Tag Archives: Brothers Grimm

Haunted by Hell: Part 1 – Dante’s Legacy

“The path to paradise begins in hell.”
― Dante Alighieri –

There’s a room in my life where hell sleeps. Sleeps every so lightly. And over the last few years, it often awakens, moving swiftly through the corridors, to be part of the many conversations I have had with people whose life narrative has been haunted by hell. This haunting has been informed by culture and history, and we can trace some of it back several centuries to an Italian poet called Dante Alighieri.

Dante lives on in the hearts and imagination of many. “All hope abandon ye who enter here,” he wrote on the gates of hell in ‘Inferno’ (The Divine Comedy). And with it, he set into motion a set of consequences that would outlast him for generations. For hope, it seems, has been abandoned by many who have been haunted by hell. How can you have hope when fear, shame, and paranoia are the ghosts that hell sends to silence all sense of joy and dreams for the future? For those who have had hell weaponised against them by religion, suffer from a common side effect – the feeling of not ever being worthy as a human. For how can you feel ‘worthy’ if nothing you do seems to satisfy the insatiability of the fear of eternal flames?

Fortunately, I never heard of the concept of hell as a child, except through the dark fairy tales of Brothers Grimm. I was first confronted with the controlling force of a hell ideology when I ventured into a church as a teenager. An apocalyptic fervour was the heartbeat of that particular faith community. This fervour is replicated in so many evangelical spaces to this day and it is the driving force behind colonising missional endeavours. Hell was and is the fear and focus of those consumed by ‘saving’ people from ‘eternal damnation.’ ‘God is a loving and merciful God, but he is also a just God – and a just God will send you to hell if you don’t believe right and accept Jesus …’ This line, in its diverse versions and enunciations, has been thundered from pulpits and peddled through diverse forms of communication, continuing to scare and scar people of all ages. Nobody wants to burn in hell …

What is often forgotten is that there was very little agreement about the concept of hell amongst Christians before Dante. Jesus’ obscure references to Gehenna, a place on the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem where trash and bodies were burned, was coupled with Dante’s poem and used effectively by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century who found the idea of purgatory unpalatable. Judgement and eternal torment at the hands of a ‘loving and merciful God’ awaiting all those who were not ‘born again’ became the preferred option. Years later, this concept continues to terrorise and terrify untold numbers of people. Hell has been taught as a reality to little children – I cannot even begin to tell the stories of what that does to a child’s sense of self … the constant terror of an angry God, stoking a fire, waiting for them to misstep. One of my regrets in life (and I have many) is that I became part of a religious tradition that held to Dante’s idea of hell. I wish I had had the courage to express the doubts I felt about this doctrine years ago.

It is interesting to notice how hell (or its equivalent) has been used as a means of control throughout history, especially by religion that, more often than not, seems to be in the guilt and shame producing control business. Hell has origin narratives in ancient mythologies of the underworld, travelling through Greek and Roman mythology such as Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’, Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, and Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, to feed Dante’s imagination and that of medieval theologians. It has morphed and changed and strengthened through the Reformation and continues to pour out of all sorts of religious institutional thinking to this day. Like Jon Sweeney points out in his book, ‘Inventing Hell‘, the modern ideas of hell hold most common threads with Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. It makes brilliant Italian poetry, but horrible Christian theology. But people continue to be haunted by this poem, believing it as truth, because to deconstruct such a deeply embedded idea is … well, it’s hell!

So, dear reader, have you experienced the Haunting of Hell House?

How has it affected your life?

And are you okay with the ramifications of being haunted by hell?

Who introduced you to it … and before you say ‘The Bible’, take time to really think about that.

Why do you hold on to it?

What value does the idea of hell hold for you, if any?

Perhaps it’s time to look into the history of hell and consider its journey into modernity and into your life?

People are, however, beginning to change their minds about hell. But let’s discuss that in the next post …

Confessions of a Bibliophile

“There is no friend as loyal as a book”

Ernest Hemingway

I am an only child. From time to time people ask whether I missed having brothers or sisters. This is rather a peculiar question. It’s like asking someone who has never tasted eggs whether they miss quiche. In short, no. I did not miss having brothers or sisters. I am sure siblings are a marvellous treat for those who possess them, but I didn’t, and so I never missed them the slightest. How can you miss annoying homo sapiens that you have to share things with? Imagine if I had to share my books?!

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My obsession with books started at an early age. Amongst my collection of childhood books I specifically remember an ancient edition of Grimm’s Fairytales that sat on my bedside table. It was printed in Old German Fraktur font. Both my Omas could read the book at lightning speed. My book collection grew as my reading skills developed; from books on animals to old castles, fairy tales, poetry, children’s novels, and, of course, the whole collection of Asterix & Obelix. When we migrated to South Africa I learnt English and Afrikaans. This opened up a whole new set of books! I distinctly recall the first time I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, and bawling my way through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. There are some books that haunt us for a lifetime.

