BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2021

Brigitte HIntzen-Bohlen & Jürgen Sorges, Rome and the Vatican City: Art and Architecture, Trans. Peter Barton, Anthea Bell and Eileen Martin, h/b, Cologne, Könemann, 2005 

Exceptional presentation of the art and architecture of Rome from its earliest foundation to the present day. Outstanding analysis of the earliest architectural remains and beautifully illustrated presentation of every major building and interior masterpieces. There are about 1000 churches in Rome and obviously not all can be covered. The major churches are here with detailed photography and excellent analysis of their history. Jürgen Sorges’ helpful historical essays include brief histories of the Roman emperors and kings, gladiatorial combat and the persecution of Christians, the mythical origins of Rome,  Ancient wall coverings and murals, the Gods of the Roman pantheon, the legacy of Rome , the sack of Rome in 1527, the influence of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Rome in the second millenium AD, the life and art of Caravaggio, the studios of the  Roman copyists, The Renaissance and the rebuilding of Rome, Mosaics,  the megalomania of the Roman emperors, the cult of Mithras, women in ancient Rome, Chariot racing in the Circus Maximus, the art of the Cosmati, the Bath culture of ancient Rome, early Christianity, the first antique collections of Rome, the Vatican State, the Swiss Guard, the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican gardens.   There are excepional appendices with detailed analysis of Roman architecture:Classical to Baroque, a masterful chronology of events/figures/buildings/art,  a helpful glossary of terms and details of the major figures of Rome’s colourful history. All of this is wrapped in the outstanding full colour quality of this fabulous Könemann series. The eternal city is a most complex place. This is the book to unravel it.  5 stars and rising.

Gillian Mears: Foal’s Bread, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2012

Gillian Mears

Gillian Mears landed a powerful and deeply moving novel of pre world war 2  rural Australian life in outback northern New South Wales, some sixteen years after her previous run of six well regarded and prize winning novels. I have read only one of her novels previously, The Mint Lawn, which was disturbing in its turn. I was  thoroughly captivated by this three generation story based around a sport I was completely unaware of …horse high jumping. This bizarre and dangerous sport that was popular in the Northern New South Wales/Southern Queensland region is brought to life in vivid and stimulating fashion in Mears’ emotionally charged writing.  The mysterious “foal’s bread” of the title appears to be a small separate piece of tissue which comes in the afterbirth of some foals and is highly regarded as an omen of good luck.

In a scene unfortunately too common in remote farming communities and families from my experience as a rural school principal, the startling commencement of the novel begins with a rush.   A young teenager gives birth after childhood incestual assault from ‘Uncle Nipper,  and bravely “boxing up” the child in a butter box, sets the baby free, Moses like, in a flowing creek, never to be seen alive again. This event sets the scene for a constant sense of threat throughout the novel. 

The young girl with the unlikely name of Noah is the strong-willed and powerful lead player amongst a cast of memorable country figures, not least of which is her eventual daughter Rainey. Their entwined lives, both triumphant and traumatic carry the weight of a novel which refuses to let the reader go, each passage forcing the reader anxiously on to the dénouement. The novel also bears witness to the cruel power of polio disease prior to the development of the oral polio vaccine. 

Images emerging from this novel will stay with me for some time I am sure. The evocation of the constant pressure of farming life, drought, flood, country town celebration and the silent Australian bush are all beautifully drawn my Mears.  A worthy prize winner in 2012.  5 stars.

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time: Volume 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, Trans. & Intro: John  Sturrock, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (1921-2) 

MARCEL PROUST
In Search of Lost Time

Volume 4 of French author Marcel Proust’s seven volume In Search of Lost Time, finds the narrator coming to terms for the first time and with some surprise, with homosexuality. Part 1 of Volume 4 is summarized as “First appearance of the men-women, descendants of those inhabitants of Sodom who were spared by the fire from heaven.”  The Narrator is amazed to find that M. de Charlus,  the busy, arrogant, learned, well married, committed Christian, well born member of the Guermantes family was also overwhelmingly consumed by his love for attractive young men whom he pursues in this volume with unflagging energy. His partners include the doorman of the Guermantes household, Jupien but his main love interest is the violinist military man Morel who is happy to maintain the relationship on financial grounds while being dishonestly unfathful in his relationships.

Alongside this relationship narrative with some very humorous interludes, the Narrator travels once more for the summer to the tranquil fictional  beach resort of Balbec where he restablishes in a serious manner his relationship with the mysterious Albertine and in whose company the majority of the narrative is maintained in this volume.  Together they negotiate their, at times, shaky relationship and at the same time join in the Balbec version of ‘society’ which in this rural environment consists of a regular luncheon party headed  by Madame Verdurin, a salon which in Paris was well beneath the narrator’s class but in Balbec was satisfactory. The Verdurins had hired a property from the truly aristocratic Cambremers who had two dwellings in Balbec. Much of the humour of this volume comes from the tension between these two families and those who are enticed to dine in either of the homes. Key figures who emerge here are Dr Cottard with his arrogant medical authority, the violinist Morel, the Narrator’s friend Saint Loupe, and the indefatigable Brichot who is a walking encyclopedia of the derivation of every village, town and settlement in the whole of Europe. 

The very short final chapter 4 commences with the Narrator’s detemination to end his relationship with Albertine and ends with his declaration that “I absolutely must marry Albertine.’ (Much to the reader’s surprise.).

This edtion is part of the six volume collection published by Penguin in 2002 which contains an outstanding and invaluable set of detailed explanatory notes and a very helpful translator’s introduction.  I found this volume easier to read than the interminably trivial salon discussions of Volume 3.   4 stars. 

BOOKS READ AUGUST 2021

BOOKS READ AUGUST 2021

Graham A Cole: He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, h/b, Wheaton, Crossway Books, 2007  

GRAHAM COLE He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

Graham Cole’s impressive book about the Holy Spirit is part of the American Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series.  Although Cole writes from an evangelical perspective he gives a generous account of writers coming from  Roman Catholic, liberal and even Islamic perspectives. This is not a book for beginners in theology. The language is sophisticated, Latin phrases are not always transliterated, the concepts are at times quite difficult, and Cole’s background in philosophy as well as theology means that his explanations of concepts and ideas use philosophical terminology (although usually with explanatory footnotes).

A reader used to reading theology will still find this work challenging and surprising. Long held ideas may well be shown to need further work. Cole is generous with his opponents and gives them a very fair hearing, but then goes on to show why he disagrees. A form of words that he uses more than once about various confident assertions of theologians and writers about the Holy Spirit is “How does [author’s name] know this? This all takes time and effort on the part of the reader and the footnotes are copious and detailed. 

