Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

The Writer’s Voice

The Writer's Voice: A workbook for writers in AfricaThe Writer’s Voice: A workbook for writers in Africa by Dorian Haarhoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book about writing and encouraging people to write. I’ve read or looked at quite a number of these over the last few years, and you can find lots of advice for aspiring writers on the Web as well. I glance at a few of them when they appear in my Twitter feed, but there is a remarkable sameness about them all. I suspect that the writers of advice for writers have read very little other than books of advice to writers, and rehash it in blog articles and the like. I think if any aspiring writers took that advice seriously, all novels would be boring and formulaic, and eventually no one would read fiction anymore.

This one is somewhat different. For a start it is written for people in Southern Africa, and it is urging people who wouldn’t normally think of writing to tell their stories. I think that is a laudable aim. The convoluted history of Southern Africa over the last 70 years is a story that needs to be told if we are to make sense of it and of our lives, and it needs to be told from many different viewpoints.

So it lacks the usual advice on how to start your novel in the middle of things, with startling and violent events, and let the explanation of them percolate through afterwards. It also is a bit thin on practical advice on how to prepare your manuscript for publication and send it to a publisher. Perhaps that is wise, because such information easily becomes dated.

So much of the book is motivational, where to find your inspiration. And there are many different ways and places to find inspiration, so most readers of the book will find at least a few that may inspire them. Many of them are designed for use in a group, and so they won’t appeal to the solitary reader of the book.

One of the motivational stories he gives is of the writer’s genius. The Romans believed in the idea of a genius. The genius, a personal spirit, arrived at birth. And it carried a person’s full potential. He offers this quote:

The genius was considered a birthright, but it had to be nourished in order to survive… the ancient Roman was expected to make a birthday sacrifice to his or her genius. If one served one’s genius well during life, the genius became a lar, or household god, after one’s death. If one neglected one’s potential the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagues the living (Dove 1995:17).

The myth is not so far removed from some African belief systems. I believe we are born with a writer’s genius, a writer’s potential. For those of us who are literate, this belief contains a challenge which John Irving the novelist, calls ‘the necessary strict toiling with the language.’

I quite liked that, but I would be inclined to use it in a different way — to incororporate a genius into my story, rather than use it as an inspiration for a story.
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The Winnie phenomenon

When I heard the news that Winnie Mandela had died, I was sad. She made a significant contribution to the struggle against apartheid, but I didn’t intend to blog about it because I didn’t know her well enough, and thought I could leave that to people who knew he and could tell her story.

But what has struck me since then is not Winnie Madikizela-Mandela the person, but rather the Winnie phenomenon. And the phenomenon indicates to me that something has changed in our society and our culture, and the change does not seem to be a good one.

The first thing that struck me was that after her death most of the people who had anything to say about he either had nothing good to say about her, or they had nothing bad to say about her. And the few public commentators who did mention both the good and the bad were attacked by the other two groups, heach of which lu8mped them with the other.

There was a kind of polarization there that, it seems to me, had not been there before. For one group, anything written about Winnie had to be hagiographical or it was worthless. And for the other, nothing good that she had ever done could outweigh the evil, whether real or imagined, or planted by the SB.

The second thing that struck me about it was the personality cult.

Nelson Mandela was sometimes praised for many things, but he always shrugged off personal responsibility for them. He would say that if he said anything good he was speaking on behalf of an organisation, the ANC, and that he was simply enunciating policy decisions of the ANC. It was not anything good on his part, but rather he was part of an organisation that was trying to make a better life for all.

And there was a time, in the 1990s, when that really did seem to be true.

I do think that the ANC made some bad decisions in that time, among the worst of them was the abandonment of the RDP, which Nelson Mandela himself had said, right after the 1994 election, was not negotiable. But that too was a collective decision. It wasn’t just Nelson Mandela arbitrarily changing his mind.

The media helped to develop a personality cult mentality.

Day after day, week after week, they presented politicians as celebs. They reported who was in and who was out, who was favoured and who was disfavoured, and the merits of the policies they espoused were not reported on. One didn’t even know what policies they espoused until much later.

So the Winnie phenomenon that has emerged after her death seems to be all about polarisation and personality cult; whether her persona is regarded as good or evil. Those who are not for Winnie are against her, and those who are not against her must be for her.

 

 

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.

