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A literary pilgrimage

On this page are some personal thoughts and comments from me (Steve Hayes) about some books that have influenced me and my theological thinking, mostly fiction. It is a very subjective review, though in places it goes beyond the content of the books. It includes some ideas for a book or books that I've been meaning to write some day. For some more general discussion of this topic, have a look at our Inklings page, which has comments on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams in particular.

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A literary pilgrimage

The first C.S. Lewis fiction book I read was Perelandra, which I read when I was still at school. I read it as a novel, for entertainment, though it did raise a couple of theological questions - could there be other planets where sin had not entered, and what would they be like?

I read quite a lot of science fiction then, and later also read the other two books in the trilogy - Out of the silent planet and That hideous strength. Since then I've read them several times, about once every 5-7 years or so. I've read them aloud to our children, and each time I've found new things that stand out.

I read several anthologies of science fiction short stories. One that made a great impression on me was Looking forward, edited by Lesser. It had some stories that I read several times, and one that made a particular impression was called The last monster. It was about the last of a race of aboriginal inhabitants of a planet that had been colonised by human beings. The race had died out because human beings had exploited and enslaved the creatures and destroyed their environment.

This tied in with one of the themes in Lewis's Out of the silent planet - towards the end there is a scene in which the protagonist, Ransom, is in a gathering with the Oyarsa (planetary ruler or tutelary deity) of Malacandra, and Weston and Devine, the mad scientist and the mad financier, are brought before the Oyarsa. Weston is a caricature, not only of a mad scientist, but also of colonialists and imperialists of the age in which Lewis wrote. He embarks on a defence of interplanetary imperialism, which has to be translated by Ransom, because neither Weston nor Devine have bothered to learn the language of Malacandra. Ransom has great difficulty in translating, because he has to explain human sin, which has not been experienced on Malacandra. Eventually the Oyarsa observes that he now sees what the "bent Oyarsa" of the silent planet (Earth) has done - he has taken something good - the love of kin - and twisted it to make it appear to be the supreme good.

This is precisely the Orthodox Christian understanding of Satan and evil - that evil in a sense does not really exist. Satan cannot create anything. Evil is fundamentally a twisting or distortion of the good. As a Christian satire on the evils of imperialism, colonialism and racism, that scene in Out of the silent planet is superb. Both that and The last monster helped to shape my understanding of South Africa in the 1950s and to reject the ideology and policy of apartheid.

There was another science fiction story that influenced me a great deal when I was at school; unfortunately, I cannot remember the title, the author, or the anthology that I found it in. The plot, however, was quite memorable. It was about a researcher into the history of scientific ideas and world views.

The researcher in the story had the theory that the changes in the perception of the universe that had taken place in history were not simply changes in perception, but changes in reality. When people thought the world was flat, it really was flat. When people thought it was round, it became round. He devised an experiment to test the theory. Since the current "paradigm" was based on relativity and quantum theory, one of the basic building blocks of the universe was a photon of light. He devised an apparatus to test the theory. An apparatus was built to send exactly one photon of light towards a prism placed at exactly 45 degrees to the path of the photon. Since the photon would not be able to decide whether to refract or reflect, it would hesitate, like a rat in a laboratory maze. This should reveal whether a new paradigm would develop, or whether the universe would return to the Newtonian one.

Eventually, when the apparatus was ready, the researcher and his female assistant, E, decided to try it out. They switched it on. Suddenly the research found himself outside in the garden. The lab building had disappeared, as had his clothes. There was a rustling in the bushes and E, also naked, emerged holding an apple, which she offered to him to eat.

As I said, I've forgotten the name of the story, the author and the anthology in which it was published, and I'd be very grateful to anyone who could give me this information. It must have been published in about 1957 or earlier, since I read it in about 1957 or 1958. It got me thinking about perception and reality, and the question of solipsism, which Thomas Kuhn became famous for calling "paradigms" some 4-5 years later (someone who read this has now told me that the story may be "The new reality" by Charles L. Harness, published in a collection called The Rose).