After a demanding introduction Cole deals with:

  • the elusiveness of the Spirit … The Spirit and the Triune God including detailed discussion about the Filoque clause and interpretative ideas from Basil of Caesarea, Augustine and Richard of St Victor. (the Filioque clause from the Nicene Creed is that The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Orthodox Christianity believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only.) Cole suggests it should read: The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son!
  • Old Testament perspectives on the Ministry of the Spirit
  • The Spirit and Israel
  • The Spirit and the hope of Israel  (note: this makes 3 significant chapters on Old Testament material!)
  • New Testament perspectives on the Ministry of the Spirit
  • The Spirit, The Church, and the Hope of Glory
  • The Spirit and ideas about the ‘Deification’ of the Spirit
  • Implications for Christian belief and practice including “What is Jesus doing now?” and “The Individual believer and the Fullness of the Spirit”
  • Are all of the Gifts of the Spirit for Today?
  • Speaking in Tongues
  • The Spirit and Knowing God   and 
  • Discerning the Spirit: Implications for Belief and Practice.
  •   “The Magnificence of Divine Selflessness”  (which is a summary and pulling together of the whole book.)

The book comes with a very helpful theological glossary; Suggestions for further reading; and Scripture and General indexes.

Some ideas that impressed or challenged me:

p.23   There is no higher pursuit than the worship of God

p.24  A high view of Scripture requires a respectful hermeneutic

p.24  Scripture is to interpret Scripture, Scripture is not to be interpreted against Scripture, and the plain Scripture is to interpret the obscure Scripture.

p24 fn3 …At times, however, the conservative Christian appears to read the daily newspaper with more sophistication than the Scriptures.

p.25  It is not our heart that determines our course, but God’s Word. [Bonhoeffer] 

p.33 Systematic theology requires (i) The narrative of Scripture must be given its due weight, and (ii) both the writer will need to write and the reader will need to read intentionally coram Deo (before God).

p.33  “If you are a theologian, you truly pray. if you truly pray, you are a theologian.”  (Evagrius Pontus).

p.33 “Christian theology begins, continues and ends with the inexhaustible mystery of God,” (Daniel L. Migliore).

p.33 “Any sound theology of the Holy Spirit..will be left with a certain remainder, a surplus unaccounted for, an area of mystery.”  (Richard B. Gaffin).

p.36 Theology must not be left unapplied.

p.41.  An evangelical —albeit controversially so—theologian. (re Clark H. Pinnock).

p. 44 The gracious  and merciful God is also the judge of his people.

p.45 God is to be believed and obeyed.  Moses is not Plato with a Hebrew voice.

p.45 “Theology states this [the greatness of God] by describing him as incomprehensible—not in the sense that logic is somehow different from what it is for us, so that we cannot follow the working of his mind at all, but in the sense that we can never understand him fully, just because he is infinite and we are finite. [J I Packer].

p.45  Upholding the mystery of God or the incomprehensibility of God should keep idolatry at bay….Calvin: “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of gods.” (Institutes)

p.46 The God of biblical depiction is untameable. There is no one like him.

p. 49  Barth argued that “The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from humanity.” Only God can make God known, and he does so in Jesus Christ.

p.50 God cannot be domesticated  and there are limits to our conceptualizing God.

p.50 “The Trinity can be stated in paradoxical and symbolic language, but it cannot be resolved into a rational system.” Donald Bloesch

p51  “Divine revelation does not completely erase God’s transcendant mystery, inasmuch as God the revealer transcends his own revelation. Carl F. H. Henry.

p52  Believing that God is mysterious in the sense of incomprehensible has a number of practical corollaries. At the attitudinal level, humility is the appropriate virtue. 

p.60 Immanuel Kant has nothing good to say about the concept of the Trinity. Writing at the height of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, he argued: “The doctrine of the Trinity, taking literally, has no practical relevance at all, even if we think we understand it; and it is even more clearly irrelevant if we realise it transcends all our concepts. “

p.61 “….it is the doctrine of the Trinity that makes the doctrine of God actually Christian. “  (Brevard Childs)

p.62 What a culture teaches its young is the true index of what it values.

p.64 Re the trinity: …the definition of a Biblical doctrine in such un-Biblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture. [B. B. Warfield].

p. 75 Love may characterize a pair as in a marriage of a man and a woman, but the fullest love requires a third. The perfection of love requires sharing with a third. Richard of St Victor.

p.79  Count Zinzendorf: ..understood the Trinity in familial categories: the Father as “our true Father,” the Spirit as “our true Mother,” and the Son as “our true Brother.”

 p.81 fn81 “There are undoubtedly mysteries about him which none of us understands. But we must recognize that this doesn’t mean we know nothing about him whatever or that none of our claims, whether literal or figurative, are true. [Feinberg]

p.105  In the Old Testament references to the Spirit, are these texts about the Holy Spirit per se or about God the Spirit in action?

p109. In relation to the Old Testament: there is a “necessity of a multi-level reading of Scripture” (Childs)….we need a willingness to work with both historical exegesis and Christian theological interpretation. 

p.111 There is no Biblical warrant for Calvin’s idea of common grace.

p113 Re translating “Ruach” as ‘wind/breath’ or ‘Spirit’ there is a need for modesty about our claims.

p.152. Re C1st Judaism. The problem is that C1st Judaism was such a variegated phenomenon. Rabbinic Judaism …was only one of the kinds of Judaism present at the time.

p.162 What is evident is that Jesus’ public ministry, whether as preacher, healer, or exorcist, is not to be understood without reference to the Spirit of God. 

p.163 There are no references to the Holy Spirit in any of the accounts of the Transfiguration.   5 stars

Janet Morley: The Heart’s Time: A Poem a day for Lent and Easter, p/b, London, SPCK, 2011  

Janet Morley
The Heart’s Time

Janet Morley is a freelance writer, speaker and workshop leader and has put together this excellent selection of poems about a range of themes surrounding Christian faith. While it is designed around the weeks leading to Easter the poems and commentary can be read with profit at any time of the year. Ann and I have just finished using this collection for our daily morning devotion together and have found it to be a  stimulating, thoughtful and helpful start to each day.

The poems range widely in terms of authorship with classic works by George Herbert, Augustine, Christina Rossetti, Milton and William Blake mixed up with Emily Dickinson, R. S. Thomas, Margaret Atwood, E. E. Cummings, Rowan Williams, Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney to name just a few. Not all the writers are “Bible believing Christians” but every poem throws out a genuine spiritual challenge and rich food for thought, especially when teased out by a skilled commentator. 