The Sword of Shannara

The Sword of ShannaraThe Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve seen books in the Shannara series around in bookshops and libraries for many years, but they never seemed to have the first book so I always gave it a miss. Then I found this one in the library, and I thought it might be worth a look to see what it was about, quite soon after reading Stephen King’s comment that if The Lord of the Rights had been written in “sword and sorcery” style, Sauron would have been the hero.

This one wasn’t quite as bad as that, but it wasn’t very good either. I’ve read a couple of others in the genre — Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings is one, but this one was a bit better than that.

I suppose the point of comparison with The Lord of the Rings is that this is a quest novel — a group of people are assembled by a mysterious figure (A Druid called Allanon in this case) to go on a long journey with many adventures on the way try to get hold of a mysterious talisman (the eponymous Sword of Shannara) before the bad guy does.

The world in which the story takes place is both over-described and under-described. Desolate places are described rather unconvincingly at great length — marshes and dry places in which nothing lives. But it is not until page 512 (of 664 in my edition) that there is any inkling that this world has horses, cavalry and wheeled vehicles. Until that point all travel seems to be on foot.

There are other odd inconsistencies — when those on the quest come to the Druid castle, which has just been captured by hostile gnomes, they find all the empty underground passages conveniently lighted by torches, and one wonders who lit them and replaced the torches when they burnt out. In the land there are four races, Men, Trolls, Gnomes and Dwarfs, but in various places they are all described as men or as human beings.

Not a very bad read, but not a very good one either. I don’t think I’ll be looking for the rest of the trilogy.

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Did Not Finish — books only half-read

It seems that lots of readers on GoodReads are using the Did Not Finish or DNF shelf. In my GoodReads shelving I’ve used Abandoned for such books. The 15 Most Common Books Never Finished, According To Goodreads:

Deciding not to finish a book can be a freeing experience. Our time as readers is limited and there are SO MANY good books out there. Choosing to DNF (or “did not finish” a book) isn’t an indictment of the book itself—usually—but a necessary aspect of the reader’s life nowadays. Some books, though, get DNFed more often than others.

What I would like to see is GoodReads making that shelf, or tag, official, like Read, Currently Reading and Want to Read. At the moment I’ve got a whole bunch of them sitting on my Currently Reading because I haven’t read them and I don’t want to read them, so I must be currently reading them, only I’m not.

When I read the article cited above two books that I hadn’t finished immediately sprang to mind: Jane Eyre and War and Peace. I could look at my Abandoned shelf to find more, but those are the two that immediately spring to mind. We actually have two copies of War and Peace — one, whose cover is illustrated here, and a much older single volume edition. Perhaps I should try the older translation, because one of the things I didn’t like about the translation by Rosemary Edmonds was the rendering of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy as “Mass”. I also found the notion of the spirituality of Freemasons rather alien, though perhaps they were different in Russia in 1812 from what they were in South Africa a hundred years later, when most of our grandfathers seemed to be involved in Freemasonry. My picture of Freemasons is solemn moustachioed stout gents in Edwardian suits with waistcoats and silver watch chains wearing fancy aprons, with all the spirituality of a bourgeois grocer.

Anyway I pulled out my copy to check the ISBN, and found my bookmark still in place on page 522 where I had stopped reading, two-thirds of the way through volume 1.

I checked some of the other books on my Abandoned shelf and found Underworld by Don DeLillo, The story of the last thought by Edgar Hilsenrath — I must admit that I was attracted to that one by its cover, a good example of why one should not judge a book by its cover.

Others were The Shack by William Paul Young, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke, and The Information by Martin Amis.

Also sundry books by Charlotte Bingham, which I had bought in error, perhaps because we had enjoyed a book called Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, and I’d later confused it with the name of the author of a number of mediocre novels. We released them into the wild on BookCrossing, and no one has responded saying they’d found and enjoyed them, so they must have ended up in the well of lost plots.

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.

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Land expropriation without compensation

Oh the irony!

President Cyril Ramaphosa is handing out title deeds to land which he wants to empower the government to expropriate without compensation. Ramaphosa hands out title deeds in Tembisa during Thuma Mina campaign – The Citizen:

He said through handing over title deeds, the government was giving people their dignity back, giving them a store of wealth and empowering them economically.

“A house is the most important asset that one can own,” Ramaphosa said.

