Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “fantasy literature”

Some books we read in 2019

At our first literary coffee klatsch of 2020 we listed some of the books we had read towards the end of 2019, and there was quite a variety. I mentioned Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch, which Janneke Weidema had mentioned at an earlier meeting, and that had got me interested. She said she had liked the story of Solly Mahlangu using the government’s rand-for-rand scheme to provide better schools in KwaNdebele.

I mentioned some of the other books I had been reading recently, most of which were covered in reviews on my blogs — see here:

The last of these, Be born in us today by Anglican bishop John Davies was designed to be used by parish study groups on the meaning of Christmas, and I had been reading it as a Christmas book. Janneke said she had been reading What Quakers believe, but after reading it she still wasn’t sure that she knew any more about what Quakers believe. She said they might be using it for a study group in their Quaker meeting.


Johnnie Aukamp mentioned and recommended The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, which deals with Nazi tyranny. He also mentioned a book called The Cheese and the Worms, but I forgot to note the author, so I am not sure if it was this one or this one. He had also read The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein.

On of the first books I have started reading this year is one by Johnnie Aukamp himself, though I’m not sure whether I should mention the title, as he wrote it under a pseudonym. But one of the interesting features of this book is that it mentioned a fictitious ancient manuscript which was an important key to the story.

The fictitious ancient document is quite a common trope in fantasy literature, and one of the ones that springs to mind for me is the De Angelis of Marcellus Victorinus of Bologna, published in the year 1514. at Paris, and dedicated to Leo X. Someone has tagged it in the linked catalogue entry as “practical joke”.

The De Angelis is mentioned in The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams, where it appears to be a commentary on a commentary on The Celestial Hierarchy by Dionysius of the Areopagite. In it, Williams seems to throw considerable light on the role of eagles in the writings of his fellow-Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, though it was actually first published in 1931, before The Hobbit, so perhaps Tolkien was influenced by Williams in his use of eagles.

Val recalled that our son Simon, like one of the characters in The Place of the Lion, used to work in a bookshop, and one day a man came into the shop and asked for a copy of a book by Professor Robert Langdon. It may have been The Symbology of Secret Sects, or possibly The Art of the Illuminati, which was cited in The da Vinci code by Dan Brown. But whatever the title was, Simon pointed out that it was a fictitious book. The customer got quite angry, and pointed at the mention of it in The da Vinci code. Simon pointed out that The da Vinci code was itself a work of fiction, and just because a book was mentioned there did not mean that the book actually existed.

Something similar happened a few years earlier: Professor Irving Hexham, of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary said something similar had happened in connection with H.P. Lovecraft’s fictitious work, the Necronomicon, and some had even built a new religious movement on it. For more on that see C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and me | Khanya.

Val and I had both read and enjoyed Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a science fiction book about a time-travelling history student — more in my review at Time travelling historian gets stuck in the past | Khanya.

We also discussed reading in general, and changes in language and the meaning of words. Most of us had enjoyed books by authors like Enid Blyton as children, and though she was not a brilliant author and her writing had many flaws, her books instilled in us a love of reading, and I recalled a lot of things I had learnt from them that I had not realised I had learnt, like some commonly used idiomatic phrases like “the coast is clear”. For a fuller list of such idioms see The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton) | Notes from underground.

Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland (Tales of Alderley, #3)Boneland by Alan Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is almost impossible to say anything about this book without spoilers, so I hope that anyone who reads this has already read the book.

It is a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In those books twelve-year-old Colin and Susan go to stay on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England, and discover that the Edge is haunted by all kinds of strange creatures, malicious goblins, suspicious fairies and elves and the like, and there is a strange woman, a witch, who seems to have evil designs on them, and especially a stone that Susan had inherited.

Some of the creatures, good and evil, that they encounter are from local folklore, and others from stories from further afield. Eventually the children overcome the forces of evil, and are left in peace for a while.

Boneland is set much further in the future, where Colin has grown up and become a professor of astrophysics.

One problem that Professor Colin Whisterfield has is that though he has an exceptionally good memory, he can remember very little of his childhood before he was 13.