Morley has also included a significant number of lesser known poets and these works encourage the reader to explore some less familiar spiritual challenges.   Each poem comes with thoughtful commentary and analysis, not too technical but always helpful and there is a single question at the end of each day to ponder and think or write about. Each week has a different theme and these are: turning aside to the miracle; expressing our longings; struggle; being where we are; facing suffering and death; altered perspectives; holy week; and resurrection.

Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea and if you’re not generally a reader of poetry can I suggest this book is an excellent way to begin and be surprised. If you have lived with poetry all your life these presentations will remind you of treasures you haven’t read for a while as well as opening up challenging devotional thoughts from a new perspective.

In her introduction Morley reminds us that Poetry makes us slow down, (p. ix) and she quotes Nicholas Albery: 

To know a poem

by heart

is to slow down

to the heart’s time.’

If you find and read this book I am sure you will find an antidote to the irritation and loneliness of lockdown. I warmly commend it. 

Chinua Achebe: No Longer At Ease; African Writers Series;  Illustrated, Bruce  Onobrakpeya, p/b, London, Heinemann, 1967 (1960)  

Chinua Achebe
No Longer At Ease

A powerful and deeply moving novel of a young Nigerian student, Obi Okonkwo, who gains an academic  scholarship to study in England, obtaining a first class honours degree in English Literature and then returns to NIgeria as a Government public servant, on a good salary. Obi’s family are deeply Christian and his scholarship to England was provided by the village of Umuofia who had formed a union with the aim of collecting money to send their brightest and best to study in England. 

Obi of course returns to his village of a changed man, with a sophisticated love of English Literature, a strong sense of his own status and entitlement, and little desire to follow the dreams and vision of the Umuofia Union or his strict Christian parents especially in the area of whom he should marry. Obi readily obtains a job with a reasonable salary but he has repayments to make to the Union and there are financial expectations from his family and friends as well as some hefty Government taxes. With little experience in having anything like a regular salary Obi spends his money at a pace that far outweighs his means and inevitable trouble ensues. In addition he is attracted to a girl from a tribe ostracized by his Umuofia family. 

In emerging cultures engaging in an attempt to participate in the seemingly endless wealth of the first world there is a desire to assist one’s friends and family and to demonstrate with material things that one has “arrived” and has succeeded. It is not so much greed as it is a sense of obligations. The short answer of course is that the globe has never been able to afford the extremities of first world greed and neither can its newest rivals like China sustain unlimited growth and power. Achebe does not write about Obi to condemn him but to demonstrate that this young graduate, unprepared for the cultural “Western” explosion occurring in Africa in the mid-C20th and lost between his family’s Christian values and his own search for love, simply loses his way. 

Achebe writes with unerring clarity and tension as Obi’s life, love and family begin to unravel. He sees it happening but seems powerless to stem the tide of moral, family and job pressures in a rapidly changing Nigerian society bravely celebrating its  independence from colonial rule. Chinua Achebe, who died 2013 aged 82 is widely regarded at Nigeria’s finest writer and his success lead to an avalanche of African authors creating a new literary tradition.  Achebe was a major critic of the way European writers have written about and misunderstood African life and reality. He took particular aim at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and his case was well supported by Palestinian author and polymath Edward W. Said amongst many others. Whatever one’s view of Conrad, after reading Achebe, you can never see Heart of Darkness in quite the same way as before. 

No Longer At Ease is a thought provoking and emotionally demanding read and for Australian readers, inevitably invokes thoughts of Aboriginal writers and artists making their way in a highly Westernised society but one which is becoming increasingly multi-cultural and open to a broad range of world views.  5 stars.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, p/b, London, Pan, 1983 (1979)  

Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Radical atheist, sometime member of Monty Python, author, playwright, Dr Who script editor and producer, bodyguard, chicken shed cleaner, an Apple Master computer buff, an environmental activist and stage revue director amongst several other jobs. He was six foot five, married with one child and died at just 49 years of age after a heart attack.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the first of a five book “trilogy” of life in the Galactic world.

I have read very little science fiction but I have always been attracted by the notion of the meaning of life being 42! I enjoyed reading this fast moving comic/sad story which seems to see the various planets of the universe as sharing many of the problems known to us on planet Earth. 

The result is a fast-moving, spit second life changing romp through space with the unlikely otherwise unremarkable Arthur Dent from Earth whisked away from our planet as a hitch-hiker on a spaceship just seconds before the destruction of our troubled world by Vogons building a new galactic superhighway. With fellow earthsider Trillian, and Galactic explorers Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beelblebrox plus the depressed robot Marvin, they find their way after many near misses to the mythical foundation planet of the universe named Magrathea, ruled by two busy mice. With this introduction, I am sure you can’t wait to read the story! The truth is that Adams has a brilliantly amusing turn of phrase, the book is quite short and it is surprisingly hard to put down. 5 stars. 

Richard Prideaux. 

Books Read July 2021

John Stott: The Cross of Christ, with Study Guide, 20th Anniversary Edition, h/b, Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, 2011 (1986); 460 pages.  

John Stott was, for much of his ministry, Assistant Priest, then Rector and Rector Emeritus of All Souls Langham Place in London from 1945 to 1974. His international reputation developed from his founding of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and his Chairmanship of the National Evangelical Anglican Congress. He was a principal author of the 1974 Lausane Covenant. Stott’s little paperback Basic Christianity is still widely read and had significant influence. 

John Stott was a unifying force for evangelicalism and Christianity around the world through his own ministry of evangelism, public speaking and strategic planning for Gospel based ministry. In the Western world perhaps no Christian leader other than Billy Graham and Pope John Paul 11 has made a greater impact on the Christian lives of individuals than John Stott.

The Cross of Christ was Stott’s major contribution to Christian theology, written at the peak of his career. The book is not an easy read in spite of its conversational style. Whilst most Christians could write a short sentence on the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion, any further and deeper explanation of the Christ’s deliberate intention to go to Jerusalem and die and what that means for Christians living today would have few enthusiastic takers. 

Stott leaves no stone unturned as he works steadily, clearly and thoughtfully through the centrality of the Cross for Christian faith; the reason for Christ’s death at a young age; the gravity of Christian sin and the problem of forgiveness; the notion of satisfaction for sin; the self-substitution of God; the meaning of salvation; Christ’s role in the revelation of God; the question of evil and its conquest; and the importance of the Cross in living as a Christian in the C21st.

Stott gives no quarter to those who would seek a comfortable and self-satisfied Christian life. He writes: There can be no Christianity without the Cross,  (p.81) and strikingly: Jesus could not save himself AND Christians!  (p92)  Indeed on p. 333 he writes directly against “comfortable Christians”! Indeed Stott suggests that it is not possible to be faithful and popular! (p401)

In relation to suffering Stott prefers “creative suffering” to “redemptive suffering” on the grounds that there can only be one Redeemer.  He writes, channelling Paul Tournier: Suffering is not the cause of growth but it is its occasion…while suffering may not be creative in itself, we are scarcely ever creative without suffering. (p.369).

