The other day I came across an article about St Nicholas of Japan's approach to Buddhism, and I blogged about it here Christianity and Buddhism | KhanThe other day I came across an article about St Nicholas of Japan's approach to Buddhism, and I blogged about it here Christianity and Buddhism | Khanya. St Nicholas acquired his knowledge of Buddhism at first hand, from Buddhist sources. He lived among Buddhists, talked to them and read and translated their scriptures.
My knowledge was much more remote. We learned something about it in history classes at school, and then, in our English classes, we were given Kim to read.
Kim is fiction. It's about a 13-year-old boy in Lahore in what is now Pakistan who attaches himself to a Tibetan lama who is searching for a river of healing. Kim is a street kid. He is worldly wise, an expert beggar, and he is impressed that the lama, unlike most holy men of his acquaintance, is not in it for the money. As he sets off with the lama in search of the river, however, he is given a message and a packet by an Afghan horse trader of his acquaintance to deliver to a British colonel. At that time the British ruled India, and the message was an intelligence report. So Kim becomes a teenage spy.
After reading St Nicholas's account of Buddhism, I looked at Kim again, intending to glance quickly at it to see where some of my earliest knowledge of Buddhism had come from. But I read it all the way through, for the fifth time, though the previous time was nearly 30 years ago.
Why read a book five times? I've read only a few books through five times, and it is because I found something new in them each time I read them, and this time was no exception.
One thing that struck me this time was that the last time I had read it, in 1988, the Cold War, which we had thought would last for ever, was about to end. And this time the Cold War is starting up again, and so a lot of things that passed me by in previous readings suddenly stand out.
One of the themes of Kim is the clash between British and Russian imperialism. So in a sense it is very up-to-date. The Russophobia in the book reflects the Russophobia we see in the news and in social media every day. One merely has to mention the name of a Western politician as having a less than hostile attitude to Russia for that politician to be discredited, at least in the minds of some people. There is not need to say what the politician has done wrong, or what the Russians have done wrong. He talks to Russians, he's a bad guy. It's as simple as that. And so in the book, the bad guys are all those who make friendly overtures to the Russians, and the aim of the British spy network is to detect and neutralise them.
As the story goes on Kim himself is more deeply drawn into the spy network, and is educated and trained for the task, though his education is paid for by the old lama. During the school holidays, however, Kim goes back to the lama and joins him in his wanderings, much to the disapproval of the school authorities, who regard the lama as a street beggar.
On my first few readings the parts I liked best were Kim's wanderings with the lama, and the accounts of the different religions, castes and cultures of India, the human variety, and the vivid descriptions of the different characters.
But always the lama stood out. from the rest as a centre of tranquility. It looks as though, in writing it, Kipling was himself torn between the worldly concerns, including the concerns of British imperialism, and the thought of the lama, that all this was illusion, and a hindrance to enlightenment. ...more
Reading a book a second time a long time after the first reading often means one sees it in a completely different way, and this one is no exception.Reading a book a second time a long time after the first reading often means one sees it in a completely different way, and this one is no exception.
It is a spiritual autobiography, an account of how C.S. Lewis abandoned the Christian faith of his childhood, and returned to it in later life.
When I first read it, I had not read many of his books. I was still at school, and so it was the parts of the book where he was a schoolboy that stood out in my memory, comparing the schools he had attended with those I attended, and noting the similarities and differences. I thought then that Surprised by joy was by far the best of his books that I had read up to that point. I recall three that we had in the house, Mere Christianity, and one with a title like Broadcast talks, and one that I think was called Transposition and other addresses.
All these had been bought by my mother who was then returning to the Christian faith after having been agnostic for most of her adult life. And it was she who recommended that I read Surprised by joy. The things that struck me most about it were, as I have said, his schooldays, and the experience that he called joy, an intense longing for something indefinable, sparked off by something one had seen or read or imagined.
One of the things that struck me both times I read it was that Edwardian education took the classics much more seriously. As a schoolboy Lewis was familiar with Greek and Latin authors I had never heard of. Our education was shallow by comparison, but perhaps what it lacked in depth it gained in breadth. Lewis does not mention geography, physics or chemistry in his education, and mathematics seems to have been an afterthought.
