Some key ideas from Graham Cole’sAgainst the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan and Demons [Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway 2019]
p18: Underscoring Charles Taylor’s key finding in his ground breaking A Secular Age, that the “social imaginary” has changed in the West. By this he means that the West has moved from an enchanted to an unenchanted worldview.
p45: In liturgical churches, like Anglican ones, a sense of the angelic order is built into the liturgy. Examples include the prayer:
We praise thee, O God: we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee: the Father everlasting.
To thee all angels cry aloud: the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee the Cherubin [sic] and Seraphin [sic]: continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy: Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty : of thy glory
[Book of Common Prayer 1662, opening words of the Te Deum]
The Holy Communion Service includes the words:
Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name….[Book of Common Prayer 1662]
The Trisagion, from the Service of Holy Communion is found in Revelation 4:8.
[Holy God, Holy [and] Mighty, Holy [and] Immortal, Have mercy on us. Holy God, Holy [and] Mighty, Holy [and] Immortal, Have mercy on us. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.]
p81: Cole notes that some churches and theologians in the past and present, build in extra-Biblical data to further describe spiritual beings eg the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite. Cole himself carefully limits the presentation of his theological insights to material that can be found in Holy Scripture. In note 11, p81 Cole writes: I follow the wisdom that says, “Have many teachers but only one Master.”
p.86 In relation to the Genesis 3 story of the temptation of Adam and Eve, Cole notes: The tempter targets the word of God. It remains true today.
p.89 In relation to reading the Bible text, Cole endorses the work of Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hayes that a respectful reading of the Old Testament in light of the New discloses figurations of the truth about the one God who acts and speaks in both. [From Davis and Hayes: The Art of Reading Scripture, 2003]. In note 45, p81 Cole suggests that the same approach could be usefully applied to the correspondence between the serpent (earlier) and Satan (later).
p131. In relation to the story in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 regarding Paul’s command to the Corinthians to expel an unrepentant Christian who was living in sin and instructing them to ‘deliver this man to Satan’, Cole notes that The church was holy ground. Outside the fellowship of believers was the domain of Satan. That was where sin and its self-destruction belonged. From these texts it appears that Satan is an external force in the believer’s life, not an internal one. [cf also 1 Timothy 1:20 where the troublesome pair of Hymenaeus and Alexander whom I have delivered to Satan [i.e. to the outside world away from the church]
p133. Cole quotes cautionary remarks about charismatic activity by theologian R. T. France: Not only the profession of discipleship, but even miraculous activity in the name of Jesus, is not enough to prove a genuine disciple….Prophecy, exorcism and miracles can be counterfeited. ‘Charismatic’ activity is no substitute for obedience and a personal relationship with Christ. [R T France: Matthew, TNTC, 2008 p153]
p 146 Cole quotes the old adage lex orandi lex credendi. That is to say, the law of praying is the law of believing. What we really believe shows in our prayer life. Later on p.158 Cole notes our praying will show whether our espoused theology matches our operational theology. And he adds on p159: A prayer life that exhibits no awareness of evil is in a cocoon removed from the anguish in the world and Christ who wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) and for his dead friend Lazarus (John 11:35). In Jesus’s case, his espoused theology and his operational theology were a perfect match.
p159. Re the fear of death: Cole notes: Scripture calls death the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is like a power that can exert an influence over us. The writer to the Hebrews sees the very human fear of death as the means by which the devil may enslave us. (Hebrews 2:14-15). How that works the N T does not explain…..On the cross, Christ took our judgment…to really believe that is to be at peace about the future.
p167 Re spiritual warfare: 3 verses: Cole notes the apostolic task is set within the contest between light and darkness, God and Satan. The task involves opening the eyes of the spiritually blind……. 2 Corinthians 4: 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God.
2 Corinthians 10:5 We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
2 Corinthians 11:5,15. For if some one comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you accepted you accept it readily enough…. so it is not strange if his [i.e. Satan’s] servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
p204 Re judgment: Cole notes: We live in a morally serious universe. There is an accounting. The God of biblical revelation is not only love but also light. God is holy, righteous love. His love is seen in salvation history. Jesus ‘will save his people from their sins”. (Matt.1:21). The light is seen in the judgment of God. And from p.206: Judgment is coming. Wrath is coming. And divine wrath is not to be made banal and dismissed as the depiction of a celestial temper tantrum unworthy of a modern person’s belief.
p221 Back to the secular age in which we live:
We live in a society that appears to be moving from tolerant indifference toward Christianity on the part of the secular elites to increasingly open hostility at the verbal and judicial level. “…Christians have to learn how to move from the moral majority to a prophetic minority. [quoting Russell Moore, from Moral Majority USA]
p 228 “ …as Christians we do not believe ‘in’ the devil. The devil is not mentioned in the creed. But we do believe ‘against’ the devil. [quoting Otto Weber]
p 238 Islam takes the supernatural seriously, and so should any professing Christian.
Rose-Marie & Rainer Hagen, What Great Paintings Say, h/b, Cologne, Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis, 2019
A remarkable treasury of art and history produced with the now routinely outstanding production skills of the Taschen team from Cologne. Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen have introduced and discussed one hundred exceptional works of art starting with an Egyptian wall painting from c1350 BC and running through to some exceptional works from the C20th with something wonderful on every page in between. The writers have made no attempt to include every major artist but rather have focussed on pivotal moments in human history and culture, providing a feast of thoughtful reflections on the changing fashions of human endeavour, exploration, wars and taste. Read and study this book and you will be driven to follow many winding and often tragic paths of human history.
Nevertheless history is not the most fascinating element of this monumental work. By the end of the book, the authors have well and truly taught the reader how to look carefully at the detail of art works. The reader is overwhelmed by what has been missed by a first or casual glance at a work of art. Major themes, faces and work of intense beauty and feeling begin to emerge as the writers lead us gently through the artwork, helped by outstanding photographic close-ups of otherwise hidden figures in the painting. This is a book to savour and come back to often. It will also lead you to painters which were only names before and make you want to see more of their stunning achievements. I have seldom enjoyed reading a book more than this one. I am sure they could writer another book about a different 100 artists. 5 stars and rising!
Rainer & Rose-Marie Hagen:
Rose-Marie Hagen was born in Switzerland and studied history, Romance languages, and literature in Lausanne. After further studies in Paris and Florence, she lectured at the American University in Washington, D.C.
Rainer Hagen was born in Hamburg and graduated in literature and theater studies in Munich. He later worked for radio and TV, most recently as chief editor of a German public broadcasting service. Together they have collaborated on several TASCHEN titles, including Masterpieces in Detail, Pieter Bruegel, and Francisco de Goya.
Murray Bail: Eucalyptus, p/b, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 1998
Prizewinning love story centred upon a rural New South Wales town which manages to include the botanical or common names of every known species of Eucalyptus known to man. This might seem a forbidding introduction and perhaps the death call for any novel but somehow Bail managed to maintain my interest. In addition to the nomenclature of eucalypts, the novel manages to capture the feel of a relatively remote Australian country town and some brief glimpses of Sydney life. This would be a book in itself but Bail has a deeper task to achieve. He creates the opportunity to amass a collection of unusual and surprising stories which would challenge The Arabian Nights or Boccaccio.
These stories generally relate to male/female relationships and marriage and indeed marriage is a central feature of this novel with its competing characters and surprising ending. As someone who lives in an area of significant beauty aided by many specimens of eucalyptus trees and wondering if I could ever distinguish their widely variant names, this novel maintained my interest. I admit to frustration at the mysterious “God-like” presence who appears and disappears relatively late in the novel but the dénouement was, in the final analysis, satisfactory although there is a sense of disappointment that the worthy would be victor of the love match did not win his prize. This result was appropriate enough given that the way the prize was offered was a set piece of outrageous male chauvinism and personal selfishness on the part of the father.
This novel is easy to read ( I read it in one day), but requires perseverance. It made me want to read more of Bail’s work. 4 stars.
Marcel Proust: The Guermantes Way: Volume 3 of In Search of Lost Time, Trans., Intro. & Notes, Mark Treharne, General Ed., Christopher Prendergast, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (1921). French title : À la rechurche de Temps Perdu.
Volume 3 of Proust’s massive seven volume In Search of Lost Time, continues the author’s intensive account of French aristocratic life at the close of the C19th and early years of the C20th. Volume 1 dealt with the narrator’s early childhood, his family in the fictional town of Combray and his childhood girlfriend Gilberte, as well as the extended story of the mismatched love affair and marriage between the artistic dilettante Swann and the free living Odette.
