Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “new religious movements”

Understanding the Dark Side

An interesting review of Christopher Partridge, Understanding the Dark Side: Western Demonology, Satanic Panics and Alien Abduction, Chester University Press, (2006).

Understanding the Dark Side:

Although the subtitle promises to be a survey of western demonology, Satanic panics, and alien abduction Partridge’s survey is more a deconstruction of UFO religion and the eclecticism of its sources. The extra-terrestrial religious ideas may have had their origin in theosophical strains of Eastern thought but the religion of groups such as Heaven’s Gate is in fact more rooted in western demonology, specifically the adaptation in popular culture of the idea of the nephilim (Gen 6: 1-4). In the space of a short lecture Partridge has done a good job at delineating the dialectic between theory and popular culture and so, from the perspective of those interested in alternative and fringe religions the author has done a good job in charting the field. However, for those like my self who do not spend much time thinking about the theology of the Raelians a more interesting phenomenon – why as the stranglehold of ‘Christian’ understandings of the world been dissipated have these religions relied on parodies of Christian demonologies. In understand that popular culture is tapping into a latent understanding in invoking such ideas from Christian sources – however, the fact that the UFO religions have followed suit strikes me as a far more interesting question both theologically and sociologically.

Father Seraphim Rose, a Western convert to Orthodoxy, in his book Orthodoxy and the religion of the future maintained that UFOs were in fact demonic manifestations.

UFOs, however, are one area where I’m inclined to be modernist rather than postmodernitst or pre-modernist; in fact I’m altogether prosaic and literalist about them. As I see it, if you believe that you have established that UFOs are demons, or creatures from another planet, they are no longer UFOs but IFOs — Identified Flying Objects. A thing cannot be both identified and unidentified at the same time.

A few years ago I was visited by a member of an Old Calendrist group, Paul Inglesby, who seemed quite obsessed with UFOs, and was trying to drum up support for his campaign of appealing to governments to do something to stop the abductions by space aliens that he was convinced were taking place. He simply didn’t see my point at all when I said that if he had identified them as craft of space aliens they could no longer be UFOs (he pronounced it “you foes”). It wasn’t exactly a UFO cult he was advocating, more like a conspiracy theory.

He asked me if I “believed in” UFOs. I said I didn’t believe in them, though I had seen one. He asked me what I thought it was, and I said if I knew that, it wouldn’t be a UFO. For what it’s worth, here’s what I wrote about it at the time, on an autumn evening in 1964, when I was at university

In the evening I went over to the Union to phone Fr Hallowes. It was about 6:00 pm, and as I walked across the car park I saw a red object travel across the sky from south to north. It was almost due West of the Union, and then it looked like an artificial satellite, moving slowly across the sky, very much as I saw the first Sputnik moving, nearly seven years ago now. That was the only satellite I had ever seen before, and I almost stopped looking and went on to the Union, But then I stopped, because when it was almost due west it seemed to stop, and then moved in a series of jerks. Then it started to move round a star — at least that’s what it looked like to me, but parallax probably meant that it only looked like it. Neil Perrett came along then, and we both watched it. It was higher up in the sky moving back more or less the way it had come, still in jerks, and it seemed less bright. Obviously it was not an artificial satellite, but must be an aircraft of some kind. Too far away for a chopper, but it may be a fast plane, very far away, but somehow it didn’t look like it. Not a satellite, not a plane, what the hell can it be? A piece seemed to fall off it, and then it was travelling back, moving north to south, when it dropped a few more pieces, and finally disappeared — disintegrated altogether. I went on to the Union, and Neil went back to res.

Not a bird, not a plane, not an artificial satellite, not an alien spacecraft, not a demonic manifestation, simply an unidentified flying object – a UFO.

Neopentecostals and witch hunts

Attitudes to witch hunting seem to be changing in African independent churches.

The old Zionists generally had a more humane attitude to people suspected of witchcraft and sorcery (see my article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery) but the Neopentecostals seem to be displaying similar behaviour to that seen during the Great Witch Hunt in early modern Europe.

Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt | World news | The Observer

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.’ Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk. There are nearly 60 branches of Liberty Gospel across the Niger Delta. It was started by a local woman, mother-of-two Helen Ukpabio, whose luxurious house and expensive white Humvee are much admired in the city of Calabar where she now lives. Many people in this area credit the popular evangelical DVDs she produces and stars in with helping to spread the child witch belief.

I’ve blogged about this before, but my initial impression is being confirmed by reports like these. Zionists are basically premodern. They worship wearing robes, and in their worship they beat cowhide drums. The Neopentecostals come with expensive sound systems, wearing suits and ties (the males, anyway). In Africa they seem to represent modernity, and so tend to reinforce (in my mind) the link between witch hunts and modernity.