One of the things that struck me on the second reading is that Lewis stressed his discovery that Joy came unbidden. It could not be organised or sought for its own sake. Towards the end of the book he talks about the difference between "enjoyment" and "contemplation", between experiencing something and contemplating the experience. On my first reading that was probably way above my head, and I hardly recall it at all. On the second reading it made a lot of sense. But something of what Lewis said may have rubbed off on me the first time, as a few years later I discovered this existentially instead of just reading about it.
I was in my final year at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and had become involved in promoting student ecumenism. There was an ecumenical (or interdenominational, or non-denominational) student organisation, the Students Christian Association (SCA), which, though it had four sections, Afrikaans, English, Black and Coloured, nevertheless brought Christian students of different denominations, traditiions and cultural backgrounds together. In 1964 the Afrikaans section, which was the most powerful and the most well-off financially, proposed that, in accordance with the then dominant policy of apartheid, the four sections become completely separate organisations. Those who disagreed with this idea began looking for ways of having a more inclusive student ecumenism, and one of the ways we tried to do this was to organise an ecumenical student camp for members of the four God clubs at the University of Natal.
The God clubs were the SCA, which was largely evangelical Protestant, the Anglican Society, the Methodist Club and the Catholic Society.
The camp was held at Lexden, a camping ground on the other side of town from the university. There were speakers from each of the traditions, and the SCA speaker brought a bright and bouncy organising type slomng with him, who immediately tried to take over and said, "Let's sing 'Joy, wonderful joy'. That should get things started." I think most of those presenrt were embarrased at this attempt to impose the SCA Evangelical tradition of singing bouncy choruses with little theological content, but apart from that the theological content of this one annoyed most of the others.
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy Let Jesus come into your heart.
We objected that this put the cart before the horse, means before ends. Joy was a by-product of knowing Jesus, not the main motivation. We tried to articulate our objection, and eventually said that the chorus promoted spiritual masturbation.
And on re-reading Surprised by joy I discovered that Lewis had already articulared this, in very similar terms -- he said that the moment he sought joy as an experience, with value in itself, he lost it. It was the longing for something else that was the occasion for joy.
About ten years after the camp at Lexden the charismatic renewal movement was sweeping through South African churches, and many people found that it helped to make God real to them for the first time in their lives. It was not just an intellectual faith, but an existential faith. But the charismatic renewal movement gradually dissipated, sank into the ground, and almost disappeared. And this was largely from s similar cause -- people began seeking spiritual experiences, which were sometimes experiences of joy, as ends in themselves, rather than as by-products of knowing God.
Was awareness of this something I had discoverered for myself, or was it a seed planted by C.S. Lewis in his book, which had suddenly germinated when the conditions were right?
Another idea that struck me on the second reading, but not on the first, was that of chronological snobbery.
It came up in an online discussion a few days before I reread the book.
Someone described a certain Anglican bishop as a "celebrity heretic", and, in my usual pedantic fashion, I noted that description was not apt because the bishop in question had not been tried for heresy by his own denomination. The person who had started the discussion then said:
'Trials for "heresy" are a bet dated, don't you think?'
That strikes me as a supremely illogical argument, and is what I call "chronological chauvinism", and Lewis called "chronological snobbery". As Lewis put it:
'Why -- damn it -- it's medieval,' I exclaimed, for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse.
and he goes on to say,
Barfield... destroyed for ever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my 'chronological snobbery', the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.
I must have read this the first time I read the book, but am not aware of having read it then, and can't remember having encountered any instance of chronological snobbery before reading it. But I have encountered several instances since then, and have similar objections to those expressed by Lewis. People claim to be amazed that anyone can do or believe such and such a thing "in 2017", as though there were some peculiar and almost magical quality of 2017 that makes the thing incredible.
Was this logical fallacy my own discovery, or was it a seed planted by reading Lewis that was waiting for the right conditions to germinate?
Sometimes reading a book again after a long interval can make the book seem trite and almost boring. Such was my experience with Brave new world. Reading it at the age of 17, I thought it profound and illuminating. Rereading it at the age of 67, it seemed a bit trite. Is that in itself a form of chronological snobbery? Or is it just that science ficrtion has its strongest appeal among teenagers, or "young adults" as they call them in the book trade, and is less attractive to old adults?
But rereading Surprised by joy was very different. I had read more of Lewis's other works, especially his fiction, and had much greater experience of the things he wrote about.
