Books read December 2022

John Julius Norwich: The Popes: A History, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2011  

Church Historian John Julius Norwich has written an outstanding three volume study of the Byzantine era as well as a major two volume study of the Normans in Sicily alongside many other studies of European history. His study of the Popes is a massive achievement. While detailed information of the earliest period of Christian history is harder to find, Norwich plots a clear and helpful path through the complexity and challenges of emerging Christian faith in the Roman Empire as well as the tension between Constantinople and Rome for superiority and power. Constantine’s decision to embrace the Christian faith and the subsequent theological disputes are well covered as well as the chaos caused in Europe by the collapse of the Roman Empire. From Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) onwards every significant pope and antipope is given individual attention.

For the Christian reader much of this story makes for terrifying reading. Nepotism, greed, gross immorality and pride dominated the mind of most of those who were appointed by the largely Italian cardinals. Since the popes had temporal as well as spiritual powers they became “kings” of their own fiefs negotiating and fighting for their rights alongside the powerful Italian states including Venice, Genoa, Ravenna, Sicily, Bologna and many others. Even more intrusive were the regular armies from Austria, France, Spain and Germany, not to forget Napoleon,  who regularly invaded the Italian Peninsula in search of wealth, power and influence. The Pope became a political power (although with limited military strength) up against the Holy Roman Emperor from Charlemagne onwards, the Various kings of France and Spain and not forgetting the Normans who took over Sicily. On a regular basis Rome was sacked and brought to the ground with the Pope retreating to Avignon in France or to Bologne or some other bolt hole.

Somehow through all of this destructive chaos papal authority of some sort continued eventually facing the upheaval of the Reformation and the development of the Counter Reformation. It is at this point that some genuine spirituality emerged from the Catholic revolution created to rebuff Protestantism alongside the extension of Catholic faith overseas as new continents were discovered.   Meanwhile in Europe warfare between nations and powers continued from the C15th to the C21st with the Papacy playing various roles and eventually losing their temporal power to European nationhood with their “statehood” limited to the Vatican City. Norwich deals well with the C20th popes good and bad and his analysis concludes with a study of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict V1) The C20th failure of Pope Pius X11[1939-58] to speak for, defend and protect the Jewish community is a standing tragedy and horror in this story. 

Although this story is complex Norwich’s style is hard to put down. It leaves the Christian reader with much to think about and is a reminder that political leaders who claim to speak for the Christian Gospel are rare, face significant challenges and need much courage and prayer.   5 stars.

Alex Miller: A Brief Affair, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin  

Alex Miller is in my top five authors of all time. He is now 85 and I did not think we would see a new novel from him but here it is. A Brief Affair is vintage Miller with his central themes of the Australian bush, love/family/marriage, the alienation and failure of soul in education especially in Victoria.  Above all Miller  has the courageous willingness to dig deep and give meaning to the well springs of human thriving in our short stay on this planet.

His central character, Fran, forty two years old, is happily married with two children but yet seeking meaning and Spirit in her life and work. She lives between country and a daily lengthy commute to the city.. an increasingly popular yet challenging life for those who love the bush but for various reasons need to work in the city. We only have one life on this planet and whether rich or poor Miller suggests we need to have good reasons to get up in the morning and truly “be”. 

In my view Miller is the true heir of Patrick White in the ability of both men to “see into the life of things” and write powerfully and insightfully about both the banalities and the deep and sometimes dry spirituality of the Australian emptiness. The human experience would be a poorer place without Alex Miller to nudge us into a genuine search for meaning and truth each time we get up in the morning.  5 stars. 

Geraldine Brooks: Horse, h/b, Sydney, Hachette, 2022  

Outstanding horse racing and art history novel based around the mid-C19th American race horse Lexington, arguably the greatest race horse of all time and certainly the most celebrated and important breeding horse in the history of racing. The key figures, horse industry operators Robert Aitcheson Alexander, Richard Ten Broeck, Cassius Marcellus Clay and his wife Mary Jane and her daughter Mary Barr Clay, William Johnson, Harry Lewis, Willa Viley, Elisha Warfield Jr and John Benjamin Pryor and artists Thomas J. Scott and Edward Troy are all historical figures.  The New York art collector and Gallery owner Martha Jackson is also a genuine person.

Geraldine Brooks has woven a fictional story around this amazing horse and its owners and trainers  based around Jarret, a young negro groomer and trainer.  The fictional relationship between the boy and his horse is powerful and mesmerising. 

The narrative jumps between the C19th and the C21st as Jess a fictional Australian scientist and her close friend Theo, Nigerian-American art historian piece together what became of Lexington’s skeleton and the paintings Thomas J. Scott made of the great horse. Inevitably the narrative is tangled up with the horrific events surrounding the American Civil War as well as the trauma of race relations in America in both the C19th and the C21st. 

The result is a novel which requires attention, close reading and either a good vocabulary or an iPhone handy for some unfamiliar language. Whilst the chapter jumps between centuries was initially annoying the sheer magnetic power of the novel soon takes over.  5 stars. 

Michael Reeves: Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, p/b, Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2012  

What a delight to find an intelligible, easy to read and deeply Scriptural account of the doctrine of the Trinity. Michael Reeves, a theological advisor for the English Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) has written a book about the Trinity I found hard to put down. In five clearly written chapters Reeves asks the question What was God doing before Creation? and then spends three chapters dealing with the themes of Creation, Salvation and the The Christian Life. The final chapter discusses the uniqueness of the Christian understanding of God.

Reeves has a light touch but manages to cover a vast amount of ground. It is not a “how to” book for Christians. Rather it is a love story about one God in three persons. Reeves demonstrates that the Trinity is the vital oxygen of the Christian life and joy. It is understandable because the triune God has revealed himself to us. We do not need theologians five hundred years after Christ to explain the Trinity. The Apostle Paul understood clearly that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:11).The Trinity is not a mystery, it is a spiritual truth emerging from the New Testament. 

Reeves explains the meaning and joy of the doctrine of the Trinity with clarity, humour and a wealth of very readable historical data and more particularly with the help of numerous key figures in the history of Christian faith. Along the way he includes a helpful critique of Islamic theology about the nature of God, the challenge of Gnosticism, the problem of evil and its explanation, Pelagianism, as well as insights into musical harmony, mathematics and atheism.

Reeves pays particular attention to the Puritans especially Jonathan Edwards’ writings but also references Tolkien, Luther, Calvin and Hitchins amongst many others.  He is a critic of Schleiermacher and who made the Trinity “a mere appendix to the Christian faith” and is also a critic of Adolf von Harnack who dismissed the Trinity altogether.  

Delighting in the Trinity is an enjoyable read. I know of no other book on the Trinity that could be said to be “enjoyable”!  5 stars.

Books Read November 2022


  Don Marquis, Archy’s Life of Mehitabel, h/b, London, Faber & Faber Ltd., 1986 (1933)

Don Marquis was an American novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist for The Evening Sun newspaper in New York.  Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the alley cat were two characters who appeared regularly in Marquis’s newspaper column from 1916 onwards over many years. The  brief stories were first put into book form as Archy and Mehitabel in 1927.  In 1933 Marquis published further adventures in Archy’s Life of Mehitabel  with Archy Does His Part following in 1935.  There has also been a musical version and a Broadway musical. 

Archy the Cockroach manages to crawl into Don Marquis’ typewriter and strike most of the letters but cannot manage capitals, full stops or commas. He and Mehitabel have many adventures and Archy makes more sense of the world than most humans which, I suspect, is why his thoughts are still in press today and have been since 1916. 

“mehitabel’s parlour story”, printed below is chapter 33 of Archy’s Life of Mehitabel.

boss did you

hear about the two drunks

who were riding in

a ford or something

equally comic

and the ford or

whatever it was nearly

went off the

road one of

the drunks poked the 

other and said thickly

they always talk thickly in

these stories

anyway he said hey look

out how youre driving

youll have us in

the ditch in a minute if

you don’t look out

why said the second

drunk who was drunker

i thought you 

were driving I got

that from Mehitabel the

cat its the first parlour

story ive ever heard 

her tell and ive known

her for five or six

years now


5 stars and rising! 

Margaret Attwood: The Handmaid’s Tale, p/b, London, Vintage Books, 2010 (1986)  

Prolific Canadian author Margaret Attwood has achieved permanent fame with this noir science fictional story set at the end of the C20th in an America shattered by internal wars, a series of cataclysmic earthquakes and the dominance of a weird pseudo-Christian sect. The narrator Offred, once happily married with a child and a good job now has only one function…to breed successfully, and create a successful society of perfectly formed dominant women. Men are peripheral in this new world occupied in fighting enemy states or guarding the exacting morals of a society in which the free sexual behaviour of the C20th has been abolished and an extremely strict order of “morality” prevails….or does it?  Beneath the appearance of strict order there is still a subset of the old sexual mores and the freedom of former C20th life…if you have the power or knowledge to find it! For me this narrative is quite frightening as many C21st world states are dominated by brutal regimes which deny basic human freedoms and even the “land of the free” has shown itself vulnerable to take over by corrupt and dominant forces. In Victoria, Australia, as free thought and speech from Kindergarten upwards is increasingly controlled, Attwood’s novel is worth a second read as a warning for the future.  5 stars.

Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Trans. Lowell Blair, p/b, New York, Bantam Books, 1963 (1831)  

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was arguably France’s greatest literary figure producing a vast array of novels, works of non-fiction, poetry and plays. He was also a talented artist and a major political force in France. Upon the rise of Napoleon he fled to Guernsey and did not return until Napoleon was deposed. 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of his earliest novels, written in 1821. It’s key characters are the deformed, one eyed hunchback Quasimodo who lives freely in a cell in Notre Dame Cathedral;  La Esmeralda, beautiful dancer, stolen and brought up by Gypsies but finally, if briefly returned to her mother; Djali, Esmeralda’s faithful and trained goat;  Pierre Gringoire, philosopher, playwright and platonic “husband” of La Esmeralda; Dom Claude Frollo, brilliant scholar and priest, neurotically in love with La Esmeralda and hated by her; and Captain Phoebus her gallant but unfaithful lover.

The novel is set in C15th Paris but written in historical perspective by Hugo. The grim realities of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, cruelty, rapacious and brutal leadership, fear of witchcraft and the drunken power of the rabble in mediaeval Paris are regularly on display. Hugo brilliantly captures the tortured and confused lives of these formidable individuals as they strive for the love of La Esmeralda. There is wisdom, humour, pathos and philosophy in Hugo’s Hunchback  but above all it is a rollicking story with the reader’s support clearly on the side of the naive and hapless La Esmeralda.  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s amazing Phantom of the Opera score sets the right sense of passion and drama for this novel although the plot line of Phantom has little in common with Hugo’s novel.  American Lowell Blair’s translation is outstanding.   5 stars.

