Books read September 2017

BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2017

  1. George MacDonald, Phantastes, Annotated edition and notes by Nick Page, London, Paternoster, 2008 (1858).

Before Alice in Wonderland, The Narnia Chronicles and Lord of the Rings there was George MacDonald. Writing in the mid-C19th MacDonald wrote a collection of of over fifty  adult and children’s faery stories and fantasy literature which has spawned several generations of followers but equalled by few, if any. MacDonald was a graduate of King’s College London and was deeply influenced by Celtic mythology, C19th  German Romantic authors, Novalis, Heine and Hoffman as well as Fouque’s Undine. An awkward man socially, and deeply religious,  he became for a time an unorthodox Congregationalist minister but primarily due to uneasiness about rigid Church doctrine especially about eternal damnation for some, he parted company from his congregation. MacDonald eventually sought  to support his family by writing. Married with eleven children, very poor health and limited literary success MacDonald was eventually ‘saved’ by the financial support of Lady Byron, the wife of the poet and the later encouragement and influence of Lewis Caroll, whose own writing owes a significant debt to MacDonald.

Phantastes was the book which C S Lewis happened to pick up at a railway station on the way to London which transformed his view of fantasy literature. Lewis later wrote about MacDonald: I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it. [quoted by Caroline Ann Duffy in her Introduction to George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind, London, The Folio Society, 2008].Duffy further comments: C S Lewis is not referring here to MacDonald’s literary influence on him, but to enormous spiritual influence.

Phantastes appears in Spencer’s The Faerie Queen, (1590) as a spinner of fancies and reappears in Phinehas Fletcher’s 1633 poetic fantasy The Purple Island as a counsellor of the mind. In MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, the account is a first person story of a 21 year old man, “Anodos” who has just earned the legal right to the key to his father’s secretaire, from which after close examination, emerged a very beautiful but just  six inch female fairy figure who promised Anodos a journey through fairy land when he awoke the following morning.

The narrative follows Anodos’s varied adventures through a fairy world filled with both good and evil fairies, goblins, talking trees both good and evil, a gorgeous fairy palace, a major appearance by an Arthurian knight Sir Percivale and other transworldly images. The images may be the stuff of children’s stories but the themes are adult and theologically complex. Once in fairy land, there is no going back. They must go on, and go through it  (p.105). The result is that Anodos deals with many issues familiar to adults rather than children. Examples include: I found cheerfulness to be like life itself,—not to be created by any argument. Afterwards I learned, that the best way to manage some painful thoughts, is to dare them to do their worst…(p108).  Art rescues nature from the weary and sated regards of our senses (p185).  Passion is never content! (p162).  Past tears are a present strength.(p225). Self will come to life even in the denying of self. (p247). We seek not death, but still we climb the stairs where death is one wide landing to the rooms above. (p272) Beauty is the only stuff in which truth can be clothed. (p.277) The best thing you can do for your fellow next to rousing his conscience is, not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him, or say, to make him think for himself.  (p.279). This edition contains very helpful explanatory notes by the Editor Nick Page, a writer of over 60 books on theology, church history and C17th poetry.

This addition also contains two appendices. The first is four quotations from Novalis which originally prefaced Phantases.  The main problem here is that the quotations are in German!

The second appendix is far more useful..in it for his American readers in 1893  MacDonald defends his use of fairy land to make serious moral and spiritual comment. I suspect today such writing needs no defence given the popularity of fantasy literature but at the end of the nineteenth century MacDonald laid the theoretical groundwork for a literary genre, which from my work as a secondary school librarian in 2015, is the most popular reading genre for Years 5 -10 students, and many much older folk,  bar none.

MacDonald is at times a tedious read and needs perseverance, especially his tendency, (like Tolkien), to introduce poems of varying quality and interest thoughout his story. On the other hand those who value the moral and imaginative truth which can be uniquely described in myth, this novel will, I suspect, be read more than once. It has, as with C S Lewis, the capacity to re-order the way we think about ordinary life and things. As I write this review I still feel personally challenged by ideas from this significant piece of writing.  4 stars.

2. Andrew Moody, In Light of the Son, Sydney, Matthias Press, 2015.

Andrew Moody is an Australian theologian, lecturer, graphic designer and Christian communicator who also writes on line for the Christian Gospel Coalition. His major doctoral thesis concerns the doctrine of the Trinity and In Light of the Son is in part a more popular presentation of some key ideas in his thesis.

In his Introduction Moody indicates that the motivating force behind his own adult Christian life and the reason for writing this book was his reading and thinking about John 15:10 at Melbourne University..the issue of why does Jesus need to obey God when he is God?  i.e. the complexity of the Christian doctrine of the trinity and how should we understand it.  The centre of his argument is the love that the Father has for the Son and wants others to love and glorify him too.

A challenging highlight in chapter 1 is an account of a Speaker’s Corner conversation between a theologically articulate Muslim and a Christian who is attempting  (somewhat unsuccessfully) to explain the validity or value of the Christian trinitarian doctrine. Later in the chapter Moody provides an alternative direction the conversation could have been taken indicating that we need to listen to God’s messengers, one of whom is Jesus the Son of God, a phrase which is developed for two possible meanings in chapter 2.