He works at the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, and spends much of his time at work trying to find a twin sister that he thought he had, whom he believes has vanished into the Pleiades, riding on a horse. He has a bad conscience about wasting his employers’ time on this personal project, and so at one point he resigns, but his resignation is not accepted.

He is also worried about his missing sister, whom he can hardly remember, and thinks he might be going mad, so he visits a psychotherapist, Meg, She tries to probe his memories, but there are some places in his past where he both wants to go and fears to go.

It is impossible to go beyond this point without spoilers, so if you’ve read the book and want to go further, see my original review on GoodReads. See also my review of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

If you have read any of these books and written a review of any of them in a blog or elsewhere, please leave a link to your review in the comments below.

 

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Tales of Alderley, #1)The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just been re-reading some Alan Garner books. This time I read them in reverse, starting with The Owl Service, then Elidor followed by The Moon of Gomrath and now The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

I still rate them pretty highly as children’s fantasy novels, but perhaps reading them in reverse order puts them in a different perspective. The first two, the “Alderley” tales, both end in scenes of confused violence. In the case of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen it wasn’t as good as I remembered it, because of that. And I became aware of more of the plot holes. I still give it five stars though.

It’s about two children staying on a farm, and one of them, Susan, has a bracelet with a magic stone that holds the key to the reserve forces of good being held in a cave under a hill. The forces of evil want to get the stone to destroy the reserve force and increase their own power, so they conspire to steal it.

A common feature of quite a lot of children’s fantasy novels is the underground tunnel sequence. Quite a lot of non-fantasy stories also have it. A good many of Enid Blyton‘s “Adventure” and “Secret” series feature underground tunnels and caves. They are present in The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis and in the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. I am sure one could find many other examples. But The Weirdstone of Brisingamen has absolutely, incontrovertibly, the most terrifying, claustrophobic and horrific underground cavern sequence I have ever read.

When I was 11-13 years old, perhaps inspired by reading such stories, I explored stormwater drains. The first ones were the ones that drained the sports fields at our school (St Stithians, Randburg, in case you were wondering). Others had explored them — they emptied into a stream and a small dam, and they had climbed up the round concrete pipes, which, I think, were about 2ft 6in in diameter. The other kids (most of whom were older) told stories about people getting claustrophobia in there, and having to slap their faces (how? you couldn’t turn round) and encountering a scorpion. So it was with some trepidation that I first climbed up them. You couldn’t crawl on all fours, there wasn’t room for that. Just the thought was scary before I tried it. Alan Garner’s novel is ten times scarier than that.

Later I explored the stormwater drains of Sandringham, Johannesburg. The lower broader bits were big enough to ride a bike up, but they got narrower when they reached the Sydenham border, and there we used to sit and frighten pedestrians and cyclists with hollow booming tunnel-amplified voices that came from beneath their feet. And one still occasionally reads news items about kids who were doing that and got drowned when a sudden thunderstorm struck and they couldn’t get out in time. Rushing rainwater travels a lot faster than a crawling child. But Alan Garner’s book is much, much scarier than that.

Later still when I was a student at Durham University another student, Mike Clegg, said that the peninsula was riddled with underground tunnels and secret passages linking the cdastle to the cathedral and both with the jetty at Brown’s boathouse. The other students could not understand my desire to explore them, having read so much about them in books published in England. I wanted to see tunnels designed for people, rather than the unromantic drains of my childhood.  And it was about that time that I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

Apart from the underground tunnels there’s a lot of running and hiding and trying to keep the stone out of the hands of the bad guys and a deus ex machina or two. There are quite a lot of allusions to mythology. The blurbs like to describe this as “Celtic”, but that, I think, is because of the glamour that has been ascribed to the epithet “Celtic” in recent Western culture. In fact a lot of the mythology is Norse. Back when the book was first published there was no Google, and one of the things that seemed to be missing was any explanation of the name Brisingamen. Perhaps Garner was hoping to provoke a generation of school children to be curious enough to find out for themselves, even though the only tool at their disposal was a card catalogue. And perhaps he succeeded in that aim too.