He urged title deed holders to treat their certificates as valuable assets, adding that title deeds would be handed out throughout the country.

How can he do this with a straight face — tell people that these certificates are “valuable assets”, when his own government is planning to remove all value from them? The government giving with one hand while it takes with the other.

President Cyril Ramaphosa handing out title deeds (The Citizen)

President Ramaphosa chaired the commission which drew up the Constitution, including the restrictions on expropriating land without compensation. He, of all people, ought to have known what that clause was there for — because previous governments of the National Party had expropriated land without compensation, or with derisory compensation, to be able to move people around in its ethnic cleansing programme.

When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president he said “Never again”, but it seems that those who have followed him thought he meant again and again. And removing that clause in the constitution will open the way to all kinds of abuses — abuses that we thought we would never have to suffer again.

The relevant section of the Bill of Rights reads:

2. Property may be expropriated only in terms of law of general application ­

a. for a public purpose or in the public interest; and

b. subject to compensation, the amount of which and the time and manner of payment of which have either been agreed to by those affected or decided or approved by a court.

I believe a great deal of thought was given to that, and I was aware of many instances of abuse under the previous National Party government that had led to that clause being inserted into the Bill of Rights.

Among those abuses were the removal of people from Khumaloville to Hobsland. There was a black farming community at Khumaloville, where people had title to the land, and had two acre plots. The National Party government expropriated the land and offered the people half-acre plots at Hobsland in exchange. They were offered compensation of R42 for their two acres, and were given the opportunity of buying a further half acre at Hobsland for R55. At Hobsland they would also be subject to restrictions on their farming activities.

That was in the 1960s, under the programme of “Blackspot Removals”, and such things occurred all over the country.

Another instance, not concerned specifically with compensation, but rather with the abuses of expropriation, happened in the 1970s, not, this time, in the name of Blackspot Removals, but rather in the name of “Homeland Consolidation”.

A number of sugar farms between Eshowe and Empangeni in Zululand were expropriated from white farmers to be added to the KwaZulu “homeland”. One of the farmers, Guy Chennells, proposed that he stay on his farm for a couple of years, and share his skills and experience with the incoming black farmers, to enable them to make a go of running the farm. This was rejected by the National Party government, and a few years later the reason for the rejection became apparent — there were no black farmers. The farm, now owned by the government, was occupied and profitably farmed by a National Party functionary at a purely nominal rental, who was in no hurry to move out and thus consolidate the “Homeland”.

We are familiar with such corruption in our own day, as we see similar activities in state-owned enterprises such as Eskom. But they were less well known in the old days, not because they didn’t happen, but because back then we didn’t have a free press that could report them. If journalists knew of such things they were too scared to report them, and in the case of the few bolder exceptions, their stories were often spiked, because the shareholders in the newspaper firms were afraid.

Cyril Ramaphosa gives assurances that “land expropriation without compensation” will take place in an orderly and responsible manner, and of course when he is handing out title deeds to people he isn’t planning to immediately take them away again. But what he is planning to do is to remove the protection that would prevent anyone else from taking them away, as Julius Malema of the EFF is already promising (or threatening) to do if his party comes to power.

So Cyril Ramaphosa reminds me of B.J. Vorster who, whenever he proposed legislation that would grant him and his police extraordinary powers, would always reassure the public that these powers would not be abused and would be used responsibly, and that “the innocent had nothing to fear.” And in a way Cyril Ramaphosa is doing the same thing, saying, in effect, “don’t trust the constitution, trust me.”. .

And I’m reminded of this every Sunday in church when we sing

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men,
in whom there is no salvation.
when his breath departs he returns to his earth;
on that very day his plans perish

 

Things fall apart

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short novel set in eastern Nigeria in the late 19th century. The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a man of renown in his village, first as a wrestler, and then as a self-made man who has worked hard to attain a position of respect in the community. But he is also hot tempered and something of a domestic tyrant over his family. He despises weakness in others, and in himself.

The traditional way of life of the village is disturbed by the coming of white men — missionaries, traders and colonial rulers. Okonkwo does not like the social changes they bring to the village, and urges others to resist them, but this resistance, and the manner of it, bring about his downfall.