For me a highlight of this book is chapter 3, the question of the meaning and existence of the universe. Moody gives full scope for the atheist who still maintains the wonder and extraordinary power and beauty of the universe but also argues for “traces of God” to be found within creation and more particularly within God’s plan for the future of the world bound up in Jesus and his revelation of God’s love.

This plan is unpacked in chapters 4 – 6 which also  includes a chapter on the role of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament material is unpacked largely through the Letter to the Hebrews which makes a change from the Pauline theology mode which has predominated through the massive recent work of N T Wright and his supporters and opponents. The book is completed with a very effective set of study guide questions for each chapter and occasional useful footnotes for further explanation but no index. A thought provoking and fresh read.  4 stars.

3. Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab,  Melbourne, The Text Publishing Company, 1999 (1886)

This pre Conan Doyle style crime mystery first novel by trained lawyer Fergus Hume was an instant best seller when first published in 1886 and has seldom been out of print since. Hume was born in England, grew up in New Zealand, spent two years in Melbourne researching and writing this novel, and the rest of his life back in England paid for by the phenomenal success of this novel and the 130 + less successful crime novels that followed. Hume was clearly a well read classical scholar, comfortable in Latin and his writing is peppered with literary references of all kinds. It is a true mystery in the Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders, Conan Doyle style and the dénouement is saved until very close to the end and still surprising. Part of the wonder of the novel is the description of late C19th Melbourne’s streets and lanes and the life both high and low brow that went with it. A very light and enjoyable read still today 131 years on!  4 stars.

4.  Carl Gustav Jung, Answer to Job, London, Ark Paperbacks, 1984 (1954)

An epic text which was written when this eminent psychiatrist was 72. He was influenced by the upheaval of the development of the Hydrogen Bomb and the potential for limitless human evil and destruction alongside the Protestant furore following the 1950 Papal promulgation of the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This unlikely combination resulted in a complex extended essay, breathtaking in its scope and reach.

Unlike his predecessor Freud, Jung was comfortable with the use of terms such as ‘soul’, “God’ ,  ‘the sacred’  and ‘evil’ as valid subjects for psychological and psychiatric study whether or not they are “true” in any ontologically meaningful sense. Superficially, based on ‘chapter content’,  it could be argued that a  better title might be “Jung’s take on Job, the Book of Enoch and John’s Revelation’ but this is to miss the central theme of this work.

Jung contends that Job’s faithful, searingly honest, articulate and spiritually consistent plea for justice actually forces God into an embarrassing defeat in argument and corners God into a force majeure response that in no way answers Job’s heartfelt pleas. Jung then proceeds, somewhat Borges like,  through a unique tour of the history of religions including Egyptian, Indian, Zoroastrian, Greek, Buddhist, Jewish, Gnostic and Biblical sources, to argue that Job, with a little help from the primeval female Psyche (Wisdom)  has proven to  God that He, God, desires to become human himself in order to defeat once and for all the antics of Satan and thus save humanity. According to Jung’s analysis Satan is the out of control first “Son” of Adam and his first wife Lilith, a temptress who can be found in Jewish mysticism with roots going back to ancient Mesopotamian religion. It was Satan who led God to defeat in his dealings with Job. There is an assumption throughout Jung’s analysis that there has been evil in the cosmos from the beginning (which is hinted at in Genesis 6:1-4 and in Ephesians 6:12) and Jung consistently suggests that “God does not refer to his own omniscience” in many of his actions thus leading to events to do with man which need to be repaired.

Although in many respects Jung’s study of the “psychology of God” is a long way indeed from any form of Christian orthodoxy, there is nevertheless plenty of food for thought in some of his Biblical analysis and indeed his tracing of connected ideas that emerge from the history of religions. His attempt to untangle the mysteries of the imagery in  the Book of Revelation is particularly thought provoking and at times helpful.  The final chapters seem almost like an appendix as Jung grapples with the disjunction between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism following the promulgation of the Papal promulgation of the doctrine of the bodily assumption of the BVM. It is as if Jung is appealing to the Protestant church to come to terms with the idea of (re?)installing the feminine as a central power in the unity of the Godhead which will perhaps make an impact on warlike humans bent on destruction with their new nuclear powers.

Jung’s work is a radical and unique exercise in Biblical and religious exploration which reaches out towards some traditionally orthodox Christian doctrines such as the doctrine of the permanent manhood of Christ. cf Newman: though man, Christ was strictly not “a man.”   John Baillie in his classic argument God Was in Christ  (London, Faber & Faber 1973 [1956], p97) writes about …the traditional catholic doctrine of the permanence of the manhood of Christ, ‘who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures , and one person for ever.  While not coming anywhere near such formal doctrines Jung’s work opens up some of the surface difficulties in the Biblical text of Job and Revelation and seeks to pilot a way through for the Christian faith, although at the expense of what can only be described as the gradual ‘evolution and education of God.’  (4 stars).

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