At the age of 18 I went to university and studied English literature. In some ways it was far too young. I'd like to have done it again at the age of 68, when I'd had more experience of life. But on the other hand, perhaps it was reading those books when I was too young to appreciate them that helped me to interpret life as I lived it later, as seems to have been the case with Surprised by joy. ...more
This book looked interesting, but I was a little bit suspicious of it, because such books sometimes tend to be full of New Age tosh. But as it was a lThis book looked interesting, but I was a little bit suspicious of it, because such books sometimes tend to be full of New Age tosh. But as it was a library book it would cost nothing to look at and there was no compulsion to read it. There was no mention of ley lines in the index, and that seemed to be a good sign.
It dealt with things like sacred groves and holy wells, and that was interesting, as my great grandfather grew up in the vicinity of a holy well, which I was able to visit. But though the book was informative, it seemed rather shallow. The main aim seemed to be to encourage people to go on pilgrimages, and to create a lot of pilgrimage routes, old and new.
I also learnt a few things I hadn't known about history in general. One was that there had two periods of major ecological collapse in Britain.
First was a mini-Ice Age about 1000 BC, caused by a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland
Before this, the inhabitants had built stone circles, such as Stonehenge (the biggest) which seem to have served ritual and astronomical purposes, though very little is known about them or the people who built them. After the mini-Ice Age, the inhabitants were more warlike, and the henges were abandoned. There were invasions of new groups, like the Celts, and instead of henges, hill forts were built.Overpopulation led to competition for scarce resources.
The second ecological disaster was caused by the Romans, who ruled southern Britain from 44BC to around AD 410. They went in for big agri-business, needed to feed the cities of their empire, and they exhausted the soil, chopped down the forests, and created an ecological disaster. Britain got off relatively lightly, though, as the Romans' activities in North Africa turned those parts of the world into the deserts they are today.
The coming of Christianity enabled the land to recover somewhat, and the authors have an interesting notion of Christian town planning, which was lost around the time of the Enlightenment when secular town planning took over. They not the Chinese art of Feng Sui, and the Christian equivalent that developed in Russia, but give interesting examples of how it appeared in England too, and it can be seen in the placement of churches dedicated to particular saints -- St Michael and St Catherine on hill tops, churches dedicated to St Helen were often placed close to one reputed to hold a relic of the true cross, and so on.
One rather disappointing thing was that it repeated the hoary old legend of Eostre being a Celtic goddess. Though first published in 1997 the authors did not make use of books like The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles by Ronald Hutton, which had already been published in 1991, and might have saved them from such errors.
I believe that most of the post-Cold War conflicts that have taken place in the world fit the model of Huntington's thesis, and that is why it is an iI believe that most of the post-Cold War conflicts that have taken place in the world fit the model of Huntington's thesis, and that is why it is an important book to read.
Like The Ugly American many people who have read the title act as though they have read the book, and feel they can interpret it, and get it horribly wrong.
This book was billed as a Sophie's world of spirituality, when we bought it so long ago that I could not rememvber. That's probably why we bought it,This book was billed as a Sophie's world of spirituality, when we bought it so long ago that I could not rememvber. That's probably why we bought it, because we had enjoyed reading [booK:Sophie's world] and thought we might enjoy this one, but I never got round to reading it.
Then with a cleanout and rearrangement of our bookshelves it came to light again, and I thought perhaps I'd better have another go at reading it.
The first chapter reminded me of why I had never got any further on the first attempt. Theo is a child. How old? About 6 or 7, I think. Later it turns out that he is 14. Describing a teenager as if he were a much younger child makes the character of the protagonist seem a bit shaky for a start. But this time I gritted my teeth and ploughed on. Theo does mature somewhat as the story progresses, but the first impression is off-putting.
Theo has a mysterious illness and though no one knows what it is, the prognosis is not good, so his rich (very rich) aunt decides to take him on a world tour, as a last fling before he dies, or a special treat in case he lives. But it's not your average world tour, it's a tour of different religions.
So it turns out to be a rather didactic book, teaching about different religions, and trying to sugar-coat the pill by wrapping it in a very thin and threadbare plot. Because the story needs to follow the syllabus, the plot line often seems very contrived.
It covers a fair variety of religions, and most of the way through it seems to lead one down the path of syncretism, showing how each religion incorporates elements of other religions, or has points of resemblance to other religions. This led me to expect that it would probably lead up to the most syncretistic religion of all, Baha'i, but somerwhat surprisingly it doesn't. I can't recall that Baha'i is even mentioned once.
