Thursday, October 1, 2015

Who Will Save the Children?

Cry for all the innocent
ones, born into a world
that's lost its heart...
 Randy Stonehill

One characteristic of our contemporary world is that whilst we fanfare that our children are our future we blithely ignore them in the present. Oh, I don't mean that we don't feed them or clothe them or give them things if we have the resources and the means; I mean that we fail to give them ethical and moral direction; we fail to cultivate wisdom.
One of our contemporary ironies is that we trumpet living in an 'Information Age' but fail to recognise that knowledge is a tool: it's not the having it that is so important, but rather what we do with it. 

Knowledge can, of course, be useful: knowing what a toaster is should effectively discourage us from using one as a hairdryer; but we can disregard knowledge. We could, for example, (some people in fact do) use a spade to murder a rival but that would be a misuse of the tool, using it for a wrong, immoral, purpose.

In the late 1980s a high-powered delegation of African-Americans arrived in South Africa on a fact-finding mission. They wanted to know something of what was happening in the new apartheid-dismantled nation. As soon as they got off the plane, they were met by a group of ANC officials; one of the group offered his hand to shake and said, "Hey, what's up, my niggas?" The delegates were horrified. They said, "We've fought for decades to get rid of the 'n' word! Is this all that we've exported?" During the rest of their trip, they visited areas like the Cape Flats and were equally horrified by what they discovered had been imported.

In his seminal book, It's bigger Than Hip Hop: the Rise Of The Post-Hip-Hop Generation, M K Asante points out that the three pillars of traditional African-American society, the ones that raised the delegates who were shocked by their visit to South Africa, have now largely gone. Instead of church, family, and community, young blacks are now raised on a heady brew of mostly MTV, news from the streets, and what they listen to. Today's role models aren't Jesus or Martin Luther King, nor even Miles Davis; their role models are Rick Ross, Lil' Wayne, Niki Minaj and Lil' Kim.

A thirteen-year-old girl recently asked me, "Sir, why are all the films today full of sex and violence?" I replied, "So are the newspapers. So are the news reports on TV. The world system feeds on the twin emotions of lust and anger."

I was reminded of 1 John 2:25, 26:

[Letters to Street Christians translation]

Who will save our children? It's a valid and urgent question.

Our youth, like Adam and Eve, have discovered the world and lost their innocence.

[Gospel of Thomas 56]

How can wisdom be cultivated and transmitted to our youth?

The answer, you've guessed I hope, is that saving our children is our responsibility; it's down to us. As Randy Stonehill's song puts it, we are the hands, we are the voices that must act to save our children.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Lost In Our Distractions

we love to be couch potatoes
Orwell's nightmare vision of our collective future, 1984, fortunately didn't come to pass; in part, because we were so scared it might. Yes, there are still dictatorships around the world, and some dictators have tried to make their control total (consider Pol Pot, for example), but there was a collective sigh of relief when we actually arrived in the year 1984.

However, the more accurate vision of our future appeared ten years or so before Orwell's book: Huxley's Brave New World.
Huxley argued that, rather than being controlled by our fears, we are controlled by our pleasures. The human species, he said, 'has an infinite capacity for distraction'.

Rather than get some work done, or achieve our goals, or practice self-discipline, we'd much rather be couch potatoes, be idle, and feed our pleasures.

With the rise of the Internet and mobile devices, we can now spend the whole day instagramming, facebooking, and whatsapping. Or we can spend the day wargaming, netflixing, or simply surfing.

Life is easy, life is fun, but we can oh so easily get bored. Work to do? That's boring. Goals to achieve? That's boring. Be self-disciplined? That's the most boring thing I've ever heard.

We live in an age of information and excitement at our finger tips; and we don't want to switch off. But we are already paying the price of information overload. Do you remember... 'Oh, what was his name?', 'Oh, I saw an article once...', 'There used to be a shop...'. Our devices have taught us to use our brains differently. We have already been rewired. We no longer memorise things; what we do now is remember where to find the things that we used to remember. That location is usually the Internet. But if the power goes off, what will we do?

