisite canon of D.H. Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence and D.H. Lawrence. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad were permissible but everything else was taboo. One English Honours student once noticed a copy of Ulysses on a professor’s desk. We speculated that he might have confiscated it from a wayward student. My friend, Ritchie Ovendale (where is he now?) asked if he should read it, and was advised against it, as it might leave his critical faculties impaired.

The Wits English Department was a bit more broadminded. They included E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley and William Golding in their set works for English I, but I was sad that I never made it to English II. I attended more of the English II lectures, though, because there was a lecturer, Cronin, whose lectures were packed with students who were not taking his courses, because of his wit. Even engineering students came along for the entertainment.

Bloom appears to like Dante and Milton, though I’ve tended to avoid both of them, out of pure prejudice, possibly. When I was 13 I used to pore over a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy owned by some friends. What interested me, however, was not so much the text as the illustrations by Gustav Doré. And Doré managed to make hell look a lot more interesting than paradise or heaven.

But since then I’ve steered clear of them. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that there are two wrong attitudes one can take to the devil and his minions, the “lowerarchy”. One is to pretend that they do not exist, and the other is to take an unhealthy interest in them. At 13, influenced by Doré, I was beginning to take an unhealthy interest in the lowerarchy, trying to classify demons and the like according to their infernal ranks. And I suspect that Dante and Milton have had a big influence on Western theology in areas where it differs from Orthodox theology. For one thing, there is no purgatory in Orthodoxy. There are occasional theological disputes about toll houses, but I don’t think either Dante or Milton mentioned those. Yes, it’s prejudice, but until I can read an Orthodox equivalent, I’ll give them a miss. Reading them might impair my critical theological faculties or something.

So I’m not much wiser about the Western Canon. Is there an Eastern Canon?

 

 

 

 

Random thoughts inspired by Enneagram

This morning Duncan Reyburn spoke about Enneagrams at TGIF, and here are some connected and some disconnected thoughts inspired in part by what he said.

For those who don’t know, Enneagram is one of those personality type thingies, and you can get a sample of it here to find out roughly where you fit in.

If it’s any help, my main type is 5, with 9 and 4 as subsidiaries. And on the Myers-Briggs scale I’m INTP (I find the Myers-Briggs one more helpful, as these things go).

As we sat waiting for Duncan to begin Val recalled that I had been rather disconcerted to find myself labelled as a type back in the 1970s. It was actually a jocular piece written by a journalist in the Sunday Tribune for women who felt the need for a piscine cyclist in their lives.[1] She described varieties of nubile males and what I found disconcerting was that her description of one of the types fitted me right down to the last detail. The detail I remember best was the car I drove — an ancient rust bucket with an empty cold-drink bottle rolling around on the floor (picture here). I think it included a beard and scruffy clothes as well. Actually it was rather flattering, in that she said that was one of the better catches available in the pond, But it was the thought that there were enough of us around to be so closely described that I found disconcerting.

But that was totally unscientific, so back to the Enneagram, and more unscientific thoughts inspired by it.

Duncan spoke about mythology and mythical monsters.: The contrast in Genesis 1 between the forces of chaos and the forces of order, and the notion of mythical dragons symbolising chaos. Duncan cited psychologists like Freud and Jung showing that myths and dreams of dragons represent our unconscious, and that the monsters are not really out there, but in our heads.

Now I may have misunderstood or be misrepresenting Duncan at this point, but I question that assumption. I think that it is a peculiarly white, Western and modernist way of looking at it. This business of seeing things as taking place “in here” in our minds, as opposed to “out there” in the world is very much culturally conditioned. Should we let Western psychologists like Freud and Jung have the last word to say about it?

As J.V. Taylor (1963:44f) puts it, in his book The primal Vision: Christian presence amid African religion:

But though these [dreams, thoughts etc] may infect the body with sickness and delude the senses with hallucinations, we believe them to be rooted within the sufferer’s mind. Dreams are only dreams, for we know their fantasies are confined within the wall of the dreamer’s brain.

We are in danger of forgetting that all this is only a figurative way of speaking. The spatial concepts of inside and outside cannot be used literally of something so elusive and abstract as the self; yet in Europe we have allowed them so to dominate our imagery that we have almost identified the mind with the brain and imprisoned the self within the walls of the skull.

But there have been other ways than ours of picturing this unimaginable Self. Some philosophies, notably the Hindu Upanishads, include on the ‘inside’ much that we can only imagine as being ‘outside’, so that even the transcendent Absolute is to be sought only within the innermost cave of the heart. But in the imagery of primal religion, on the other hand, the self is thought of as spilling out into the world beyond the confines of the experiencing body, and echoing back again from other selves. Africans would assert with St Augustine that ‘we live beyond the limits of our bodies’.

So I think that just as physicists something think of light in terms of waves, and sometimes in terms of particles, so we can sometimes see things as inside, and sometimes as outside our heads. Mythical dragons may refer to things within us, but they can also refer to things outside.

As Anderson (1990:256) puts it:

An experience that a premodern person might have understood as possession by an evil spirit might be understood by a modern psychoanalytic patient as more mischief from the Id, and might be understood by a postmodern individual as a subpersonality making itself heard – might even, if you want to get really postmodern about it, be recognized as all three.

And that’s something I do like to get really postmodern about. I’ve said more on that in this article Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism.

Duncan spoke of films of sea monsters, like Jaws. They give chills to audiences in Pretoria, though they are dry and far from the ocean. Why? Because the monsters represent our Unconscious, which threatens to swallow us. Hence the need to face our monsters, because the monsters are not necessarily evil, but can sometimes take us where we want, or need to go. Jonah, for example, was swallowed by a sea monster, but the monster put him back on track.

St Jonah

Films like Jurassic Park are apparently about land based monsters, but are really about divorce. The external monsters force dysfunctional families to face their internal monsters and become reconciled, and in the end it is the biggest, strongest and most fearsome monster, Tyrranosaurus Rex, which keeps the real threat, the velociraptors, at bay.

And that made me think that yes, it was the Tyrannosaurus Rex of apartheid that kept South African Christians on track before 1994. It was opposition to apartheid that made many Christians and Christian bodies more conscious of their core business. And after 1994, they lost their way, and started floundering, and were caught unawares when the velociraptors of corruption charged in. One evil spirit exorcised, but seven others rush in to take its place. But apartheid was not unconscious, and was not simply in people’s heads. It did not remain within the confines of the skulls of theorists. Apartheid changed the landscape of the country and moved thousands of people from one place to another. It was not simply the Freudian unconscious. So yes, we do need monsters to keep us on track. But monsters and the track are not just inside our skulls.

And Val said that while Duncan was speaking about Jonah, the Ode of Paschal Nocturns was running through her head.

Jonah was caught but not held fast in the belly of the whale. He was a sign of Thee who hast suffered and accepted burial. Coming forth from the beast as from a bridal chamber, he called out to the guard, “By observing vanities and lies you have forsaken your own mercy.”

And it struck me that Duncan had cited someone as saying that Christianity belonged to No 2 on the Enneagram, but really needed to practise the other 8. And I recalled that there are nine odes in the Canon, but we only ever sing eight of them. We never sing Ode 2.

 


Notes and references

[1] The current saying was “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

Post Navigation