Sarah Krasnostein: The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2017.

This book is strong meat for queasy readers and also several books in one. First it involves the reader in the graphic world of the trauma clean up industry. I had never thought before about the fact that neither the police, firefighters, emergency services, ambulance operators or other emergency services do trauma clean-up.  It is brutal, sickening and physically challenging work and done by specialists. The staff turn-over is frequent and the leadership of such a company needs to be folk with strong stomachs and psychological and physical strength. Sandra Pankhurst is just such a person in spite of her own physical health problems. The story of trauma clean-ups is demanding indeed and yet manages to be in many situations a positive experience!

Secondly the book records the events in the lives of folk who need trauma clean-up.  Of course there are the suicides and murders but perhaps even more desperately there are the hoarders who  are suffocating in their own mess and won’t let go; the older folk whose family have just neglected them and faded away leaving them helpless; those who have suffered severe shock for various reasons and simply cannot cope with “normal” living whatever that is! Finally there are those rejected by society including sex offenders. At times these stories distract and get in the way of the story of Sandra Pankhurst we want to know about but in the end it is one continuing story because Sandra’s traumatized life is somehow mirrored in her customers’ lives and in a way she can do her job because of what she has been through herself.

Thirdly Krasnostein, an American who has also studied and lived in Australia has written a partial sociological history of elements of the past fifty years in Melbourne. In particular we have the beginnings of a history of the developing gay scene in Melbourne from the 1960s and 70’s in particular e.g. p89ff and p93ff and elsewhere especially the developing clubbing and nightclub scene; secondly a potted history of the developing medical approach to sex-change operations (p115f); thirdly a study of prostitution e.g. Kalgoorlie (p121f) and changes to laws relating to prostitution (eg p159f) and especially the appalling and almost too horrific to read rape scene of chapter 10 with a graphic description which defies imagination if it were not true; finally we have, somewhat surprisingly at the end of the book what looks like some findings of  a research program with references regarding the study of vulnerability, shame, hurt etc and how to maintain normal relationships in the face of such traumatic and humiliating experiences. I personally found these pages intrusive and academic and unhelpful to the style and thread of the novel. I would have preferred to see this material in an appendix as it is didactic and unwelcome character summarisation by the author in strangely C19th style when perhaps we would prefer to come to our own mind about how she should react to her reunion with her/his two children.

Fourthly, as if the above were insufficient, we have the unfolding tale of an early applicant for a sex change including the traumatic early life of an unwanted adopted child, the initially happy marriage and children and gradual disintegration, the period of drag-queen excitement and new exploration, the traumatic life of prostitution, and the dawning realisation of the desire of a man to really be a woman including his disinterest in the trans community, his ill-fated attempt to produce a child prior to his sex change and its tragic denouement, his doomed love affair and unlikely happy/successful then unhappy marriage and the final ambiguous reconnection with his first family.

I am not sure that the author has satisfactorily glued all of the above elements together into a satisfying read but it is nevertheless a brave attempt.

I suppose I should also say that this is not the book to read if you are feeling depressed about life, or vulnerable or desperately unhappy for whatever reason. This book will not cheer you up. Nevertheless if there was ever a person who managed to create a successful life from the most exceptional hardships and challenges it is Sarah Pankhurst and once read, I doubt this is a story that could ever be quickly forgotten…and you cannot say that about every book you read!  3 stars!

Morag Zwartz: Apostles of Fear: A Cult Exposed, St Mary’s SA, Parenesis Publishing, 2008

Investigating Christian cults is a tortuous and courageous activity.  Whoever is brave enough to expose well resourced,  controlling and secretive groups runs the risk of vilification and abuse. Moral Swartz is a freelance journalist who has already worked in this area, publishing Fractured Families: The Story of a Melbourne Church Cult, Adelaide, Open Book Publishers, 2005. This is an account of a secretive perfectionist cult labelled “The Fellowship” based in three Victorian Presbyterian churches and centred on the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Camberwell Melbourne.