Review of Tony Rinaudo, the Forest Underground, h/b, Melbourne, ISCAST, 2021 

Winner of the 2022 Australian Christian Book of the Year, Tony Rinaudo’s extraordinary life and achievements brings real hope to the world’s climbing temperature crisis. Rinaudo was born of Italian parents in Myrtleford and grew up with a passion for the environment and especially for trees. He grew up hating the bulldozing of indigenous native bushland in Australia and was determined to pursue farming reform based on the philosophy of James Sholto Douglas who had written about the integration of trees, crops and livestock in ecological balance in 1976 in his book Forest Farming. 

Rinaudo’s upbringing, schooling and university life were profoundly Christian and he became strongly committed to the idea of working overseas to make a difference to land degradation and the human suffering it unleashes.  At university through the Evangelical Union Rinaudo met Liz Fearon who was also strongly drawn to missional evangelism and meeting physical needs for those suffering in Africa particularly.  The book tells the story of their passion to study and work together  which resulted in them spending nineteen years in Niger, working in agriculture with the Sudan Interior Mission. 

Tree planting to redeem degraded soil had become an international passion by the time the Rinaudos arrived in Niger but throughout the world millions of trees planted across the world failed to survive and protagonists were losing hope. In Niger vast areas of land had become degraded, most of the trees had been cut down for firewood and crops for food were failing with disastrous famines increasing. Rinaudo found in his area that only four trees per hectare were left and the land was becoming a dust bowl. After two and half years of mounting frustration Rinaudo felt like a failure.

 On a seed planting exercise, while checking his land rover tyre pressure on a vast plain denuded of trees he came across a small “bush with leaves” and had his moment of inspiration when he realised the “bush” was actually a dormant tree that had been cut down. He writes “I was surrounded by trees. I was standing on a subterranean forest.” (p107).  

In the coming weeks after this discovery the aid project  FMNR was born. “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration” eventually has become a major world wide effective phenomenon based on local people living their normal lives and not on international aid. This is a story of extraordinary courage, faith and hope in the midst of appalling conditions, with an an ongoing saga which is rejuvenating landscapes across the world. It is the story of one very humble man whose impact on land use across the world has, I believe, no equal. This book is a must read for anyone who cares about survival of our planet.   5 stars and rising!

Review of Tom Holland: Dominion: The Making of the Western World, p/b, London, Abacus, 2019  

This is a rare and exciting book! Tom Holland writes with insight, adventure and extraordinary erudition.  In an age when the West has turned its back on the Christian faith, Holland makes a very strong case that the Western world from the first century onwards owes its very existence and life to the spread of Christianity.  Holland begins with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome but very quickly the reader is drawn into the profound impact that Jesus of Nazareth, his followers and especially the apostle Paul created  in transforming the Greco-Roman Empire over a period of five centuries.  

This is not dull church history for theological students! In each chapter Holland begins with a gripping event which immediately engages the reader…we really want to know the outcome of this little story and in the process we find ourselves learning deeply about the remarkable transformation of a Roman Empire into a Christian society. There are three major divisions in this extensive book. Holland divides his story between Antiquity, Christendom and Modernitas. Each has its own bibliography which can be annoying  when the reader is looking for a reference outside of its “section”.  

A reader of this review will be already thinking this is a big read and it is..525 pages plus extensive references.  But this book is never boring. Each story we know is important.  Chapter headings include Athens, Jerusalem, Mission, Belief, Charity, Heaven, Exodus, Conversion, Revolution, Persecution, Flesh, Apocalypse, Reformation, Cosmos, Spirit, Enlightenment, Religion, Science, Shadow, Love, and Woke!  There is no boring chapter I can guarantee it. 

All the heroes and the villains of Western history are on show here and Holland does not spare the horror and chaos alongside the glimmers of hope which shine through in remarkable  , often unsung individuals. Bob Dylan, Tolkien, Quakers, tyrants and Popes, no-one is left out. In the end, Holland proves his case. As Christians flee the West in droves today and millions in Asia and Africa embrace Christ, the West still demonstrates its Christian cultural heritage which it cannot shake off. The richest nations of the world have created a world-weary wealthy monopoly and are burning out, while a whole new Christian third world is rising powerfully.

Tom Holland, talking about his own faith in a recent New Statesman interview says In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.  If you are looking for a good read this Summer, Dominion is the book. 

Books Read October 2002



Ben F. Meyer: The Aims of Jesus: Intro N.T. Wright, p/b, Eugene, Pickwick Publications: Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 2002 (1977). 

N T Wright regards American Catholic Ben Meyer’s book on the aims of Jesus as one of the best books written about Jesus in the last thirty years.  Mayer, who died in 1995, was a remarkable theologian and linguist who could write confidently in German, French,  Hebrew and Greek as well as English. Meyer’s theological thinking and method  has been particularly influenced by Canadian philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan especially his book Method in Theology.   The title of Meyer’s  book is interesting as it focusses on Jesus himself and endeavours to clarify Jesus’ purpose by exploring his actions and words from the Gospels in particular Matthew and Mark.Meyer’s book is in two sections, the first being hermeneutical issues and his attack on Enlightenment rationalism; the second and much   larger section is his study of the aims of Jesus.

Part 1 of the book provides a helpful analysis of the research on the Gospels since the Enlightenment.  Meyer is strongly critical of the rationalist Enlightenment C18th and C19th attack on the Gospel narratives found originally in Reimarus, followed by Strauss, Holtzmann, Feuerbach, and Wrede.  Albert Schweitzer created a spirited attack on the German theology of his time but his own treatment of Jesus’ aim and purpose fell into the same anti-historical trap. German theology in the C20th continued the Continental sceptical view of the life of Christ and made deep inroads into British theology especially the work of Rudolf Bultmann and his influential book Jesus Christ and Mythology. Bultmanngave little credibility to the authenticity and historicity of the life of Jesus and comes under heavy fire by Meyer.  Meyer’s robust, vigorous  and carefully documented and explained demolition of two centuries of liberal criticism is well grounded and persuasive, preparing the way for a far more sympathetic understanding of the teaching of Jesus In Part 11. 

Meyer’s work focusses on three major areas.  The historicity of John the Baptist and Jesus’ relationship with him; Jesus own public public proclamation and teaching including the historicity of the miracles; and Jesus private and esoteric teaching of his close disciples. This material is treated with clarity, energy, common sense and careful technical support. (There are over 70  pages of detailed notes defending his key ideas but these need not necessarily distract the reader!) What is required when reading Meyer is a Bible because his frequent references especially to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark give the reader a jolt when read in the light of Meyer’s careful analysis.  Although parts of this book are heavy going I believe that a thinking Christian whose faith has been battered by the scepticism of much theological analysis of Jesus’ life and work will be strongly encouraged by Meyer’s book.  I warmly recommend it.

Roman Catholic theologian and philospher Bernard Lonergan.

Sarah Baume: spill simmer falter wither: p/b, London, Windmill,2015  

Engaging and powerful debut novel by young Irish writer Sarah Baume concerning the relationship between an old friendless man and his much loved dog One Eye. Out without a lead on a beach One Eye sinks his teeth into a beach walker’s pet dog and rather than face the wrath of the dog catcher the old man and his dog load up the car and take off for places unknown. The narrative describes their footloose activities and adventures in their cosy loaded up car and the relationship builds a life of its own which mesmerises the reader and makes for a heart-warming but also sad adventure. 

The writing is assured, detailed and clever almost forcing the reader to take these two most unlikely characters seriously and also beautifully and artistically drawing a picture of the changing seasons of Ireland which account for the title of the novel. This is heart warming novel of two lost individuals, a man and his dog, who find meaning and understanding simply by being together.  What begins as a sad and dreary picture of old age and meaninglessness becomes a friendship and adventure which the reader cannot put down. I was not at this book club discussion but I believe our book club members found this story perplexing and for some, unsatisfactory. 

Review of Anne Griffin: When All is Said: Five Toasts, Five People, One Lifetime, p/b, London,  Hodder & Stougton, 2019

Debut novel from Irish writer Anne Griffin tells the story of a self made 84 year old Irish farmer whose determination to succeed brings him wealth, a happy marriage and a very strong sense of personal satisfaction. The story of the key elements of the people in his life is told in the form of five “written” toasts as he knocks back five of his favourite whiskeys in a hotel of whichhe owns slightly more than a half share.

The five toasts are for his much loved older brother Tony, who died in his twenties  due to consumption;  his still born daughter Molly who constantly “appears” to him in his dreaming; his wife’s sister Noreen who has severe brain damage; his only son Kevin, who is married with children and is a successful newspaper man in the USA; and finally his beloved wife Sadie who died two years earlier.  These stories are told with compassion and self knowledge and hold the reader’s interest very powerfully. The conclusion to the narrative is a surprise.  4 stars.

Gideon Haigh: The Night was a Bright Moonlight and I Could See a Man Quite Plain: An  Edwardian Cricket Murder, p/b, Sydney, Scribner, 2022 

Australian Gideon Haigh has written over forty books, mostly about cricket. This book is a true story of some events in the life of George Vernon, the son of highly regarded English Rugby player and cricketer George Frederick Vernon who had represented England in both sports towards the end of the C19th. Young George Vernon lost both his parents while still quite young and was cared for by his Aunt Helen and her wealthy retired husband Ernest Rhodes. 

At age 15 George Vernon began adult life on a British training ship and henceforth led a checkered and rather rootless life which included time in Africa, Canada and Australia.  He became what was known in the day as a “remittance man”,  a young man who received a monthly remittance from a wealthy family member, usually wasted the money quickly on booze and spent the rest of the month scratching around for work and a drink and waiting for his next remittance.

In Australia he had landed a job as second in command of the Doondi Cattle Station in Queensland’s Darling Downs, in those days an eight hour drive from Brisbane. While the boss was away at another cattle station a murder occurred at Doondi Cattle Station and George Vernon was arrested as the main suspect. The true story describes the trial and later events surrounding the murder which have several twists and turns. An interesting yarn.   4 stars.

Books read September 2022

Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture, p/b, London,   Faber & Faber, 2015 (2008)

Sebastian Barry

Beautifully written complex story of a 100 year old  Irish woman Roseanne, committed for many years to the Roscommon Regional Mental  Asylum in Ireland.  Since the Asylum is about to be demolished to make way for a new and smaller establishment a psychiatrist, Dr Grene has been employed to determine whether some of the patients would be better off outside of the failing asylum. Roseanne has been secretly writing her own life story and hiding her work under loose floorboards in her room whenever anyone comes her way. The novel works consecutively throughout with reflections from Roseanne and then from Dr Grene, a regular visitor to Roseanne, which has surprising and complex results.  

At the same time the story covers obliquely the C20th ups and downs of Irish history including the extraordinary reach and power of Roman Catholicism at many levels in Irish society. Sebastian Barry is the current Laureate of Ireland and writes with surety and subtlety, leading the reader gasping for air but at the same time unable to do without the next instalment. Readers need to have a good memory for names and occasionally need to go back to remind themselves who is who. A powerful, unsettling but finally rewarding read.   5 stars. 