Volume 2 involves the narrator’s awakening adolescence, his lengthy stay in the fictional seaside resort of Balbec and his passion for the elegant school girl Albertine, and introduces us to Robert de Saint-Loup and Baron de Charles, two members of the fictional well connected and aristocratic Guermantes family.
In Volume 3 the family has moved to Paris and live in an apartment in the classy Faubourge Saint-Germaine, close to the fictional Guermantes family heightening the Narrator’s passion for the Duchesse de Guermantes with whom the Narrator inevitably develops a thwarted passion. This volume deals with the Narrator’s eventual success in joining the fictional influential artistic and literary Salons first of Mme Villeparisis and later the much more acceptable salon run by the Duchesse de Guermantes and her unfaithful husband the Duc de Guermantes; the deepening friendship between the Narrator and Robert de Saint-Loup including the true life divisive legal scandal of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France; the death of the Narrator’s beloved grandmother; the flowering of the Narrator’s friendship with Albertine; the commencement of a fiery relationship between the Narrator and the Baron de Charles, and a brief final interaction with the very unwell Swann whom the reader was lead to believe died in Volume 1.
Once again we are treated to extensive ruminations by the author on a variety of philosophical and artistic ideas and some extraordinarily long sentences. For me this was the most difficult of the first three volumes of this massive work. The difficulties are due to the author’s extended analysis of what seem to be endless and rather trivial interactions at the various salons. These interactions included bitchy remarks about people not present, extended debates about the value and significance of family titles and connections and endless attempts to make intelligent comments about art, manners and politics of the day. The historical notes are essential and very helpful but in the end one would need to be expert in French history, philosophy, art, theatre and music to truly enjoy the subtlety of these discussions. I put the level of difficulty close to the reading of Joyce’s Ulysses and the localised characters in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, for both of which detailed notes are essential.
Will I continue with the next four volumes of Proust? That I cannot answer…I may not live that long! 3 stars.
Graham A. Cole: Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, And Demons, h/b, Wheaton Illinois, Crossway, 2019
Graham A. Cole: Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, And Demons, h/b, Wheaton Illinois, Crossway, 2019
Christianity has from the beginning been based on a supernatural event, the rising up of Jesus Christ from the dead. Even two thousand years later, in a super high tech, universe exploring age, the death and resurrection of Jesus remains the central celebration of Christian communities from across the globe.
Millions of apologetic arguments have been mounted in support of this extraordinary event in time by theologians and writers from every generation from the apostles to the Christian historians and Biblical scholars of our own day. Aside from small numbers of more sceptical “earth based” theologians and sceptics from the late C19th onwards the church in general continues to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection and its importance for Christians every Sunday, admittedly in the West to fewer and fewer worshippers but worldwide to millions of Christians throughout the world.
It is a very different situation when it comes to the Christian doctrine of Angels, Satan and Demons. In Pentecostal churches throughout the world certainly these doctrines are regularly spoken about and spiritual warfare is frequently a topic on the preaching and teaching program. But in the more staid mainline churches, apart from the angels on Christmas day it is rare to here a sermon on angelology, Satan or the Devil, or demons. When these terms come up in Bible studies demon possession is frequently spoken about in terms of psychological or mental illness. Systematic theologians like Louis Berkhof don’t rate it all and the terms are frequently omitted in many systematic theologies including many by evangelical writers.
Australian theologian and philosopher of religion Graham Cole, former Principal of Ridley College, and currently Dean and Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Chicago, has accepted the task of unpacking this set of doctrines for the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series.
Against the Darkness is a closely argued and carefully written explication of the significance of angels, Satan and Demons in the Bible and the Church. The ground covered by Cole in this 270 page book is immense and the breadth of scholarship surveyed covers every major denomination and includes detailed work on the Islamic view of angels, Satan and demons. Unlike many authors who have written in this area Cole is particularly careful to focus only on what can be gleaned from the Biblical text itself (and once a reader gets to the end he or she will be amazed at how many references to angels, Satan and demons occur in the Bible!). I know I was.
Key issues carefully examined in this book include, amongst many other things: exorcisms, the nature, power and limitations of spirit beings, the question of possession by evil spirits, Christ’s and the apostles’ dealing with demon possession in their earthly ministry, spiritual warfare, Christus Victor, the “sons of God”, “the man of lawlessness” and the interpretation of the Book of Revelation, how to discern whether or not a spirit is from God, eschatological theology, and the place, if any, of angels, Satan and demons in the major Christian creeds, articles of faith, catechisms and confessions.
Cole’s book contains suggestions for further reading, detailed scriptural and general indexes, and a useful glossary of some unfamiliar theological terms.
This would not be an easy read for a young Christian although I know many young people who are deeply troubled by some of the issues raised. Cole has not written for fellow theologians either although he critiques many of their works. This series has been created for serious church goers to understand their Christian faith more fully with expert assistance. The book would make for a very lively study group and I think it would change the view of many about the dangers of the power of evil but also about the grace and authority we have been given to live in the joy and beauty of God’s love and to be able to repel any evil impulse that comes our way. 5 stars.
Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom, p/b, Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1977 (1910)
Richardson’s thinly veiled account of the experience of being a border at Melbourne’s affluent Presbyterian Ladies College was an immediate success with readers and continues to be well read today. It has also been made into a major film produced by Phillip Adams.
Although Richardson herself left the school with honourable results and her account is not autobiographical in the ordinary sense, her experience of leaving her country home and becoming a boarder at a young age obviously left a deep imprint on her especially coming from a family in straitened circumstances.
It is hard to imagine all of the events in this novel happening to one unlucky and unhappy girl and clearly the girl expelled for pilfering was not Richardson. Richardson is presenting a tale of a somewhat cold and Imperious educational institution with its own snobbishness and culture wars. Tales of boarding school antics have been popular since Tom Brown’s Schooldays but Richardson has managed a far more sophisticated and thoughtful account of interactions, feelings and adventures that force the reader to look back into their own lives and consider some of the difficult events that formed their own character.
Of particular interest is the sense of Melbourne and its surrounds and transport at the turn of the C20th and the difficulty young girls in particular had if they sought to do more with their lives than a short-lived education following by routine work, marriage and child rearing. I remember loving this book when I first read it in Year 12 and now sixty years later, I still find it thought provoking and a reminder of what a challenging thing it is for any young person having to find their place in a new school. I love the unexpected last page! 5 stars.
Paul Gervais: A Garden in Lucca: Making a Life in Tuscany, p/b, Ringwood, Penguin, 2001
Paul Gervais is an American visual artist and writer who with his partner purchased a historical villa in Lucca in Tuscan Italy. Gervais created an exceptional garden attracting visitors from across the globe.The book is honest, quite humorous in parts and in relation to the plants in the garden, quite technically detailed. Gervais admits to having no real idea about gardening and plants when they purchased the property. Little by little he persuaded himself to take an interest in recreating what had been an impressive property in past times.
Many of his original ideas did not work for various reasons including his lack of knowledge of the way some of his specimens would grow and spread. The story tells a tale of gradual accumulation of knowledge through the friendship of many skilled gardeners. His handy man Ugo and his wife did much of the heavy lifting and as Gervais’ interest grew he began reading hundreds of books and make visits to many nurseries and potteries. In addition he had opportunities to visit many outstanding gardens in Italy and France.
There are several amusing descriptions of some unique friendships and garden lovers and a tortuous tale of attempting to sell the property at one stage which included some very dodgy would be purchasers. This is a book which would delight keen gardeners or folk who just enjoy reading about the uniquely attractive landscape and extraordinary beauty of Tuscany. I enjoyed this book but found the detailed botanical sections demanding. 4 stars.
Villa Massei, Paul Gervais’ amazing garden in Lucca.
C S Lewis: Reflections on the Psalms, p/b, London, Fount/HarperCollins, 1967 (1961)
C S Lewis was more well known for his writing in the area of Christian apologetics and his first love Renaissance literature but this little book on the Old Testament Psalms is a gem. He makes no claim to be a Biblical or Jewish scholar but uses his understanding of poetry and Christian theology to write this well argued, succinct and very readable account of the themes of the Psalms. In particular Lewis provides clarity about issues Christians might be surprised about when they begin to study the Psalms.