Stott comments on our sense of shame in before the Cross (p98) as well as the difficult to handle fact that God’s love is a holy love (p.105) —an idea that is not very popular in C21st theology! Stott notes that human pride can’t handle God taking the rap for us (p.191)..an idea expressed in the late Christopher Hitchins’ comment that the idea of God sending his Son to die for us is a horrific example of cosmic child abuse. Stott prefers Forsyth’s notion that The atonement did not procure grace, it flowed from grace. (p203)

Stott has read widely in the Church Fathers and in modern theology both liberal and evangelical. He is not afraid of controversy and he deals fairly and in detail with those who disagree with him. The book comes with a detailed bibliography, a very helpful study guide for small groups, and a useful biblical reference list. This is a book which answers the call, “know what you believe!” I warmly recommend it.

Gabriele Bartz & Eberhard König: The Louvre: Art & Architecture, Trans. Mo Croasdale, Richard Elliott, Sandra Harper and Judith Phillips, h/b, Cologne, Könemann, 2001

Living up to the exceptionally high publishing standards of this Könemann art and architecture series, art historians Bartz and König have produced a wonderfully compact, readable and exciting visual treat. The Louvre, which began its life as a fortified tower and became an ever expanding magnificent palace was opened as a museum in 1793 by Louis XV1. It’s extraordinary collection of paintings, (especially French, Old Dutch, Old German, Flemish and Dutch Baroque & Islamic ), sculpture, decorative arts, and oriental antiquities especially Oriental, Egyptian, Greek, and Etruscan is unmatched in the world, except perhaps London. 

Of course there are the renowned classics such as the Venus de Milo, the Nike of Samothrace, the Mona Lisa, David’s The Oath of the Horatii and Rubens’ Medici Cycle, but there is a seemingly endless array of galleries with palatial surroundings highlighting the quality and excitement of thousands of years of artistic endeavour.  

Many paintings and exhibits are illustrated with exceptional clarity and helpful comments and there are particularly illuminating illustrated essays on the historical development of the building, the impact of various revolutions, Napoleon’s theft of many European treasures, some of which but not all, were returned, the work of professional art thieves, and countless other stories of the life of the Louvre.  The text includes detailed biographies of the artists, explanations of the art work illustrated, historical analysis of the antiquities section, useful maps of the complex layout of the museum, a useful guide to artistic techniques, a very helpful illustrated time chart, a useful list of other works about the Louvre and a detailed index. 

The unique skill of the publishers of this series is that the presentation and explanation is not overwhelming. There is enough to excite and puzzle over but even a novice reader can get a sense of an overview of one of the world’s outstanding treasures.  Although I have visited the Louvre I now see that it would take at least ten visits to get a sense of the size and stretch of this magnificent palace and museum. It would be worth the effort!  5 stars.

Peter Carey: True Story of the Kelly Gang, h/b, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 2001  

Peter Carey

I have attempted to read several of Peter Carey’s books over the years but never managed to finish one until I read this book which is entrancing and for which Carey won the 2001 Commonwealth Writer’s Award and six other significant literary awards.

Of course Ned Kelly is an Australian icon, with his Irish Catholic background, his hatred of the “squattocracy” (the wealthy aristocracy), and the local police.  His outrageously bold exploits of stock stealing, the bank robberies at Euroa and Jerilderie, the murder of police, not to mention his last stand at Glenrowan have become Australian legends. After his trial for murder in Melbourne, four thousand people signed appeals for his life to be spared.  His armoured helmet is regularly on show in Melbourne and some famous films have been made of his life.

Whilst criticism is often made of Carey’s departure from “the true story” of Ned Kelly, the most that can be found against him does not amount to much. The manufactured  love affair with Mary Hearn which produced a daughter to whom he writes his “true story” has no factual basis. Neither  do  the references to some of his “gang” members as “Sons of Sieve” and practitioners of rebellion and transvestism known in C18th and C19th Ireland seem to have any basis in fact. These two elements aside, Carey has of course made up the conversations between Ned, his family members, the police and his “gang” but the narrative does not seem to stray  very widely from the known facts. 

What we are left with is a quite gruelling account of the hardships of impoverished early “selectors” in rugged north-eastern Victorian hill country, trying to scrounge a living by clearing trees and farming and coping with wealthy land owners and their land grants as well as pressure from the emerging “society” of the towns and from the not always trustworthy police. 

The reader is quickly drawn into this yarn with its swear words either bracketed with a straight line and only first and last letters or in some cases replaced by the endearing “adjectival”. Harry Power, the bushranger was the real deal, his mother’s imprisonment accurate and the account of his arrest and hanging simply and truthfully told without sentimentalism.

My  own grandfather, whom I never met, was born into a very humble wooden “shack/cottage in Katandra West and struggled to make a living as a farmer in dry and difficult conditions. A street sign called “Prideaux Street” is the only remnant of his home today.

When I was first married my wife and I lived in a small, rather damp cottage on the Broken River which at times flooded to our doorstep in North-Eastern Victoria in Kelly country.  Each day after teaching I had to cut wood for heating in very cold and wet winters and we were quite a long way from civilisation. We had one rather surly farmer and his wife as our only human contact and no telephone or internet of course. When our first child was born we were a long way from medical help and left to our own devices. Of course I had a steady job but in those days teachers were not well paid and we made shift. Nevertheless our creature comforts were a hundred times better than those faced by the impoverished Kelly family

I am sure there are more historically careful accounts of Ned Kelly’s exploits but I doubt if any of them have the vigour, intensity, and emotionally charged atmosphere of Carey’s The True Story of the Kelly Gang.  I could not put this book down.  5 stars and rising.

Roy M Prideaux:  Prideaux: A Westcountry Clan, h/b, Chichester, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, 1989

I am no fan of genealogical studies in general, although I have enormous respect for the effort and skill which goes towards the task of understanding our ancestry. My good friend Geoff Leunig has spent a significant part of his busy life exploring the origins of his surname Leunig, of European origin and has made contact with family members far and wide overseas.

Roy Prideaux, the author of Prideaux A Westcountry Clan work was born in Plymouth UK, and was a graduate in philosophy, economics and politics from Keble College in Oxford University. He had been a University College principal, a school inspector, travelled widely including a job as Principal of the Malawi Polytechnic and helped to establish a university in Malawi. In his retirement he  served on the Commission for Racial Equality and  devoted himself for ten years to mental health, community education and counselling as well as becoming a student of population studies and demography. 