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 7: Finding Time Again,  Trans., Intro., and Notes, Ian Patterson, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (1927) 

Marcel Proust
In Search of Lost Time Volume 7 Finding Time Again

The final volume of Proust’s seven volume odyssey begins with the Narrator living quietly at Tansonville, the home of his former girlfriend Gilberte, now the  wealthy wife of the unfaithful and frequently missing Robert de Saint-Loupe, the Narrator’s close friend.  Here the Narrator has the opportunity to read the Journal of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, a pastiche of literary conversations, bad mouthings and competitive rivalry written between 1850 and 1870.  The Narrator finds himself questioning his own aptitude for literature and wondering whether, after all literature may not be the fine and wonderful thing he thought it to be. The question of whether or not the Narrator should himself write a book keeps returning throughout Volume 7 especially between pages 219 and 223 and later reappears from p280 onwards where he occasionally refers to “my book” during extended passages of literary examination. As the novel draws to an end the possibility of a book begins to fade away. 

This peaceful time of remembrance is rudely interrupted by the advent of World War 1 and the impact of this war on the Narrator and on Paris, Saint-Loup and everything else dominates the central section of Volume 7. During this period the Narrator spends two periods of unsucccessful cures in a sanatorium, loses his friend Robert de Sainte-Loupe to death in warfare, experiences the horror of the German assault and the bombing  of Paris, unexpectedly runs into the Baron de Charlus who continues on his wayward path running a sado-mashochistic brothel in Paris, and in addition the Narrator devotes a considerable  amount of time to a meditation on love in all its various manifestations.

The third section of Volume 7 finds the Narrator in old age, at yet another soirée at the hotel of the Guermantes after a twenty year period of absence.   Being asked to wait in the library whilst a musical item concludes, the Narrator falls into a deep  and extensive reverie about ageing, lost time and finding time again.  When he finally enters the salon, he at first thinks every person is in fancy dress since they all look so ridiculously old. Reluctantly realising this is his own condition also,  the Narrator ruminates on the post-war changes to the Faubourg Saint Germain and to his former friends and colleagues from whom he has been separated for a long period. The Narrator initially does not even recognise his former lover Gilberte.  The novel simply drifts away to a gentle conclusion as he ponders these changes to his life.

It has taken me over two years to complete a reading of the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. A former headmistress colleague of mine encouraged me to read it many years ago and I have now completed the task. She of course had been able to read it in French which would have been a massive advantage. My university French was nowhere near the task. Am I glad to have read Proust’s major work? Yes, there are observations,  even in translation, of deep beauty and powerful thought.

 Is the novel uplifting and life changing?  No! On his own admission the Narrator is extremely self-centred, spoilt, neurotic, obsessive and at times overly pleased with himself.  Now this may be  the very point of Proust’s work. If this is the case, I don’t think we need seven volumes to elucidate the problem.  Of course my feeble brain has been inadequate to the task of assessing the strength of Proust’s philosophical digressions so I will yield to greater minds an assessment of the value of his  deep meanderings on life and the human condition. The Narrator leaves the reader to judge the moral behaviour of his vast cast of characters. I believe the finest writers are able to point a way out of the moral quagmires of life and Proust’s inability to do this is a negative for me.   4 stars.

Ellen Gunderson Traylor: Mark, p/b, Wheaton, Tyndale House, 1989 

Ellen Gunderson Traylor

Well put together “possible life” of John Mark, probable author of the first Gospel, cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10)  and son of Mary, a wealthy Jewish landowner in Jerusalem (Acts12:12).  Mark appears frequently in the New Testament, working with Peter, Paul (after an earlier bust up), Timothy and Barnabas. Mark is generally regarded as the person who fled from the scene naked during the scuffle over Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane.

Traylor has manufactured a life story for Mark which incorporates effectively the story of the origin of the earliest Christian church in Jerusalem and the subsequent spread of the Christian Gospel to Asia Minor, north Africa, Cyprus and Greece.  The story covers Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem and his arrest, trial, execution and resurrection in the sight of various witnesses. The narrative moves on to the scenes at Pentecost in Jerusalem, the formation of the early church and the gradual expansion of the new belief in spite of vicious persecution by both Jewish leaders like Saul as well as the tragic impact of brutality practised against the Christian faith by the Roman State. Truly the Christian faith was born within the crucilble of hellish opposition and egregious cruelty.

Traylor’s understanding of the historical background of C1st Christian beginnings is detailed and historically accurate. She does not sugar coat the strengths and weaknesses of the early church leaders and their gains as well as their stumbles. In particular this book demonstrates how, under the direction of key witnesses, the early Christian Church exploded into existence by word of mouth and strong leadership in spite of vicious and heart-breaking persecution.

Reading this book provides a surprising amount of information about John Mark’s activities and his important, and perhaps little understood role in the growth of early Christianity. Although some of “Mark’s” appearances at certain events in the Jesus story are unlikely Traylor has nevertheless given us an accurate history of the events surrounding the establishment of earliest Christianity.  This book is very helpful in understanding the birth of one of the world’s most influential faiths. The “feel” of this book is that it is aimed at a young audience nevertheless the historicity of Traylor’s account is accurate and I believe the book would surprise adult readers when they realize how little they really know about these “well known” events.   5 stars. 

The Fables of Aesop with Designs on Wood by Thomas Bewick, Intro: Michael Marqusee,  p/b, Paddington, Two Continents Publishing Group, 1975 reprint of the 1818 Edition printed by E. Walter, Newcastle, for T. Berwick;

Lysippus’ statue of Aesop;  

Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) *oil on canvas, *38 x 29 cm *1827

Scholars are divided about whether there ever was an “Aesop”.  Ancient traditions have his birth place at Cotieum in Phrygia Major in 572 BC.  Many of the absurd fictions concerning Aesop were invented by a C14th Greek Monk Planudes who lived in Constantinople. Plato’s Phaedo mentions Aesop (60 c; 61b) and early tradition has Aesop  as a shepherd boy who rose from being a slave to great eminence, living in the service of Xanthus in the island of Samos, and afterwards at Athens. Aesop is also mentioned in Herodotus.  A statue allegedly of Aesop by Lysippus, Greek sculptor (C370-300 BCE) is held in the Villa Albani in Rome. Aesop is also mentioned in Aristophanes as well as the Roman poets Ennius and Horace and the writings of Plutarch. In spite of all this, The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1997) notes that Aesop is probably a legendary figure. (p.9).  This collection of fables acknowledges that the stories contained in this edition have been gathered from sources far and wide and they are not and cannot be precisely dated. Only a very small number explicitly refer to Aesop.

Thomas Bewick, (1753-1828),  was an outstanding English wood engraver whose major work was the outstanding two volume work of British Birds. Bewick also engraved The History of Quadrupeds and Gay’s Fables as The Fables of Aesop, which he also annotated with clear and helpful analysis of the meaning and purpose of each fable. This Paddington version is an exact reprint of the 1818 edtion.  There are 180 fables in this impressive collection and each one has a short, wise and to the point analysis by Bewick himself. The book includes an introduction by Michael Marqusee, The Preface Dedicaory ‘To the Youth of the British Isles’ written byBewick himself, and an introduction outlining a ‘history’ of Aesop as well as comments about the source of other fables. 

Although some of Bewick’s reflections can get a bit tedious after 180 fables, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book if only because a number of these fables are well remembered from my own childhood reading.   5 stars.

Antony Beevor: Berlin: The Downfall 1945, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003  

Antony Beevor
Berlin: The Downfall 1945

English historian and former serving officer in the British 11th Hussars, is arguably  England’s most well known and competent historian of the Second World War.  This demanding read tells the chilling story of just five months in the ferocious cataclysm of World War 11…the fall of Berlin to the Allies and the end of the Second World War in Europe. This is not a story for soft hearts. On the contrary it is a tale of seemingly unending horror, of mass rape, of the murder of millions of lives,  of the senseless destruction of homes, cities, historical architecture, and of the folly of human pride, perversity, greed and the simple desire for power and rule.

Beevor is amazingly even handed in his treatment of the final stages of this destructive whirlwind which convulsed Europe. The race to Berlin was the seminal goal of the Allies at the start of 

2005 but it was by no means a certain question. Germany may have been defeated in north Africa, Asia, Stalingrad and in the air but on the ground in Germany her vast armies were still strong and well maintained.  So begins a titanic conflict as the United States and British military move relentlessly towards Berlin from the West and the immense Russian armies surround Berlin from the north, east and south. 

Beevor handles the complexity with dexterity and makes the story clear even for folk like myself who have never looked closely at the detailed planning, communication, feeding and political complexity of three ferocious war machines … Russia, the Western allies and Germany. Well crafted maps, four sets of excellent photographs, and clear explanations of each situation enable the reader to feel both the immensity and the shock horror of C20th destructive warfare.

In between the unending battles, Beevor analyses through real life examples, the strengths and weaknesses of generals, the plight of innocent victims, the assumption that mass rape in war is to be expected, the jealousy of individual leaders, the weaknesses and strengths of Stalin, Churchill and Eisenhower, the tension between military, secret police and counter intelligence leaders, and the crushing destruction of thousands of innocent lives.  Beevor provides excellent analysis of the mysteries behind Hitler’s final days and the chilling destructiveness and power of Stalin. 

In the age of Putin, this book is important to read to remind ourselves that there can be no winners in a world war.   5 stars.

Books read August 2022

Peter Frankopan: The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, p/b, London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018  

The New Silk Roads: The Present and the Future of the World
Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan’s Major history of the world, The Silk Roads, was a massively popular analysis of the key events of world history seen from the East instead of, as usual, from a Western point of view. He has followed up with an update, published in 2018 which includes President Putin’s attacks on south eastern Ukraine, Brexit, the Trump administration in the USA and the rise and rise of China as the world’s greatest superpower. 

Frankopan demonstrates with his normal detailed and many sourced analysis that traditional international norms no longer apply in an age when both the USA and Russia have been surpassed in growth and technical fire power by a swiftly emerging all powerful China. It is not too much to say that “the triumph of liberal democracy is on hold if not over” (p.243). To quote Henry Kissinger: A divided Atlantic would turn Europe into ‘an appendage of Eurasia’ forced to look not West but East to a China whose aim is to be the principal advisor to all humanity. (P.243) The change is particularly illustrated by the leaning of Silk Road states Turkey and India toward Russia rather than Europe and America.

This book makes disturbing reading especially now in the light of President Putin’s all out assault on Ukraine, America’s chaotic and shameful failure and withdrawal from Afghanistan and China’s aggressive moves towards colonising the South China Sea as well as its consistent harassment of Taiwan. Although the election of the moderate Jo Biden as President of the USA has removed the chaos of the Trump administration for at least a term of office, it is difficult to read this book without feeling deep misgivings about the future of liberal democracy anywhere in the world.  Don’t read this book if you want to sleep easy at night about the future.  5 stars. 

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies, p/b, London, John Murray, 2021 (2016)  

Lisa McInerney
The Glorious Heresies

First novel by young Irish writer Lisa McInerney lets the reader into the underbelly of city life in current day Ireland.  Based on the city of Cork the novel describes the drug, crime and prostitution scene in frank and lurid detail including prison life for offenders. There is a thread of black humour throughout the novel which keeps the reader engaged and in addition there are threads of well meaning but hopeless religious do-gooders who usually end up making things worse. There is a deal of bitterness and anger thrown at the efforts of the church in this novel.