These issues include simple facts like the Psalms were of course written as poetry which was to be sung and frequently with a particular form of Hebrew parallelism. In relation to content, Lewis covers the following issues:
the judgemental psalms including the cry for justice
the cursing/vengeance psalms with their undisguised hatred (sometimes just slipped into otherwise quite peaceful psalms)
the apparent self-righteousness and self-congratulation in the some psalms
the fact that the vast majority of psalms do not speak of life after death (eg Psalm 27) but assume that death is the end with a helpful section on the understanding of Sheol/Hades.
the delight of joy and dancing in the psalms with the themes of praising God, rapture in worship but also the reminder of the need for repentance, remembrance and sacrifice.
the stress on the beauty of the law
the approach to dealing with the wicked
the reverence for nature and the beauty of creation
the need to praise God and to tell the story of God to others
Lewis also has chapters on reading the Psalms as Christians and reading the Psalms as Holy Scripture.
Remarkably this little book is still in print after 60 years and has all the credentials to be regarded as a Christian classic. I return to it frequently. 5 stars.
Rebecca McLaughlin: Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, h/b, Wheaton, Crossway, 2019
I have read many books on Christian apologetics but Rebecca McLaughlin has trumped them all with this incisive, delightfully and personally written, searingly honest exploration of some of the hardest questions the C21st constantly throws at Christianity. Many of McLaughlin’s responses will surprise and challenge readers. Unlike many writers we are treated to what appears to be an open book into her most personal thoughts about life, love and faith. Here are the questions:
Aren’t we better off without religion?
Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?
How can you say there is only one faith?
Doesn’t religion hinder morality?
Doesn’t religion cause violence?
How can you take the Bible literally?
Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?
Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?
Isn’t Christianity homophobic?
Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?
How could a loving God allow so much suffering?
How could a loving God send people to hell?
I doubt whether any thoughtful Christian, active in the world and listening to Western media has not had to face up to each of these questions. Here is a book to challenge and help. McLaughlin does not deny the truths and the force behind these questions. Nevertheless her respectful response meets the powerful critique supplied by Western thought leaders with equal and even more effective rebuttal. Her responses are based on up to date and well documented evidence and a disarming way of unpicking the seemingly irrefutable arguments of some of the finest faith deniers in the land.
Mclaughlin is same sex attracted yet happily married to a husband with three children. She holds a Cambridge doctorate in Renaissance literature and a degree in theology from Oak Hill College in the USA. Her responses to the above questions engages with a wide range of sociological research documents, many international literary works recent and older, interaction with many current atheist philosophers, film and television presentations, an array of scientific thought leaders and circumstances and individuals from her daily life and experience.
There is nothing simplistic about this presentation and it is not a book for young or inexperienced Christians. It could be a useful book for devotees of The Drum and other Western media outlets who appear to value any authority in the land apart from well thought out, highly qualified and articulate Christian leaders. It will not suit Christian leaders who simply deny the truths in these questions without working carefully through the issues involved from all sides.
Some thought tasters from McLaughlin include:
Too many churches enable a self-focussed Christianity that ignores New Testament ethics. (p.23)
For many the idea that Christianity is a white, Western religion, intrinsically tied to cultural imperialism, stands as a major barrier to considering Christ. (p.33)…most of the world’s Christians are neither white nor Western, and Christianity is getting less white Western every day. (p.43)
To say that all religions are just two sides of the same truth coin reduces pluralism to a patronising posture by which we don’t respect others enough to take their beliefs seriously. (p.49)
The premise of human equality is not a self-evident truth. (p.66)
If science is all we have, our sense of self is just an illusion – morality is no more than preference. (p.70)
Understanding more of science doesn’t make God smaller. It allows us to see His creative activity in more detail [experimental physicist Russell Cowburn). (p.100)
Paul does not say that the husband’s needs come first, or that women are less gifted in leadership than men, or that women should not work outside the home (p.142)…the early church was majority female (p.144)
On Slavery: …the church must face its moral failures.
Mclaughlin has written a book which would make an ideal series of weekly studies for a thoughtful parish. Her enthusiasm for life and her raw honesty is infective and challenging. I warmly commend this book. 5 stars and rising
Brenda Niall: Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers – Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson, p/b, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2020
Brenda Niall has written an engaging and informative analysis of the contribution of these four significant C20th Australian female writers.
Ethel Turner’s output of children’s classics was formidable over more than thirty years and her Seven Little Australians, although little read today, remains an Australian classic.
Henry Handel Richardson, penname of Ethel Florence Richardson, lived most of her life in London and was a retiring and exceptionally private person with a very interesting life story. I read The Getting of Wisdom in Year 12 English a long time ago and loved its mild satire of Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne and her detailed account of life for a teenage girl then. Her blockbuster three volume The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is one of the outstanding classics of Australian literature and a powerful read.
Barbara Baynton is a name I was not aware of but her harsh realistic stories of the Australian bush made an impact in her day. Perhaps more interesting was her colourful and dramatic life story. She is certainly the most extroverted of the four writers.
Nettie Palmer was a successful poet and the leading Australian literary editor of her day and her impact on the growth of Australian literature was substantial indeed. Married to novelist Vance Palmer they made a formidable team and an interesting story.
All of these writers were indeed friends at various levels and indeed rivals in the battle for recognition and success. Brenda Niall’s account is carefully documented and detailed and manages to keep the reader constantly interested in the twists and turns of the life-times of the four women. The account is also an interesting insight into the challenges faced by Australian women in making an impact on a literary scene dominated by the likes of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. Niall has written many studies of Australian literary life including major biographies of pioneer artist Geogiana McCrae, The Boyd Family and Archbishop Mannix.
This biography maintains steady interest, continues to surprise and demonstrates the emerging maturity of Australian literature in the first half of the C20th. 4 stars.
Kon Karapanagiotidis: The Power of Hope OR, How Community, Love & Compassion can Change our World, h/b, Sydney, HarperCollins, 2018
Kon Karapanagiotidis has written a heart-rending, searingly honest, loquacious, no holds barred assault on Australia’s refugee policy and its destructive impact on many asylum seekers in Australlia. He is the founder and CE0 of Asylum Seeker Resource Centre which in his hands grew from nothing to a major centre in West Melbourne and then Footscray with 125 staff and over 1200 volunteers.
The book is also a very personal analysis of his own life from a new Australian Greek boy growing up first in Mt Beauty and later in urban Melbourne at Thornbury HS, his impressive university career including a Law degree and his extraordinary life as a volunteer and activist and finally an entrepreneurial leader, a crusader for justice and a successful stand up comic. Alongside his success Kon does not hide his very real difficulties with insecurity, over-eating and failure with women. The Resource Centre commenced in 2001 and has had no Government funding from then till now. The Centre relies completely on supporter funding and the generosity of time by volunteers. Its services include legal, financial, political and psychological aid, art and music, food support and in general a safe place of refuge.
Kon’s book also moves into self-improvement mode with chapters on embracing your fears, how to be a man, body image, travel and major chapters on male cruelty and mistreatment of women and how to change it.
There is no room whatsoever in this book for any sympathy with Australian government leadership of either colour although there is no direct attack on any individual politician and there is praise for the support of Malcolm Fraser. Kon’s language is very direct and explicit in places and the life coaching tends to be repetitive at times. These are minor quibbles. This is a story that needs to be told even though the reading of it can be somewhat overwhelming and at times repetitive.
The book concludes with helpful lists of actions that could be taken by the reader. (1) Suggestions for volunteering (over 80 suggestions!); (2) an interesting “one week of change” which could include: reviewing your super for ethics, sustainable shopping, becoming a grassroots patron of the Arts, eat less meat, become a volunteer, host a fundraiser and get your kids involved in giving back. (3) Making change in the workplace ..20 suggestions for improving gender balance, equity and diversity. (4) An interesting selection of suggested reading to follow up his book.
This is a book to help us to ponder in what ways our treatment of refugees could be changed with greater assistance especially in their early days in Australia. We are a wealthy and richly blessed nation. We could be doing this difficult task more humanely. 4 stars.
James Rebanks: English Pastoral: An Inheritance, p/b, Penguin, Random House UK, 2020
A remarkable account of farming in the latter half of the twentieth century and today in England, detailing the devastating impact of pesticides and overuse of fertilisers and ploughing. Late C20th agriculture has lead to the degrading of many farm soils and the loss of huge numbers of wildlife and flower and grass species throughout Britain and the USA. James Rebanks is a third generation small farmer in the Lake District with an interest in seeking to maintain a balance between small farming and the wholesale selling up of small farms for huge large scale mechanised food production based on high powered fertiliser and ever increasing expenditure on machinery.
