Books read July 2017

BOOKS READ JULY 2017

(Ed.) John Elsner and Roger Cardinal,  The Cultures of Collecting: From Elvis to Antiques—Why do we Collect Things? Melbourne University Press, 1994.

An exceptional collection! of articles about collecting from many perspectives including psychoanalytical, economic and historic approaches and a scarifying analysis by post-modern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. In most cases the picture painted of collectors is not pretty so genuine collectors should approach  this book with care! Effectively illustrated with impressive academic reference resources. For a collector who wishes to delve into his or her own psyche this is the book!

John Eisner, one of the editors, in his Introduction notes, amongst other things, the following assertions:

Noah was the first collector! (p1)

– The supreme pioneer is the totalling collector, the ‘completist’ …perhaps a fetishist! (p3)

– ..to collect up to a final limit is to exercise control over existence itself..like God. (p3)

In the West…the great canonical collections…testify to the paradigm of Beauty as the exclusion of all ugliness, to the triumph of remembrance over oblivion, to the permanence of Being over Nothingness. Absurdly and dementedly eternalistic as they are, they carry such weight as to seem incontrovertible…one of the ambitions of this book is to challenge such self-assurance… (p4)

[collectors] rivalling God and teetering between mastery and madness (p6)

[for some]…building a collection of things is inseparable form building up wealth and prestige e.g. Henry Clay Frick, J.Paul Getty or Charles Saatchi.  (p6)

– ….less perfective collectors whose vocation sends them across the confines of the reasonable and the acceptable. These last — people like John Soane, Charles Wilson Peale, Kurt Schwitters, Sigmund Freud and Robert Opie — exemplify a genuine exposure to existence: indeed their project, at times melancholy, even morbid, and perhaps ultimately tragic, often carries with it an intimation of the failure that is always on the cards once mortal desire reaches the limits of what can and cannot be done.  (p6)

This is a complex, academic and in places quite difficult book and I suspect only a committed collector would stay the distance and even then would have to put up with a fair amount of criticism directed at the character of collectors and/or their motives. Nevertheless, as a collector, I could not put this down and for a look into my own psyche I know of no better book.  4 stars.

Alex Miller, Landscape of Farewell, Crows Nest NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2007

Another stunning novel from the pen of Alex Miller. Set in Hamburg, Germany and in the Central Highlands region of Queensland this novel forces us to become interested in the lives of a recently widowed septuagenarian German History professor Max Otto, haunted by the unknown career of his father in World War 11 and its potential horror and the hopes and dreams of a forty something single female indigenous Australian History professor, Vita, an indigenous activist. They meet at a History Conference in Hamburg and Vita manages to persuade Max to come to Australia to speak at a conference and meet her ageing uncle Dougald, child of a Scottish mother and an indigenous father who has his own ancestral demons to come to terms with. The result is another Millerenian journey of self-exploration and physical exploration of the dangerously enchanting but also forbidding  Australian landscape. Underneath these very human people stories is a deeper and more chilling motif of massacre, the continuing human tendency to seek to annihilate others and this story comes with a well-researched and surprising twist from early Australian history. Whenever I read an Alex Miller novel I think “who else has written so many soul-searching novels that are impossible to put down?”. I can’t think of anyone! 5 stars.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, London, SPCK, 2007

This is possibly the most controversial of N T Wright’s vast theological output and includes his famous assault on a type of Christianity that majors on the question “how do I get to heaven when I die?”  Wright answers this question by his full blooded defence of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the future bodily resurrection of believers and probably all people for a judgment “in the body”. Whilst, like John Packer, he stresses that this judgment will be by works he nevertheless reminds his readers that there will be no condemnation for those who are found in Christ and stresses that the vocation of those who respond to God’s call is to be an ambassador for Christ on earth.   He articulates a strongly inaugurated theology of the kingdom of God on a renewed earth which will be consummated at the appearance rather than the “second coming” of Christ. I note in passing that the term ‘second coming’ does not seem to appear in Cruden’s Concordance of the Bible.

