Books read December 2017

Don Watson (Ed.): A Single Tree: Voices from the Bush, Clayton, AU, Hamish Hamilton, 2016

Produced as a companion  “reader” for Watson’s history of the outback of Australia simply entitled The Bush,  this book is a remarkable collection of material from over 150 different writers including reflections, newspaper articles, poetry, extracts from novels, early explorer notes, indigenous writers, current  journalists, scientists, historic records from early settlers, shearers, swaggies, war correspondents, early colonial leaders and much more. In places it is a disturbing, indeed horrifying read especially early settler records of the hunting parties send out to round up and murder aboriginals with a callousness to match anything that can be found in early American history and worse. The other disturbing aspect of the book is the account of the damage that has been done to the Australian landscape by the wholesale clearing of forests and scrub for farming resulting in new forms of wildfires as well as the wholesale destruction of much of Australia’s fragile outback topsoil. Joined with  the misunderstanding of the impact of continual irrigation on the saltation of the outback water table the combination of mismanagement and misunderstanding can make doleful reading.

There are heroic tales also of early defenders of indigenous culture and rights and remarkable agricultural success stories in harmony with the natural environment so it is not all doom and gloom. All of the literary giants are here including Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Patrick White, Tim Winton, Judith Wright, Les Murray, John Shaw Neilson, D H Lawrence, Thomas Kenneally, Douglas Stewart, Kenneth Slessor and many more. More interesting, however, are the simple written fragments of ordinary folk desperately trying to carve out a living in an unknown land with minimal resources demonstrating immense courage, stamina and determination. For anyone who loves the stillness, the ancient architecture of the outback and its fragile, yet enduring beauty this is a book to savour. For a tantalising taste of the documentary history of Australia free of editorial, academic and political posturing this is the best place to study the history of the land of the real Australia outside the urban coastal fringe.  Five stars.

Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure,  London, Macmillan, 1974 (1896) with a brilliant introduction by Terry Eagleton and excellent notes especially on dialect words by P N Burbank.

Hardy’s final last novel is a curious read in the light of the current debate about the value and importance of marriage. In some ways an autobiographical account of Hardy’s own struggle to educate himself in literature and his journey out of Christian faith, this is not a novel for those who like a happy ending. Condemned at the time for its pessimism and “outrageous” morality, the novel delineates clearly the cultural divides in late C19th England centring around Tractarian Oxford thinly disguised as Christminster as well as the rapidly disappearing village life of “Wessex”, England’s remarkably beautiful south western valleys, hills and fertile fields. As in most of Hardy’s novels the tangled search for meaningful sexual relationships between men and women lies at the centre of the novel and the insights into the impact of marriage itself on relationships is explored in sensitive and complex detail. The complexity springs from the equally powerful theme of the loss of faith in Victorian England as the “modern” world exploded not just in agricultural and transport changes but in philsophical and theological fashion and ecclesiastical temperament especially that surrounding the Oxford movement of Newman, Pusey and Keble. Hardy’s vast knowledge of local dialect, English class history,  classical mythology and history and everything in between is on show here and his vast vocabulary sends the reader to the dictionary more often than most novelists.  Not for the faint hearted and probably too turgid for some, “Jude” is in my view, a novel worthy of the title “great classic!”  5 stars.

Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science,  Cambridge,, CUP, 1998

Peter Harrision is an Australian Laureate and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He was formerly the Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford and late last year lectured at Melbourne University’s Science Week.

This book is a fascinating and demanding read whose major thesis is that the Protestant Reformation played a key role in the development of natural science in C16th and C17th Europe because of its insistence on a literal rather than an allegorical interpretation of the Bible. This movement prompted other scholars to look at the natural world in realistic terms rather than the allegorical understanding of reality which had dominated European intellectual thought particularly after the reintroduction of  classical learning through the translations of Islamic scholars in the C15th. Prior to the Reformation the dominant European intellectual influence was still that  of C13th Thomas Aquinas and his massive theological synthesis of Augustinian Christian faith and through Augustine,  Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy — a synthesis whose approach to the real world was largely allegorical.  A key strength of this study is its analysis of the various phases of the “two books model” of Christian faith i.e. the Bible and the book of nature, which has so divided Christian thinkers.

Harrison’s writing demonstrates extraordinary scholarship especially his knowledge of mediaeval Latin texts, many of which have not previously been translated or analysed. David Lindberg, perhaps today’s leading exponent of the history and philosophy of science, pays this tribute to Harrison. This is a learned book, enormously ambitious, clearly and elegantly written, copiously documented and persuasively argued. I do not believe it has any serious rival, for the boldness of its interpretations and the quality of scholarship, among books on the relationship between Protestantism and Science.

A careful reading of Harrison’s material and his other writing will greatly assist C21st Christians motor their way through the arid materialism and defensive atheism of much current science writing. On the other hand, Harrison also documents the rationale behind the current debate about the authority of the Bible.  While the Protestants’ insistence that passages of scripture be given a determinative meaning proceeded from the purest of religious motives, they were inadvertently setting in train a process which would ultimately result in the undermining of that biblical authority which they so adamantly promoted. (p268).

This book is hard to put down although its overwhelming accumulation of literary references threatens to submerge the reader. Harrison’s quiet, humorous and respectful voice is one that should be prioritised over the many more aggressive and noisy participants in the science/faith debate.   Five stars.