He is no idealistic dreamer and recognises that the world cannot be fed without large scale commercial farming but he makes a very good case for the argument that the ever increasing drive for cheaper supermarket food across the world will in the end destroy us. The argument is driven not by agriculturists but by large corporate business and achieved with artificial techniques like river straightening, forest clearing, pesticides and fertilisers which are not only degrading soils and forests across the globe but also destroying wild life and plant life at a horrifying rate.
Rebanks notes that farming is a matter of life and death. (p.99) …in the early C20th hunger was only a generation away for many families in Britain and around the world. My grandparents had lived through food shortages and periodic high prices that were common in Britain …This scarcity can be seen in the small stature of the oldest people I knew, who often stood a foot or so shorter than their sons and grandsons. Rationing in wartime was a stark reminder that food could not be taken for granted, when feeding the country required importing 20 million tons of food a year and overseas supplies were vulnerable. So humanity needed food and business provided but at what future cost?
Rebanks details the amazing achievement of Fritz Haber, who in 1909 worked out how to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen to make it usable for plants. and his college Carl Bosch found a way apply this process industrially to make things sell. (p106). The result was ammonium nitrate fertiliser which transformed agriculture and society, enabling enormous population growth. Haber’s extraordinary ability was not always put to benign use. His other legacies included turning in ammonium nitrate into war explosives and he also pioneered the development of poisonous chlorine gas for use int the trenches of World War ! and the pesticide gas Zyklon-B used later in Nazi death camps to kill millions of people (p107). Later on in 1939 Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller developed dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which could kill insects, fungi, bacteria and eliminated typhus from large parts of Europe as well as eradicating malaria from the USA.
Rachel Carson’s amazing 1962 book Silent Spring finally woke the world up to the dangers ofpesticides, arguing for targeted use instead of the wholesale destruction of fragile ecosystems and forests around the world. Although DDT is now banned the rapid engulfing of the world’s forests and wild spaces goes on apace again driven insatiable big business and politics, not by wise eco-management.
In his final section Rebanks proposes some solutions to world degradation. They include ancient farming techniques replacing ploughing with a mix of crops and rotational ….animal grazing/fallow and returning hedgerows, natural rivers and swamps to their natural state. But he also calls for new ways of doing things including soil science and health studies, effective grazing practices, learning from ecologists about recreating habitats and natural processes (p.202)…to do this we have to opt out of the cheap food dogma that has driven farming and food policy for the past few decades…We can build a new English Pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all….the modern world worships the idea of self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is a another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in a little life on the land. In a noisy age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly might be a virtue. (p.210)
Rebanks accepts the idealistic impossibility of his plea for a new world of farming…Farming for nature is a form of economic suicide! (p.230), and he accepts that farming is a form of slavery”! (p.228). Yet his call to the world to wake up is real. I have to ignore my accounts in this bid for good food husbandry and hope the rest of the world comes to its senses someday soon. (p.231). He has a love/hate relationship with the plough. We can’t all be fed from pastoral systems. The plough, and the annual crops it makes possible—corn, wheat, barley, soy, sorghum, cassava, potatoes and rice—provide food for most human beings. But in the past thirty years we have learned that ploughing is ecologically disastrous. (p239). Finally he suggests that farming is an exercise in humility (p.242) and that it takes a village to make a good farm work. (p.242)…I am tired of absolutes and extremes and the angriness of this age. (p.269).
In this essay I have picked out the bones of Rebanks’ argument. The real strength of this book lies in his romantic and blissful descriptions of the recreation of wildlife, insects, plants, animals , creeks, rivers, trees and bogs that have come back to life on his little farm. His writing leads the reader on to yearn for a sweeter, more quiet, more beautiful, natural and peaceful age. This is a book to savour alongside consideration of the argument which may well determine the future of all of our lives in coming generations. 5 stars and rising
Farrukh Dhondy: Rumi: A New Translation of Selected Poems, p/b, New York, Arcade, 2013
Jalal-ad-din Rumi was a C13th spiritual master, teacher and poet. Born in Tajikistan he founded the Mawlawi Sufi order, a mystical spiritual brotherhood based on the teachings of Shamsuddin of Tabriz. Rumi’s major spiritual work was the Mathnawi, which for Sufi followers is often regarded as the “Koran in Persian”. In addition Rumi wrote a set of lyric poems Divien-e Shams-e Tabrizi, a translation from which has excerpted and interpreted the poems and sayings in this collection.
The Sufi tradition grew up in the C8th alongside Sunni and Shia Islam as a third way of understanding Islam. Sufism stresses the mystical and spiritual aspects of Islam and, as with the Qu’ran, Sufism interacts with both the Christian and Judaic faith traditions and even has significant links with Hindu concepts such as the essential philosophy of Advaita Vedanta faith found in the Hindu Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. as well as pre-Christian, Buddhist, Platonic and Aristotelian thought. In addition, because the Islamic faith had conquered Persia in the C7th it was inevitable that Sufism would also be influenced by the ancient Persian state faith of Zorastrianism. Jesus (‘Issah’ in Rumi’s texts) is a key person to be honoured and adored as the one who took away the sins of God’s people.
The Sufi mystic/spiritualist approach to Islam and other world faiths played down the role of the literal word of the Qu’ran and also the traditional essential journey to the Kaaba in Mecca. Sufism placed its stress on inward spiritual teaching including ecstatic experiences especially the wild and energetic Dervish order. The result is a deeply thoughtful, experiential faith. Dhondy writes in his introduction that the essence of Sufi devotion is the spiritual awakening, the realization, the cleansing, the enlightenment, the oneness—the light. (p.xxiv). Sufism is happy to say that there are truths and epiphanies in other mystical religions.
Ibin ‘Arabi, a Sufi mystic of the same century as Rumi wrote:
My heart has become capable of every form: it a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christians, and a temple for idols and the pilgrims to the Ka’ba and the tables of the Torah, and the book of the Qu’ran. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camel take, that is my religion and faith.
Rumi was influenced by the C5th Al-Ghazali, and significantly by Ibin ‘Arabi quoted above who taught forty years prior to Rumi, before Rumi fell under the spell of Shamsuddin of Tabriz.
Rumi himself became a C20th cult figure alongside the likes of Kahlil Gibran. Quoted frequently by pop Queen Madonna in the C20th Rumi also played a major role in the teaching of wealthy New Age surgeon, writer and influencer Deepak Chopra..
Farrukh Dhondy,, an Indian of Parsi descent, whose great grandfather was a Persian scholar, does not read Persian. He has used the translations of several scholars of Rumi’s work and attempted to use his knowledge of Persian poetic rhythm to enable the form and metre of the original work to speak in today’s idiom. The result is a curious mix of modern and ancient forms of speech which at times appear to me to trivialise some important ideas. Nevertheless the book is a good start to Rumi’s thought inviting a search for more scholarly translations. Rumi’s thoughts go deep and make you stop and think. A few brief examples must suffice here.
p22: The Blasphemers:
You kept company, O Rumi, with blasphemers who
they hadn’t shut the door.
Don’t burn the blanket infested with a single flea
Don’t turn away from the human who is as flawed as thee.
p33: From Science:
Issah caused the dead to
cast off their shrouds and rise
by breathing into dust a living soul
saying, ‘Rise, your faith has made thee whole!’
p63 From Light on Light:
Of flamboyance my love is now accused
My heart’s a drum, its beating is excused
By he who sent an Issah to the fight
To spread the vision of the light on light.
p.105 Issah and the Fools:
Issah the healer
(To him all praise)
Had the Word from God
Which was able to raise
The dead and breathe
Life into a wraith
Not to crowd the planet
But to bring us to faith.
p. 105 The Pearl:
Death holds no terror for the one who can
See beyond this life’s short and fitful span
The knock of rocks, the churning ocean’s swell
Do not affect the pearl inside the shell.
p.52 Final Ecstasy:
Reason cannot ever grasp
That final ecstasy
To bring a thinker to his God
Isto make a blind man see.
Try this experiment
and think of nought
But only that
which creates all thought.
p.88 He Listens
There are no rules of worship
He will hear
The voice of every heart
That is sincere.
p. 89 Wild Dog
Stop the wild dog’s bite with a muzzle
Love is the solution to that eternal puzzle
What is your destiny? What is your duty?
Give way to love, give way to beauty.
p. 91 Names
God taught the earthly Adam
To name all things although
He taught the angels only
What he wanted them to know.
I find much helpful truth in Rumi’s C13th words. 5 Stars!