This work, a labour of ten years, is an extraordinary account of the male line of the Prideaux clan which can be traced back with reasonable accuracy to John,  2nd son of Sir Roger Pridias of Orcharton, who married Joan, daughter and coheir of Gilbert Adeston who died leaving their son Giles Prideaux as their heir. Roy Prideaux argues that the 2000 or so Prideauxs which he has traced living in England by the end of the C18th can be traced back to the marriage of John Prideaux and Joan Adeston in a deed dated to 1373.  Prior to Sir Roger Pridias the name can be further traced back to Paganus de Prideaux vel Pridias, Lord of Prideaux in Luxullion near Fowey co. Cornwall before the Conquest living in Prideaux Castle, whose son died in 1122.  The name is Celtish/Norman. Obviously since the end of the C18th there has been an explosion of Prideauxs living in the UK, but also many in America, Barbados,  New Zealand, South Africa and Australia to name a few. 

The author traces his own “tribe” from Plymouth, followed by Adeston/Dartmouth/Theuborough; Bodmin/Padstow/Theuborough/Soldon under the Tudors; Plymouth/Holbeton/Luson; The thirty Stuart families/Puritan and Royalists/The Protectorate, Sects and Parties/John of Cubert and the Prideauxs of Camborne/Illogan/ St.Allen/Rutland/the Isles of Scilly and the USA; Richard of St. Issey and the Prideauxs of St. Clether/Camelford/Callington/Altarnum/Landulph/Torpoint and South east Cornwall/The Prideauxs of Barnstaple/Barbados/Dulverton/Bristol/Lydney; Dispersal in the South Hams/The Quakers and the Luson Pedigree/Ermington/Dartmouth/KIngsbridge/Totnes/Teignmouth/Bristol/Plymouth and London; and the Prideauxs of East Devon-Neverton Hall and Prideaux Place/London/the North and the clan dispersed. This is an absolutely monumental task with twenty pedigrees clearly laid out. 

What stops this book from being a catalogue of names and towns is that Roy Prideaux, the author has an insatiable appetite for a good story and an excellent knowledge of English history.  Thus the book catalogues a thousand years of history in Cornwall and Devon and the author has tried very hard to establish the role played in that history by various Prideaux families. Thus there are tales of the Black Death, marauding pirates from Normandy,  the founding of St Michael’s Mount, information from the Domesday Book, Saxon and Norman encounters, Henry 1, John 1,  the Magna Carta, Henry 111, Edward 1, socage, The Wars of the Roses, John of Gaunt, Richard 11, Wycliffe and the Lollards, the Crusades, Chaucer, the tin mining industry, piracy on the seas, sheep and wool, the gradual decline of the Prideauxs from knightly status to “gent” to commoner, Henry V, Henry V1, Henry VIII, The break up of the Monasteries, Richard Edgecumbe, Thomas Cromwell, William 1,The Reformation, militant Protestantism, Bloody Mary, Elizabeth 1, Roger Bacon, Thomas A’Beckett, Cromwell and the Puritans, Lutherans and Papists, Coverdale’s Bible, Jesuits,  Huguenots fleeing to England, epidemic diseases, Columbus, the rounding of Cape Horn, Cabot and Newfoundland, Spanish Armada, Hawkins, Drake, The Slave Trade, Institution of the Gregorian calendar, England and Scotland tensions, fierce taxation of the Irish, Barbary pirates, waste and corruption at the English court, poor laws, the Cornish language, Archbishop Laud, dominant Puritan influence, Irish massacre of 1642, execution of Charles 1, Puritans sail to America, Cromwell’s model army, Charles 11 plots, the Protectorate and Restoration, death of Cromwell, Milton, witch hunts, Titus Oates, the Plague, Fires, Dutch attacks, Earl of Shaftesbury, James 11 and the promotion of Catholicism, Monmouth’s rebel army, William of Orange and the Dutch army,  battle of Sedgemoor, small pox, transportation to the Colonies, harsh conditions of tin miners in the C18th, miserly wages, rapacious manifestations of early capitalism, the corn shortage, tuberculosis and silicosis, children dying in infance, American gold rush, English fighting in US cavalry, copper and lead mining, Cornishmen flocked to Chicago and Detroit, Prideauxs in Australia, smuggling, stamp act, workhouses, rise of extreme poverty, Jamaica annexation, political prisoners sent back to England as servants, C18th imperialism, slave trade, wool and silk trade, Napoleonic threat, Bristol- a violent and dangerous city/English/Welsh/Irish, small holder families driven to labouring, Judge Jeffries, Irish famine, canals and railways developing, advance of cotton, prostitution in London, Lord Acton exposed, emigration to Australia/Barbados/USA/New Zealand, Quakers, Walpole, Dr Johnson and much more.  Thus this book can be read comfortably by skipping through the genealogies and understanding the history of England from the point of view of an ordinary Cornish family. The bitter and harsh conditions and the constant wars and divisions look very different when seen from the point of view of the common man and not the heroes.

There are indeed a few Prideaux heroes including Edmund Prideaux of Netherton and Forde Abbey, Cromwell’s Attorney General,  Humphrey Prideaux D.D. Dean of Norwich and scholarly author of Prideaux’s Connexion between the Old and New Testaments, Edmund Prideaux, the C18th architect of Prideaux Place, and Bishop John Prideaux, Rector of Exeter College Oxford, Canon of Christchurch and Vice Chancellor of Oxford. 

My father Dick Prideaux was born in Shepparton to William Prideaux and Minnie Pressley. William’s father, my great grandfather Richard Ellis Prideaux emigrated to Australia from the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall in 1863. Richard Ellis’s forbear Stephen Prideaux moved to Tresco in the Scilly Isles from Cornwall and died there in 1784.  My own grandsons  Samuel Prideaux (son of Andrew Prideaux) and Bede Prideaux (son of David Prideaux) have the responsibility to continue an ancient line!  

This is a labour of immense proportions, told with substantial learning across a wide variety of specialisms from Economics to History to Politics and Literature.  A fine achievement indeed and a model of excellence for other genealogists.   5 stars.

Helmut Thielicke: How Modern Should Theology Be? Trans. George Anderson, p/b, USA,   Collins/Fontana, 1970 (1967)

Helmut Thielicke

I read this little book every five years or so just so I can remind myself what a remarkably clear and helpful presentation of the basic Christian faith. It is Helmut Thielicke’s second book out of a vast output to come but still I believe one of his best. Thielicke was a German priest and theologian who, although sacked by Hitler and having to flee,  managed to survive the war and became a wonderful theologian and defender of the faith in post-war Germany and in the West. His books have really helped me and it was a privilege to locate his grave when we visited Hamburg with a school group. 