Already, there are times when our shops or institutions can't function because they're momentarily 'offline'.

If we're not careful, humans themselves will become offline and more. That is in fact the prediction of some of our brightest thinkers: that an age of intelligent machines is coming, and once those machines become self-replicating, there will be no need for us; humans, it is suggested, will become redundant. Indeed, in an Age of Intelligent Machines, why would people be necessary or even useful? That has been a recurring idea of Science Fiction for a long time now; Asimov, for one, took the notion seriously in his fiction. Maybe it will soon progress beyond an idea.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Wisdom & Light

Paul: Where is the wise man? Where is the arguer of this age? Has not God made the world's wisdom foolish?
[1 Corinthians 1:20]

Jesus: There is light within a man of light, and he enlightens the world.
[Gospel of Thomas 24]

Paul, as an evangelist, spent much of his time trying to spread his faith and discovered that the Jews would only believe if they experienced signs and wonders -- miracles, undeniably extraordinary events; whilst the Greeks and Romans expected clever arguments and persuasive logic. He therefore came to the conclusion that to the world of men the gospel was dull in its ordinariness and foolish in its message.
  Yet, as we know, the faith spread and thrived. Time and time again as we read the New Testament texts, a picture emerges of a community that is at odds with the world around it; on important points this community is  literally extra-worldly: a fact crystallised in Paul's insistence to the Roman community that they don't conform to the world system but think differently and a consequence live different lives. 
  And so they did. Their economic approach arose out of Jesus' parable about the generous capitalist in Matthew 20. They taught that a woman's beauty is not in braided hair and fashionable clothings but in good deeds and character; they stressed that a man should be known for his gentleness, not his aggression; they avoided political debates and didn't follow the latest celebrity gossip of the day. In gently correcting each other, they taught by example that love is not an adjective but a verb; not a feeling, but a doing; and ultimately they eschewed talking the talk, promoting walking the walk instead.

In writers' language, this is show, not tell. Saying "Lord, Lord" and "God bless you" doesn't fill an empty belly or help repair a dilapidated dwelling. These communities didn't discuss wisdom but lived it. In short, they became wisdom; that is, their lives revealed the extent of their transformation by God and their difference from the world. As Jesus expressed it in the Gospel of Thomas 24: people of light enlighten the space around them.

In short, you don't possess wisdom; you become wisdom, as demonstrated in the way you live your life.

This is important to understand, especially for us, we dwellers in a world of seemingly unlimited knowledge -- the so-called Information Age. Knowledge is not wisdom. Increasingly we see this confusion proliferating in students' and researchers' work: someone will google a search topic, find a relevant article, and simply present that article as an answer; yet the topic will not have been understood. Jesus was wisdom, just as a skilled carpenter understands intuitively how to craft a piece of furniture. Wisdom and Light; qualities expressed from the core of being.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Be Original

Wendy Taylor: Brick Knot - 1977-8

Every moment in business happens only once... Bill Gates, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg... If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them
Peter Thiel, Zero to One

Do not conform to the ways of this world but let your whole being be transformed by a renewal of your minds
Paul, Romans 12:2

If those who lead you say unto you: Behold, the Kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of the heavens will be before you. If they say unto you: It is in the sea, then the fish will be before you. But the Kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you. When you know yourselves, then shall you be known, and you shall know that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty
Jesus, Gospel of Thomas 3

[Source: Apple]
There were once two cats on a ship. As soon as the ship got into open ocean, one cat jumped overboard and into the sea. How many cats were left?

None. The other cat was a copycat.

Even though we are all originals -- even 'identical' twins -- most of us live unoriginal lives: we are followers rather than leaders; we are consumers rather than producers; we are copycats rather than individuals capable of creative action.