Cassandra Pybus: Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2020
Cassandra Pybus is descended from Richard Pybus, who having ventured to Australia from England in 1829 was handed a large grant of land on North Bruny Island in Tasmania while Truganini was still living on the island. Cassandra recalls family stories of her great-grandfather talking about Truganni’s exploits on the island as a young girl visiting the Pybus estate looking for gifts of tea, sugar or damper. Cassandra has lived for over thirty five years on Bruny Island, close to the site of the family’s original land grant. This historical examination of the complex life of Truganini, “the last Tasmanian aborigine” is her attempt to do justice to a remarkable woman who lived through the planned destruction and removal of the culture and life of the indigenous peoples of Van Diemen’s Land (thought to be at least 4000 prior to European occupation) by white settlers in the nineteenth century.
It is a tale that is inextricably mixed and could not be told without also telling part of the story of George Augustus Robinson, an emigrant builder from England who settled in Hobart. Robinson’s Christian faith led him to seek a resolution to the inevitable and destructive clash of cultures between the new invading settlers, convicts and sealers and the ancient indigenous tribes of Van Diemen’s Land of which there were at least eight major nations all with different languages.
Image of Truganini painted by artist Thomas Bock, 1835, British Museum
Robinson’s personal journal edited by N J B Plomley, along with a host of other historical records is the major source of Pybus’s information about a large part of Truganini’s life. For twelve years Robinson, Truganini and other indigenous leaders worked closely together in an ultimately flawed attempt to unite the scattered tribal groups and find a sanctuary where they could live and hunt in peace. Robinson at first made almost superhuman efforts to trek through impenetrable forest and untracked wilderness to form friendships with various native groups. He learned to communicate and attempted to encourage them to join his “mission” with Truganini as one of his most faithful leaders and trackers (although she did not once appear in his journal!). Robinson’s initial idealistic vision became increasingly coercive and self-regarding as he vaingrloriously sought to be the hero who solved the “native problem”.
In the end it all came to nothing with inter-tribal warfare and governmental pressure to get the native inhabitants off the island and resettled in the Flinders Islands. This was a physically unsuitable location which broke the spirits and hearts of the migratory tribal groups and which was poorly provisioned and supervised by inappropriate white leadership. The indigenous peoples died rapidly in numbers during Truganini’s lifetime, with some of the worst atrocities being the dismemberment of their bodies and skulls for profit and “scientific investigation”.
This is a an unrelentingly grim read. It is a tale of atrocious murder, rape and imprisonment of indigenous peoples by escaped and freed convicts, rapacious sealers and incompetent white leadership. Many of the British leaders and the settlers/convicts regarded the natives, like the Tesmanian Tiger, as an irritation to be rounded up, hunted down and destroyed or dispatched to somewhere else. Licentious and evil men including John Batman, the so-called founder of Melbourne, created havoc murdering the men and enslaving the women. Athough there were many individuals in the Colony who did seek unity and a solution, the official line was determinedly the ridding of the indigenous tribes from the island.
A major strength of this book is the timeline and biographies of key people and their various names at the end of the book which helps to make sense of the mixed relationships and names and demonstrates the complexity of the tribal groups and interactions. My wife’s advice to read the biographies first was very wise and helpful!
Cassandra Pybus has written a sensitive and powerful book. She does not glorify Truganini’s behaviour including her four husbands and unashamed use of sexuality for favours and survival, On the contrary Truganini several times risked her own life in extreme physical danger including floods and illness to protect Robinson and keep his dream alive. The tale of Homo Sapiens is a mixed one of extraordinary achievement and progress alongside the appalling destruction of cultures and the natural environment.
This early Tasmanian chapter joins a very long and sad list of internecine destruction of cultures. In our prosperous and largely happy and safe nation today, Pybus has given us much to think about. Five stars.
Norman Davies: Rising ’44: ‘The Battle for Warsaw’, p/b, London, Pan, 2004
For a start this is a huge book. Over 750 pages in quite small print in this paperback edition. Davies is perhaps the preeminent modern historian of Europe, and his many works including the exceptional History of Europe (1997) and The Isles (1999). With his Polish wife and complete fluency in Polish Davies has written two histories of Poland in addition to this major work on the 1944 insurgent uprising against the Nazi assault on Warsaw.
The 1944 Warsaw insurgent uprising against the Nazi occupation of Warsaw is not to be confused with the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising in which brave Jewish fighters whose people were being systematically slaughtered and deported to death camps attempted against hopeless odds to break out from the ghetto and fight their way to freedom. That horrific and tragic story also needs to be told but Rising ’44 is the story of the underground Polish army led byTadeusz-Bór-Komorowski (‘Bor’ was one of his wartime code names).
On the face of it, the uprising was a doomed contest with half-starved insurgents with minimal weapons and ammunition pitted against the combined power of the German Wehrmacht war machine and the Gestapo Secret police. General ‘Boor” thought that the insurgents might survive for four days preparing the way for Russian forces under Generals Rokossovski from the east and Berling from the south to finish the job. In the end the the German military through everything against both allied armies and it appears (though not certain) that Stalin felt that it was more convenient for the German army to put paid to the Rising while the Russian effort focused on controlling the Balkan war. As it turned out the brave insurgents maintained their stand for 63 days with virtually no allied assistance except one flawed air drop from the England. Working from bombed out buildings in underground and fortified bunkers and operating through the sewer system, the insurgents, many of them teenagers or younger, fought with extraordinary and bravery and initiative killing many more opponents than their own losses and controlling significant parts of the city.
Davies uses a vast array of official documentation (much of it in Polish) along with “capsules” of private letters and stories of individuals, many of them heart-breaking but all of them supremely courageous. The book has three main sections: (i) Before the Rising with particular attention to the allied coalition (pathetically ineffectual and confused in the case of Warsaw as it turned out) alongside the brutally savage and destructive German occupation as well as approaches from the Russians in the East and the beginnings of resistance. (ii) The Rising itself from outbreak to finale over 63 days). (iii) After the Rising. This is perhaps the most heart breaking part of this story, with the Russians choosing (it seems) to stay out until the Wehrmacht had totally slaughtered and smashed the city (worse than Dresden!). When the Soviets finally move in the real heart break begins with the Russian refusal to recognise the insurgents in any way. Treating them as “pro-German” and as thieves and criminals they murdered many, deported the rest to death camps and for almost forty years denied there ever was an uprising!
This is not a feel-good book about the great allied victory in World War 11. Apart from anything else, the little known story that without the courage and sheer weight of numbers of the Soviets the war would never have been one by the “allies”. Alongside this is the duplicity and complexity of Stalin himself and the inability to clearly understand many of his decisions and directions. In addition the divided “official Polish government” sequestered in London, combined with the British War cabinet preoccupation with war theatres other than Poland meant that British assistance was minimal, too late and confused.
It is only in the last twenty years that the Polish insurgents have been recognised for their extraordinary courage and achievement with monuments in a rebuilt Warsaw and the true story finally allowed to be heard. Davies’ achievement in this book is heroic in itself! Five stars and rising.
Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse – Five or The Chidren’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, p/b, London, Vintage, 2000 (1969).
Cult anti-war novel made into an equally off beat film centring on the carpet bombing of the German city of Dresden by the British and US military over several days in February/March1945. Vonnegut fought with the US army in Europe and was captured and imprisoned in Dresden. The American POW’s were saved by retreating with their captors to the large underground meat abattoir beneath the huge meatworks. Most of the rest of the city was completely destroyed by the fire-storms created by the carpet bombings.
Vonnegut tells his story of the destruction of Dresden through the eyes of the fictional Billy Pilgrim, a gentle assistant chaplain captured by the Germans alongside many other American soldiers and shipped by crowded train to a POW camp in Dresden, where their home prison meat works was called Slaughterhouse Number Five.
Vonnegut’s style is easy to read, full of black cynical humour about American society, military leaders, serving US soldiers and interspersed with factual information about aspects of the last days of WW!1. Billy Pilgrim has been damaged psychologically by his capture and imprisonment, especially the lengthy train journey to Dresden and a later aircraft crash. He passes in and out of a fantasy involving memories of his civilian life as an optometrist and his marriage to the overweight Valencia Merbel, his time in slaughterhouse five and after the bombing, and his interstellar life, having been captured by aliens from the far away planet of Tralfamadore along with pawn filmstar Montana Wildhack where they perform and mate in a transparent earth vacuum cocoon as a visitor attraction daily for millions of Tralfamadorians who come to watch.
If all of this sounds totally ridiculous and silly it is saved by Vonnegut’s laconic humour, his icy barbs about the futility of much of American society and the sheer hopeless tragedy of human warfare. 4 stars.