It covers most other major religious traditions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam (and returns in later chapters to deal with different aspects of them). It covers Indian religions, including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. It deals with Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, Shinto, Chinese religion (Taoism, Confuscianism and ancestor veneration), African traditional religion, Brazilian syncretism and even Mormons. But not Baha'i.
I couldn't help feeling that the treatment of some religions was rather distorted, with some trivial things included, and some important stuff left out.
Theo is half-Greek and so has an Orthodox grandmother (well, half-Orthodox, because she is syncretistic too, mixing Orthodoxy with faith in the Olympian gods). And the treatment of Orthodoxy is pretty skimpy, saying it is all about sorrow and suffering. There are detailed descriptions of rituals for some religions, at least three different rituals for the African traditional religions, but there is no comparable description of the rituals of Orthodox Christianity, not even a memorial service. All there is is a lot of guff about sorrow and suffering.
There seem to be similar gaps in the treatment of some of the other religions.
Sophie's world works better as a kind of fictionalised exploration of philosophy, but Theo's odyssey falls a bit flat. It doesn't really work as fiction, and it doesn't even succeed in its didactic purpose. When I was about the age of Theo in the book, I had a book called Faiths of many lands. It was a straightforward presentation, and I learnede more from it than I did from this book.
At the same age I also read a work of fiction that told me far more about some religions than this one -- Kim by Rudyard Kipling. It was aimed at promoting British Imperialism, but it had a better story line, and presented religions more interestingly too.
Twenty years ago I was chatting to Willem Saayman at lunch time in the Unisa cafeteria, and he told me something about his time as a Dutch Reformed ChTwenty years ago I was chatting to Willem Saayman at lunch time in the Unisa cafeteria, and he told me something about his time as a Dutch Reformed Church missionary in Namibia. He was there from 1974-1978, and spent a year in the Okvango, and the rest of the time at Orumana, in the Kaakoveld.
It was fascinating to me, as it told the other side of a story to which I had seen a very different side. He also told me that the Tomlinson Report, which laid out the blueprint for apartheid in South Africa (and the Odendaal Report, which was the equivalent in Namibia) had provided much of the motivation for many in the DRC to become missionaries, and were seen as providing the incentive and the opportunity for Christian mission.
I went in Namibia in 1969, and was deported in 1972. Though we were not exact contemporaries there, it was close enough for us to have experienced the same times, the same physical, spiritual, ideological and political climate. In my experience the implementation of the Tomlinson and Odendaal reports, and the evil ideology behind them, were precisely the opposite to what Willem described to me. They persecuted the church, and obstructed Christian mission at every turn. Those who implemented them seemed determined to destroy the Christian faith and went to great lengths to prevent its spread.
Willem, it seemed to me, knew the story from the inside. He knew both the good and the evil intentions, the good and evil results. I urged him to write it down, to tell the story, because I doubted that there were many other people who were both willing and able to tell it.
In one sense, he has now done that, in this book.
It is short (150 pages), and it surveys the history of mission of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa from 1652 to the present.
Willem distinguishes four "waves" of mission in the DRC: From 1179-1834; from 1867-1934; from 1954-1976 and from 1990 to the present. Each of these waves, or upsurges in interest in mission, had its own characteristics and importance, but the one that interests me most is the Third Wave, from 1954-1976. That was the one that fell entirely within the apartheid period, and was bound up with the ideology of apartheid.
Willem points out that apartheid did not begin in 1948, that its roots began much further back, and that most whites in South Africa were generally in favour of racial segregation in one form or another long before then. But the soil in which apartheid flourished is one thing, the roots and fruits another. In the past, the matters dealt with by apartheid were not central. They were referred to by preceding (white) governments as "the native question". Apartheid, however was the main plank of the National Party's election campaign in 1948. They promised to make "the native question" the main question, and to solve it once and for all. Apartheid became the official state ideology, an outlook, a worldview, a totalitarian vision of society to which everything had to be forced to conform. It was both qualitatively and quantitatively different from what had gone before. In the book Willem tends to play this down somewhat.
He does show how the mission vision of the DRC both shaped and was shaped by apartheid, by showing how it developed in both church and state, and how church and government influenced one another.
And that, in itself, makes this a very important book.
In one sense, it shows the huge gulf that existed, and still exists, between different denominations in South Africa.