It’s a good tale well told, and well worth reading, I think. One can’t say much more without plot spoilers. But yes, the violence at the end is a bit much.

View all my reviews

The Moon of Gomrath

Moon of GomrathMoon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having just read it for the 5th (or is it the 6th?) time, I think I notice some flaws I did not spot in earlier readings, but would still give it 5 stars for the tension, the excitement, the facing of strange dangers. Though the blurb describes it as “Celtic”, the Einheriar of the Hearlathing sound pretty Anglo-Saxon to me, and the “old straight track” is anything but old, and was concocted by a 20th century businessman, but it still makes for a good exciting story, not of other worlds far away, but other worlds impinging on this one.

The flaw I noticed this time, however, was the heavy commuter traffic between Alderley Edge and Shining Tor. They rush the 9 miles to Shining Tor, on horseback or sometimes on foot, only to discover that they have to rush back again to consult the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow about something. This shuttling back and forth makes it seem that something is happening, but it isn’t really. It gives it the feel of one of those comedy films or stage shows where people are rushing from room to room in a house looking for someone who is looking for them, each one looking in the rooms that the other has just vacated.

I still like it, though. I think Alan Garner’s first three books are among the best and most exciting fantasy books I have ever read. I like his style, I like the excitement and the tension, I like their link to real places.

View all my reviews

The Long Price (book review)

Shadow & Betrayal (Long Price Quartet, #1-2)Shadow & Betrayal by Daniel Abraham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book set in an imaginary world where the geography is different from our world, but the climate and vegetation are similar. The sun and the moon behave similarly, winter and summar are more extreme. The setting is thus in one sense familiar, though the countries and their borders are strange. Like many other books of its type, the technology is vaguely pre-nineteenth century.

What is different are the peoples and their cultures, and this at times makes it difficult to read, as some of the features of the cultures and society in the book are introduced without being explained.

Most of the action takes place in the land of the Khaiem, a land of city states each ruled by a Khai, with vague memories of a fallen empire, some elements of whose culture have been inherited. There is a somewhat shadowy group called the utkhaiem, whose role is not explained until about two-thirds of the way through the book. At first their appear to be some kind of police force, but it later turns out that they are the upper class in the cities of the Khaiem.

The story takes place in two parts, the first in Saraykeht, one of the summer cities of the south, which thrives on the cotton trade, and the second in Machi, one of the winter cities of the north, where the main economic activity is mining. The plot revolves around one of the customs of the Khaiem — when the Khai dies, his sons fight to the death to determine his successor — and follows the fortunes of Otah Machi, the sixth son of the Khai of Machi, who abandons his heritage and identity, and seeks to make a new life for himself far from home.

The culture has two peculiar features. One is that though they can talk, they have an elaborate system of non-verbal communication, by taking poses with lots of subtle nuances. It makes it a bit difficult to picture people walking down the conversing, and stopping frequently to adopt appropriate poses.

The other feature of the culture is the andat, a kind of materialised god/ghost created and controlled by poets, who are usually drawn from the ranks of the younger sons of Khaiem. The andat have powers that underly the prosperity of the cities of the Khaiem. In the mining areas, for example, the andat has the power of making stone soft, which facilitates the tasks of miners. In the areas of the cotton trade, the andat removes seeds from cotton. In this sense that andat are a kind of substitute for technology, so there is no need for any kind of industrial revolution.

In this setting the plot of the story is played out, with the usual human features of love, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, ambition and all the rest. When I try to think of other books in the same genre, the one that springs first to mind is Shardik by Richard Adams.

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Fantasy literature

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

I saw that on Jeffrey Turner’s sig in the alt.usage.english newsgroup. I don’t know if it was original with him, or an unattributed quotation from someone else, but I liked it, so I thought I’d put it here.

Mythcon 41 internet roundup

The Mythopoeic Society recently held its conference, Mythcon. The Mythopoeic Society deals mainly with fantasy literature, and especially that written by members of the literary group the Inklings, notably Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Lingwë- Musings of a Fish: Mythcon 41 internet roundup:

In the meantime, here’s a roundup of some other thoughts, gathered from around the Web.