Thielicke’s often quoted statement that the gospel must constantly be forwarded to a new address, (p.10)has stayed with me through all my years in Christian work of various kinds. He reminds us that Jesus Christ wants me totally. He wants me to belong to him with more than my conscience, my emotions, my anxieties: He wants my reason, my knowledge, and all the areas of my consciousness as well. (p15). So we have to listen to the scientist and the historian and any other expert but we must also call all knowledge into question not with human philosophy but rather by studying and understanding the depth of human misery and utter abandonment, on a criminal’s cross. This is where Christ’s love drove him, and only those who seek him in this ungodly wretchedness will find him. (P13).

I have written about this book in a previous blog so rather than analysing the four key ideas in this small but challenging book, this time around I simply want to put out there a few sentences that deeply called to me this time around.

– Modernity approaches the package of divine truth, opens it carefully and sets aside that portion of the contents which is unacceptable to him. (p.17)

We say, are you God, worthy of us? We think your truth will have to be worked over a little before it will suit our vital questions and our thinking habits! (p18)

Isn’t the history of Christianity the sum of the fatal misunderstandings which have arisen over Jesus Christ?….No human idea could have endured such attacks, amputations, and crucifixions without ending in the graveyard of intellectual history…but this is the miracle, that from this succession of conceptual graves Jesus Christ has risen again and again!  (p19)

The Gospel writers have their differences because each of them interpret the events with varying purposes. (p.29)

Modern autobiography begins with the person who came to be and then looks back and seeks the reason from the early life to the end. The Gospel writers also read the story backwards so to speak. They write about these events could not help but the history of the earthly Jesus in the light of his resurrection. (p.32)

The earliest Christians were simply incapable of depicting the history of Jesus without reference to their faith ..they are not willing to let myth replace history! (p.34)…They did not set out to write the biography of an inhabitant of Nazareth. They saw that figure in the light of the third day, when the incognito was lifted. (p35)

In this drama, no one can merely be a spectator, and reporter. They are drawn into the action and forced to participate. They must present their own confession. [p.37]

Only as a disciple do I discover who Jesus Christ is…Then, I cannot but testify…(p38)

The miracles were to show us that the created world is entrusted to him, that he can bring whatever is bungled or derailed back into line and calm the groaning of creation. (p41)

–  The Gospel writers could only write within their store of experience which is now at their disposal, including their confrontation with the living Lord. They are witnesses…the witness cannot be separated from the testimony and vice versa. He speaks personally. (p42)

– Matthew’s account is set in the midst of Jesus teaching about discipleship and following Christ now..in the danger and insecurity. (p45)

In the sinking boat, entrust everything to him. (p46)

Jesus snatches us from the world of death and enables us to live in his peace amid the tumult….The narrative itself becomes a confession. (p47) (Jesus asks the disciples “where is your faith before he stills the waves in Matthew’s Gospel).

What will be able to exercise power over us? the cancer? the bombs? the schemers? Or is it the Lord of life and death? …Some want to see proof first — they will never see the miracle or receive the reward of faith. (p50)

– In the Gospel, history is written in a way that involves interpretation and confession. The miracle is thus no longer the cause of faith; instead it gives additional confirmation to that faith..illustrating it. [p52]

Matthew has made the miracle itself less important…it is about faith and little faith. [p53]

Jesus himself played down the call for signs and wonders…He knew that a Son of God hanging on a gallows has nothing godlike to sell and doesn’t put anything at our disposal…We go no where in faith if we are only impressed by miracles. [p54]

Our faith does not live on reports of miracles. We live on what He himself was, and is, and always will be. We believe in the Lord who performs the miracles — not in the miracles. [p55]

–  There are perils in discipleship, cf Bonhoeffer…Jesus Christ is always where we are. [p57]

No one can tell the story of the Lord without at the same time telling the story of his own life, his experience with Him. [p59]

When will the world end? is tied with Jesus’s return. [p65]   5 Stars and rising

My death is not merely a departure, but a going home. [p.68]

– When unrighteousness gets the upper hand, the love of many will grow cold. [p.70]

One day faith will see what it has believed. [p72]

Lift up your heads for your redemption draws near.  [p73]

The events of Auschwitz did not happen by chance. [p76] (Adelburt Stifter, Austrian poet]

–  A good part of our discouragement stems from our constant preoccupation with ourselves. [p79]

Those who call upon his presence here learn to know his inexhaustible riches—an to await still more.  The longer they believe, the more insatiable is their hope; the greater the fulfilments they anticipate, the less importance they put upon themselves. It is this shifting relationship between small and great, important and unimportant, which must thus be properly arranged if it is not to produce neuroses and perplexities in my life. [p80]

Preaching has primacy over theology..theology merely works back to investigate the basis of that which it has already heard proclaimed. [p85]

Every theology must be preachable. [p86]

I warmly recommend this book if you can find it.

Books read June 2021

Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, [in The Complete Oscar Wilde Illustrated: Stories,  Plays and Poems, London, Tiger Books International, 1994 (1890)  

Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Grey

Irish born Oscar Wilde was the master of the epigram and a ferocious writer of short stories, highly successful plays  and poetry.   The Picture of Dorian Gray is another take on the Faustian notion of a dice with the Devil, in this instance taking the form of well born, whimsical, outrageous  and decidely not well-meaning Lord Henry.  Henry was impressed by Dorian Gray’s beauty and became his society mentor and downfall.

The story turns on a painting of Dorian Gray produced by his friend Basil Hallward.  In the process of sitting for the portrait Hallward and Gray are joined by Lord Henry who takes an immediate interest in Dorian Gray’s extraordinary beauty and style. Lord Henry’s enthusiastic praise of Gray’s beauty leads the young man to begin to fear growing old and losing his beauty. When the painting is finally finished Dorian Gray is deeply distressed…with his eyes fixed on the portrait, he cries “I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will always remain young…If only it were the other way…”  And indeed, when Dorian Gray hung the painting in his own home, that very thing happened. Almost immediately the painting began to show signs of an ageing and less pleasant man,  while Dorian Gray himself remained young and beautiful. 

Immediately, under the baleful influence of Lord Henry, Dorian Gray’s  life spiralled down to ever increasing degrees of selfish, hurtful, dangerous behaviour and cultural greed, as well as the trashing of former close friends in the most sadistic way.   His place in society was saved by the impeccability of his surface manners and appearance but it was not long before folk who had been badly hurt by him would move away when he arrived in a room. He became an addicted devotee of fashion and Dandyism; he associated with the leading musicians and performers of his day; he hedonistically pursued his lust for beautiful things including Roman Catholic ritualism, Darwinian theoretical excesses, the study of fragrant and dark perfumes, the collection of native musical instruments, the opera,  the study and collection  of precious jewels, the pomp and ceremony of European courts, the study of exquisite embroideries and tapestries, the excesses of ancient kings and rulers in the vein of Louis XIV  and the Medicis, a passion for ecclesiastical vestments, the joy of travel and everywhere and in every way, surrounding his life with treasures.