The missiology department at Unisa, like many others, has taught the history of Christian mission from the perspective of "the Constantinian Era". I have my doubts about that, and think that is a simplistic judgement (see Notes from underground: St Constantine, Scapegoat of the West), but given its widespread acceptance, one could say that in the 1970s in Namibia, the Dutch Reformed Church was in the Constantinian Era, while at the same time, in the same country, other denominations, and especially the Anglican Church, were in the pre-Constantinian Era, the era of persecution, of government obstruction.
The Dutch Reformed mission in the Kaokoveld enjoyed government favour, and the government tried to smooth its path. In Windhoek a Dutch Reformed minister hosted a pastor from Romania, Richard Wurmbrand, who told of the difficulties of Christians in far-away Romania, while Christians in Namibia were facing the very same difficulties at that very time -- see Notes from underground: The martyrs of Epinga.
A big eye-opener for me in Willem's book was the story of black farm schools, which, it appears. were seen by the Dutch Reformed Church as a missionary opportunity. The Bantu Education Act in effect nationalised church schools for blacks in the 1950s. All black schools were put under the control of the central government, and most of the Christian churches that had lost their schools in this way thought that it was because the government wanted to be sure that the teaching in the schools was politically correct according to the apartheid ideology. An exception was farm schools, which were controlled by farmers.
From the Dutch Reformed point of view, the mission opportunity was provided by mission-minded farmers who opened the schools for Christian teaching, thus providing a mission opportunity.
My experience was somewhat different.
In 1976-77 I was an Anglican priest in Utrecht in northern Natal, and found myself manager of several farm schools. These schools were held in Anglican Church buildings, but since the church was no longer allowed to run them, a farmer had to be found who was willing to become the "owner" of the school, and most farmers were not interested and not willing. The Bantu Education Department was forever on our case because many of the schools were on church land, and they said they must be on the farm land. And only children from that farm could go to them, whereas in fact children from several surrounding farms came. In one case the church building was on farm land, and the farmer was an absentee landlord, who owned several farms in the area, and one day he visited the farm and closed the church at gunpoint, and all along the road to the farm were armed police.
So there was a distinct apartheid between the Constantinian and the pre-Constantinian Church in South Africa, and neither side really saw the other. And in Namibia in July 1971 the Lutheran Church crossed from one to the other when it issued an open letter criticising the policy of apartheid, and supporting the position of the World Court that South Africa was occupying Namibia illegally.
In his book Willem barely mentions Namibia, and that is why I gave this book four stars rather than five. It is a very important book, and important to read. But I think the full story has not yet been told, and I still hope that Willem will tell, in the form of a memoir and narrative theology, the story of his time in Namibia. The generation who experienced that is passing, and only they can tell the story.
All is grace is a revised and updated version of Love is the measure, based on more sources, including Dorothy Day's letters and diaries. I have little to add to my original review, other than to say that this one is bigger and better and even more worth reading. Dorothy Day, and anarchist, pacifist and communitarian, was one of the outstanding Christians of the 20th century and in 1998 the process of having her declared a saint in the Roman Catholic Church was started.
Jim Forest was himself a member of the Catholic Worker community in the 1960s, and editor of the Catholic Worker paper, and is now the bosser-up of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
Until I was seven years old I lived in Westvile, near Durban, where Hindu temples were a familiar feature of the landscape, so I have always been curiUntil I was seven years old I lived in Westvile, near Durban, where Hindu temples were a familiar feature of the landscape, so I have always been curious about Hindu beliefs and practices, and have, at various times, tried to read something about it. I discovered, however, that most books about Hinduism published in the West were abstract and philosopical, and none of them explained those temples that dotted the landscape, or what people did in them. At school I learnt in History classes a little about Indian religion, with things like the life of the Buddha, and the Muslim conquests, but it was very sketchy. The most informative book I read was a work of fiction, Rudyard Kipling's Kim, which gave a more human picture.
On a trip to Singapore in 1985 I had a stop-over of a few days in Thailand, and visited some Buddhist temples. I discovered from tourist booklets that it was considered rude to point one's feet at a Buddha statue, but there was still little to say what the temple meant to Buddhists, or what they did there.
So when I saw this book, I thought it could give a more human picture of Indian religion, and I was not disappointed. I had previously read William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain, and, as an Orthodox Christian I thought he managed to give a fair picture of Orthodox Christianity, so I hoped that he would give an equally fair picture of Indian religion, and that his biographical approach would give a reasonably accurate portrayal of what these religions mean to those who practise them.