I also read Aldous Huxley's Brave new world in 1958, my last year in high school. Coming after C.S. Lewis's novels, in probably made me a liberal for life. I urged my mother to vote for the Liberal Party candidate, Jimmy Dey, in the 1958 general election - our constituency, Orange Grove, was one of only three which had Liberal Party candidates. Brave new world convinced me that even a benevolent dictatorship was not a good idea. In 1959 I went to Wits University, and Brave new world, along with Golding's Lord of the flies and , I think, Orwell's 1984, was a prescribed book for English I. That was the time that parliament was debating a bill to prohibit black students from attending "white" universities, and there were numerous protest meetings on and off campus. In one protest, we were strung out along the traffic islands in Jan Smuts avenue, holding a large chain, and posters saying that the parliamentary bill would enslave the universities. Many of the posters simply read "1984"

My main concerns, however, were religious. I had been to a Methodist school, St Stithians, and wanted to join the Anglican Church. In between lectures I spent a lot of time in the office of the Anglican chaplain to the university, Fr Tom Comber, drinking instant coffee with lumpy powdered milk, and talking to whoever was there. Katherine Reeves, the daughter of the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, Ambrose Reeves, read a poem from a book....

But what is this so high, so white
and what is this, so black, so low?
It is a duck, a duck, a duck
Oh high white brightly burning duck!

She said it came from a book by Samuel Beckett, called Watt. It had been lent to her by Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican religious order which had a priory in Rosettenville in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg, where it ran St Peter's Theological College.

In 1960 Brother Roger was one of the speakers at the first conference of the Anglican Students Federation, held at Modderpoort. He had been asked to speak on "The unrespectability of our religion", and he gave his paper the subtitle of "Pilgrims of the absolute". He spoke about various people and their search for God, and in particular mentioned Leon Bloy, the 19th-century French author, and Jack Kerouac's book, The Dharma bums, with its vision of a rucksack revolution, where people would disaffiliate from society, and go into the mountains or deserts of the world to pray and meditate.

Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection
Over the next few years, Brother Roger became one of my chief sources of books and literary conversation. I asked him about Watt, since I was intrigued by the poem, but he said it would better to start reading Beckett's plays, and lent me Waiting for Godot from the seminary library. He also lent me The Dharma bums, and other books by an about the Beat Generation, including Lawrence Lipton's The holy barbarians.

I left the university, after failing Latin and Greek twice, and in 1961 and 1962 worked as a bus conductor for the Johannesburg Transport Department. Apartheid was very big then, and so separate buses plied the same routes. The staff were all white, and most of them were supporters of the National Party government and did not like working on the non-white buses. I picked a shift where I worked hard on the first half - buses for blacks going to work or from work, and then had very light work - buses for "Asiatics and coloureds only", with about 3-4 passengers a trip, so I was able to do a lot of reading.

One of the books Brother Roger had lent me was Iris Murdoch's The sandcastle, about a middle-aged school teacher who has an affair, and a child who plays with Tarot cards. I was curious to know what Tarot cards were, and went to the Mystic Book Shop in Eloff street and bought some. The images on the cards seemed strangely evocative, but evocative of what, I wondered. I looked at books about them, and most of them were about occult prediction and seemed pretentious and banal. Their high-sounding rhetoric never touched the cards. Brother Roger said that if one wanted to know about Tarot cards, one should read Charles Williams, but he didn't have The Greater Trumps. He lent Williams's books to my mother - All Hallows Eve, and then some of the others.

In 1963, Brother Roger returned to Mirfield, England, the main house of the Community of the Resurrection, and I was in touch with him only by letter. And, having saved up enough money at the Transport Department, I went to the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, and avoided classical languages, and concentrated on theology instead. I joined the Liberal Party, and on Saturdays went to party meetings at rural branches where most of the members were peasants, at places like Upper Umkhomazi, Stepmore, Pevensey and Swamp, all in a rough triangle between Bulwer, Underberg and Nottingham Road, in the foothills of the Drakensberg.

For me, a kind of cycle developed. During the week I would be at lectures on such things as the Old Testament prophets, denouncing the injustices of the rulers of the rulers of Israel. On Saturday, there would be a trip of a couple of hundred miles, to a meeting in a school classroom, a homestead, or a church, where about 20-30 peasants would gather - those who had not been intimidated by the Special Branch. There would usually be one or two carloads of SB members, equipped with tape recorders, and taking names of the people who were at the meetings. Every few months one of the leaders would be banned. And then on Sundays, there was Evensong at the Anglican Church of St Alphege, where the psalms were sung, and it seemed to sum up the struggle and the cycle.