A couple of days ago I was talking to Greg Cuthbertson, a South African historian, and Inus Daneel (a missiologist and AIC researcher) and they confirmed this impression from their own research and observations. I’ve been asked to take part in a couple of TV programmes recently, and in both of them concern was been expressed that people are leaving the traditional AICs and moving to the Neopentecostals. I’m not sure that that is correct, as I believe the Neopentecostals and Zionists (in South Africa) appeal to different constituencies, though as modernity takes root in Africa I believe the constituency of the Neopentecostals will grow, while that of the Zionists will shrink.

Greg Cuthbertson referred to a report from the Centre for Development and Enterprise, Under the radar: Pentecostalism in South Africa and its potential social and economic role, which referred to the role of the Pentecostal churches in promoting modernity.

This project has revealed a world of activity, energy, and entrepreneurship previously unknown to this otherwise well-informed South African think-tank. Flying under the radar screens of politicians, intellectuals, academics, and journalists are a large number of institutions and individuals that are actively concerned about and working on questions of values and personal behaviour. These concerns include family life, personal responsibility, unemployment, skills creation, and a range of other national concerns.

The last sentence could apply to many non-Pentecostal Christian groups as well. Greg Cuthbertson was somewhat sceptical about the report, saying that they tended to lump all kinds of things together under the general label of “Pentecostalism”, and did not understand hoe Christian denominations worked. But I believe the general link between Neopentecostalism and modernity is there.

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If you are interested, you can see my other blog posts on this and related topics here and here.

Urban legend: government to replace Christian public holidays

Yesterday a friend sent me an e-mail petition against an alleged government plan to change Christian holidays in South Africa.

This is what it said:

ATTENTION ALL CHRISTIANS! It was announced in this mornings Beeld that Government wants to change all Christian holidays e.g. Christmas and Easter, as Christianity has too many public holidays and it is therefore discrimination against other religions.

They no longer want Christian names for these holidays. So if you are prepared to stand up for your faith, please sign the form to say that you are against this proposal.

We WILL stand up for our Lord!

As this had all the marks of an urban legend, I thought I’d check up a bit.

What actually happened was that Mathole Motshekga appealed to the Commission on Culture, Religion and Language to make some changes. He did this back in April, and it was reported in Beeld back then. It wasn’t in today’s Beeld, nor in the issue on the date of the forwarded e-mail message I received.

So the petition is based on a lie: it is not something that “the government” wants. It is something that Mathole Motshekga wants.

So who is Mathole Motshekga?

He is a lawyer and a politician.

He replaced Tokyo Sexwale as Premier of Gauteng, but didn’t last very long in that post, and his tenure was somewhat controversial. He is now director of the Kara Heritage Institute, which appears to promote a new religion of Dr Motshekga’s own devising, a rather eclectic religion based on a mixture of gnosticism and African traditional religion.

I heard him a few times on the morning talk show on SAFM radio, hosted by Xolani (or Cwelani, I’ve heard it pronounced both ways) Gwala giving his views on that subject and others.

To judge from what he said on the radio Dr Motshekga’s knowledge of history seemed to be even more wildly inaccurate than that of The de Vinci code. Xolani/Cwelani Gwala appeared to be a fan of his, and Dr Motshekga was on SAFM nearly every day, so that his religion was getting more exposure on the SABC than any other. Eventually I switched to Classic FM, and no longer listen to SAFM.

I have no objection to Dr Motshekga having his own religion, or even speaking about it on the radio. What annoyed me was the lies and distortions about other religions that he was propagating, and the fact that he seemed to be being given a monopoly to do it by the SABC.

But that is no excuse for some Christians to spread lies and distortions about Dr Motshekga’s views on public holidays, or to spread urban legends that have no foundation.

A good comment on this is Christian holidays and press responsibility by Amelia Mulder, in which she concludes that:

  1. people no longer pay attention when they are reading
  2. they believe what they want to believe
  3. especially when it has to do with the government’s conspiracy against Afrikaners
  4. the press exploits this shamelessly
  5. it makes a person wonder how much you can believe of what you read

Concerning the last couple of points there was another example recently in reports of the arrest of the editor of the Sunday Times, which several journalist bloggers anticipated by writing headlines that implied that the arrest had already taken place, and then later used the rather feeble excuse that it would have happened if they hadn’t said it had happened. So if you want to prevent something happening, say it has already happened, even when it has not — a rather swivel-eyed concept of responsible journalism and media freedom!

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