The main thread of the novel is based around school dropout Ryan Cusack, his girlfriend Karine D’Arcy, and his alcoholic and sometimes violent father. There follows a trail of teenage sexual encounters, drug addled users, brutal crime bosses, beaten up prostitutes, failed families and dodgy religious organisations. 

In the final chapter there is a faint glimmer of hope from a somewhat crazed source but the glimmer is very faint and untrustworthy.  This is the sort of teenage warning literature that used to be given to high school English teachers when I began my teaching career fifty years ago. I presume the intention was to warn the Year 9’s off the bad life but in my experience the outcome was titillation and little else. 

If one has the view that a key purpose of good literature is to uplift the reader and bring light and hope into even the darkest trauma, then this is not the novel to read. If the writer’s purpose is to display her handling of ironic and grim humour with plenty of sex thrown in then the writer has succeeded admirably.There is a genuine task for sociologists to detail the causes and motivations of the underground criminal drug world and the task is urgent. The creation of a fiction of unredeemed hopelessness where the only light is black humour seems to me to be a pointless exercise for the reader. There are so many more important things to be doing!  2 stars

Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, p/b, London, 4th Estate, 2020 (642 pages).  

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time

Craig Brown is an English author of 19 books, a  critic and satirist. Untold numbers of books have been written about the Beatles. Brown himself cites 108 books about the Beatles that he sourced in writing The Beatles in Time. I am not a great fan of biographies or autobiographies especially sporting and musical biographies but this book is quite different.

Brown makes no attempt to chronicle the lives and music of the Beatles in a systematic and ordered manner. Rather he has written about snapshots of Beatles’ “events in time” of all sorts. These have occurred in many different countries, with many different people, about just some of the Beatles’ songs and focussing on the unusual and unlikely events that formed part of the Beatles experience…and there are many!

Some of these events are extremely funny especially the examples of fan mail; some are extremely sad; many show both the incredible impact many by the Beatles on the Rock world well beyond all their contemporaries with the possible exception of the Rolling Stones with whom they were close friends. Some of these events are morally outrageous; other events show the extreme gullibility of the Beatles in regard to the con men and users who wheedled their way into the lives of the Beatles for ulterior motives. 

Never far away in this narrative is the impact of drugs in just about every situation in the book after the first two years.  Brown makes no judgments in this account but rather seeks to tell the stories as accurately as he can. In several places he cites the radically different accounts of the same event that have been written by different authors.

This is a large book but very easy to read and hard to put down. If you haven’t read a book about the Beatles I can certainly recommend this one. It is a seriously interesting read. 5 stars 

Niall Williams: History of the Rain: pb, London, Bloomsbury, 2015  

Niall Williams
History of the Rain

Beautifully crafted narrative of four generations of the Swain family in the fictional town of Faha in Clare County Ireland. The narrative is told by Ruth Swain, who is confined to bed due to an undefined illness. Her father Vergil, a champion pole vaulter, war survivor, salmon fisherman, book collector and would be poet is the central figure in the narrative although attention is also paid to Ruth’s Great Grandfather and her Grandfather. The room in which Ruth is confined is an attic containing the numbered and named three thousand, nine hundred and fifty nine books accumulated by Vergil in his career and she sets herself the task of reading them all. 

What Vergil is not good at is farming and the house and farm they live in gradually begins to disintegrate on his watch.  The central power of the novel is both the incessant rain and swift flowing river which borders their home as well as the dry humour with which the narrative is written. The curious, humorous and beautifully written narrative engulfs the reader and makes the novel difficult to put down. There are passages of sublime descriptive power, moments of deep sadness, and plenty of straightforward humour, all of which draw the reader forward unrelentingly.  Williams also manages to include an outline of the political ups and downs of Ireland through these four generations with humour and resignation.

Williams began his writing career as a non-fiction writer but has achieved significant success writing fiction with eight well regarded novels to his name to this point. I found this novel very engaging and will look for more of Williams’ books. Being a manic book collector myself I was fascinated with the titles Ruth commented on. This is a book to savour and I think to read again. 5 stars. 

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time: The Fugitive, Trans. & Intro, Peter Collier, p/b,  Camberwell, Penguin, 2002 (1923).   

Marcel Proust
The Fugitive

The Fugitive is the sixth book of Proust’s laborious novel In Search of Lost Time. Here the Narrator continues the story of his strained relationship with Albertine. In Book V, The Prisoner, the Narrator has kept Albertine in his house with her consent. In order to keep her he showers her with expensive gifts and makes absurd promises to her. She is constantly watched by the Narrator so that she doesn’t stray and when she goes out it is only with individuals trusted by the Narrator. Of course Albertine easily gets around all these rules and Book V closes with the Narrator in despair and wanting to end the relationship. 

Now in Book V1 we find that Albertine has left of her own accord and has begun to resume her former promiscuous lifestyle. The Narrator is horrified! Even though he had decided to separate from Albertine, her taking the initiative destroys him completely. A large part of Book V1 describes the Narrator’s distraught and somewhat depressing attempts to persuade Albertine to return to being “a prisoner”. Then, abruptly, the Narrator receives the message that Albertine has been killed in a horse riding accident. This tragedy throws the Narrator into a reverie of all that Albertine had meant to him and further tortures him with his dependent neurotic love for her. He embarks on an energetic mission to try to find out whether the stories of Albertine’s sexual encounters with women were in fact true by seeking out former close associates of Albertine and paying them to establish the truth. When he finds out that the stories are true he tries to excuse or deny them but also as the weeks past, his passion for Albertine begins to wane. 

The final chapters of Book V1 describe the Narrator’s visit to Venice with his mother and the news which comes as they are returning home that his first love Gilberte has announced her engagement to his good friend Saint-Loup, now the wealthy Marquise de Saint-Loup. The story closes with the Narrator visiting Gilberte at her old home in Combray where they grew up together. Their friendship resumes but not at a romantic level. At the same time the Narrator learns that Saint-Loup is regularly unfaithful to Gilberte with other women and also other men.  

We await the final dénouement of In Search of Lost Time, the longest novel ever written. Book V11 is entitled Finding Time Again. 

Richard  Bauckham: Jesus and the Eye Witnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Second Edition, Foreword Simon Gathercole, h/b, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2017  

Richard Bauckham
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

Richard Bauckham is a British theologian and New Testament scholar, a member of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Scotland, working from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is the author of over thirty books as well as an extraordiary array of articles and book chapters. 

This highly regarded book is definitely not for beginners in reading theology. Bauckham’s research is meticulously documented and no issue is left to chance. In a work of 615 pages plus indexes and bibliography the reader needs a fair degree of grit as well as some background in theological vocabulary and early church history. It is fair to say this is a book for scholars, clergy committed to the preaching and teaching of the historicity of the New Testament, and, dare I say it, deep thinking sceptics who consider the whole Christian story to be a fairytale. 

In essence Bauckham challenges the standard Form Critical approach of much C20th theology. This movement was led by German theologians K. L. Schmidt, Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius. The movement held and defended the view that the New Testament Gospel accounts are late and based on individual units of transmission passed on anonymously in the communities of Roman occupied Judea and Asia Minor, which treated them more or less creatively. This German dominated theology was followed by Engish speaking theologians and led to a sceptical account of many of the miracle stories, healing narratives and resurrection events of the four Gospels in many Western countries. It is fair to say that the conservative response to this powerful movement was a long time in the making but began making inroads in the second half of the C20th including leadership from Australia’s own Dr Leon Morris.

Bauckham’s argument in a nutshell is that the Gospel stories can be verified by reliable eye witness accounts collected and distributed by trusted Christian leaders including the twelve chosen disciples of Jesus and a wide range of other followers of Jesus. He argues that these stories were taught orally by trusted early leaders in evolving Christian communities at a time when oral teaching was more highly regarded than written testimony. Only when the witnesses began to die in the last years of the first Christian century was the church galvanised into the writing of coordinated accounts of Jesus life and ministry. The Gospel of Mark, thought by most scholars to be the memories of Peter, was followed by Luke’s carefully researched account and the originally Hebrew version of Matthew’s Gospel. They based their outline on Mark and added additional teaching material of Jesus. Finally the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple John was written, quite different in content and approach from the first three Gospels. Bauckham argues that the Beloved disciple was not to be confused with the disciple John the son of Zebedee.

I believe this book will enliven and encourage preachers, Bible teachers  and thoughtful lay people. It is a work of deep scholarship and it cannot ignored in any study of the four canonical Gospels.   5 stars

Books read July 2022

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies, p/b, London, John Murray, 2021 (2016)  

Lisa McInerny

First novel by young Irish writer Lisa McInerney lets the reader into the underbelly of city life in current day Ireland.  Based on the city of Cork the novel describes the drug, crime and prostitution scene in frank and lurid detail including prison life for offenders. There is a thread of black humour throughout the novel which keeps the reader engaged and in addition there are threads of well meaning but hopeless religious do-gooders who usually end up making things worse. There is a deal of bitterness and anger thrown at the efforts of the church in this novel.

The main thread of the novel is based around school dropout Ryan Cusack, his girlfriend Karine D’Arcy, and his alcoholic and sometimes violent father. There follows a trail of teenage sexual encounters, drug addled users, brutal crime bosses, beaten up prostitutes, failed families and dodgy religious organisations. 

In the final chapter there is a faint glimmer of hope from a somewhat crazed source but the glimmer is very faint and untrustworthy.  This is the sort of teenage warning literature that used to be given to high school English teachers when I began my teaching career fifty years ago. I presume the intention was to warn the Year 9’s off the bad life but in my experience the outcome was titillation and little else. 

If one has the view that a key purpose of good literature is to uplift the reader and bring light and hope into even the darkest trauma, then this is not the novel to read. If the writer’s purpose is to display her handling of ironic and grim humour with plenty of sex thrown in then the writer has succeeded admirably.There is a genuine task for sociologists to detail the causes and motivations of the underground criminal drug world and the task is urgent. The creation of a fiction of unredeemed hopelessness where the only light is black humour seems to me to be a pointless exercise for the reader. There are so many more important things to be doing!  2 stars

Marcel Proust:  In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner: Trans., Intro & Notes, Carol Clark, p/b,  Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (1923).  

Marcel Proust

The Prisoner takes up in some detail the ongoing relationship between the Narrator (for the first time actually admitting that his name is ‘Marcel’) and his girlfriend Albertine, whom he met on vacation in Balbec way back in Book 2 (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower).  The Narrator has come to an understanding with Albertine.  She will come to live with him at his parents flat in Paris and he will provide for her on the understanding that she will only leave the house under the guardianship of someone the Narrator approves of, and never at night except with the Narrator. 

His purpose is to prevent her from marrying anyone else and also to stop her from behaving badly with other women.  Albertine has her own bedroom but they are quite intimate with each other, sometimes sleeping in the same bed and with the Narrator regularly undressing Albertine but never actually having sexual intercourse.  (This presumably to safeguard Albertine’s honour and marriageabiltiy in case the relationship breaks up, although this is never explicity stated).