"Religion" is itself a Western concept, shaped by the encounter between the Enlightenment and Christianity in the West, and so imposing it on India (or other countries outside Western Europe and its cultural offshoots) is bound to produce a distorted impression. "Hinduism" is a Western perception of Indian religion, viewing it through the spectacles of Western modernity. Western authors (and Indian authors writing for Western readers) find it difficult to avoid this trap. Dalrymple manages to avoid it by his biographical approach, letting his subjects tell their own stories.
The stories that they tell also shows some of the variety of Indian culture and society. Dalrymple explores the byways rather than the highways, the backwaters rather than the mainstream Vaishnavite and Shivite cults. And this probably gives a better picture too, since for the majority of Indians, religion is local, and the central worship is of local gods and godesses.
The book begins with the story of a Jain nun, whose best friend had starved herself to death. One of the qualities that Jain nuns and monks try to cultivate is non-attachment, so the nun describes her feelings of loss of her friend, and the conflict of this with the ideal of non-attachment.
Next is the dancer of Kannur. There is a troupe of dancers who travel around villages portraying the stories and activities of the gods, and in the course of the performance they are possessed by the spirit of the god, and become the god, so that the dance is as much an act of worship as a dramatic performance.
The third is one of the daughters of Yellama, one of the sacred prostitutes in the service of the goddess.
Then comes the singer of epics. Like the dancers, the singers tell the stories of the gods in song, in front of the phad, a kind of scroll with illustrations of what the songs are about, which is also a form of portable temple. The songs are learnt and passed on by oral tradition, and Dalrymple makes some interesting points about the differences between oral and written cultures, and the effects of modern technology on the tradition -- will people bother to learn the songs when you can get them all on DVD? He also notes how this has been lost in the West, where epics like Homer's Iliad have long been passed on in written form, and the oral performance has been completely lost.
In the story of the Red Fairy, Dalrymple moves across the border to Pakistan, and speaks to one of the followers of sufi Islam. A woman who was born in Bihar, on the eastern side of India, to a Muslim family, and fled to East Pakistan when Hindu-Muslim hostility grew too great, and had to flee again when East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh. Now the mystical sufis are under threat from the Wahhabis. This reform movement in Islam, often called "fundamentalist" by Western journalists, though "puritan" or "protestant" might be better analogies with Christian history, aims to purify Islam of accretions like the sufi cult of the saints, which the Wahhabis regard as syncretistic superstitions. Wahhabi is the official form of Islam in Saudi-Arabia, and is being spread throughout the Islamic world with Saudi oil money. The people at the shrine of the sufi saint complain that the Arab madrasa students come to make trouble, and blow up the shrines. Dalrymple explains that madrasa students are known as Talibs, from which the word Taliban is derived.
And this takes me back to my schooldays. When I was 14, a group from our school went on a camp in the Western Cape, at Firgrove near Somerset West. It was an evangelical Christian camp, with Bible studies every day, and much singing of evangelistic choruses. One day we went on a walk to Macassar Beach, the site of Sheik Yussuf's tomb or kramat. But in those days our Evangelical Christian teachers were not Islamophobic, and they explained that Sheik Yussuf was one of the first Islamic teachers in the Cape, and was revered as a saint, and we went in to sit quietly and reverently in the kramat, where the tomb itself was covered with layer upon layer of silk cloths. These Evangelical teachers, whom some would call "fundamentalists", taught us to respect people of other religions, and to respect their holy places, even if we did not share all their beliefs. But no such respect is shown by the Wahhabis, who blow up such shrines in Pakistan. And the West also had its Taliban, led by the likes of Oliver Cromwell, who behaved in a similar fashion.
Dalrymple manages to explain all this, as far as I can recall, without once using the word "fundamentalist". He lets his people tell their own stories.
Then comes the monk's tale, the story of a Buddhist monk from Tibet, who left his monastery and monastic vows to become a guerrilla fighter against the Chinese in the Tibetan resistance, and later in the Indian army. When he retired from the army he returned to his monastic lifeat Dharamsala in India, where the Dalai Lama lives, in a settlement of Tibetan refugees.
The seventh is the story of the maker of idols, who casts bronze statues of gods for the temples, a trade that has been handed down from father to son for generations, but the idol maker's own son does not want to follow in his father's footsteps, and is more interested in becoming a computer engineer.