As Dorian Gray’s ocean of selfish greed and horror swamped him his paranoia towards any threat led him to murder and destruction. The dice with the devil could have only one ending.

In between this sorry tale Wilde manages to implant his normal wit and and classy epigrams in the description of various garden parties and clever conversations. These brief moments provide clever light in an otherwise searing story. The sheer class, beauty and wicked pace of Wilde’s prose makes us wish that he had produced more novels. I believe few writers have matched his genius for wit, philosophical jousting and social comment. This is a moral tale with a huge reach. 5 stars and rising.

Emily Maguire: Love Objects, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2021  

Emily Maguire

Emily Maguire is an award winning Australian author and this is her sixth novel alongside many articles in Australian national daily news papers on sex, feminism, culture and literature. Love Objects has the phenomenon of hoarding as a central theme, but the novel is also a rich analysis of the generational interaction of two families with all the complexity, deep feelings, anger and joy which such relationships evolve over time.

A running theme throughout the novel is sexual relationships between young people.  The novel explores the dangerous and hurtful power of the internet to severely impact the personal lives of individuals when invidious  persons use hidden photography to go online without consent  and destroy the reputation and well being of victims.

The novel is set within a working class environment in which every key individual in two families is examined with scarifying honesty and a high degree of potential for humiliation. The language used is common in Australian society and at time brutal. This is a salutary read for Australian teenagers but few of those who need such a book would probably ever bother to read the novel. I suspect a movie script might reach a wider audience. 

The novel has a neat and tidy conclusion in which the three principal characters emerge with hopeful new beginnings. It would be wonderful if all human interactions and challenges worked out so well.This is a fast moving read which is never dull and keeps the reader anxiously wondering what on earth will happen next.

 I find it disappointing that the vintage Australian f-word can now just be taken for granted in serious literature. There is an unwritten statement that it is now ok and also an assumption that every child of a “working class family uses such language. The writer tries hard in two instances to show that wealthy Australians can also be pleasant understanding people who care about stuff but the two instances are underwhelming. As a working class boy myself, I would have preferred to see a wider spread of individual characters than the somewhat type casting that rises to the fore in this novel or are these all just Howard’s “battlers” at work.   3 stars, considering it is a sixth novel.

Anne Mueller von der Haegen & Ruth Strasser: Trans. Paul Aston, Peter Barton, Susan James, Eithne McCarthy, & Iain Macmillan:  Tuscany: Art and Architecture,  Cologne,  Könemann, 2001.

Ever since our first visit to Italy I have had a complete addiction to the region of Tuscany, alongside it seems, many other Australians and many English and American poets, artists and writers and film makers.  There is something about the light at sunset, the little villages set among hills, the green paddocks surrounded by poplars, the ancient Villanova and Etruscan culture, the extraordinary early Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance flowering of architecture, art and sculpture and the sequestered villages alongside major centres like Florence, Siena and Pisa. 

So many heroes of literature,  thinking, art and architecture emerged from Tuscany including Boccacio, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Caravaggio, Cellini, Cimabue, Dante, Donatello, Fibonacci, Fra Angelico, Galileo, Gentile Artemesia, Giambologna, Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli,  Mantegna, Massacio, the amazing Medici Dynasty especially Cosimo 1 and Lorenzo 1 the Magnificent, Michelangelo, Raphael, Ucello, Vasari and many others.

 Ann and I have spent happy days in and around Arezzo following the Piero della Francesca trail,  long stays in Florence and San Gimignano and return visits to favourite places like Montepulciano and the stunning church of San Biago, Lucca and Pisa.  For none of these visits did I have access to Mueller and Strasser’s amazingly detailed and descriptive Tuscany. Perhaps it is just as well. I would have stressed out my longsuffering wife even more by hunting down every major artistic work in every cathedral and gallery. 

Ten years would not be enough to get to know Tuscany fully. But this work is an excellent substitute. It is detailed but precise and not too much to take in. There are extremely helpful appendices of architectural form, a glossary of terms used, brief histories of Etruscan and Roman history in Tuscany, brief biographies of individuals mentioned and an excellent index. This is not a “travel” book in the sense that there is no advice re trains, roads to take, places to stay or restaurants etc. Neither does it deal with Tuscan cookery or wines. It is a culture vulture book, compact and easily stored in a travel bag and very clearly translated. 5 stars and rising.

John Dickson: Is Jesus History?  UK, thegoodbook Company, 2020

John Dickson

John Dickson is an outstanding Australian historian and  theologian and a  visiting academic at Oxford University and Ridley College Melbourne. This little book (just $15.00 at Koorong) is deceptive. Dickson is mounting an argument that like many legal cases, most historical knowledge is based on testimony of those who were present at the event. This is so particularly with ancient history where cameras, electronic recording and television were absent. 

The overwhelming conclusion established in chapter 1 of this book is that the vast majority of historians today, whether Christian believers or not,  acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was a real figure in the history of Roman occupied Galilee and Judea.  Historians accept that the four New Testament Gospel accounts of Jesus’s activities and the comments of Paul the Apostle in his letters are bona fide historical accounts as valid as the historical writings of the Roman historian Tacitus written just twenty years later.  E. P. Sanders, a major historian of Judaism in the centuries before and after Christ, and no friend of Christian apologetics or of theology, nevertheless writes: 

There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity. [E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1993), quoted by Dickson on p. 19}  

Dickson goes on to argue that in fact much of what we “know” to be true, we accept by faith. He writes …through long experience of interacting with others in the world, we have come to think that it is wise, most of the time, to put a good measure of trust in the testimony of others, when those people seem to be giving that testimony in good faith. (p.24). That is in general, faith in testimony is a generally reliable bridge to personal knowledge.

Dickson accepts that at times human testimony is flawed or malicious, so much depends on a person or writer’s general reliabilty and the coherence of their testimony. The remainder of this book is a defence of these characteristics in relation to the text of the New Testament. It is a lively and interesting discussion and the truth and coherence of the New Testament writers is well defended with clear evidence. 

Of course the key argument  is Dickson’s defence is the final chapter on the resurrection. His argument here goes to a person’s belief about the universe itself. If “the laws of nature” define the limits of what is possible then there is no place for a miracle of resurrection. But if one sees those laws as pointing to the existence of a law-giver, to God, then of course the possibility of resurrection is real. Dixon’s historical defence of the resurrection rests on the fact that the evidence is early, it is widespread (i.e. more than one source, and the witnesses are credible. 