Labelled “The Fellowship” this group was founded by Ronald Grant and Alan Neil who served as missionaries with the South Seas Evangelical Mission in the Solomon Islands. Ronald Grant’s younger brother Lindsay Grant led a similar perfectionist cult in the 1940’s Sydney which was described in David Millikan’s 1991 book Imperfect Company.  “The Fellowship”  was unusual to the extent that its members were involved in “normal” Presbyterian parishes but accepted the leadership of a secretive group of elders; the “Fellowship” was also largely made up of upper middle class professionals, doctors, lawyers etc who were well connected and respected in Melbourne society. The elders of “The Fellowship” were eventually expelled by the Presbyterian Assembly with legal appeals and actions by the Presbyterian church continuing.

The six elements of the Perfectionist cult which were found to be i. accepting “feelings” as revelation from God equal to the Bible; ii. that contact with non-Fellowship members leads to defilement; iii. that the Fellowship claims higher loyalty than members’ families; iv. that Christians can be controlled by “generational curses’ or evil spirits; and vi. that God’s forgiveness depends on confessing to other people or on personal holiness, the form of which is prescribed by the leaders.

I list the above elements at some length because, from my own experience in cult busting students at School level, these elements are similar in most cults.  Separation from families is a major goal; control of money and work is always present along with a high degree of misogyny and repression of women as well as freedom in both both morals, money and lifestyle for the small group of leaders at the top.

Apostles of Fear is a difficult read..It is heart wrenching in its account of the destruction of generations of families whose only crime was seeking to be faithful to God by being members of a “church’.  It is confronting  because cult beliefs are usually exaggerated or twisted doctrines based loosely on Biblical quotations but slanted and misused out of context. The confrontation occurs for the reader because you start to doubt the meaning of any Biblical text or doctrine.It is frightening because one recognizes the skills of winsome, charismatic leaders and preachers who, on the surface are light bearers but who inside are motivated by greed, power and a desire to control and manipulate, as well of course as a desire to maintain an expensive and often immoral lifestyle.

The cult described by Swartz focusses on two churches, the Immanuel Church which became  The Melbourne Christian Fellowship founded originally by Ray Jackson and the The Brisbane Christian Fellowship founded by Vic and Lorraine Hall which eventually took over the Melbourne Christian Fellowship as well following the expulsion of Ray Jackson for immorality. The churches created The Calvary Bible College which drew students from New Zealand and Australia to train as leaders and these were sent out to start churches both in Australian, New Zealand and elsewhere overseas especially Indonesia. Other branches of the cult were formed in Toowomba, Stanthorpe, Maryborough, Hervey Bay, Sunshine Coast, Forster, Sydney, Shepparton, Nhill, Frankston, Sunbury, Laverton, Seville, Bendigo, Geelong, Portland, Warrnambool, Leongatha, Wangaratta, Adelaide, Perth and Cairns.

The churches were charismatic in flavour, strongly emphasing tithing and double tithing, separation from family members and above all a powerful emphasis on male headship with the deliberate destruction of marriages where there was any detection of a person opposing church doctrine or giving total submission to the husband. Rebaptisms in “the Name” was required as were a requirement to hear and respond to “the messenger” to whose messages one was required to “adjusted” or be “under correction” which was a process of repulsive public confessions and social rejection designed to break completely and control the spirit of the person under correction. There is no way out of the Christian fellowship treadmill of confusion, despair and defeat. A case study of the break up of the marriage of well known doctor and elder Graham Pomeroy and his wife Helen makes for excoriating reading, not for faint hearts. The fact is it is difficult to believe that people could allow themselves to come under the control of such teaching. Meeting an “escapee” from the cult as well as having an aunt, now deceased, who was a member of the Stanthorpe branch of the church has enabled me to see the workings of the cult from the inside.

