Wednesday, October 30, 2013

reading with kids

One of the joys of South African life has been that no one does anything in the evening. For the most part, families go into their houses and that's about it. And so with no meetings, no church events, no social events, and no extended family time, we and our kids have moved through vast amounts of children's literature during our evening reading sessions.

Having finished all the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books in one year with Isaac and Moses, we are now reading the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Redwall chronicles various points in the history of Mossflower woods in which the virtuous Woodlanders--mice, otters, hedgehogs, moles, and badgers--come up against sinister forces--rats, wildcats, ferrets, weasels, and stoats--wishing to enslave them and take their woods. Reading these three epic series in quick succession in conjunction with morning Bible reading has led us to reflect on a number of characteristics of evil similarly portrayed in all three series. 
  • Evil is quick to turn even on its own. Voldemort, Saruman, and Tsarmina the Ruthless are all ready to turn on their followers for any offense.  In contrast, the side of good is loyal to its own and even seeks to restore the servants of evil to their own true selves.
  • Evil requires a level of uniformity absent in the side of good. The evil forces wear robes or armor that bring them into a mass that is programmed to destroy and never to disobey. The side of good is peopled with individual characters who serve out of devotion to the cause and whose individual best gifts are called forth.  
  • Evil overlooks the contributions of the weak and unattractive.  Good befriends the weak who in turn provide the key to victory. Sauron never expects hobbits or trees to feature in the plans of his enemies; Voldemort never even notices the house-elves; and Cluny the Scourge knows nothing of a baby squirrel who doesn't talk. In failing to notice, they secure their own demise.  In giving honour to the weakest members, the side of good finds its redemption.
  • Evil does not necessarily need to be destroyed but merely turned on itself. When the Hobbits are tied in sacks, awaiting the decision on whether they are to be boiled or fried for the trolls' dinner, the greed of the trolls needs only a few insults to bring forth a rage that results in them destroying each other. In a similar fashion Frodo and Sam escape from the orc tower, Harry and friends escape from Malfoy Manor, and countless woodlanders walk unscathed from scenes of terror.  
  • Self-sacrifice is the only means of true triumph, triumph that is not a simple re-appropriation of power. It is only when Frodo and Sam decide that they will not be coming back and eat the last of their food that the fortunes of good turn. Harry defeats Voldemort only when he willingly gives his life. While less prominent in Redwall, each book's hero must go off on a quest that could end the character's life but, if successful, will bring victory. 
There are many more things to say about these books.  Gospel themes are not hard to find. One element that bears constant discussion is the tendency toward redemptive violence.  In one such discussion last night, Isaac and Moses showed us the depth of their moral reasoning shaped by our reading of literature and the Bible. I was commenting on how, in Redwall, the side of good can use violence to achieve its ends and the books still end with peace and tranquility. There seems to be little repurcussion from the brutality of war, the "soul splitting" that results from killing, as JK Rowling emphasises.

I remarked on the fictional world in which there is a side of pure evil and a side of pure good. Moses chimed in: "there is no such thing because in real life it depends on your point of view." Later, I paused my reading during a description of an evil owl to comment that I liked owls.  Isaac reprimanded me, "but mom, you have to see it from the mouse's perspective."  Isaac and Moses' comments show a gospel understanding. Each side has its story to tell. We are all created good, all fallen, and all in need of redemption. For this reason, Jesus does not allow us to kill our enemies. As my boys seem to understand, the books we read personify the resistance to "the cosmic power of this present age" which is to be distinguished from the killing of "enemies of blood and flesh" (Ephesians 6:12). In real life, there is no one side of good and another of evil. Each of us must daily decide whether to follow the Christ who gave his life even for enemies.  Only insofar as we do that can we resist evil and work for good.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

on authority

En route to Cape Town earlier this month, I bought a copy of the Cape Times, my interest piqued by a front page photo of church ministers prayerfully blessing South African State President Jacob Zuma.  The accompanying article described the scene.  Zuma, "addressing the 33rd Presbyterian Synod in Giyani, Limpopo", had stated that "whether we like it or not, God has made a connection between the government and the church."  More specifically, Zuma shared his views on the nature of authority.  "If you don't respect those in leadership, if you don't respect authority, then you are bordering on a curse."

The president's sentiments stirred in me a fair amount of discomfort which I herewith put into words--if indeed by doing so I am not "bordering on a curse."

First, the president's words are remarkable in historical perspective.  As one who struggled against apartheid, a particular form of "authority" and one of history's most conspicuous examples of "the connection between the government and the church", was the pre-1994 Mr. Zuma himself thereby "bordering on a curse."  Was apartheid, by virtue of it being both government and authority, worthy of "respect"?

Second, the president's words are decidedly unremarkable from a cultural perspective.  Every land and culture has its own traditional or civil religion(s).  It is a commonplace of religion to ossify into a simple guardianship of culture, to uphold the traditions of a particular nation, party, or people at any cost.  Because, therefore, culture itself is the highest good, any attempt to modify or reform culture will be met with the threat of "curse" from those entrusted with its guardianship.  The president understands that he occupies the highest office in the land and quite "naturally" pronounces the curse upon all who confront the order which he serves.

Third, the president's words are deeply offensive from a theological perspective.  Since the president has drug the debate on authority into the church, the church will respond (with the exception of those church leaders who have welcomed him in).  There are church traditions, the Anabaptist being one, which have maintained for centuries the faith that in certain and not infrequent circumstances disobedience to earthly authorities is the crucible of obedience to God.  God has not, in fact, "made a connection between the government and the church", but has ordained the church as the witness against the idolatrous and destructive powers with which the state so often exercises its authority.  Such a church considers it pure joy when it is reviled for pursuing the justice of God; that which is cursed of humans may be blessed of God (Mt 5:10-12).

Finally, authority in the president's perspective is ultimately impotent from a biblical perspective.  Human authority has no power to curse what God has blessed, for "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming for us a curse" (Gal 3:13).  Hung on a tree and cursed by the vile and ungodly collaboration of religious and political authorities, "God . . . raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand . . . far above all rule and authority and power and dominion" (Eph 1:20-21).

With faith in its risen Lord, then, let the church confront without fear the pretensions of earthly authority.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Anabaptist theologies conference

A lot has happened since I last wrote.  I have found that my silence over the last while is a reflection of 1) having been more exhausted after some recent events, and 2) feeling less and less confident about saying anything about South Africa the longer we've lived in the country.  Still, as we move through our last few months here, I will try to post some news and reflections.  I'll start with something that took place last week.

From 6-8 October, I participated in a conference organized by the Anabaptist Network in South Africa on the theme of Anabaptist theologies in South Africa.  I prepared a paper on the convergences and divergences between Anabaptist and Pentecostal Christianity, inspired by my work with African Initiated Churches and other Pentecostal churches and informed by the work of many scholars of both Anabaptism and Pentecostalism.  The experience proved to be a way of tying together some of the main themes of our work here in South Africa, perhaps in a way bringing a measure of closure to our time (though we still have significant events on the horizon).

The conference was held at Volmoed, a Christian retreat and conference center located in the heart of the world's largest floral kingdom.