This is an engaging book to give to a Christian seeker or simply to remind a believer why they believed in the first place. It comes with useful suggestions for further reading.

Graham A. Cole: Faithful Theology: An  Introduction, p/b, Wheaton,  Crossway, 2020

Graham Cole
Faithful Theology: An Introduction

I have never been a fan of systematic theology!  Having been a teacher of Biblical Studies/Texts and Traditions and Religious Studies for over thirty years much of my reading has been in Biblical commentaries and texts on particular issues. Of  course I have dipped into the greats for theological examinations and particular issues but that’s not the same as reading a complete Systematic Theology. Although I have read through Calvin’s Institutes twice over the years, he is an easy read compared with the formidable demands of Karl Barth in fourteen volumes, Wolfhart Pannenburgh in three, Edward Schillebeeckx in two or even Paul Tillich in 1 volume!  

When my son Andy placed Graham Cole’s little paperback in my hand I thought, now’s the time to start!   So this is an excellent book for anyone to read to find out what the mystery of systematic theology is and whether the task is worth the effort!  The Revd Dr. Peter Adam writes that we are all theologians, and we all practise theology, good or bad. Ministers and lay people need to learn how to do theology, to think theologically, to increase our theological awareness and theological ability and to think God’s thoughts after him. 

Graham Cole’s book is based around five sources of knowledge about systematic theology. These are:  The Word of revelation (The Bible);  The Witness of Christian of Christian Thought and Practice (Church History); The World of Human brokenness (World history, the nature of man and the problem of evil);  The Work of Wisdom (Human intellect and insight, ideas and faith); and finally, The Way of Worship, (“Putting it all together in truth and love”). In this final source, Cole focusses helpfully on the doctrine of the Trinity. This little book comes with scriptural and general indexes and a guide to further reading. It can be read comfortably in two days. 5 stars

I note below some sentences or famous words that I found helpful.

  • On the Bible: Scripture interprets scripture; Scripture is not to be interpreted against Scripture; plain Scripture is to interpret obscure Scripture. (p.27)
  • Have many teachers but only one Master. (Christ). (p.28)
  • …the role of [literary] genre in a wise [Bible] reading strategy. (p.30)
  • Turn what you read about God into prayer and praise to God. [John Packer] (p.32)
  • Cranmer’s Collect on the Scriptures:

Blessed Lord, which hast called all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, and inwardly digest them; that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our saviour  Jesus Christ. (p.37) 

–    “Tradition in its proper sense is the interpretation and application of the eternal truth in the vernacular and life of the present generation.  Scripture without such a tradition is impossible. [Herman Bacinck] (p.41)

  • Living dogmatics never allows its problems to be self-originated as by a virgin birth, but it is always being fertilized, achieving its productive impulse through the questions of the time. [Helmut Thielicke] (p.58)
  • “Scriptures contain a body of divinely given information actually expressed or capable of being expressed in propositions” [Carl Henry] contrast with:  “ categories we employ in theology are by necessity culturally and historically conditioned, and as theologians  each of us is both ‘ a child of the times’ and a communicator to those times.” [Stanley Grenz] (p59.)
  • The humble theologian is open to correction and further reform of thought and life. Again, the Reformation slogan semper reformanda (always reforming) in the light of God’s word is sound. The unteachable theologian is an oxymoron. (p.60)
  • Our theological awareness shows itself in our prayers. (p.62)“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” [Evagrius Ponticus, 345/6-399] (p.62) 
  • Augustine: “You move us to delight in praising You. You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The Confessions. (p64)
  • Reason must not be reified as though it were a thing separate from us. Reason does not function on its own, in a spiritual vacuum. Persons reason. Persons mount arguments, question, or demolish them, and marshall or dismiss evidence. And persons do that either in submission to God or in conflict with him.(p.70)
  • there is a moral dimension to knowing ….”Logic is rooted in Ethic, for the truth we see depends upon the men we are” [P T Forsyth]…Forsyth must not be misunderstood. He did not argue that the truth depends upon the kind of moral agents we are. But our ability to recognize the truth, see the truth, has a moral component.  Virtue epistemology has its place. (p.71)
  • It is also important to recognise that the possession of knowledge does not guarantee either virtue or wisdom. Paul wrote to the Corinthians how knowledge can puff one up. (p71,fn3)
  • Sin causes not a cognitive disability but an affective disinclination to trust in God, honour him, or give thanks to him. (p.72)
  • Dogmatic rank is fundamental to wise theological thinking. The phrase means that teachings need to be ranked, and the ranking has to do with importance for faithfulness and fellowship. [cf Jesus’ discussions with the Pharisees and scribes re tithing mint, dill and cummin, but neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (p.76)
  • “In the essential, unity, and in the non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, clarity. [Rupertus Meldenius (1582-165, Lutheran theologian].  (p. 78)
  • It is so easy to think that only the imaginable is conceivable. (p.79)
  • Criteria for judgment of theological claims: a) is it scriptural?  b) is it rational (i.e. is it nonsense of self-contradictory? c) is it liveable…am I able to live as though my claim or theological proposal were true? (p. 82)
  • Four questions for theological proposals: (i) factual? (ii) semantic – i.e. what does the word mean? (iii) moral? (iv) pastoral? [p84f)
  • Anselm: Faith seeking understanding. (p.101 fn) “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam” (“I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand”).
  • Luther: Life is lived coram Deo (before God). (p105)
  • Doing theology then is a way of loving God with our minds, hopefully renewed minds in the Pauline sense.  (p105)

Columba

The seed of God’s love in the hearts of folk we sow;

and stronger and taller that seed will grow,

that all creation the truth may know,

then alone, alone,

it will conquer the great unknown.

Key ideas from Graham Cole’s book Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan and Demons:

Some key ideas from Graham Cole’s Against 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.

BOOKS READ MAY 2021

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.  

IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME Volume 3 Guermantes Way

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 Cole
Against The Darkness

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.

BOOKS READ APRIL 2021

BOOKS READ APRIL 2021

Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom, p/b, Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1977 (1910) 

HENRY HANDEL RICHARDSON

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.

THE GETTING OF WISDOM

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 SELF PORTRAIT

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. 

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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.

BOOKS READ MARCH 2021

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

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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

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

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 

RUMI

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

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

                              swore

                                      Their cursing

                                      God’s house

                                          meant

                            they hadn’t shut the door. 

p23: Fleas:

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

  Is to make a blind man see. 

p.58   Experiment:

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!

Richard Prideaux

Books read February 2021

Cassandra Pybus: Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse, p/b,  Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2020 

Cassandra Pybus

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.  

Truganini, painting in British Museum

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

Norman Davies

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.