A key early figure in the original Immanuel church was well known and respected church leader the late Kevin Conner who confronted Ray Jackson about his immorality and tried to assist folk who had been hurt by the church. He eventually left the church with his family to minister in America.  When he returned to Australia Conner became involved with Richard Holland and the Waverley Christian Fellowship and completely separated from the Melbourne Christian Fellowship. Swartz is critical of Conner for not calling out Jackson publicly. Kevin Conner’s son Mark currently is the Senior Minister of CityLife Church which meets in the auditorium of Beaconhills College in Berwick where I was a chaplain for a number of years. As far as I could see this church is quite free of the abuses and weird doctrines of the Melbourne Christian Fellowship although I did not personally attend worship at the church.

Morag Zwartz is to be commended for her commitment to unravelling the tortuous documents, tapes and writings of leaders in this movement which has created untold and irreparable  damage to many well meaning Australian families. Unfortunately the book is out of print and hard to find but well worth the effort. My only criticism is that an annotated bibliography would have been helpful as the collection of books listed is a quite a mixture of resources.  4 stars.

Betty Churcher: Notebooks, Melbourne, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing,  2011,  and The Forgotten Notebook,  as above, 2015.

The late Betty Churcher was the Director of the National Gallery of Australia for eight years and previously the Director of the Western Australian Art Gallery. She was herself a prize winning artist and a teacher of Art for many years.  Towards the end of her career, as she was going blind, she made a final tour of the world’s galleries studying for the final time her favourite paintings. She had special permission at the National Gallery of London to remain after hours to spend lengthy periods analysing paintings, making her own sketches and simply remembering the images.  Her sketches and comments highlight aspects and details of these paintings which, when we look at them we don’t even see until she points them out and the sketches  are works of art in their own right. Churcher often also reproduces paintings from the NGV which have been influenced by the paintings from overseas galleries chosen for her studies.  The Forgotten Notebook was a collection of sketches she had indeed forgotten, found in her belongings when hunting for something else. It is our good fortune because it is a stunning collection of sketches and the paintings are displayed in a larger exercise books size format which is to die for.

The Miegunyah Press was set up and made possible from funds provided by bequests under the will of Mab and Russell Grimwade, Victorian  industrialists and philanthropists. “Miegunyah” was the home of the Grimwades from 1911 to 1955 and is now part of Melbourne Grammar School.  The result of the bequests is publishing of the highest quality and beauty. These are books to savour and keep and articles of beauty in themselves. The paintings and Churcher’s sketches and notes reproduced in both books are of the highest quality and the design and feel of the books is luxurious indeed. If you like books because they are beautiful books then these two books are a must.   Artists discussed and presented in Notebooks are: Titian, Rembrandt, Willem De Kooning, Piero Della Francesca, Piero Di Cosimo, Arthur Boyd,  Cézanne, Manet, Vermeer, Gauguin, Picasso, Courbet, Velázquez Goya, Jeffrey Smart, Botticelli, Francis Bacon.

Artists presented and discussed in The Forgotten Notebook  are Leonardo Da Vinci, Piero Del Pollaiolo and Antonia Pisanello (early Renaissance portraitists), Piero Della Francesca, Bellini, Titian, Michelangelo, Mantegna, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rubens, Goya, Géricault, David, Manet and Courbet. These are books to treasure.  5 stars

Marcus J Borg & N T Wright: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, New York, HarperOne, 2007 (1999)

Arguably two of the most influential theologians of the twentieth and twenty first centuries hammer out their often opposing view about the historical Jesus. Both studied at doctoral level at Oxford under G B Caird and have remained firm friends since even though their approach to theology differs greatly. Wright has been a pastor and  bishop of the Anglican Church and taught New Testament Studies at McGill, Cambridge and Oxford for twenty years. He is currently Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews and a prolific author focussing on Paul, New Testament history and commentary and popular books on just about every Christian topic except perhaps (so far) on John’s Gospel. His writings have been deeply influential in the lives of many evangelicals seeking a more strongly based historical approach to Christian studies which challenges liberal orthodoxy at many points.