[Source: Grammarly]
The process begins as soon as we are born. We encounter a world that already exists, and that world, and all the people in it, starts giving us its opinions and habits and views and prejudices and practices and very soon we are so chock-full of what we've been given that that comes to define who we are. We don't think differently; worse, we often don't realise that there is a way to think differently.
Most go through their entire lives living this delusion; others who discover what's happening often sink into a despair so desperate that it's almost nihilism:

Philip Larkin's poem, This Be The Verse, and

Pink Floyd's song, Another Brick In The Wall,

are two of the most celebrated English 


of the twentieth Century

But everything now clich├ęd and commonplace was once an original thought. Current fashions like twerking and sagging were once innovative ideas. Phrases like couch potato and blaze of glory were once memorable examples of creative writing. What is needed is a way to clean the blackboards of our minds, a way to clear away all the junk and nonsense that we've been fed.

Paul described it as a transforming renewal. Indeed it is; another way to describe it is to call it meditation.

Meditation is different from prayer. Prayer is petitioning, asking for things; meditation is simply a way to clear the mind's junk. Here's a simple way to meditate:

Sit comfortably, relaxed.

Close your eyes and say to yourself, let me be a blessing to others and not a curse
may peace and compassion fill my heart and mind.

Then notice your breath, observe it as you breathe in and also as you breathe out.

If any thoughts come into your mind, smile at them but don't follow them; let them pass and gently return your focus to your breathing.

Do this for about five minutes.

That's it.

Make this your daily practice, and over time your life will change. You will become more aware of yourself and the thoughts that come to your mind; and gradually you will clean the blackboard and return to your original nature.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Beautiful People, Ugly People

Your beauty must not depend on outward things such as hair-styles, jewellery and clothes. It must show itself in that calm and gentle spirit which rises from the inner springs of a person's nature
1 Peter 3:3,4 

Jesus said Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Don't you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside? 
Gospel of Thomas 89

Let it be by your gentleness that all men know you
Philippians 4:5 

I remember one time when I was talking with a friend. She said, "I'm going to the salon. What should I do with my hair?" I thought about her question. I thought for a while. In fact, I thought about it long enough for my friend to interrupt my thoughts by asking, "Well?" 

I replied, "You know, I really have no idea. I'm actually a lot more concerned about what you are going to do with your heart."

My response was not dismissive, trite or trivial. It was honest. I knew where she was coming from, what she was trying to deal with; she had recently sought me out for some advice. Her idea now was that a new hairstyle would signify a new her, would go some way to wash away the hurt of her recent past. But we both knew that appearance usually flatters to deceive; any real change must begin inside.

We live in an age when people pay excessive attention to their outward appearance, believing that their bodies are who they are. It's not just hairstyles, of course, or fashion, or editing selfies, or getting a tattoo; our body obsession is all over our shopping malls, gyms, and every article and film with gratutious sex. It's also obvious in our all-too-easy dismissal of the old, the frail, and the crippled.

Interestingly, in the passages quoted above, the word 'braided' is used regarding hair in the original Greek, telling us that we are not so different from the people who lived back then.  But stop there for a moment. Why would biblical texts even mention braided hair? They mention them because our appearance is not who we are.

You may have seen Chris Rock's film, "Good Hair" which analyses the African-American hair industry from the premise that his children believed they had bad hair. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with braided or styled hair or even paying attention to our appearance. But there is a big problem when we pay more attention to how we look than how we live; when we pay more attention to our image than our thoughts; when we spend more time in front of a mirror or taking selfies that we do in resisting evil or showing care and compassion for those around us. 