Evangelising atheism: Philip Pullman

One of the things I noted when reading Philip Pullman’s His dark materials was that though he accused C.S. Lewis of being preachy, he was in fact far more preachy himself, especially in the third book of the series, The amber spyglass.

When I mentioned this in discussion forums, several people said that that was just my Christian prejudice. So I was interested to find a review from someone more sympathetic to Pullman’s worldview saying the same thing. Reason Magazine – A Secular Fantasy

While Pullman has said that he is interested in “telling a story, not preaching a sermon,” he slides more and more frequently into preaching as the story goes on. Some of his favorite ideas—for instance, that the human body with its senses is far superior to the fleshless spirit of the angels, or that the best afterlife is to become one with nature—are stated again and again and again and again. The idea that the transition from childhood innocence to adult experience should be welcomed, not feared, is illustrated by a heavy-handed plot twist in which Lyra and Will’s sexual awakening proves to be the key to the world’s salvation. When ideology and literature collide, literature suffers. The Amber Spyglass is not quite on a par with the first two novels: Its new characters and worlds are generally less interesting, far too much space is given to sententious musings about the meaning of life in a post-God world, and eventually you start to feel that Pullman is trying to cram too many messages into his narrative, even if that means unnecessarily dragging it out.

I recently reread the books, after seeing the film The Golden Compass, which is based on the first book of the trilogy, Northern Lights. I enjoyed it more on the second reading, but the preachiness was still there. So too was what seemed to me the biggest weakness in the whole plot — that Pullman, after making clear that he rejects the ideas of Christian asceticism, has his protagonists end up adopting something very similar. They end up like Abelard and Heloise, or Leon Bloy and his love.

On the notion that adult experience should be welcomed, not feared, however, it seems to me that Pullman’s message is ambiguous. I recently read Lisa Chaney’s biography of J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. Barrie had a horror of children growing up, yet recognised that Peter Pan was somehow inhuman, because he was deprived of so much of human experience. But in His dark materials there is something similar. Pullman’s protagonists go on to live rather dull adult lives, forever separated from each other, and can look back on their childhood as a time of joy, excitement, adventure and love. Growing up doesn’t seem to have all that much going for it.

Towards a theology of religions

Since the August 2007 Synchroblog on Christianity inclusive or exclusive, I’ve posted several more-or-less connected pieces on the general theme of Theology of religion. Now it is time to wind up the series, or at least to draw together the threads of this long rambling discourse, though I have no illusions that this will be the last word on the subject, even from me.

In the second posting in the series I pointed out that

Alan Race, in his book Christians and religious pluralism (London, SCM, 1983), quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith as saying

From now on any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purposes among men, some doctrine of other religions. We explain the fact of the Milky Way by the doctrine of creation, but how do we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there?

Race quotes this at the beginning of his book, on page 2, yet one may read through to the end and find that he has still not even attempted to explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. The same applies to Paul Knitter, and most of the other so-called theologians of religion.

Throughout the series I have maintained that the question whether Christianity is, or should be inclusive, exclusive or pluralist is the wrong question as far as “theology of religion” is concerned, as is the related question whether “salvation” is to be found in other religions.

I have also tried to show that there is not one single “theology of religion”; instead there are “theologies of religions”. A Christian theology of Islam will not be the same as a Christian theology of Buddhism or a Christian theology of neopaganism. An Islamic theology of Christianity will not be the same as an Islamic theology of Buddhism or an Islamic theology of neopaganism. One Islamic theology of Buddhism may have been expressed by the Taliban’s destruction of Buddha statues by artillery bombardment, but the fact that the statues existed for hundreds of years in a predominantly Muslim society shows that the Taliban’s response was not the only Islamic theology of Buddhism.

I should also point out that what I say here is not part of the dogmatic theology of the Orthodox Church. Though I write as an Orthodox Christian, this is not a statement of official Orthodox teaching. It is rather a theologoumenon, an opinion put forward for discussion.