Richard Surman: Cathedral Cats, h/b, London, HarperCollinsReligious, 1993
I am an unashamed cathedralophile and can sort of cope with cats although I dislike their taste for birds. Richard Surman is a world travelled photographer who has contributed photographs to many books from the USA to Greece and Britain. This beautifully illustrated book links photographs and stories about cats and cathedrals from many of England’s major cathedrals and their cats. The cathedrals include Bristol, Canterbury, Carlisle, Christ Church Oxford, Coventry, Ely, Gloucester, Hereford, Lincoln, Peterborough, St Albans, St Davids in Wales, St Paul’s, Salisbury, Truro, Wells, Westminster, Winchester, Worcester, and York. Some of these cats have had very adventurous lives indeed and others are just beautifully playful and domesticated. Surman takes the opportunity to comment on key features of many of the cathedrals which make them essential to the development and life of English history and architecture. A book to stay away from if your England tour was spoiled by “another bloody cathedral”! But a book to treasure if these places of faith and blessing continually amaze. 4 stars.
Alex Miller: Max, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2020
Max is a complete departure for Alex Miller. It is hard core research into the early life of the hard to find holocaust survivor Moses (“Max) Blatt who was a close friend of Miller’s early in his life and a major encourager of Miller’s writing career and understanding of literature. Max’s early life was difficult to unravel because he was a Jewish underground leader of two organisations in Poland working to oppose the Nazi take over of central Europe. He was tortured early in his career and finally released, severely injured. Recovering in Switzerland Max returned to Poland and continued his anti-Nazism activities at great risk to his life. Eventually he had to flee Poland via Shanghai and made it as a refugee to Australia where he met Miller through friends of Miller’s first wife. To his own personal and deep distress Max left behind in Poland both his parents and his first wife Hanna who all perished in the Nazi onslaught on Warsaw.
These sorrows left a permanent mark on Max because of the guilt he felt magnified by the criticism of his own brother Martin whom he had assisted to escape to Palestine. For thirty years he had no contact but eventually made contact with Martin and his family through three visits to Israel. None of this was known to Miller who had to learn German and follow a lonely and complex path of international research to track down Max’s family in Israel some years after Max’s death. In this process he was supported by some impressive holocaust researchers and scholars as well as the extensive and meticulous research he undertook himself.
Nevertheless this story is not just a survey of the evidence for Max Blatt’s life. All the skills, beauty, depth and power of the Alex Miller we have come to love is still on show in this book. Ideas and sentences which struck me include:
p112: One lifetime is not long enough to forget
p.129: irony defeats zealotry and leaving open the triumph of human folly.
p.129: whether the Jews belonged to the East or to the West
p.130: reconciliation with the sadness of existence
p.134 Judaism In Wroclaw was a practice not a religion.
p.142 humkind insists on repeating its mistakes
p.152 good and evil reside within humanity in an uneasy state of potential
p.170 the irrational capacity for faith
p.171 Even if we don’t believe in a God let us behave as if there is one.
p.175 ..their dreams were lost
p194: Max rejected utterly the business of making some people more valued than others.
p.194 For that generation the holocaust was still going on
p.218 the death of dreams…it is better to dream and struggle than to live in the freedom of which we once dreamed.
p.236 Noone’s life can be fully restored
p239 The facts are not everything: “there is a spiritual dimension to our lives”
p239 Without the certainty ofdeath there is no death (of a loved one).
Alex Miller is now 84. He may not have another book in him ..but who knows. I for one hope for one more! 5 stars.
Graham A. Cole: Engaging with the Holy Spirit: Six Crucial Questions, p/b, Nottingham, Apollos/Oak Hill Annual School of Theology, 2007.
Dr Graham Cole is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield Illinois and a former Principal of Ridley College Melbourne. This book arose out of an annual School of Theology at Oak Hill School of Theology in London.
I have read many books on The Holy Spirit but none as clear and concise as this one. Cole is renowned for his speed reading technique and there is clear evidence of this from the wide variety of resources quoted in this book. Apart from substantial Biblical references Cole has clearly read widely in many theological areas and not just those of an evangelical persuasion.
The six critical questions are all on biblical texts involving the Holy Spirit. In order they are:
What is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit ?
How may we resist the Holy Spirit?
Ought we to pray to the Holy Spirit?
How do we quench the Holy Spirit?
How do we grieve the Holy Spirit?
How does the Holy Spirit fill us?
Cole’s responses to these questions with a pattern of: (i) theological reflections from earlier scholars (including both Calvinistic and Arminian portions); (ii) theological reflections from recent scholars; (iii) Analysis of the Biblical text? and (iv) a theological reflection of his own. All quotations are carefully bibliographed and there is a helpful theological mini dictionary at the end of the book as well as an index of all Biblical quotations. Cole’s writing is clear, concise and he is not afraid to challenge some of the ‘holy cows’ of both Calvinist and Arminian writers of the past. If you have never read a book about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian faith this is the place to start. It is clear, helpful, balanced and thoroughly researched. 5 stars.
Kenneth Clark: The Nude, h/b, London, The Folio Society, 1990.
Kenneth Clark, who died in 1983 was a doyen of commentators on art in the twentieth century alongside Ernst Gombrich and Nikolaus Pevsner. Clark was director of the National Art Gallery in London playing a key role in preserving and hiding works of art during the blitz. He was also Slade Professor of Art at Oxford for three years. His public reputation was based on his television presentations about art and art history including the substantial ten week program Civilization which also became a popular book, also published by Folio and elsewhere. Lampooned by the radical left and his own sybaritic politician son for his aristocratic lifestyle and classical approach to art, Clark remains nevertheless an acute and learned commentator on art, art history and culture.
The Nude in the Folio edition is a beautifully designed and illustrated study with an array of high quality pictorial presentations of works of art and a commentary that can be easily understood even by an artistic layman like myself. The coverage of Western art moves from Greek art from the C7th B.C. to the modern period finishing with sculptor Henry Moore. There is no attempt to address classical Egyptian, Iranian, Indian or East Asian art and no reference to the Southern hemisphere at all which is a pity given Clark’s significant personal influence on Russell Drysdale.
Clark’s analysis tiptoes around the line between beauty and reality in the artistic study of the human body as against deliberately erotic painting and sculpture. One does wonder what Clark would have said about Klimt’s work in this area! A key issue in the analysis is the impact of Christian thinking and culture on nudity in art which was profound at least until the end of the C17th. Clark’s treatment of artistic portrayals of the crucifixion was particularly enlightening. My one criticism of the book, a problem perhaps inevitable, is that many works of art are described but without visuals, which at times makes the argument difficult to follow without taking the time to follow up and find the works discussed on line. This edition includes an Introduction by Charles Saumarez Smith, very substantial detailed notes on many related issues, a list of works cited and a detailed index. I doubt there is yet a better study on “The Nude” in Art History to date. 5 stars and rising.
William Beckford: Vathek: An Arabian Tale, in Shorter Novels of the Eighteenth Century, (including Doctor Johnson: The History of Rasselas and Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto ), h/b, London & Toronto, E.P. Dent & Sons/Everyman’s Library, 1930.
William Beckford (1760-1844) was at one time reputed to be the wealthiest commoner in England, having inherited a sum to the current value of £125 million which included a cotton farm in America with 300 slaves. Beckford used his wealth to purchase a vast art and ceramics collection, travelling the world and spending much time in Europe, as well as building the vast Fonthill Manor and a Tower (only the Tower survives).
He wrote this novel in French being inspired by Horace Walpole’s Gothic The Castle of Otranto. Beckford’s novel is a mixture ofGothic horror and Arabian tales of powerful leaders, supernatural beings and happenings and a curious mix of the moral and the racy. The central character Vathek is a powerful caliph with the power of an evil eye to dominate his people and an even more powerful and evil wife. The character of Vathek is loosely based on al-Wathiq, an Abbasid caliph who reigned from 227-232 AH in the Islamic calendar. He had a vast thirst for knowledge, was a patron of scholars and artists and a strong leader.