The late Marcus Borg was brought up a conservative Lutheran but after studying theology became disillusioned with the Christian faith and turned to atheism for a period of ten years. Following what in his own words a number of experiences which he called “nature mysticism” he returned to his Christian roots and became a hugely influential theological teacher and prolific writer. Before his death Borg was the Hudere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. His friendship with Church Historian John Crossan led to both of them becoming influential leaders in the Jesus Seminar. Borg’s work in hammering out a platform for “Progressive Christianity” has been a life-saver for many  Western C21st Christian folk who can no longer believe in traditional Christian orthodoxy.

In this very readable book both authors take up the same central themes and write a response, having read the work of the other.  There is no final resolution. Readers are left to ponder well crafted arguments on both sides. The topics discussed are How do we know about Jesus?  What did Jesus do and teach?  The death of Jesus (why was he killed and what did his death mean for Christian faith); The Resurrection; Was Jesus God? The Birth of Jesus; The Second Coming  and Jesus and Christian Life.   Two very different approaches with perhaps some surprising rapprochement in the final chapter.   A very worthwhile read for thinking Christians and seekers.  5 stars.

Marcus Borg: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & The Heart of Contemporary Faith, San Francisco, Harper, 1995.

This is an earlier book than the one discussed above and written just prior to the publication of the controversial findings of the Jesus Seminar. A reader’s reception of this book will depend on the current state of their thinking.  Borg is helpful in tracing his journey from conservative Christian up bringing through to atheism and then returning to Christian faith. He writes persuasively in a way which enables him to maintain much of his liberal scepticism about many aspects of the Jesus story as recorded in the Gospels. This attempt to maintain meaning and passion for Christian belief in the midst of a materialistic and hard boiled Western thought pattern and against vocal and often poorly thought out Christian fundamentalism will be helpful to many C21st seekers after spiritual truth.

On the other hand the overwhelming dominance in this book of the Jesus Seminar findings with its hard and fast rules regarding what should be “in” the “true” text of the Gospel story of Jesus and what is invalidly out because it reflects later Christian tradition puts this book on the edge of Christian orthodoxy. This is not the place to delve into the complexities of New Testament and C1st  church history and C1st Judaism in the Mediterranean. Suffice to say that the radical conclusions of the Jesus Seminar including knocking out the whole of John’s Gospel as late, including elements of the Gospel of Thomas  (thought by many to be C2nd) and strict rules regarding the criterion of needing more than one source for any valid  N T doctrine or teaching and the criterion of dissimilarity from the teaching of Jesus as against early Christian tradition all end up with a very thin volume of authentic Jesus teaching and history in the Jesus Seminar “New Testament”.  This “thinness” is well represented in Borg’s analysis and as such will either delight or infuriate readers depending on their theological  position. I have had discussions with folk on both sides! In general I think this is a book written in the first flush of excitement of the Jesus Seminar. The book reviewed above is perhaps a more nuanced account of Borg’s views.    3 stars.

Jeanette Winterson: The Passion, London, Vintage Books, 2014 (1987)

This is a lightly written text which explores the theme of passion in the lives of two very different people who come together in unlikely circumstances. Set in Napoleonic Europe notably France, Russia and Venice the novel engages the reader more by the thoughtfulness and delight of its prose rather its unusual story line.  Henri, with  a young man’s passion for the power, inventiveness and energy of Napoleon is crushed by service in the traumatically disastrous Russian campaign.  A young woman in Venice, who enjoys dressing as a man, discovers a passion which will not be commanded  for  a married woman. Somewhere between fear and sex passion is, writes Winterson and Villanelle, a boatman’s daughter born with webbed feet will not let her passion go. Passion will not accept another’s left-overs…and the one you fall in love with for the first time, not just love, but be in love with will always make you angry.  The rather sad lives and  unlikely meeting of these two thwarted passions plays out in unexpected ways and drifts to a fairly unsatisfactory end for those who look for resolution.  This is an early work for Winterston who has become extremely popular with her many novels, children’s books, non-fiction and even a screenplay.  3 stars.