The point of the ancient writers is simply that prettifying our bodies (our outsides) doesn't create beautiful people, it only creates beautiful bodies; truly beautiful people are created within, through developing loving, compassionate natures. It's what we do, not how we look. In other words, for Jesus, Peter, and Paul, beauty or ugly are how we live; beauty is a verb. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Lists of 8: Meditations, Paths, Pollutions

The Lists of 8: Meditations, Paths, Pollutions 

[source: learningmeditation]

Paul's 8 Things To Meditate On:

whatever is

Morally Excellent
Worthy of Praise

The Buddha's 8-Fold Path:

8 Common Thought Pollutions:

According to ancient teachings, the most common thought pollutions are:


In love with lust

In Love With Lust

[source: tastytufts]

... and escape the corruption with which lust has infected the world

2 Peter 1:5

Jesus said: He who has known the world has found the body

Gospel of Thomas 80

Although I still don't own a TV and have therefore never watched a Big Brother show in its entirety, I do read voraciously and was horrified to read one time the suggestion that one of the Big Brother Africa contestants was very unpopular mainly because she refused to shower nude on the reality-TV programme. She was then expelled from 'the house'. I was saddened when I then went on to read that the woman apparently had no qualms at all about appearing naked but that Big Brother was simply "too cheap" for a brazen view of her buttocks: she would definitely expose all to a glamour magazine for the right price.

I still have the original reviews of the original Big Brother, and I was concerned about the approach even then. To my mind there is something inherently and fundamentally wrong with voyeurism, which is what Big Brother essentially panders to. Big Brother is only one step away -- and not such a big step either -- from watching child porn on the Internet and subscribing to 'snuff' movies, videos that record in chillingly graphic detail the mutilations, depravations and ultimate killing of many of the innocents who 'disappear' from our cities every day of every year. It seems to me that many, if not most, who watch Big Brother and other programmes like it are tuning in for a quick thrill, perhaps for private pleasure or maybe for something to talk about -- voyeurism makes no distinction between means and ends. Naturally, reality TV is only the logical extension of twenty years of soaps -- why pay writers to come up with lurid scripts when the real thing is possible?

There are many problems here. One is clearly the loosening of morals. Personally, I am glad that previously taboo topics like sex, violence and death -- especially when the three come together in situations such as domestic violence -- are more openly discussed today; but I am disconcerted that this more open discussion has brought along with it an atmosphere of acceptance. Hearing four-year-olds repeating the foul mouthings of the latest degenerate rapper is disconcerting; reading that incest and rape cases are increasing is disconcerting; knowing that so many children and teens have scant respect for their parents and elders is disconcerting. It seems that the more we talk about these problems, the more they are seen as part of the normal way of things, practices so everyday that to complain about them is seen as a waste of breath at best and preaching at worst. Illustrations of this so abound in our culture that they even turn up in popular songs: Tracy Chapman's Behind the Wall from a few years back and the more recent Eminem/Rihanna collaboration Love the Way You Lie are two examples that come quickly to mind.

Unfortunately, it also appears that we are not only unshockable these days, but are actively seeking some new outrage to talk about. Our appetites quickly become jaded. Things that shocked us a few years ago don't shock anymore and we desire to move onto something stronger. This is evidently an addiction; an addiction is something we can't do without.

If a desire controls us, it is properly called a lust and my contention here is that our mass-media displays all the symptoms of a lust that has infected the world. Reality TV may indeed be one of the most lucrative media innovations of the last few years, but that is simply because it provides a potent daily fix. Billions of people daily tune into a TV station or go online to get their needed rush, to try and satiate the restless lust that now consumes and controls them. Saying that people are addicted is an understatement; but unfortunately, even when some agree that they have an addiction, you find that talking about it doesn't really help -- especially when they realise that there are millions of others who share their same desire. If one of the soapie actors or Big Brother contestants confesses a weakness for kiddie porn, will viewers be outraged or sympathetic? My suspicion is that such a confession could actually improve the person's popularity. Other problems include the creation of instant celebrities (felebs, if they're on Facebook) and people being famous for the wrong reasons. Frankly, it's a wonder that David Simelane (Swaziland's very own serial killer) hasn't already sold his macabre story to an international tabloid, and the film rights to Hollywood.

[An earlier version of this article appeared in the Times of Swaziland Sunday on July 6th, 2003.]