I take as a starting point the previous article in the series, from the September 2007 synchroblog, on Christianity, paganism and literature, in which I looked at the views implied in the works of members of the literary group known as the Inklings, and in particular C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. There I wrote

Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’s The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. A child from the normal everyday world hides in a wardrobe during a game, and finds herself transported by magic into another world, where she has tea with a faun, a figure from ancient Roman pagan mythology. A faun is half human, half goat, and the encounter is an introduction to a world of intelligent talking animals – beavers with sewing machines and the like. Lewis has no hesitation in blending Christian and pagan mythology in his Narnian books. There is even salvation. Salvation is at the centre of the plot of the book, but one would have to look hard to find it attributed to any religion at all, Christian or pagan.

Of course Lewis was known as a Christian, and his conception of salvation is a Christian one, but in this particular book he does not deal with what seems to be the central question for many Western Christian “theologians of religion” – the question whether there is salvation in “other” religions.

The next book in the Narnian series, Prince Caspian, is even more populated with pagan deities – Bacchus and Silenus, nymphs and Maenads, and even a river god. Lewis does not identify these with the forces of evil – they are not “satanic”, as many Christians seem to think pagan deities ought to be (and many neopagans think that Christians think neopagans’ deities are). They are rather part of the army of liberation, and are themselves liberated from the powers of evil in the course of the story.

Now it might be argued that since Lewis had a classical education he incorporated these pagan deities simply for the sake of a good story. They featured in stories that he himself had enjoyed, so he incorporated them in stories that he wrote. But there is more to it than this.

In an earlier post, Notes from underground: Of egregores and angels, I wrote:

Charles Williams, in his novel The place of the lion describes what happens when the powers get loose, and when men worship them independently of the power of God. C.S. Lewis sees them as belonging not just to human groups within the earth, but to the planets themselves, the principalities, archontes, princes he calls oyeresu, and each planet has its oyarsa, or planetary ruler, and this was the basis of astrology.

And someone responded

This paragraph is written as though this is a belief of CSL, not a creation of his imagination, which is what it is. CSL “sees” is not the same as believes. This is not ‘theology’ or even something approaching church doctrine held by CSL or CW for that matter. You are referencing here works of fiction, right?

Right, I am referencing works of fiction. But wrong, I am going to explore the doctrine expressed in these works of fiction. I could argue why I think such a procedure is justified, but it would take too long, and might require a post on its own, or even several posts. Suffice it to say that I believe that the works of the Inklings that I refer to are not simply fiction, but are mythical, and, as Nicolas Berdyaev has pointed out, “Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept.” I shall, perhaps foolishly, try to link some of these myths to concepts.

There are several indications in the fiction of the Inklings of the way in which they see various deities and spiritual forces and powers. The Narnian stories feature a river god, Bacchus and several others. Lewis’s “Space trilogy” features the ancient Graeco-Roman gods, Mars and Venus, under the names Malacandra and Perelandra, and several others. Charles Williams writes about the Tarot in The greater trumps, about Islam in Many dimension and about the principalities and powers in The place of the lion. Tolkien writes about the creation of the world in The Silmarillion, which also contains a mythical retelling of the Fall.

The Christian Symbol of Faith begins “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Among the invisible things are those to which Williams, Lewis and Tolkien have tried to give visible form in their fiction. The “Father Almighty” (Patera pantokratora, Pater omnipotens) has nothing to do with the “omnipotent god” of the atheists, and whether he can create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it. It is a translation of the Hebrew YHWH Sabaoth, which can also be translated into English as “Lord of Hosts”. And what are the “hosts”? They are the “invisible things” that God has created.

These invisible things are described in various ways, and have been pictured in various ways by people. Sometimes they are described abstractly, love, beauty, power, strength, justice. Sometimes they have been represented symbolically in pictures, for example in the Greater Trumps of the Tarot, where there are cards representing force, justice, death and so on. At times they are represented by animals, as in Williams’s The place of the lion, as lion, snake, butterfly, eagle. In one scene Anthony Durrant asks if what Dora Wilmot saw was Aaron’s Rod that turned into a snake (Exodus 7:8-13). “I think the magicians of Pharaoh may have seen Miss Wilmot’s snake,” Mr Foster said, “and all their shapely wisdom have been swallowed by it, as the butterflies of the fields were taken into that butterfly this afternoon.”