The first half of the story is fairly static. It describes the village and its social life, the seasons of planting and harvesting, in a manner reminiscent of George Eliot. It enables the reader to experience something of the atmosphere of rural life. To readers from elsewhere, the description makes the unfamiliar become familiar. The main crops may be unknown in other places, but we are told enough about the farming methods to become familiar with the rhythms of rainy seasons and dry seasons, seed-time and harvest, and thus to appreciate something of the shock of social change when it comes.

As a missiologist and church historian I found the social change wrought by the missionaries particularly interesting. There are two missionaries in the story, Mr Brown and Mr Smith, The names are generic, deliberately so, I think. They represent two types of missionaries, and two different approaches to Christian mission in the 19th century.

The first, Mr Brown, represents the missionaries who preceded the New Imperialism of the 1870s and later. He is interested in the culture of the local people, and has religious discussions with them. I think this part is worth quoting in full, as it has much to say about Christian mission in general, and is thus of interest to missiologists:

(Mr Brown) made friends with some of the great men of the clan and on his frequent visits to the neighbouring villages he had been presented with a carved elephant tusk, which was a sign of dignity and rank. One of the great men in that village was called Akunna and he had given one of his sons to be taught the white man’s knowledge in Mr Brown’s school.

Whenever Mr Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other, but they learnt more about their different beliefs.

‘You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,’ said Akunna on one of Mr Brown’s visits. ‘We also believe in him and call him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.’

‘There are no other gods,’ said Mr Brown. ‘Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood — like that one’ (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung), ‘and you call it a god, but it is still a piece of wood.’

‘Yes,’ said Akunna, ‘It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.’

‘No,’ protested Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church is God himself.’

‘I know,’ said Akunna, ‘but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.’

‘No,’ said Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church in that sense is in England.’

‘That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country, He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.’

‘They have a Queen,’ said the interpreter on his own account.

‘Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help him because the work is too great for one person.’

‘You should not think of his as a person,’ said Mr Brown. ‘It is because you do so that you imagine that he must need helpers. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.’

‘That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them because we are afraid to worry their master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka — “Chukwu is Supreme.’

‘You said one interesting thing,’ said Mr Brown. ‘You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do his will.’

‘But we must fear him when we are not doing his will,’ said Akunna. ‘And who is to tell his will? It is too great to be known.’

In Achebe’s report of these discussions, which is probably a condensed report of thousands of such conversations, it strikes me that Mr Brown’s interlocutor, Akunna, had a better grasp of Christian theology than Mr Brown himself had.

Last week I heard someone speaking about Christianity in relation to Graeco-Roman and ancient Egyptian paganism, and some of the issues that arose from that seem remarkably similar. Mr Brown and Akunna represent two different approaches, and in Things fall apart the first approach, that the gods of the pagans are human inventions, is presented as Christian, and the second, that there is a great God, the Creator, who made the little gods, is presented as pagan. That was also the approach of the speaker I heard on Friday. But if we read the Christian holy scriptures, we can find both approaches.

Akunna’s remarks seem to echo Psalm 94/95:3 — For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods; or, in the Septuagint, ὅτι θεὸς μέγας κύριος καὶ βασιλεὺς μέγας ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς θεούς·.

This is seen even more clearly in Psalm 81/82, which is sung with great jubilation in Orthodox Churches on Holy Saturday, and perhaps indicates the line that Mr Brown should have taken with Akunna — that the little gods have messed up. They have ruled the nations unjustly, and the Psalmist prays “Arise, O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations.”

And just before his death Jesus announces that he has come in answer to that very prayer: Now is the hour of judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out, and I when I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32)

That’s not what Akunna said, but it’s not what Mr Brown said either. Mr Brown missed the point.

This can be seen more clearly in Deuteronomy 32, where both approaches can be seen. In verses:8-9:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God, for the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

That implies that while all the nations had their own national spirits (Akunna’s “little gods”), Israel alone could by-pass the middle man, and approach the Almighty directly. The “to Thee belong all nations” cry in Psalm 81/82 is a plea that this will come to an end, and when Jesus says he will draw “all men” to himself, he is saying that the time has come. That is why mission organisations in the Orthodox Church use the slogan “panta ta ethne” — “all nations”.

Also interesting is that Akunna speaks of the little gods as “messengers” of the great King above all gods, and the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:

ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη, ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ, καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ, σχοίνισμα κληρονομίας αὐτ

When the Most High divided the nations, he divided them according to the number of the angels (ie messengers) of God. In other words, the little gods are angels, or messengers of God, which Mr Brown failed to recognise, though Akunna knew it.