Albertine has accepted these limitations on her freedom and in exchange the Narrator showers her with very expensive presents, dresses, jewellery, artworks, painting lessons, even offering to buy her a yacht which never eventuates. Thus Albertine effectively becomes the Narrator’s “prisoner” and indeed the Narrator is also “imprisoned” in the same house, keeping a wary and very jealous eye on Albertine In spite of the dislike and close attention of the Narrator’s maid Françine, Albertine finds many ways to do what she needs to do when out of the house. She is aided especially by her friend from Balbec,  Andrée,  whom the Narrator trusts implicitly but unwisely. 

Of couse Albertine’s activities gradually come to the knowledge of the Narrator. The peculiarity of the Narrator’s behaviour with Albertine leads him to say that his behaviour would so often give the reader the impression of strange changes in direction that he would think me almost mad. (p.320f). This was often my feeling I have to admit. As the translator Carol Clark writes: “The Prisoner” is a strange mixture of the improbable and the painfully realistic.” One reason for the curious nature of their sexual behaviour was the challenge of what would and would not be publishable in the 1920’s. 

A major sub-story of The Prisoner, is the increasingly overt and homosexually active behaviour of M. de Charlus,  who has taken guardianship of the outstanding violinist Morel who also displays his own sexually aggressive habits. Baron de Charlus who has taken a very dominant role throughout Books 2-5 meets his sad Waterloo at a musical soiree organised by M. and Mme Verdurin. The Narrator is opposed to homosexuality throughout the five volumes, although it was well known that Proust himself was a homosexual, which perhaps explains his sympathy and respect for Baron de Charlus after his very public downfall. 

In spite of the at times pathetic and rather ridiculous nature of the “imprisonment” of Albertine, there are  once again many beautiful and thought provoking passages in this novel which delve deeply into literature (especially the writing of Dostoyevski) art, music, the philosophy of love and jealousy and much more besides.  The translation is outstanding and the explanatory notes, as always, helpful and informative. Proust died before the final three volumes of his massive work were completely finalised and the editors of this new version have done an excellent job in pulling the various elements of the final three volumes together.   The climax of this novel leaves the reader gasping and regretful that the relationship is actually over.  For the first time in five novels I am now quite keen to read Book 6, The Fugitive.  5 stars.

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, p/b, London, Bloomsbury, 2016  

Peter Frankopan

Croatian born Peter Frankopan is the Professor of Global History at Oxford University and also with his wife runs a chain of exclusive international hotels as well as managing a $14 million trust from his parent’s supermarket chain! His mother was a Swedish Professor of international Law.

This book stayed on the British Sunday Times Non-Fiction charts for nine months and I understand why. It is certainly the most readable, stunning and extraordinary non-fiction book I have ever read and I have read a few. The reference section runs to 94 pages in small type and contains material from over ten languages.

The sweep of Frankopan’s writings is vast, sweeping through the earliest tribes emerging from the silk road steppes inciuding Attila the Hun’s reign of terror and much later the all conqurering Mongol empire lead by Genghis Khan and his son Ogödei who became the Great Khan. The extraordinary cultures and wealth generated from the silk roads is the essence of this book. This does not mean Frankopan ignores Egypt, the Greeks and the Romans. Frankopan handles with effective and fascinating details the tensions and trauma associated with Christianity’s hammering out of the theology of Christ as the Son of God over five centuries as well as the impact of Islam from the C7th onwards. 

Nevertheless, never far away are the Silk Roads and he effectively argues that after the fall of Rome, Europe was a backwater for a thousand years while the real action and culture was elsewhere from Venice eastwards. It is so refreshing to read a world history that is not Western-centric.

When it comes to the British and American ascendancy and the European wars Frankopan once again demonstrates the importance of Russia and its links with the east. The bankruptcy of England following the second world war and the importance of the Persian and Arabic oil supplies, along with the power of China brings the story full circle back to the Silk Roads.

Frankopan’s style is dynamic, elegant, sure-footed, exciting, racy and impossible to put down. Any thoughtful student prepared to read this book will immediately make  history their life’s work. In my version this book runs to 521 pages but I could not put it down. If, like me, you are tired of the shallow gotcha and point scoring that is called news on today’s television screens I suggest you give the tv a rest and take to this book.  Your view of the world will never be the same! 10 stars!

Books Read June 2022

John Dickson:  Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History,  h/b, Grand Rapids, Zondervan Reflective, 2021 

John Dickson

John Dickson is an outstanding Australian historian with over 20 books to his credit. He is a visiting academic at Oxford University teaching Classics; he teaches a course on the historical Jesus at the University of Sydney and is Distinguished Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Public Christianity at Ridley College.

Bullies and Saintsis a sobering read for committed Christians. Whilst a number of Dickson’s books have been of an apologetic nature aimed at persuading folk on the edge to check out the vast array of evidence for the Christian faith, this book is aimed at believing Christians who might get quite a shock when they read it. I know I did. 

Dickson throws a very powerful spotlight on the less attractive side of Christian history as well as giving credit to Christianity’s world changing impact on our world and on our lives. The reader is truly amazed by the extraordinary transformation of the pagan Roman Empire into a Christian nation in just three hundred or so years. Equally powerful and  moving are Dickson’s accounts of individual Christian leaders including Gregory of Nazianzus, Alcuin of York, Benedict of Nursia, Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi and the faithful witness of the Eastern Byzantine Church little known to many Western Christians.  They truly are “the saints” and it is good to learn of their faith, courage and determination to change the world for Christ. 

Equally overwhelming and indeed at times dispiriting are the “bullies”. Here, far too frequently, the Christian reader has to recoil in shame at the antics and horrific behaviour of Christian leaders at various times, whose intentions may well have been honourable but whose practices when you get down to detail were shameful and very unChristian!  The list is long and included the bullying of non-Christians in the Roman Empire once Christianity became the official religion of Rome; the hapless mess of the Crusading era including the appalling sacking of Constantinople and the massacre of helpless victims in the Jerusalem temple; the Christian warfare unleashed by Augustine’s doctrine of a just war including in later centuries the coercion and violence of Charlemagne; The Inquisition era (although the number of deaths involved is relatively small compared with earlier and later tragedies); Martin Luther’s vicious and destructive writing against the Jews; The wars of religion in the 1600’s involving appalling loss of life in Germany and Czechoslovakia; The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland; and in some ways the most horrific of all,  the damage done by Christian leaders in child abuse in the modern church, 

These chapters give one pause and are indeed dispiriting to read. Yes it can be argued that the thirty years war following the Reformation was largely political (France vs the might of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire; The Irish “troubles” brought about by political machinations rather than religious), yet to outsiders it all just looks like religion is the problem. One saving grace is the recognition in our own day by non-Christian historians like Terry Eagleton, Raymond Gaita and Tom Holland that our current Western world view of the intrinsic value of humanity and ethics would not have been possible without the Christian revolution.

Church History is not the most commonly read diet of the average Christian. Bullies and Saints will certainly change the way a Christian views the world since Christ’s teaching of repentance, love and faithfulness. It will give food for thought but also encouragement to everyone who gets 

behind a microphone to commend the Christian Gospel. 5 stars!

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned, p/b, London, Vintage Books, 2010 (1921)  

F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Damned and the Beautiful

This is certainly one of the saddest and most depressing books I have read in a long time. Scott Fitzgerald is a master story teller especially of the high life of the roaring twenties, in which he himself played a major part. 

In this novel Anthony Patch,  heir to a vast fortune, finishes University and finds himself unable to contemplate any particular form of work. “ it astonishes me…I don’t understand why people think that every young man ought to go down-town and work ten hours a day for the best twenty years of his life at dull, unimaginative work, certainly not altruistic work.”  [p.64]. As can be seen from this quotation, Anthony’s life of travel. parties, friendships, outings and socialising is pleasant enough and his generosity makes him many friends.

His life is magically enhanced by his attraction to the gorgeous Gloria Gilbert,  a young lady who was equally determined to use her beauty, dancing skills and dynamic personality to live her life to the full and die forever young.  Everything goes fine for a time but their hectic lifestyle is expensive and although Anthony lives in expectation of a wonderful fortune, his grandfather is a long living survivor and his allowance, reasonable enough, was no match for their outgoings. In addition Anthony gradually develops a serious alcohol addiction.

LIfe gets more complicated when Anthony is drafted into the US army towards the end of the first world war. Although the war ended before he had to fight the American economy was going down the tube at the same time and Anthony and Gloria had to cut their cloth. The result is a continuing and depressing downward spiral. There are some humorous events but the direction is all downhill. There is a very funny unexpected ending which caps off a story which I suspect was true of a number of wealthy young men during the high life of the twenties.  Fitzgerald was part of this world and the truth to life is searing in places. This story, though sad, is hard to put down. Fitzgerald, though disregarded in his own time, is now regarded as one of the finest American novelists of all time. If you read this book you will, I think, agree…it is a story not easily forgotten. 

5 stars

Peter Adam: Written For Us: Receiving God’s Words in the Bible, p/b, Nottingham, IVP, 2008  

Revd Dr Peter Adam

The Revd Dr Peter Adam, former Principal of Ridley College Melbourne, Vicar emeritus of St Jude’s Carlton,  and world renowned for his speaking and writing gifts has written a significant book about what the Bible teaches about itself.   Although this book was first published in 2008 it is still in print and available at Koorong and online.   In summary this book is about receiving God’s words, written for his people, by his Spirit, about his Son. Peter takes each of these phrases in turn and develops his understanding of their meaning in a way which is easy to understand, helpful and indeed provocative. Although the book tends to be aimed at Christian leaders I think the average church attender would be very encouraged by reading it. 

Some of the key ideas Peter develops are outlined below:

  • The Church has greater value than the Bible, for the Bible is the means to achieve an end, and the end or purpose is the creation of God’s church. The Church is composed of God’s people, who are made in God’s image…and are being transformed into the image of the Lord Jesus. (page 46)
  • Canonising does not confer authority on the text. It acknowledges authority already present.  (p47 quoting Kenneth Craig: The Lively Credentials of God.)
  • It is important to recognise the variety of styles of authority in Scripture. (eg direct command, entreaty, parable, encouragement, stories of the past, appeals not to demean ourselves, warnings, promises)….It is important to take notice of this variety, otherwise we can tend to read  one style of authority (‘Do this because God told you to do it’) into every part of the Bible, and so misrepresent God. We might also tend to adopt this one style of authority ourselves, which would mar God’s image in us.  (p.48)
  • We can trust the authority of the Bible because of the example and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. For Christ authenticated the Bible as he taught about the Old Testament, referred to his own teaching and promised the ministry of the Holy Spirit of truth and ministry of his own apostles and their associates. (p.52)
  • God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit…. and our personal response to God and our response to Scripture is a response to the Holy Spirit. (p54)
  • Exegesis of the Bible is an act of sustained humility (Eugene Peterson, p. 57)
  • The Bible is the product of the divine Spirit, but it is not itself divine. It effectively conveys divine truth, but it is not God.  (p.59)
  • We were created to believe God, and if we do not believe God, we will believe other words and serve other gods. (p.70)
  • Unless one is to betray the future, one must ensure that the past abides (p.107)
  • Greater responsibility brings greater judgment. (p.127)
  • Be alert and not over confident; we can fall as easily when we think we are safe (p134)
  • Pastoral intelligence requires Biblical understanding, theological awareness, a loving understanding of people, and a good perception of how different people hear, change, and are motivated. (p.148)
  • So much damage is done when we focus in our teaching on secondary issues, and neglect to teach the content of the faith. (p.148)
  • The idea that we can be non-aligned in matters of religion is ridiculous. There is no neutral ground. (p222)

These quotations are just a taste of the riches of this thoughtful book. I warmly commend it.