In the short novel Vathek seeks more and more power and is quite ruthless with many of his attendants and advisors, murdering them at will. His desire was a tower to “reach up to heaven” and went that seemed impossible he began to travel. He survived some difficult situations with supernatural beings and eventually reached the caliphate of Fakreddin, a devout and a fair leader of his people. Vathek falls in love with Fakreddin’s exquisite daughter and she with him, forsaking her childhood sweetheart to whom she had been betrothed. Together they travel to seek the seat of all power overcoming all pbstacles until the come to the gates of Eblis the seat of ultimate evil, the Arabic equivalent of Hell where they doomed for eternity. The short novel ends with a paragraph endorsing the moral life and forsaking evil. The Everyman’s edition comes with very detailed notes of all the characters, legends and forces mentioned and sourced from ancient Arabian and Pre-Islamic sources including elements from The Arabian Nights.
There is food for thought in this mélange of images and dreams and I quite enjoyed reading it as a cautionary tale of foolish ambition and uncontrolled sensual desire for power and conquest. 4 stars
Alex Miller: The Passage of Love, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2017
I am totally hooked on Alex Miller and have just reread the autobiographical The Passage of Love after first reading it two years ago. Our book club is reading it again as background for Miller’s most recent book Max, which focuses on the true life narrative of Max Blatt, a Polish/Jewish refugee who came to Australia fleeing Nazism. In The Passage of Love, Max Blatt becomes Martin Bloch, who with his wife Birte befriend Miller and his then wife Lena and who encourage Miller with his studies and his desire to be a writer.
Reading Miller a second time, one has the luxury of following up references instead of hurrying on to find out “what happened”!. There is also time to savour the extraordinary quality of his prose which in my view, has made Miller the most important Australian novelist since Patrick White. Paragraphs such as Every one of us betrays something. Everyone who is compelled to search for meaning and purpose in his life is forced by circumstance to betray his finest hopes. We all founder in our struggle to find our way. Our way to our own truth. Success in the end is to survive these repeated failures. (p.358).
The novel is based around Miller’s relationship with four women: The note-taking woman in the women’s prison book club where he occasionally gave talks; Wendy, his Communist fellow cleaner at his second job after arriving broke in Melbourne (True love is a bucket of shit; sex is great; love stinks; get over it! Lena Soren, his demanding, intense and very needy first wife; and Ann, who became his lover in France after Lena had left him for the second time.
On the second reading I am stunned by the vast array of literary, artistic, and historical references which Miller quotes as he wrestles with the task of educating himself after leaving school and family early in England, working as a ringer in Outback Australia and then turning himself inside out by gaining a school certificate and engaging in a university Arts degree. The list is vast: Kazantzakis/ Brendan Behan/Henri de Monfried/John Berger/Georg Lukáks/Voltaire/J.H. Hayes/Hilary Mantel/Marguerite Yourcenar/Tolstoy/Francis Bacon/Thomas Mann/Goethe/Burns/Scott/The Glasgow Poets/Keats/Camus/Charlotte Bronte/Hemingway/Jeanne Mareau (French actress)/Max Beckman/Karl Liebknacht/George Eyre Todd/Giacometti/Aldous Huxley/Naipaul/Mailer/Pia Francesco Mola/Ferdinand Schevill/Machiavelli/Rilke/John Sell Cottman…just to name a few!
Miller finds ways to take us places in our mind we’ve never been before, eg His love for Lena was real, but he didn’t know if it was necessary. (p.222) and on the same page: Friendship was essential — the remains of the sacred in a broken world. Or consider the profoundly simple: facts were not enough for reality. (p.270). On writing autobiography: memory and imagination become indistinguishable (p.284)or: being careful of our possessions is being trapped by them…my parents risked nothing and lost their dreams. (p.385) Or try: And he understood in that moment that the passage of love was not to be known any more than was the passage of death. (p 183) …For Lena had described in her painting not the essence but the passage of love. (p.582)
As with all Miller’s writing this is a novel which extends the boundaries of your mind, makes you wish you were somewhere else (the Araluen Valley, Paris, probably not Canberra!) and lifts your vision of life’s potential to a higher plane. Once again 5 stars!
Review of A N Wilson: The Book of the People: How To Read the Bible,
p/b, London, Atlantic, 2015
A N Wilson has written over 45 books of biography, popular history and fiction and is an occasional newspaper columnist in Britain. He has been in and out of Christianity and when out wrote some withering assaults on the negative value of religion. His depressing account of God’s Funeral [London, Abacus 2009] is salutary reading for all Christians and his early books on Jesus and Paul are challenging assaults on the historicity of both. In this current book he seems to be embarrassed by both these last two earlier efforts especially his book on Jesus.
Nevertheless Wilson has never been able to shake off the Holy Spirit and he wrote significant biographies of Christian leaders including C S Lewis, Tolstoy, Dante and Milton amongst others. In recent years Wilson has returned to the Christian faith, in one of his accounts, due to the simple joy and commitment he found in the Easter parade of his local Anglican church!
One result of this new found commitment to the authenticity of the Gospel story and the reality of God is this cleverly titled book, The Book of the People, sub-titled “How to read the Bible”. In part the book is a retelling of the work of a lifelong university colleague and friend, he calls “L” , a university colleague he caught up with intermittently as she was writing a book about Christianity but who suffered a breakdown and never completed the task. This makes for a challenging style because we are never quite sure if is Wilson or “L” who is speaking.
In the bulk of the book Wilson writes demanding chapters on the Genesis narrative, the prophets, Job and the Psalms and focuses on the notion of “mythic truth” (my interpretation) rather than searching for a historical and literal foundation. Drawing on the insights of Erich Auerbach’s amazing Mimesis, the American poet Wallace Stevens, and the literary approach of Northrop Frye to the Old Testament, Wilson weaves a pattern of analysis which invites readers to look once again and with care to the meaning of the Old Testament text. Parts of these chapters will certainly offend those committed to a more literal understanding of the Old Testament narrative, nevertheless, as always, his interpretation has many spiritual lessons to teach us and will help many C21st sceptics and doubters to see the value of the Old Testament in a new and exciting way.
The final chapter on the New Testament is radically different from the rest of the book. Here, with some initial diffidence, as if he cannot believe he is writing it, Wilson writes a stunning analysis of the arguments for the historicity of the Gospel accounts, using insights from the poet George Herbert as well as Austin Farrer and Richard Bauckham in particular. In addition he interacts in detail with interpretations of the prints of William Blake. Wilson’sf insistence on the historicity of both the crucifixion and the resurrection is startlingly the reverse to his ahistorical approach to the Old Testament.
This is not a book to give to a young Christian but it might help a seeker who is widely read. I think the final chapter in particular will give pause to the prevailing dismissiveness of the Bible in the current Western press and intellectual leadership. Wilson has learned a deep truth about himself and about God and to write about it publicly must have been a great surprise to many. I gve this book four and a half stars.
A N WILSON biographer, historian,
Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, in Everyman’s Library: Shorter Novels: Eighteenth Century, h/b, London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1930 (1764)
Horace Walpole was an English man of letters and parliamentarian and the brother of William Walpole, regarded as Britain’s first ‘Prime Minister’. Horace Walpole also created the eccentric and fantasmagorical neo-Gothic house Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, West London, which still stands. The Castle of Otranto is indeed a Gothic tale, perhaps the first, with knights in shining armour and beautiful damsel’s seeking refuge from dastardly, lustful and powerful lords. Manfred, unlawful Prince of Otranto is the wily and scheming villain. Hippolita his doting, demure but foolish wife, and Mathilda his beautiful but doomed daughter. The poverty stricken Theodore, actually the true Prince of Otranto, is the hero who wins the heart of Mathilda but fails to overcome her evil grasping father. The story is filled with supernatural appearances, fearful human parts appearing on castle walls, awe-full groaning and other unearthly events It is a cross between the Knights of the Round Table and the adventures of Robin Hood. Thankfully the story is short! A popular novel of the mid C18th but not likely to have much of a re-run in the C21st. 2 stars.
Andrew O’Hagan: Mayflies, p/b, London, Faber, 2020
Glasgow born Andrew O’Hagan has won applause in Britain and the United States for his thoughtful, engaging and edgy writing. Mayflies is a book about male friendships in two parts. Part 1 is the story of a group of Scottish teenagers, close friends post-school/waiting for university/work and a riotous weekend in Manchester made up of friendship, anti-Thatcher anger, alcohol fuelled folly, the search for female ecstasy and rock’n’roll with The Smiths and Morrisey in full flight. This section is demanding for anyone not familiar with Scottish/British slang and humour, 80’s rock and young men freed from parents and living as if there was to be no tomorrow. The writing is very funny, always edgy and with a bit of the feel of Nick Hornby and High Fidelity on steroids. The two key figures are Tully Dawson and James the narrator, saved from a life of working class labour by his intellect and a gifted and caring English teacher Mrs O’Connor.