Wright’s account of “heaven” is that it is a first stage ‘paradise’ of sleep/rest/beatific vision rather than a “disembodied eternal existence” which is  followed by his account of a second state recreation of the kingdom of God on a renewed earth. His argument is consistently, carefully, energetically and Biblically defended. His discussion of the replacement of our decaying bodies with undecaying bodies instead of the normal contrast between ‘natural/physical’ bodies and ‘spiritual’ bodies is unique. His robust treatment of how Christians should be busy about caring for the world ecology, people in crisis, beauty and spiritual health is a powerful antidote not only to C21st materialism and selfish self-fulfilment but also to American fundamentalism and much tepid modernist theology.

A useful reminder throughout the book is that Jesus’ resurrection occurred, according to the Biblical text, in this material world. The implication of this is that Jesus at his appearing and our own resurrection will be equally human (a strong defence of the permanent incarnation of Christ) and material even if it is to be some sort of transformed and perfected materiality.This is an area that John Polkinghorne took on regularly in his many writings ..the interface between two tangential worlds and ways of thinking and expression.

All of this runs counter to much of the daily thinking of the average western European or American or Aussie,  let alone the thinking of the “average” Christian and to much of “modern” theology. For example the thrust of this book is brought into sharp relief when compared with the “cosmic Christ” which appears so elegantly in the meditations of Richard Rohr for example.  It can even be said, I believe,  that few evangelicals bother to come to grips with the sort of problems that logically emerge from a thorough going belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Thus one of the effects of reading this book carefully is the challenge to the imagination to conceive of the “material” reality proposed by these central Biblical themes so vigorously defended here.

I found the last few chapters on the functioning church somewhat uneven. Wright’s criticisms of many Anglican churches doing away with formal liturgy and clerical dress need more nuancing. There are ways and ways of making this happen, some more successful than others but the reality is that today’s 30 – 40 somethings haven’t got much energy for Anglican liturgical pomp and dress let alone younger generations…they have too much going on with in their lives. It is enough for them to grapple with the essentials of the faith and how to live it in a post-Christian age without having to worry about the niceties of 500 year old ceremonial or even 1950s ceremonial.  I see the UK synod has given the ok for casual dress for clergy at appropriate services and for me, this is the way forward.

A challenging and demanding read.  4 stars.

C S Lewis, The Great Divorce, London, Fount/HarperCollins, 1977 (1946) A brief, curious and, as to be expected, brilliantly clever allegory of heaven and hell. Lewis takes a purgatorial view of hell in which many folk find themselves as thin “ghosts” in an afterlife of their own making but with some “solid people” present to help them re-think, a process better achieved by some than others!  An interesting addition is that Lewis’ long time inspiration George MacDonald appears as one of the “solid people” who assists the unnamed seeker after truth. Other famous folk from the past appear from time to time in Danteesque fashion. In the end The Great Divorce leads the reader to the realisation that it is our present life and the actions, motivations, drives and decisions those of us who have any real choice make, which provide the clue to how we will travel in the life to come if there is one (and which direct us to live as positively and humanely and thoughtfully as we can in this life!)

Disturbing and thoughtful! 4 stars.

Rob Bell, What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, London, WilliamCollins, 2017

Accessible, thought provoking and well researched analysis of the Bible’s meaning and relevance for today. Written in Bell’s unique dot-point and jaunty style which will either inspire or repel depending on your state of mind. Bell’s strong minded and fresh approach to the many questions which in the past have turned so many people off church and Bible is desperately needed by jaded Westerners, anxious about their own future and thinking the Bible is outmoded. Bell manages to cut through much of the ink wasted in the inerrancy debate using up to date scholarly and Spirit-filled material in a breezy, humorous and hard to put down style. For a defence of the detail of these arguments there is always the wealth of Bell’s online podcasts but for starters and a very helpful bibliography I cannot think of a better gift for someone who has never read the Bible since childhood but needs to.  5 stars and then some!

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