And back in the second century St Justin Martyr explained that the pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome were angels, albeit fallen ones, as the Psalmist laments in Psalm 81/82. But I’ve written more about that here.

Though Mr Brown had his shortcomings, however, he also had his good points. It was missionaries of Mr Brown’s type who, earlier in the century, had consecrated Samuel Adjai Crowther, a freed Yoruba slave, as a bishop in western Nigeria.

Mt Smith, who followed Mr Brown, represents the new-style missionaries who came after the New Imperialism. They were more confident in themselves, more convinced of their own superiority, and less willing to learn anything from the local people. They were generally racist, and denounced their predecessors who had consecrated a native bishop in the person of Samuel Adjai Crowther, saying that it was premature, and the natives “weren’t ready for it”. For the Mr Smiths it would take centuries if not millennia of white tutelage before Africans were ready for a black bishop.

The Mr Smith-type of missionary was dominant until 1914, when the First World War shook European complacency and the tide of the New Imperialism began to recede. Achebe doesn’t take us that far, however. He just shows us the effect that it has on Okonkwo.

Achebe also shows how colonialism introduced or exacerbated corruption in African society, and how Christian mission became entangled with colonialism. If these things were unique to one small part of eastern Nigeria, it would perhaps make the novel less interesting, but in its very particularity, the story is universal. The society may change, its economy may change, but rural societies have often undergone such changes. The detailed descriptions at the beginning enable the reader from a different culture to feel at home in the society, to feel that it is not so strange. I’ve never seen or tasted a yam, but in reading the book I become aware that yams in that society play the same role as mealies in southern Africa, or wheat in England, or oats in Scotland. Achebe does that particularly well.

I find it interesting that one can learn quite a lot of missiology from works of fiction like this book. There are others that come to mind as well. The Poisonwood Bile by Barbara Kingsolver tells of an American missionary in what is now the Democratic Republic of congo, who is a Mr Smith-type missionary, and fails to come to terms with the local culture, and all the members of his family make their own different adaptations. Another that deals with modern mission, this time in South America, is At play in the fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiesen. In all these instances the missionaries have been immersed in modern culture, and come unstuck when they encounter premodern culture.

For a novel that deals with premodern missionaries and premodern people, an interesting one is Credo by Melvin Bragg.

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The crystal skull

2012: The Crystal Skull2012: The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps this would have been more interesting if I had read it before 21 December 2012, when, according to the author and several other people, the world was supposed to end. It’s set in two different periods, the 16th century and the 21st century. In the earlier period the possessor of a crystal skull hides it in a cave, and in the later one someone discovers it in the cave, and has the task of taking it to its proper place in preparation for 21 December 2012, when it will combine forces with 12 similar skulls in different parts of the world to create a magical dragon or worm, the Ouroboros, which will either save or destroy the world.

The theme of legendary artefacts playing a part in a current adventure is quite common, and this particular one, of the crystal skulls, also featured in one of the Indiana Jones films. The notion that crystal skulls were ancient Mayan artefacts has been refuted, but that should not get in the way of a good story. As a McGuffin a crystal skull is as good as any. but the problem with this book does not lie in the choice of McGuffin, but rather in the characters and plot.

The 21st-century characters are followed to the cave where the skull lies hidden by someone sinister whose who attacks them, but whose identity and motives are only revealed at the end. But the behaviour is unexplained and the motives ring hollow. Much is made of the injuries and medical treatment of the victims of the mysterious attacker, but the role of this villain seems to be tacked on as an afterthought. In an Indiana Jones-type scenario, there must be villains, so the villains pop up at intervals, but just when they have done their worst the scene jumps to the other century, and by the time one gets back to the aftermath of the attack, the details have been forgotten. What was it that happened that this character ended up in hospital? Oh, a fire? Or was it a fall in a cave?

The 16th-century characters are even more confusing. They fear being arrested and charged with “heresy”, but just what that heresy might have been is not clear. They are given hospitality by a Jesuit missionary who is portrayed as both welcoming and a threat, and this ambiguity is never resolved. They are pursued by Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, for clear reasons that are irrelevant to the plot, and the relevant reasons are unclear.

So one is left with the impression that the crystal skull is the protagonist, and the human characters are mere props. But at least that fits with the title of the book.

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