There is the Lady Twilight, the goddess of a cematorium, whose devotees live in the grounds of the crematorium, and use skulls from the cremated remains for their devotions. Grim and macabre as it sounds, Dalrymple find that they believe that central to it all is love.
Through the dwellers in the crematorium he comes into contact with the Bauls, wandering minstrels. It goes back to the singer of epics in an earlier chapter, because the Bauls wander from place to place, singing songs, but many of them are agnostic, almost atheist, and they reject the conventional religion of temple and mosque, they reject the caste system, and the conventions of society. They are holy madmen, holy fools. Though Dalrymple does not say so, they could be compared to the hippies of the West.
Nine lives, of people living in different places and having different religious beliefs and practices, yet dedicated to a way of life based on their religion. Some ascetics, some prostitutes, and some somewhere in between. By telling their stories, Dalrymple makes it possible to catch brief glimpses of Indian "religion", without imposing too much of a Western framework on it. ...more
A delightful novel about a High Anglican attempt to reclaim "the abandoned places of empire". The narrator Laurie and her (her sex is unclear until neA delightful novel about a High Anglican attempt to reclaim "the abandoned places of empire". The narrator Laurie and her (her sex is unclear until near the end of the story) aunt Dot, together with her aunt's Anglo-Catholic chaplain Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, set out for Trebizond, the site of the last Roman empire, with a camel. They are joined by a Turkish feminist who they hope will help to liberate oppressed Turkish women by converting them to High Anglicanism.
They meet interesting people, including other British travellers writing Turkey books, and eventually Laurie's friends go their separate ways, leaving her with the camel, and rather short of cash. She has begun to doubt the sanity of the camel. But eventually crosses Turkey and travels through much of the Levant with it.
I've just finished reading it for the third time, but as the first time was nearly fifty years ago, and the second time about thirty years ago, I'd forgotten much of the story. But in the intervening time I've learnt quite a bit more about the places visited by the characters in the novel, and some of their history. William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain covers much of the same ground, and also gives some of the history of the places, and so reading it a third time made some of the obscurer bits come to life.
It is all interspersed with the protagonist's observations of people, and thoughts about life, the universe and everything, which are sometimes funny and sometimes bitter-sweet sad. Much of this is semi-autobiographical, because, like Laurie in the story, Rose Macaulay was herself torn between the Christian faith and adultery.
Another interesting thing about reading it again after fifty years is that the world has changed and the Christian church has changed, or at least the Anglican Church that the main characters belong to. I can read other books of the same vintage, such as The Dharma bums by Jack Kerouac and scarcely be aware that more than fify years have passed since the book was written. But in The towers of Trebizond one is far more aware of the changes. Travellers in the Levant needed two passports, one for Israel and one for everywhere else. The Six-Day War had not taken place, and much of Jerusalem was not in Israel. And on the eastern border of Turkey was the USSR, or the U.S.S.R., as they wrote it in those days, with the Cold War in full swing. It was a world in which Islamophobia wasn't even thought of, and perhaps the word itself had not been invented yet.
The church scene was even more different. For the Roman Catholic Church, Vatican II lay in the future, while the Anglicans have changed in ways too numerous to mention. This can be seen in a conversation between Aunt Dot and a Roman Catholic, where Aunt Dot is saying that Roman Catholics could at least be polite in Anglican churches, even if they don't believe they have the Mass, altars, or real priests.
Aunt Dot ended by saying that even if we had no altars and no Blessed Sacrament on them, it would only be polite of outsiders to bow where we thought we had them, especially at Requiem and Nuptial Masses, and also to join in the Creed and the Lord's Prayer at christenings instead of shutting the mouth tight as if afraid of infection, which looked so unchristian and stuck up.
"I suppose," said Aunt Dot, "you would walk into a mosque with your shoes on," which was not really fair, as Roman Catholics do take off their hats in Anglican churches, and even, I think, in dissenting ones.
"And I suppose you," said the Roman Catholic, "would, if you had been an early Christian, have offered a pinch of incense to Diana, out of politeness to the pagans."
So they left the subject and played croquet, which is a very good game for people who are annoyed with one another, giving many opportunities for venting rancour.
There is just so much in that conversation that would be quite unimaginable today.