 5 stars


I attended Melbourne University between the years 1967-169 studying for an Arts Degree and living for two years at Ridley College and one year in a Canning St Carlton flat with two friends. I say “studying” because although I faithfully attended lectures, pracs and tutorials my actual “studying” was somewhat casual and intermittent and in at least one subject I regularly received the message at the end of the year “passed but advised not to continue”. My real passions were working with the Melbourne University Evangelical Union as it was then called (now the Christian Union), and also playing in a folk music group called The Saints and Sinners. 

It was when playing with this group that I was introduced to Ann Richter who before too long became my girl friend and at the end of my fourth year (Dip.Ed.), my wife. In our courting days Ann was working full time at Radio Station 3KZ as a copy writer and later publicity manager and so my time at University in those halcyon days was even less centred on the University itself. My first major was English and while I don’t recall much of what I read two writers stood out. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin remains my favourite novel of all time but a much less well known poet, American Theodore Roethke wrote many lines which chimed in with my then infatuation with Ann and have remained with me through the fifty one years of our marriage and I hope many more to come. Lines such as from the poem The Waking:

All lovers live by longing, and endure:

Summon a vision and declare it pure.

Herewith a poem by Roethke that means a lot to me still.

1 Words for the Wind 

Love, love, a lily’s my care,

She’s sweeter than a tree

Loving, I use the air

Most lovingly: I breathe;

Mad in the wind I wear

Myself as I should be

My brother the vine is glad.

Are flower and seed the same?

What do the great dead say?

Sweet Phoebe, she’s my theme:

She sways whenever I sway.

‘O love me while I am,

You green thing in my way!’

I cried, and birds came down

And made my song their own.

Motion can keep me still:

She kissed me out of thought

As a lovely substance will:

She wandered; I did not:

I stayed, and light fell

Across her pulsing throat;

I stared, and a garden stone

Slowly became the moon.

The shallow stream runs slack;

The wind creaks slowly by;

Out of a nestling’s beak

Comes a tremulous cry

I cannot answer back;

A shape from deep in the eye,—

That woman I saw in a stone, —

Keeps pace when I walk alone.

11 The sun declares the earth;

The stones leap in the stream;

On a wide plain, beyond

The far stretch of a dream,

A field breaks like the sea;

The wind’s white with her name,

And I walk with the wind.

The dove’s my will today.

She sways, half in the sun:

Rose, easy on a stem,

One with the sighting vine,

One to be merry with,

And pleased to meet the moon.

She likes wherever I am.

Passion’s enough to give

Shape to a random joy:

I cry delight: I know

The root, the core of cry:

Swan-heart, arbutus calm,

She moves when time is shy:

Love has a thing to do.

The loam gleams like a wet coal;

The green, the springing green

Makes an intenser day

Under the rising moon;

I smile, no mineral man;

I bear, but not alone,

The burden of this joy.

111 Under a southern wind,

The birds and fishes move

North, in a single stream:

The sharp stars swing around:

I get a step beyond

The wind, and there I am;

I’m odd and full of love.

Wisdom, where is it found?

Those who embrace, believe,

Whatever was, still is,

Says a song tied to a tree.

Below, on the ferny ground,

In rivery air, at ease,

I walk with my true love.

What time’s my heart? I care.

I cherish what I have

Had of the temporal:

I am no longer young

But the winds and waters are;

What falls away will fall:

All things bring me to love.

1V The breath of a long root,

The shy perimeter

Of the unfolding rose,

The green, the altered leaf,

The oyster’s sweeping foot,

And the incipient star,—

Are part of what she is.

She wakes the ends of life.

Being myself, I sing

The soul’s immediate joy.

Light, light, where’s my repose?

A wind writhes round a tree.

A thing is done: a thing

Body and Spirit know

When I do what she does:

Creaturely creature, she!—

I kiss her moving mouth,

Her swart hilarious skin;

She breaks my breath in half;

She frolics like a beast;

And I dance round and round,

A fond and foolish man,

And see and suffer myself

In another being, at last.

  Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963)

Educated at the University of Michigan and Harvard; started of with law but found his strength and interest in poetry. Won a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Much of his plant imagery comes from his father’s substantial greenhouses where he grew up. Struggled with and overcame a  mental disorder.  Married Beatrice O’Connell later in life. She organised the publication of his last set of poems.

Theodore Roethke

Peter Ackroyd: The Fall of Troy, p/b, London, Vintage Books, 2007  

Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is arguably the most prolific writer currently writing in English. HIs remarkable writing career includes many novels, six major biographies, and four major works of non-fiction based on the city of London. The Fall of Troy is a fictional novel loosely based on the German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890). 

Schleimann was a complex and driven man who made a fortune in America with various schemes many of which were of a dubious nature. In later life he obtained American citizenship also in a dubious manner and divorced his wife, marrying the younger Sophia. At the same time  Schleimann developed a passion for archaeology and he focussed  on the site of Hissarlik in modern Turkey on land owned by the family of another amateur archaelogist Frank Calvert who suggested he try there. 

Although Schliemann’s methods were disastrous by modern standards (using large scale engineering equipment and heavy machinery, ruining many levels and artifacts), Schliemann did in fact uncover many layers of an ancient city in Hissarlik , Turkey, which most scholars today do regard as containing the ancient city of Troy. Schleimann also uncovered an extremely valuable cache of ancient and beautiful jewellery but his hopes of finding the Troy of Homer were dashed by later analysis of the Hissarlik site.  New analysis of its  written materials and a reassessment of  other finds used by Schliemann along with further research on the site led  eventually to a date closer to c. 3000-2000 BC, a much earlier and more primitive society than the time of Homer’s epic in C8th-C7th BC

Peter Ackroyd’s novel uses many of the above elements of Schleimann’s life to tell his fictional story of Heinrich Obermann, an amateur archaelogist, linguist and historian, who like Schliemann was an obsessive. Ackroyd’s Heinrich Obermann could converse in at least eight languages, as could Schleimann and Herr Obermann also was married to a Sophia. From these likenesses onwards the story takes the reader on a far more sinister and unsettling journey. Mysterious  events occur which quickly immerse the reader in a drama impossible to put down.  Ackroyd’s ability to build suspense and the fear of something threatening is outstanding. I have to say the novel builds to a point where it is quite impossible to put down!  Ackroyd is a master story teller and this is one of his best.  5 stars 

Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire, Ed, E. Martin Browne, p/b Ringwood, Penguin,  1962 (1947)  

Tennessee Williams

C20th playwright Tennessee Williams was one of America’s most successful writers for the stage with many of his plays becoming equally successful movies. Most of his plays revolve file:///.file/id=6571367.8621200842 around the themes of anger, envy and violence,  attributes which, on his own admission he had been guilty of himself in life.  He rejects the idea that file:///.file/id=6571367.8621200842 his works are about hate and argues that writing about human selfishness and uncontrolled violence, usually to do with alcohol, can highlight the tragedy of meaningless and hurtful human relationships. His own father, a travelling salesman, was an alcolholic and violent towards his son.

This play is based around two sisters. Stella who is living with Stanley Kowalski and about to have a child, and her sister the beautiful Blanche Du Bois, a failed school teacher who has lived on the wild side but whose good looks are fading and who has lost the family home and needs shelter.  Stella and Stanley live in a poor and lazy area of New Orleans in a tiny two bedroom one bathroom apartment of a larger boarding house. Stella’s husband Stanley is large, noisy, dominant and alcohol addicted and very angry that Blanche has lost the family’s inheritance.  

Blanche forms a relationship with Stanley’s friend Mitch but lies about her past to do so. Stanley does some digging and uncovers Blanche’s doubtful history. The stage is set for a violent conflagration after Stella goes to hospital to have her baby and Stanley and Blanche are left alone in the house. 

Williams has produced a powerful and disturbing play wired with electricity with the future of the relationships left to the imagination.  5 stars. 

Brian S. Rosner: Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, [New Studies in Biblical Theology Series], p/b, Downers Grove, Inter Varsity Press, 2013  

Brian Rosner

Brian Rosner is the current Principal of Ridley College Melbourne and has contributed widely to the theological scene in Australia, Britain and the United States. Paul and the Law asks the key question What is the relationship of the Biblical Law of Moses to the Christian understanding of faith in Christ?  He bases his response on the work of Paul as the major contributor to the apostolic witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not to diminish the writer of Hebrews of the epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude but simply to limit the size of an already substantial work.

In a nutshell, Rosner argues that Christians are not subject to the Jewish law in the sense of being obedient to every command in the Pentateuch, because the Messiah, Jesus has come to fulfil the law and the prophets. While this is true the law and the commandments of God remain central to Paul’s theology. In Rosner’s analysis, some of the laws are repudiated, for example circumcision; some of the laws are replaced because we walk no longer in the law of the Mosaic letter but in the law of faith and the law of the Spirit; and some of the laws are reappropriated as prophecy and wisdom for example the moral teaching of the Mosaic law.

These three themes are analysed with an extended and clear analysis of the key texts. In addition Rosner interacts with the conclusions of other scholars both ancient and modern. In addition Rosner makes use of a vast array  of Biblical and extra Biblical material including material from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus and many other relevant sources.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’


Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen 

justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c. 

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend 

With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just. 

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must 

Disappointment all I endeavour end? 

    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, 

How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost 

Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust 

Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend, 

Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes 

Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again 

With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes 

Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain, 

Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes. 

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Books read May 2022


Rod Dreher: The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,  p/b, Sentinel, New York, 2018  

Rod Dreher
The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher was brought up in a strict Methodist home and went his own way until finding Christianity in his twenties. He was, for many years a member of the Roman Catholic Church and more recently he joined the Orthodox Church in the USA.  He has been an aggressive commentator, journalist and writer for many years with some strong opinions which have brought him into considerable controversy and some of which he has retreated from. 

I was interested to read this book initially because I have always been a fan of the C5th/C6th writing of Benedict.  Benedict formulated a Rule for monks who wished to join his monastery and whose gentle but powerful and practical theology has influenced many Christians to this day, and not just those in the Orthodox Church. His influence and ideas have spread well beyond the monastery walls to aid many followers in their life of walking with Christ.