The second part is thirty years later and the both the boys are successful in their working lives and in steady relationships when Tully goes down with a terminal cancer illness and little likelihood of survival. This section is a powerful defence of the case for euthanasia, at that stage only available with difficulty from Switzerland. The language radically alters here but the friendship humour of the past frequently re-surfaces. The writing is sensitive, deep, emotionally demanding and quite compelling.
Whilst the two sections link together somewhat awkwardly at times the novel is a powerful ode to friendship and the big questions of life. The ending is unforgettable. 5 stars.
Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone, Edited, Introduction & Notes, John Sutherland, p/b, Oxford, OUP, 2008 (1868).
The Moonstone was first published in serialized form by Collins’ friend and mentor Charles Dickens who later came to dislike the novel for some of its themes and even possibly out of jealousy with Collins creating a large following from interest in the serial and its outcome. The story is a “whodunnit” on a massive scale with many complex themes interwoven into the narrative and characters. The basic story line is that of the life of a celebrated diamond, found in India and stolen by the British military officer and taken to England and the narrative follows the mysterious “career” of the diamond through several owners.
Although the “Moonstone” is a fictional gem there are similarities with the faboulou Koh-i-nor diamond which was stolen from India during the British Raj and eventually given to Queen Victoria and now resides in the Royal Collection in London despite India’s pleas for its return. The Koh-i-nor is the world’s largest and most expensive diamond, uninsurable for that reason. It has now been cut and set in the British royal crown.
Of course, The Moonstone is far more than a whodunnit. There are major themes running throughout the narrative including the controversial opium trade and the use of opium in Britain, the idea of mesmerising, parapsychology and mind control, and indeed the whole nature of sensationalising crime and lurid criminal stories that came with the expansion of a national press which occurred in Britain in the second half of the C19th.
There are some memorable characters in the novel including the faithful retainer Beveridge with his extreme commitment to the wisdom of Robinson Crusoe, the lovelorn but doomed Rosetta Spears and her fascination with quicksand, the outrageously diligent and indestructible Bible tract pusher Clack, the famous detective and rose grower Sergeant Cuff, the everbusy lawyer Mr Bruff and his unforgettable lad Gooseberry, the odious charlatan welldoer Godfrey Ablewhite and the mysterious medical man and opium addict Ezra Jennings. Many of these characters become narrators in various parts of the narrative so the reader is left to put together the events of the crime. This methodology can become tedious at times but by and large the reader is held entranced and keen to read on in spite of the substantial length of the novel, some 466 pages in this paperback edition. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel even with its lengthy serialised style and host of different narrators. 5 stars.
Robert Alter: The Art of Biblical Narrative,p/b, USA, Harper/Basic Books, 1981
Robert Alter has been for many years the Professor of Hebrew at the University of California at Berkeley and has recently published a completely new English translation of the Hebrew Bible in three volumes, as well as publishing studies in modern Hebrew and Western literature. The Art of Biblical Narrative created a revolution in Biblical studies on publication, with its appeal to readers to read the text as it has come down to us. The alternative rather of research into the excavation of other ancient Neat Eastern archaeological finds and texts and language links or the chasing down of the various documentary sources which were at some time in the formed the basis of the Hebrew text we now have. The nature of those documentary sources and excavators insights are of course legitimate studies in their own right but so is the interpretation of the text as we have it. This is the real strength of Alter’s approach.
Alter adopts a strong literary, rather than hermeneutical approach to the Biblical text and uses his deep knowledge of the Hebrew text and translation to demonstrate links between sections of the narrative that previous source criticism might have separated, for example the intrusion of the story of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38 which appears abruptly in the middle of the Joseph narrative. One reason such a literary approach is unusual is because of the unique regard the Biblical text is held in both Jewish and Christian religious traditions as the unitary source of divinely revealed truth. Alter solves this problem by suggesting that the Biblical text can be most profitably regarded as “historicized fiction” or “prose fiction”. Whilst these terms may scandalise the devout believer in the inspiration of the Bible Alter points out that “history” writing itself has in common with fiction a series of imaginative constructs which the historian must create as accurately as possible, given that no historian was ever actually present when the events they record actually occurred. Alter owns a debt to Erich Auerbach’s towering literature survey Mimesis as one of the first critics to show that the cryptic conciseness of biblical narrative is a reflection of profound art not primitiveness, [p.17].
Alter pays particular attention to thought represented as quoted monologue [p.68]. For example in the David stories God makes himself known through oracles and prophets such as Nathan. In fact Alter can say that spoken language is the substratum of everything human and divine that transpires in the Bible. [p.70] God called the world into being with words, [p.70] and later, language translates itself into history. [p.112]. There is a tension between narration and dialogue. Alter calls it the inescapable tension between human freedom and a divine historical plan, [p113] and again…every person is created by an all-seeing God but abandoned to his own unfathomable freedom. [p115]. There is indeed a tension between election and moral character seen particularly in the David stories. [p.117]. Alter challenges us to look to the literary techniques of narration, dialogue, repetition, the art of reticence, composite artistry and the intersection of incompatibles, helping us to see a high theological purpose in the Biblical authors.
One startling and unexpected impact of Alter’s work is his frequent comparisons of Biblical literature with many other literary approaches including Balzac, Proust, Grass, James, Woolf, Mann, Flaubert, Fielding, Trevelyan, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Joyce, Stein, Boccaccio, Kafka, Cervantes, Ford Madox Ford, Homer, Diderot, Dickens, Film montage, Marvel, Rabelais, Sterne, Eliot, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Buber, Rosenzweig, Post-Cubist painting, and Rabbinic sources. No doubt I missed some!
I very much regret that it has taken me forty years to read this book. I often wondered what the fuss was about. Now I know that my reading of Biblical literature will never be the same…the Hebrew text has been opened up to me in very new ways. 5 stars.
Eds. Goddio, Franck and Masson-Berghoff, Aurélia: Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, The British Museum BP Exhibition, London, Thames & Hudson/British Museum, 2016.
Franck Goddio is President of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology [IEASM] and this amazing book of the exhibition at the British Museum is a startling photographic record or a reclaimed underwater city brought to the surface over the past twenty years and now held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and in several museums in Alexandria.
Many things are amazing here. First is the finding of the ancient cities of Thonis/Heracleion, Naukratis and Canopus, originally located at the north-western edge of the Nile Delta as it meets the Mediterranean and built during the first millennium B.C. At some point in the C2nd B.C. this land of lakes and islands suffered some sort of catastrophic event (earthquake or tidal wave) which combined with rising sea levels and liquefaction caused by the weight of the massive temples and buildings established over the area, resulted in the submergence of the majority of the land into the waters of Abukir Bay. A much smaller community including some Byzantine Christian buildings remained on the central island until the C8th A.D. A civilisation was buried here including massive temple structures, statues of gods and men, over seventy ships, sphinxes, works of art and everyday utensils and furniture of daily life. Over the centuries all of this was covered by tons of layers of sand, and mud hardened to rock. Although these cities were vaguely known to exist through literary references including Herodotus, very little was actually known of their reality.
The second amazing thing was the sheer complexity and sophistication of the underwater archaeological work carried out by the ISEAM team. After the initial discoveries, massive amounts of heavy duty mud, rock and slime had to be carefully removed before the painstaking work of preparing each find for bringing to the surface. This book’s extraordinary photography shows the herculean task of removing the overlay in action and also the encrusted state of the original objects which look at first just like jagged rocks but after cleaning and care turn into the most amazing statues, faces, precious jewellery and massive objects like the sphinxes. A strength of the book is the impressive underwater coloured photography showing the original state of the objects, as well as the ingenious methods of getting the massive structures to the surface and then the supremely beautiful finished products now on display in museums.
The third amazing thing for me was the exceptional interaction between the Greek and Egyptian civilisations in the C1st millennium B.C. Thonis/Heraklion is one city, not two as always thought. Heraklion is the Greek name. Temples were built in honour of the gods of both societies and there was a remarkable interaction of trade, religious beliefs, art and science. The Greek Ptolemaic rulers who followed Alexander the Great’s welcome in Egypt were far more accepted in Egypt than their former Persian overlords. This unique commixture of cultures lasted for centuries before buckling under Roman control.
As one would expect from a British Museum publication, the attention to detail in this 272 page book of the exhibition is massive and requires staying power. it is a cultural adventure well worth taking and a tribute to the ingenuity of bygone civilisations as well as C21st technological brilliance and artistic skills of display. 5 stars.