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Providence would have it that my path would cross with a rather tall redhead, whose love for books matched mine. He considered browsing through encyclopedias a favourite pastime in his childhood. It was a match made in heaven. The lack of a shared ‘book love’ would have most certainly been a deal breaker. So between us, we started collecting a humungous amount of books. All sorts of books. “Read all sorts of books that wound and stab us,” advises Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis). This is good advice. Books open our thoughts and hearts. They take us to a different world and for a moment we can become part of a fantastic adventure. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” (A Dance with DragonsGeorge R.R. Martin).

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It would be extremely difficult for me to list the most important books to read or my most favourite books. That would feel like I am selling out on old friends by comparing their worthiness or value. I have, however, thrown out a bunch of stupid books. Most often, modern-day schmuck about how to be better in leading, speaking, praying, or peeing – yeah, the self-help genre is my least favourite. *Rant Alert*: self-help books remind me of people who have discovered some gold (to their credit), but now they are convinced that the whole frigging world will discover gold in the same place, at the same time, with the same set of tools if they dig in just the right way, whilst chanting mantras. Yes, I know, it’s an awful generalisation and I probably just managed to offend some of my blog readers … but it is a pet peeve.

Now if you are a bibliophile, or more importantly, if you have a bibliophile living under your roof, the following observations may be very helpful:

  1. Bibliophiles feel lost without books. The Apostle Paul is in a dark, damp Roman prison, writing a letter to Timothy. “Bring my cloak,” he says (ver5127556-ancient-map-scroll-Stock-Photo-map-pirate-parchmenty important), “and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (most important). Who would have thought that Paul was a bibliophile? He was having massive withdrawals from his ‘books’ (2 Tim. 4:13).
  2. Bibliophiles will take great joy in ‘cleaning’ their bookshelves. Think it nothing strange if your book addict declares they will sort their books and then spend hours taking every book off the shelf, gazing lovingly at it, cleaning the shelves, and then putting them all back in a different order. If you are lucky, they emerge with one or two books that can be given away … you never really throw away books, unless they are extremely stupid books (please refer to ‘rant’ section above).
  3. You will often lose bibliophiles when you shop – they can be retrieved from the nearest book320px-Carl_Spitzweg_021shop. If, however, that bookshop is a second-hand bookshop, you have zero chance of getting them out of there in less than three hours.
  4. Bibliophiles will judge you. They will not judge you on your clothes, looks, education, house,beauty-and-the-beast-belle-book-books-Favim.com-616270.jpg food or pet. They will judge you on your bookshelf and on the books you are reading. Prepare for judgment.
  5. They press rewind every time the Beast unveils the library in Beauty and the Beast.
  6. Most often introverted, bibliophiles are happy for you to jabber on about all things regarding ‘normal’ life until it comes to books. God help you if you misquote a book. God help you if you make a derogative comment about a classic novel. God help you if you do not ask them at that time what they are reading and why. To be forewarned is to live in harmony.
  7. Bibliophiles will have certain books they read repeatedly. This is a most bizarre behaviour for anyone who is not a book addict. It’s really hard to explain why we do this. Perhaps it has to do with relieving the experience or the feeling we received from reading the book, or simply to make triply sure that we did not miss a minute detail of the story. My repeat reads include Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin GospelRichard Rohr’s, Breathing Underwater, and, of course, Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings.

book-61So, mugwumps, who of you want to raise your hands and join me in my book addiction confession moment? What books are you reading right now? Oh, and is this a good time for me to tell you what I am reading? I thought you’d never ask! On the novel side I am ploughing my way through Philippa Gregory’s excellent historical novel series, The Cousins’ WarI love historical novels and Gregory is an outstanding writer as she sheds light on the three important women of the Wars of the Roses. I am also re-reading David Gushee’s book, Changing our Mind. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Widely regarded as one of the leading moral voices in American Christianity, he is the author or editor of 20 books and hundreds of articles in his field, including Righteous Gentiles of the HolocaustKingdom EthicsThe Sacredness of Human Life, and, most recently, Changing Our Mind. What a read! Here’s a quote: “Better is one day in the company of those bullied by Christians but loved by Jesus than thousands in the company of those wielding scripture to harm the weak and defenceless.” (Review)

Yes, I am afraid I am a bibliophile. I love big books and I cannot lie. But now it’s your turn – what books are you reading and what do you love/hate about them?

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” 

Desiderius Erasmus