I was therefore quite surprised to find that there is only one chapter in this book dealing with St Benedict (chapter 3) and that relates to the year 2000 re-opening of the St Benedict’s monastery in Norcia, Italy, which had been suppressed in 1810 by Napoleon.  The Prior of the re-opened monastery is a 65 year old American Father Cassian who reopened the monastery with six other monks in 2000. Since the book was written massive earthquakes have shattered both the monastery and the old church to which it was attached in Norcia but there are hopes of rebuilding.  For those who would like to deepen their knowledge of the Rule of St Benedict  I would warmly recommend Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict, 1984 and reprinted many times since and still in print. It is a precious experience to read and I would count it in my top three Christian books I have ever read for helping me to draw closer to Christ.  

What we do have with Dreher’s  Benedict Option?  In brief this book seeks to find a way for conservative Christians to respond to the collapse of traditional Christian faith in mainstream American society. (He frequently refers to “The West” but his narrative and description largely refers to the USA, although there are some similarities with the collapse of conservative Christianity in Western Europe and in Australia and Canada.)

Dreher’s energetic ideas, packed with references to fellow travellers and writers, books and seminars revolve around an analysis of the demise of mainstream conservative American Christian culture, and how to re-energise it. He has chapters which include: a short history of the  conservative Christian collapse in America; political issues; the need for a recovery of ancient forms of worship and church order;  the idea of a Christian village; the challenges of Christian education in a negative school environment; the powerful impact of Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015,  and its impact on conservative Christians holding their jobs and livelihoods in American society; and two thoughtful and helpful chapters on Eros and the New Counter-Culture and on Man and the Machine. 

My initial disappointment about the content colours somewhat my view of this book but I think many would agree that Dreher’s work would have been better with strong editing, a slower pace and far fewer examples of discussions, books and conversation which come staccato like one after another. I keep having the feeling that Dreher is keen to show off his vast network of people and ideas.

A major weakness of the book in my view is that no attention at all is given to gay Christians who choose to remain celibate. In addition there is no discussion about ways in which conservative Christian churches might relate to gay members who wish to remain in the church. A chapter on mediating a response to deep differences of opinion within a church congregation would, I believe,  have significantly strengthened the appeal of this book.   3 stars. 

The book comes with a useful study guide and an excellent index. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night, London, Vintage, 2010 (1934).  

F Scott Fitzgerald

Insightful and beautifully written novel from the post-World War 1 late twenties world of rich and famous Americans spending substantial amounts of their money on the French Riviera. The key players are the world renowned psychiatric clinician Dr Dick Diver and his patient and later wife Nicole who brought exceptional wealth to their marriage.

As with Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby, the lifestyle, wealth and passion for the good food and alcohol of the good life bring with it many challenges and many tragedies. The difference with this novel, I think, is that we really like the key characters and wish things could be different. The novel is in two parts with the dramatic strength raised to far greater heights in part two.

Raymond Chandler wrote of Fitzgerald’s prose that it’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite. I cannot do better than that. The prose carries you away and it is very hard to put the book down once started. The rhythm, characters and story line carry you along as if you are there in person and cannot escape.  This is a seriously top drawer novel.  5 stars

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn:  One Day in the Life ot Ivan Denisovich; Trans. H.T. Willett, Foreward, Alexis Klimoff, p/b, London, Vintage, 2003 (1962, in Russian)  

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago many years ago and was deeply scarred by its horror,   use of terror to persuade, the torture,  cannibalism, murder, exiled list of Humanists, attacks on the Russian Church, the irrelevance of innocence, the insanity of Stalin, the sheer horror of his regime, the destruction of Warsaw, the failure of the allies to negotiate meaningfully with Russia after World War 11 and much much more horror. How can humanity survive such terror and stupidity? 

And further,  once Solzhenitsyn was safely ensconced in the USA and equally depressed by the triviality of the concerns of the average American,  how powerfully he could write: “Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness: it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? and why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and wish you well….

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells the story of just one day of the fictional Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, in a Russian Gulag, the Stalinist labour camps to which millions of Russians were condemned for political deviation or for no reason at all.

Solzhenitsyn was no stranger to such a labour camp having spent four years hard labour in such a  camp and a further four years exiled in Southern Kazakhstan where he almost died from undiagnosed cancer.  Curiously the story details a relatively “happy” day for Shukhov but the “happiness” simply underlines the horror and brutality of the conditions under which the men worked, ate, froze to death in Arctic conditions and fought with each other for tiny morsels of food. Solzhenitsyn’s story, permitted to be published by Krushchev was never published in Russia. 

Solzhenitsyn survived attacks on his life and was eventually expelled from Soviet Russia and lived for some years in the USA.  His writings went a long way to dispelling the more charitable views about Stalin and Communism which followed from Russian support for the West in its struggle with Hitler’s Germany in World War 11. Solzenhitsyn eventually  returned to Russia in 1994.

This cleverly written story now seems to have a new life following Russia’s 2022 brutal and  indiscriminate military assault on the people of Ukraine.    5 stars.

Richard Rohr: The Universal Christ, p/b, London, SPCK, 2019  

Richard Rohr
The Universal Christ

Richard Rohr is an American Franciscan Catholic priest and founder of the Centre and School for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque New Mexico.  He has written many books and has a high media profile especially in Australia,  due to his online writing and classes. He is currently in remission from cancer but has said publicly that he is ready for death. He has called The Universal Christ his “end of life book”. 

The Universal Christ is a high octane read! Rohr has an energetic almost frenetic writing style which pushes ahead at an alarming rate throwing ideas, Biblical quotations and thought starters at the reader from start to finish.  Rohr’s focus is on the positiveness, the joys, the goodness, and the power of the Christian Gospel and other world faiths especially Buddhism.  There is not much at all in this book about sin, evil or Satan. In this regard there is a strong similarity with the Creational Spirituality of former Dominican monk and now Anglican priest Matthew Fox, especially his powerful book Original Blessing (1983).

I believe there are two books contained in The Universal Christ.  The first book contains the establishment of Rohr’s thesis that there is a clear distinction between Jesus of the New Testament, a map for the time-bound and personal level of life (p.20) and the figure of Christ who is the blueprint for all time and space and life itself. (p.20) Such a thesis will be contested not just by Christians but I am sure by those of other faiths as well. Christians will have difficulty with a sentence like Jesus is a Third someone, not just God and not just man, but God and human together. (p.19).  It has been hard enough for Christians to attempt to explain the idea of the Trinity!  Jesus as Not just God and not just man, a third someone,  is not going to do the job I think. Similarly  World leaders of other faiths are not necessarily going to fall in line to install “Christ” as the unifying power behind the world’s great religions.

Universalism itself has never been far away from the thoughts of many theologians including John Hick, Karl Barth,  liberal Catholics  Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner and evangelicals like Clark H. Pinnock in his persuasive book A Wideness in God’s Mercy (1992).

Laying aside this energetic argument in the first three chapters, Rohr proceeds to fourteen memorable chapters which will challenge and at times upset many earnest Christian readers but will make them pause, reconsider, think again  and read again. Not all will agree with Rohr’s conclusions about such topics as the following:  original goodness; the best criticism of the bad is still the practice of the better; people formed by God’s love are indestructible; God is eternal discovery and eternal growth; anonymous Christians (Rahner); the full journey towards wholeness must include the negative experiences (Jung) .. we must listen to what is urging us;  God protects us into and through death; the risen Christ is leading us somewhere good and positive; life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful; invoked or not invoked, God is still present (Jung); great love and great suffering brings us back to God; we must love God through, in, with, and even because of this world; Christianity’s unique trump card is always and forever incarnation; doing is more important than saying; following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world; the only way out of deep sadness is to go with it and through it; if you are frightened into God it is never the true God that you meet; Even God has to use love and suffering to teach you all the lessons that really matter; God comes to you disguised as your life…and there are many more challenging ideas and themes.

This book comes with Two Practices called Beyond Mere Theology…telling is not training. The practices are Simply That you Are; and All Physical Reality as a Mirror. In addition there is an epitaph from Simone Weil, an Afterword entitled Love After Love and two appendices: 1. The Four World Views; 2. The Pattern of Spiritual Transformation. Finally there is a detailed bibliography. 4 stars.

Books read April 2022

Books read April 2022

Steven Runciman: The Fall of Constantinople 1453, h/b, London, Folio, 2013   

Historian Steve Runciman
The Fall of Constantinople 1453

Steven Runciman was one of Britain’s most outstanding C20th historians and certainly the leading  historian of the Byzantine Empire and the history of the Crusades. Runciman inherited wealth from his grandfather and so was able to lead the life of a free-lancing scholar after an outstanding career at Oxford where his strength in languages was extraordinary including Latin, Greek, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Syriac, Armenian and Georgian. He did however hold down  several major roles both in the Second World War and in academia. He was an aesthete and a successful gambler with a strong interest in the occult. He died in 2003 aged 97 soon after a remarkable final journey to Mt Athos, flown in by helicopter!

His in depth histories of Crusades and the final Fall of Constantinople are marked by his more favourable understanding of both Islamic and Byzantine societies than previous scholars and had a significant impact on the way historians now understand Byzantine and Islamic history and the tensions between Western and Eastern European Christians.

The Collapse of Constantinople really began in 1204 when the fourth European crusade against Islam was launched.  Spurred on by  the Venetians the Crusaders entered Orthodox Christian Constantinople and sacked the city with most of its wealth and remarkable artwork finding its way to Venice and elsewhere in Europe. This tragedy markedly weakened the Byzantine Empire which gradually lost more and more ground to Islam including large parts of the Balkans, even laying siege to Vienna itself. By 1453  mighty Constantinople had been reduced to 4,983 available Greeks and slightly under 2000 foreigners ready to face a Turkish army of 80 000 fighting men.

On the water the Greeks were also hugely outnumbered. They had about 23 ships against 130 ships in Sultan Mehmet’s fleet. In addition the Hungarian engineer Orban created the largest cannon yet made for Sultan Mehmet. He had gone first to the Emperor Constatine X1 but his purse was empty and Orban found a better offer. Not one European power came to the Emperor’s aid with the exception of the famous Genoese soldier Giovanni Giustininani who brought with him seven hundred well armed soldiers and fought bravely.

The Emperor’s army fought bravely for seven weeks against these huge odds.  The Sultan’s army battered the walls by day and the Greeks repaired them by night. The Greeks more mobile tiny fleet had the better of the war on the water.  In the end it was a near thing. Some on the Sultan’s side thought that the city was impregnable and they should call off the siege but the Sultan called for one last massive assault. It was unsuccessful and a retreat was being considered when a tiny unimportant side gate in the city wall was left open and the Sultan’s army poured in, overwhelming and slaughtering the unprepared Greeks. The victory was complete and a horrific slaughter and rapine ensued.

Apart from a few far-flung outpost islands the Byzantine Empire was no longer. The Sultan now controlled the whole of the Balkan Peninsular and now the greatest prize of all, Constantinople.  In short time all but three of the Christian churches were converted to mosques and vast numbers of Orthodox Christians either fled elsewhere, changed their faith or were enslaved or murdered. Trebizon soon followed and other Orthodox strongholds followed.  Only Russia stood alone for the Orthodox faith. 

This is a gripping story told without sentimentality or partisanship by Runciman. Once this book gets hold of you it won’t let you go. Orthodox Christianity is gaining ground in the West today..its quiet spirituality seems to refresh after the wearying disputes between disagreeing Christian followers. Who could tell where the next stage of this story goes in our own troubled C21st. 5 stars.