In some ways, the Liberal Party seemed like a church, and the National Secretary, Pat McKenzie once jokingly accused me of using the Liberal Party to make up for the deficiencies in the Anglican Church. The Zulu name for it was IBandla leNkululeko. The Zulu word "ibandla" can be used either for a church or a political party, and "inkululeko" can be translated as "freedom", "liberation" or "redemption". Most of the rural members were Christian. Many of them in the Underberg area belonged to the Ukukhanya Presbidia Church, an independent church founded by Timothy Cekwane, and one of the few that wore red in their uniform. Most of the leaders were consciously non-political, and the SB tried to get them to excommunicate members who joined the Liberal Party.

This cycle of theory, praxis and worship was illuminated by the discovery of another series of books by C.S. Lewis - the Narnia stories, which I read in 1965-1966. The first of them, The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe, seemed uncannily relevant. The story of a witch who turned her enemies, or suspected enemies, into statues which she kept in her castle seemed to be a mythical parallel of the struggle of the Liberal Party and other groups opposed to apartheid, whose members and leaders were banned, or imprisoned, or whose homes were raided by the security police. The figure of Maugrim, the wolf who raided the home of Tumnus the faun, was only too familiar in real life.

In the years 1963-1965 I read little fiction apart from the Narnia books. I mostly read theology and history. I read William Shirer's Rise and fall of the Third Reich, and saw ominous parallels in the rise and rise of Vorster's police state in South Africa. I sat in a restaurant in the centre of Pietermaritzburg, and looked at the street outside. Cars were passing, pedestrians were walking about their business.Everything looked so normal. And yet the newspaper on my table was reporting yet another bill being brought by Vorster to give yet more powers to the police to the police to arrest and detain people without trial, and removing the need for them to be accountable to anyone. And so, I thought, it must have been in Germany thirty years before, as the rule of law was whittled away, and civil rights were removed one after another. The traffic continued to flow, and people went about their business, the sun still shone.

There were some theology books that were all the rage - John Robinson's Honest to God, an attempted popularisation of Bultmann, Tillich and Bonhoeffer for English audiences. It seemed to be armchair theology. Bultmann seemed irrelevant, Tillich incomprehensible, and Bonhoeffer misunderstood. I read Bonhoeffer's books, and he seemed to be saying something altogether different from what Robinson said he was saying. It seemed there was one theology for boss nations, and another for oppressed and downtrodden people, as John Davies, the chaplain of the Anglican Students Federation, put it.

In theology lectures we dealt with soteriology, and the lecturer, the Rev. Vic Bredenkamp was talking about the theory of the atonement that saw the death of Jesus as a victory over the principalities and powers. I was puzzled by this. A principality, as I understood it, was a small state ruled by a prince, like Monaco. In that context, the "powers" would presumably be the big ones, like the USSR and the USA. Vic Bredenkamp said, "Read Caird's Principalities and powers", so I did. Suddenly everything seemed to fall into place. The obscure little struggle between the Liberal Party and the Security Police up in the foothills of the Drakensberg was actually but one manifestation of a cosmic struggle between good and evil - a struggle that Jesus had fought and won on the cross, and what we were witnessing was the last struggles in a war that had already been won. It was what Lewis had been writing about in his books, about Thulcandra and Perelandra and Malacandra. The principalities and powers were the political forces of the present age, sometimes raging out of control, as in Charles Williams's The place of the lion. Years later I saw Vic Bredenkamp again, and mentioned to him what a revelation it had been to me, and great was my disappointment when I realised that he simply didn't know what I was talking about. To him it was just part of the syllabus that, as a lecturer, he had to get through. That it could mean anything in the real world seemed beyond his comprehension.

At the beginning of 1966 I was working with the Johannesburg Transport Department again, trying to save money to go overseas for postgraduate study. An SB man phoned me just before I was about to go to work at 4:40 pm to do some overtime, and wanted to see me. I thought he was probably after my passport, so thought I'd better go early. There was no plane leaving before I was due to see him, so I left that night in my mother's car, travelling north to Rhodesia, which just two months earlier had made its UDI. I was accompanied by the Anglican chaplain of Wits University, John Davies, who would drive the car back. We crossed the border just after dawn, and were in Bulawayo by lunch time. In the evening I was on an Alitalia flight to Rome, and from there went to London. I had very little luggage or money, and didn't know where to go. Eventually I was staying in a rented room in Streatham, driving buses for London Transport from the Brixton bus garage. When I wasn't working, there was plenty of time to meditate in my lonely room about the anatomy of exile. I read books to fit the mood - Sartre's Nausea and things like that. I was back to novels. I made contact with Brother Roger again, but he seemed changed in some ways. Back in Europe, he had reverted to being a European, and the struggle back in South Africa had grown distant to him.