One of the more amusing parts is where Laurie, left on her own, and unable to speak Turkish, memorises some phrases from a phrasebook, and one that she uses frequently, "I do not understand Turkish," seems to produce strange reactions in the hearers. It was some time before she realised she had copied the Turkish for the wrong phrase in the phrase book, and that what she had been telling people was "Please would you telephone immediately to Mr Yorum."
The thing that persuaded me to reread the book this time was the curious desire, expressed by advocates of the "New Monasticism", to "relocate to the abandoned places of empire", in conjunction with a report of the Divine Liturgy being celebrated, for the first time in 88 years, in an abandoned monastery near Trabzon, the Turkish name for Trebizond. Though it wasn't Anglican, that seemed, in a way, the fulfilment of the vision of Aunt Dot and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, and in a photo of the monastery, the scenery was spectacular. I blogged about it at Reclaiming the Abandoned places of Empire | Khanya, and, in a more general sense, at Notes from underground: Abandoned places of empire. And for that, it seemed that it might be worth reading the book again.
It was the industrialist capitalist period which subjected man to the power of economics and money, and it does not become its adepts to teach cQuote:
It was the industrialist capitalist period which subjected man to the power of economics and money, and it does not become its adepts to teach communists the evangelical truth that man does not live by bread alone. The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbours, for everybody, is a spiritual and religious question. Man does not live by bread alone, but he does live by bread and there should be bread for all. Society should be so organized that there is bread for all, and then it is that the spiritual question will present itself before men in all its depth. It is not permissible to base a struggle for spiritual interests and for a spiritual renaissance on the fact that for a considerable part of humanity bread will not be guaranteed. Such cynicism as this justly evokes an atheistic reaction and the denial of spirit. Christians ought to be permeated with a sense of the religious importance of the elementary needs of men, the vast masses of men, and not to despise these needs from the point of view of an exalted spirituality....more
Several years ago I had the opportunity of completing a History Honours degree that I had had to leave unfinished because of lack of funds. I had to cSeveral years ago I had the opportunity of completing a History Honours degree that I had had to leave unfinished because of lack of funds. I had to choose three papers out of several on offer, and one of them was Medieval History. I asked the professor what it covered. "Diplomatic and political history of England, France and Germany," he told me. I lost interest, and enrolled for courses on other places and periods.
The syllabus illustrates the prejudice among Western historians, from the Renaissance to the present, that Judith Herrin's book attempts to counter. Perhaps it was just as well that I was put off from taking the course on Medieval history, because this book was not available back then, and so even if the course had covered the so-called Byzantine Empire, I would have lacked an important resource for understanding it.
The term "Byzantine Empire" is itself an invention of Western historians, and a reflection of their prejudices. None of its citizens regarded themselves as Byzantine, or would even have known what it meant. In their own view they were Romans and the empire was the Roman Empire, founded in 753 BC. But even if we do regard it as Byzantine, it lasted for 1123 years, from 330 to 1453, which is longer than any other polity in Europe.
Herrin's book is about the life of the Empire. She touches on diplomatic and political history, but includes far more. Economics and trade, religion and spiritual life, education, art and everything else. The way she tells the story is fascinating, and she gives a rounded picture.
The book is an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to study Byzantine history in more detail. But even if one reads nothing else on the subject, it plugs a significant gap in many people's knowledge of world history.
As an Orthodox Christian I found it especially interesting, because it helps to place much church history into context, and especially the divide between the Christian East and West, which was fixed by the Western occupation of Constantinople in 1204. Herrin maintains that it was in an attempt to justify this that the West denigrated the Byzantine empire, and Western historians did so down to the present. Twenty years ago, just before the outbreak of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, the Western press was full of op-ed articles trying to re-awaken the old prejudices. We have learnt since that a lot of this was the work of public relations firms hired by Croatian and Slovenian secessionists. Herrin notes the essence of it, quoting an Irish historian, William Lecky
Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other eduring civilization to absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet 'mean' may be so emphatically applied... The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.
That there were intrigues and conspiracies there can be no doubt, and Herrin describes many of them, but such things were not lacking in the West either, nor, indeed, in other parts of the world. The book is also helpful in understanding Christian-Muslim relations over a period of many centuries. ...more
A sociological; study of Neopentecostal churches in the Durban area, commissioned by the Diakonia Councilo of Churches. The sample studied is too smalA sociological; study of Neopentecostal churches in the Durban area, commissioned by the Diakonia Councilo of Churches. The sample studied is too small to draw any firm conclusions from it, however.