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader, p/b, London, Profile Books, 2008  

Alan Bennett
The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett is a multi-talented actor, author, playwright and screenwriter who sprang to fame in 1960 at the Edinburgh Festival along with the gloriously funny trio of Dudley Moore, Johnathan Miller and Peter Cook.  Equally well known is his true account of The Lady in the Van about a fifteen year stay of a woman originally unknown to him who parked her car in his driveway for fifteen years.  The story was made into a very popular movie.

The Uncommon Reader is a gem of a fantasy which has Queen Elizabeth 11 coming across an official mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and meeting a keen reader Norman from the kitchen staff who is strongly attracted to gay authors. Norman’s passion inspires the Queen to start reading which, in her normal role she has no time for.  Bennett manages to include sixty five authors in this section of the novel along with many humorous insights into both literature and the Queen’s activities.  He manages to do this in such a way that we find the Queen’s behaviour believable.

After Norman’s opponents in the Palace get rid of Norman the Queen begins to consider writing as well as reading and the novel concludes with a fascinating address by the Queen to all of her Privy Counsellors in which she extols the values of both reading and writing to her amazed councillors. 

This is a gentle and thought provoking humorous yarn by a master of the theatre and comedy. 

4 stars. 

Murray Seiffert:  Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land, h/b, Brunswick East,  Acorn Press, 2011

Dr Murray Seiffert & Gumbuli of Ngukkur

The late Dr Murray Seiffert, who died just twelve months ago, has written an extraordinary history of an Aboriginal young man from tiny Bickerton Island in Arnhem Land who for over thirty years was the priest and leader of the town of Ngukurr, a community which began as a mission station on the Roper River.

Murray and I were friends and colleagues for over fifty years sharing time at Ridley College, teaching in north central Victoria, fellow worshippers at St James Ivanhoe for 17 years and sharing in many co-family events. Murray was an outstanding sportsman, agricultural scientist, teacher, sociologist and theologian and godfather to our second son David. For five years Murray worked with his wife Marjory as the Academic Dean of Nungalinya College in Darwin, during which time he had many opportunities to talk with  Gumbuli and visit Ngukurr. 

Michael Gumbuli Wurramara was only the second Aboriginal man to be ordained priest in the Northern Territory. He was converted by missionaries from the Church Missionary Society working on Groote Island, a large island close to Bickerton Island, east of Darwin. Inevitably, Gumbuli’s story can only  be told by being combined with the larger story of the planting of the Christian Gospel in Arnhem Land.  Gumbuli was born in 1935 and it is not hard to remember that as late as 1930 mass atrocities against Aborigines on the Australian mainland were still occurring. There is a Gippsland connection with the founding of the Roper River Mission (later called Ngukurr). The Gippsland Aboriginal community provided a generous financial contribution to the cost of the boats used to transport the team from Groote Island including Gumbuli which established the original mission on the Roper River. 

Gumbuli’s remarkable forty two year marriage to Dixie Daniels, his quiet but strong leadership style, his courage to face the spiritual dangers of native ceremony, his extraordinary energy to be a priest/town leader/mechanic/ cattle station missionary/retreat leader/daily worship leader, and his own personal faith and commitment both to the Bible’s truth and to Anglican order is exceptional. He was well worthy of his Order of Australia in 2010.

There are many critical issues to be examined in this remarkable history and Gumbuli was in the middle of them. Not least is the creation of the Kriol (formerly Pidgin) Bible. Gumbuli not only spoke good English but was fluent in Kriol, Anindilyakwa and other tribal languages. His encouragement to create a complete Kriol Bible was essential to its final achievement. Other key issues included the ongoing tension between Christian faith and aboriginal ceremony/culture (including the sharp differences between Uniting Church and Anglican approaches to the validity of the  serpent creation story);  the tragedy of native polygamy; the many disputes over alcohol at Ngukurr; the early poverty of Government financial support; the difficulty of maintaining good staff; problems with the police; disastrous floods and droughts and many other challenges. 

One remarkable feature of the story of Australian aborigines accepting the Gospel is the impact of Festo Kivingeri, exceptional Ugandan evangelist and Christian spokesman during the reign of Idi Amin. He came to the Territory and made a powerful impact which Gumbuli and others were able to build upon. 

Murray Seiffert has managed in this book to make everything interesting and one reason, oddly,  is the outstanding documentation. There is barely a sentence recorded that is not footnoted for source. The result is, in my experience, an unparalleled honesty and accuracy in the account of events. Murray’s voice is not intruded on this text…we read the very words spoken by government officials, missionaries, nurses, bishops, and eye witnesses of events and other key figures. The reader does not have to stop and check these comments (although being me I did!), but the detail gave me confidence to know that I was reading exciting history from the hundreds of people actually involved.

Another feature of interest for people my age is the many references to amazing individuals and figures known to me personally or by reputation from my own lifetime! Thus we read of Bishops Clyde Woods, Richard Appleby, Ken Mason, Arthur Malcolm and Philip Freier, CMS stalwarts Barry and Margaret Butler, Gwen and Lance Tremlett, George Pearson, Joy and John Sandefur, Keith Cole, David Woodbridge, Sister Ednar Brooker and many others.

Who should read this remarkable book? Anyone like me who has only been to Alice Springs and Darwin and has only a feeble knowledge of the story of the coming of Christianity to Arnhem Land. It will make you cry and also make you thank God for faithful servants.  5 stars

Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, Ed. Douglas Cleverdon; Lithographs, Ceri Richards, h/b, London, Folio, 1972 (1954). 

Dylan Thomas
Under Milk Wood

C20th English/Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (he spoke no Welsh) carried this radio play around with him for some seven years before finally passing it on to his friend and publisher Douglas Cleverdon during Thomas’s preparation for his fourth recital tour to the USA. Thomas died in a New York hospital on the 9th November 1953 after falling into a coma. The radio play was broadcast by the B.B.C. on 25 January 1954 with Richard Burton taking the First Voice. The play was acclaimed as a master piece and was awarded the international Italia Prize as the finest radio work of the year. The first full-blown theatre production was staged at the Edinburgh Festival in August  1956 and subsequently in London, at the New Theatre, where it ran for seven months. 

The play describes the thoughts and desires of the townsfolk of the made up town of Llareggub based on the Welsh seaside village of Laugharne where Thomas lived from 1938 to 1940 and to which he returned in 1949.  Several of Laugharne’s well-known characters appear in Under Milk Wood especially the blind old sea captain “Captain Cat”.  Topographically the play is also based on the fishing town of Newquay with its steep street  running down to the harbour.  Thomas lived in Newquay with his wife Caitlin and his children from 1945.

The Radio Play beautifully and humorously portrays one complete day in Llareggub from the early morning dreaming of Captain Cat as he remembers his former girl friend Rosie Probert and his drowned fellow sailors Dancing Williams, Tom-Fred the donkeyman, Jonah Jarvis, Alfred Pomeroy Jones  and Curly Bevan all spring to life as first drowned down to fifth drowned. As Captain Cat wakes up many other voices of the village are heard, the draper, the cobbler, the dress maker, the sweet-shop keeper, Mrs Waldo, Miss Myfanwy Price, the Undertaker, Mr and Mrs Ogmore- Pritchard, Organ Morgan and 61 other voices including the school children and their teacher;  Rev Eli Jenkins and Bessie Bighead. Captain Cat hears them waking up and starting their day, the women gossiping around the town, the children bursting out from school with their bullying and teasing, the two Mrs Dai Bread, the men dreaming of school teacher Gossamer Beynon high heels, Polly Garter and her many lovers, the dreamy afternoon as the sunny slow lulling afternoon yawns and moons through the dozy town…Captain Cat remembers Lazy early Rosie with the flaxen thatch, whom he shared with Tom-Fred the donkeyman and many another seaman…while The Reverend Eli Jenkins inky in his cool front parlour or poem-room tells only the truth in his Lifework—the Population, main industry etc etc finishing each day with his sunset poem:  We are not wholly bad or good

Who live our lives under Milk Wood,

and Thou, I know, wilt be the first,

To see our best side, not our worst…    and gradually,  First Voice proclaims: The thin night darkens. A breeze from the creased water sighs the streets close under Milk waking Wood….

There is sadness and joy in this play for voices; heaving life and fading memories, desires, lusts, burdens, failures, dreams and life ongoing in Llareggub.   I read this play as an old(er) man myself and contemplate life’s passing with all its promise and hopes, hurts and fears, triumphs and tragedies, and as I see one or another folk I have loved pass away.  Dylan Thomas loved life to the utmost and loved a drink too often to live a longer life. But he has given us some amazing poetry and this delightful and endearing radio play.  5 stars.

Tom Wolfe: Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, p/b, London, Picador, 1990 (1976) 

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine
Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe was a C20th  American journalist and novelist and a leader in the “New Journalism” of the sixties which intertwined literary techniques with news writing and journalism. Wolfe had an extraordinary gift for uncovering the minutest details of the American spirit from the sixties and into the new millennium. His book The Bonfire of the Vanities, chronicled the social class, greed, ambition and money hunger of America in the eighties and  made him a household name although the film of the novel bombed.

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine was Wolfe’s second novel and its various short stories demonstrate his exrtraordinary gifts of observation, detailed analysis, hard-earned knowledge of each subject, and his gloriously outrageous gifts of self-deprecating humour. The book’s title and first story describes a middle aged married New Yorker with children adding up his finances after a cocktail party he gave six weeks ago and resulting in  a series of cancelled cheques which have just come in the mail.  Clutter & Vine was the name of the florists to whom he owed $209.60 and Mauve Gloves & Madmen were the caterers to whom he owed $257.50.  He proceeds to tote up his $1000/month apartment in New York, his rented summerhouse on Martha’s Vineyard, his children’s school and college fees, his recent large dinner parties and much much more. The $ value looks small in 2022 money but the reader feels the pressure rising.

The third story, The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie, describes the experience of an American bomber pilot flying in VietNam towards the end of the war when American losses had begun to reach very high numbers. Whatever views the reader has towards the logic and horror of the war the story of the reality for this two man bomber team leaves one gasping for air. There is no humour in this section!

Another rather sad story covers the inside gen on the creation of commercial advertisements with sports superstars.  Equally troubling is  “The intelligent Coed’s Guide to America”, on how American undergrads responded to the likes of Günter Grass, Solzhenitsyn and Stalinism, Lionel Trilling, Herbert Marcuse’s doctrine of “repressive tolerance” and much more. More humorous but in some ways still rather frightening is “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” which throws clarifying light on what has recently occurred in the Trump era. Other topics include brief essays on violent crime, “pornoviolence”, teenage sexuality, Funky Chic on early eighties fashion, and “honks and wonks” on New York accents.   While these topics sound heavy and they are, Tom Wolfe manages to describe the action with humour, wisdom and a light touch.  There is so much good that comes out of America…there is also so much we could do without. 

I have never been a keen reader or student of sociology, but if you must go there, Tom Wolfe is the man to help you understand it, in America anyway.   4 stars.