Williams was writing fiction. Anthony Durrant, Miss Wilmot and Mr Foster are fictional characters in his book. But I think it is fair to say that Williams believed that the shapely wisdom of Pharaoh’s magicians was swallowed by the snake he described.

In Prince Caspian Lewis brings in Bacchus and the Maenads, dryads and fauns, and the river god. Such creatures are found in classical mythology, and Lewis, like many of his generation, and those of several generations before, had had a classical education. British poetry since the Renaissance had many classical references and allusions, and is sometimes difficult to understand without a knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. But this Renaissance classicism was cold and dead, like the bare marble statues of the gods, for decoration, not for worship. The temples were in ruins, or converted into churches (like the Pantheon in Rome), and even the old statues had lost the gaudy paint that once covered them in the temples.

But Lewis brings Bacchus and his devotees to life, in a fertility rite that produces a feast, and Susan says, “I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”

Nymphs were spirits of nature, of trees and springs. Dryads were spirits of trees, sometimes appearing in human form. Nereids were spirits of the sea, though in modern Greek usage the term may be applied to any nymphs, and in some places, even today, people believe that whirlwinds are caused by nereides dancing. In classical times, before chopping down a tree, the spirit of the tree needed to be propitiated. In premodern hunting societies, in many parts of the world, when an animal is hunted for food, its spirit needs to be propitiated.

Lewis weaves this premodern element seamlessly into his story, and in this demonstrates a Christian theology of religion.

If God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good, then both the trees and their invisble spirits are part of the good creation. Wine, “that maketh glad the heart of man”, and Bacchus, the spirit of vineyards, are part of that good creation.

This, in part, answers the question with which this enquiry was begun. We explain the fact that the Milky Way is there by the doctrine of creation, and we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there by the same doctrine of creation. In another of his stories, The voyage of the Dawn Treader Lewis introduces a retired star. ‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.’

The stars sing at the creation of Narnia, and in the Ainulindale 0f Tolkien they sing at the creation of Middle Earth, but even in our world God asks Job, ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Who laid its cornerstone when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy, and the Sons of God in chorus were chanting praise?’ (Job 38:4-7).

So a Christian theology of religion, based on the doctrine of creation, could say that the gods of the Bhagavad Gita were there among them, joining in the chorus. And there among them too were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, or as Lewis calls them, Viritrilbia, Perelandra, Malacandra, Lurga and Glund. Lewis calls them gods and angels, as do the Christian scriptures. In Christian parlance the term “heavenly host” could refer to either the stars of the sky, the angels of the heavens, or both.

At this point some might say, Wait, didn’t Boniface chop down the oak of Thor? Didn’t Christians go to their death rather than participate in the emperor cult? Didn’t missionaries call the gods of the heathen demons?

And the answer is, Yes, Christians did all these things.

St Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian writers to discuss the relation of the Christian faith to other religions, says:

We do not worship with many sacrifices and floral offerings the things men have made, set in temples, and called gods. We know that they are inanimate and lifeless and have not the form of God (for we do not think that God has that form which some say they reproduce in order to give honor to Him) — but have the names and shapes of those evil demons who have appeared [to men].

In Orthodox ikonography God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are never represented in material form. Jesus Christ, as the incarnate Son of God, is indeed represented graphically in ikons, because though “no one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). During the iconoclastic controversy the iconophiles made their position clear: “an idol was the image of a creature which was worshipped as God, as was the case with the pagans.” The iconophiles relied a great deal on St Basil the Great’s contention that the honor of the image is transferred to the prototype. For a theology of religions the important question is therefore not so much the image itself, but the nature of the prototype. If the image is of Christ, then honor to the ikon of Christ is honor to Christ, and it is therefore not idolatry. If the image is of the Theotokos or of one of the saints, then honor to their ikons is not idolatry because they are not mistaken for God. The essence of idolatry is worshipping the creature instead of the creator. For St Justin Martyr, the pagans not only worshipped images, but regarded the prototype as God himself, whereas Justin himself thought that the prototypes were evil demons.