I travelled to Oxford a few times, and on one trip saw a fellow South African, John Henderson, who told me about a third member of the Inklings - J.R.R. Tolkien. Back in London, I bought and read The Hobbit, and then The Lord of the Rings. I went to St Chad's College, Durham, in September 1966. It was interesting and stimulating, but most of the interest and stimulation lay outside the lecture room. The academic side seemed to be a game, a charade, aimed at getting a pretty purple hood with fur trimmings. While there I read many books, including one of my favourite science fiction stories, Walter Miller's A canticle for Leibowitz, which I subsequently read several times.

In the April vacation of 1968 I became, at least for a while, a kind of Dharma bum. I set off with a fellow student, Alan Cox, hitchhiking to his parents place near Manchester, and then to Wales to see another former student, Chris Gwilliam, who was assistant priest at an Anglican parish there (he's now a Quaker).

I took a train to London, and then a cheap student flight to Switzerland, and ended up at the World Council of Churches conference centre at Bossey, where there was a course on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students. After a week of lectures at Bossey we went by bus to Paris, where we participated in the Holy Week and Pascha services at St Sergius Seminary Church. A fellow student from St Chad's, Hugh Pawsey, was also on the course. We were broke, and lived on bread and cheap wine, which was all we could afford, and blew the last of our cash to buy some eggs to make Easter eggs for the seminary students, who lived in the crypt under the church, in cubicles partitioned with threadbare cotton cloth, and a makeshift drain running down the centre of the floor. A couple of days after leaving, to go back to England, the student power revolt broke out in Paris. A few ripples even reached Durham, but they were much milder.

I returned to South Africa in July, and spent a term at St Paul's College, Grahamstown, and there found a copy of Fr Alexander Schmemann's book, The world as sacrament, also published as For the life of the world. After a couple of years in Europe, it seemed to me that Western theology was divided into radicals and reactionaries. The radicals proclaimed their unbelief in all kinds of traditional doctrines because they said that "modern man" could no longer believe in such things as the resurrection (yet students around the world were marching with signs proclaiming that "Che Guevara lives" and "Chairman Mao will live for 10000 years"). The reactionaries were fighting a rear guard action against the radicals. In such a confused mess, Schmemann seemed to speak with amazing clarity - that neither had very much to do with Christ who was the life of the world.

Orthodox theology made a great deal more sense to me then than most Western theology, and it seemed to fit in with what I had learnt from the writings of people like Lewis, Williams, Tolkien and Chesterton. In spite of that, however, it took another 15 years or so before I finally realised that Orthodox theology would not catch on among Western Christians, and that the only place to be Orthodox was within the Orthodox Church.

And then, among other things, I read books by and about Fr Seraphim Rose, which was in one way a fulfilment of an old vision. He had studied Buddhism and Tao at an Institute in San Francisco, which was visited by several of the characters in Kerouac's Dharma Bums. Like Kerouac, Fr Seraphim climbed a mountain, only he and a friend established an Orthodox monastery on it. Perhaps this was the real rucksack revolution I had dreamed of 30 years before

After the death of Fr Seraphim in 1983, the monastery went through a rough patch, but eventually some interesting things came out of it -- punx 2 monks, youth of the apocalypse and a zine called Death to the world. Perhaps that would have gladdened Brother Roger's heart.

One of the writers on the Beat Generation in the 1960s, Lawrence Lipton, dismissed Kerouac's aideas as too idyllic and utopian:

The lifeways of the beat generation remain almost wholly untouched so far by the novelists. Kerouac has only scratched the surface. 'On the road' depicts the beatnik of the forties, not the fifties. 'The Dharma bums' is confined to a small circle of writers, poets and novelists, and their chicks. Writers and jazz musicians are part of the scene, but only a small part. It is chiefly the novelists who are responsible for the widespread impression that the beat generation consists of only a handful of artists and writers. Writers writing about fellow writers can make interesting reading but this fails to provide the reader with anything like a comprehensive picture of the beat generation. The 'rucksack revolution' of Kerouac's Dharma bums is only a very small part of the scene, and by no means the most significant part... Kerouac's picture is misleading in another respect. The narrator in 'The Dharma Bums' is constantly fleeing the city and the problems of livelihood and so are most of the characters in the book... This is true only of a small segment of the beat generation. The vast majority of them live in the cites and are trying to solve their problems within the framework of urban life."

But here too the vision continues, as some continue to contemplate and experiment with urban monasticism, both Zen Buddhist and Christian.

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Updated: 27 September 2013