In the Christian view, God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good. But they didn’t stay good. Evil entered the good creation of God, and this fall from grace meant that the human race and creation itself was alienated from God. There is thus both a positive and negative view of human religion, at least among Orthodox Christians. Unlike Calvinists, Orthodox Christians do not believe in total depravity, that everything on earth is so tainted with evil that nothing of God can be seen in it. Human and religion and human worship, like everything else in the world, is fallen, and at best can only give a distorted vision of God. As Father Thomas Hopko notes

While affirming that God is indeed unknowable in His innermost being, and that there are indeed a multitude of manifestations of God and revelations in and toward His creatures, and that there are indeed an immense variety of forms and categories of expression and explanation proper to God in human thought and speech, the Orthodox tradition remains adamant in its insistence that not all of man’s thoughts and words about God are “adequate to divinity” (to use a traditional expression), and that indeed most of man’s ideas and words about God are plainly wrong, being, as they are, the inventions of the vain imagination of creaturely minds and not the fruit of a living experience of God in the actual reality of His self-disclosure.

Yet Justin’s view is not the only possible one. It is also possible that the “idols” of the pagans are false images of the true God, as St Paul seems to suggest (Ac 17:22-31) or of created spiritual beings, not necessarily evil (Col 1-2).

Father Michael Oleksa, the Orthodox missiologist, notes that it was St Maximus the Confessor’s opposition to the monothelitism of his times, and to the Platonic theology of Origen, that laid the foundations for the positive view which Orthodox missions have generally had of traditional societies in central and eastern Europe in the 9th & 10th centuries, and across central Asia and into eastern Siberia and Alaska over the next 800 years.

Orthodox evangelists felt no obligation to attack all the pre-contact religious beliefs of shamanistic tribes, for they could perceive in them some of the positive appreciation of the cosmos that is central to St Maximus’ theology. They could affirm that the spiritual realities these societies worshipped were indeed ‘logoi’ related to the Divine Logos, whose personal existence these societies had simply never imagined.

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This is the last of a series of five articles on interreligious dialogue and theology of religions.

It has also (a year after it was first posted), been incorporated into a synchroblog on interreligious dialogue. To see links to the other articles in the series, and other articles in the synchroblog, please go to Notes from underground: Interreligious dialogue

Harry Potter as a Christian allegory – gullibility as a horcrux

Sue has posted some interesting thoughts about the Harry Potter series in Abstractions: Harry Potter as a Christian allegory.

While I don’t think it is really accurate to describe the series as an allegory, there are some allegorical tendencies within it, for example the satire on educational bureaucracy I pointed out in an earlier post on Zemblanity in Education. But satire is not necessarily allegory.

One of the things in Sue’s post can be accurately described as allegorical though — (warning, spoilers ahead) — when Sue describes the process by which a satirical post in The Onion was believed as literally true by some Christians in the USA, and was propagated as truth.

The way in which Harry Potter himself turns out to be a horcrux in which part of Voldemort’s soul is hidden is perhaps an allegory of the way in which the gullibility of some Christians led them to believe and propagate an urban legend that was not merely untrue, but harmful.

I was able to observe this at first hand because someone sent the piece from The Onion to me by e-mail, with no indication of its source, and urged me to pass it on to many others in a kind of spam operation. I read it, and suspected that it was probably satire, as it was too over the top to be true. I did a web search for Harry Potter and The Onion, and bingo – there it was. I wrote to the person who had sent it to me, warning them that they had been duped into accepting a satire as true. So yes, the way Harry Potter became a horcrux that contained part of Voldemort’s soul is indeed an allegory of the way in which the devil gets a foothold in the souls of Christians, and incites them to do his work by spreading malicious gossip in the belief that by so doing they are serving God.

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