William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying, London, Vintage, 1996 (1930)

This is the first time I have read a novel by Faulkner, widely regarded as America’s finest novelist of the C20th in the tradition of Hawthorne, Twain, Melville and Henry James.  He is clearly an acquired taste because initially, for the unprepared reader, his writing is disturbing, often obscure, difficult to follow and with a vocabulary regularly made up and unique to the author. Thankfully a Faulkner “dictionary” is available online. The format of the novel is also unusual with some chapters made up of one simple and obscure sentence.

Set in the deep south of Mississippi around the created town of Jefferson the story line is simple. Stubborn, careful and stoic Farmer Anse Bundren’s wife Addie has died and her dying wish was to be buried in Jefferson, normally a three day wagon journey. Anse is a taciturn, ornery, skinflint, determined  and misogynistic old man who is determined that Addie’s dying wish be fulfilled. He sets out with his five children and his wife in a coffin made by one of his sons Cash.  But the gods are against him.  A wild storm has knocked out the only bridge at a major river crossing and in attempting to ford the swollen river the wagon is destroyed and one of the sons breaks his leg as they lose their mules, retrieve the coffin and their tools. One of his sons loses his mind on the journey and burns down a stranger’s barn.  The result is a ten day gruellingly agonising crawl to Jefferson in which the reader gleans a minute and often obscure insight into the inner elements of the lives of and thoughts of various members of the family, only two of whom are the children of Anse and Addie with the younger three being the secret offspring of Addie and the conflicted parson Whitfield.

A pervading sense of poverty, racial anger, sexual oppression, deceit and the iron will power of the very unlikeable Anse Bundren dominate this novel. Harold Bloom describes As I Lay Dying as Faulkner’s greatest novel. I cannot tell not having read any others.  I will need to recover a while before taking on another Faulkner.  To be fair to Harold Bloom, the only comparable impact of a first reading of a novel I can match to Faulkner is the memory of reading my first novels by Joyce and Lawrence, so perhaps  I will eventually become a Faulkner convert. But it is difficult indeed to find redemption in As I Lay Dying.    A preliminary 3 stars with the recognition that its true greatness may eventually reveal itself to me.

Louisa May Alcott: Little Women, Mineola, New York, Dover Publications,2000 (1868-69). [This  unabridged edition was published as a replica of the original, edited by Susan L Rattier and containing Part 1 Little Women, and Part 11, Good Wives.]

I wanted to read this book as background to reading March, by Geraldine Brooks. I was not particularly looking forward to reading a “girls” book published under the heading of Dover Juvenile Classics!   The truth is I found I could not put this book down and read its 548 pages in two days. Louisa May Alcott was the daughter of well connected American educationalist Bronson Alcott, a transcendentalist and friend of both Emerson and Thoreau. Louisa clearly grew up in a rich literary environment. This book apparently is modelled on Louisa May Alcott’s own childhood experiences.

The story of four girls, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy growing up in straitened circumstances in New England with an absent father away as a chaplain in the American Civil War is written with sensitivity, humour, elegance and insight even if the language and sentiment of some 140 years ago is at times too sententious and saccharine and the mother Marmee too saintly for 2018 readers to stomach.  The adventures of the family of five and their next door neighbour Laurie, also a teenager bring humorous insights and surprising plot lines which preserve the text from mawkish melodrama and although the style has a traditional “feel”, in many ways the novel reads more easily today than say Dickens’ Pickwick Papers from roughly the same period.  There is a direct Christian spirituality throughout the novel but it is not forced or preachy and there are moments of deep sadness in the story line which had a compelling effect on this reader. I cannot recall ever a book producing tears for me as this one did in two places.

What makes this book much more than a child’s story is the extension  into Part 11 ( Good Wives)  in which the young children are found as young adults involved variously in travel in Europe, romance, marriage and in one case facing up to the death of a loved one. In this section Mr March has returned from the war although still playing a completely minor role in the development of the story and about whose character we are, surprisingly perhaps, told virtually nothing. It is a remarkable achievement that Alcott manages to maintain our interest in all four of the girls as individuals as well as Laurie, the boy next door. This novel thoroughly deserves its “classic” status. 5 stars.

Geraldine Brooks: March, Sydney, Fourth Estate, imprint of HarperCollins, 2005.

Australian born Geraldine Brooks lives in the USA with her journalist/historian husband, Tony Horwitz, learned, amongst other things,  in the history of the American Civil War.  Brooks writes both fiction and non-fiction but her  novels are nevertheless meticulously researched with both understanding and passion. I have read People of the Book,  Caleb’s Crossing and The Secret Chord and all bring to the reader a vivid and at times merciless picture of the historical period described and any further research one chooses to explore demonstrates that Brooks has done her work very carefully indeed. An outline of the research for March is found in the Afterword which commences on page 339.

As the reader of Little Women will know, Louisa May Alcott tells us virtually nothing of the life and character of Mr March except that in an unexplained attempt to help a friend he lost the entirety of a considerable fortune, leaving his family in severe poverty. He was of course, the father of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy and wife of Marmee. In Part 1 he is absent  working as a chaplain in the Yankee army and in Part 11, Good Wives,  he is a warm hearted, somewhat reclusive and scholarly retired clergyman who plays only a very minor role in the family’s adventures.   Geraldine Brooks fills in this gap by creating a complex, and thoroughly human, non-conformist pastor whose self-doubt and overwrought conscience almost lead several times to his destruction.

Brooks based her portrait of March on an amalgam of two people. The first of these was Louisa May Alcot’s father,  A. Bronson Alcot,  an educator, idealist, Utopian radical  and philosopher and personal friend of both Thoreau and Emerson. Like March in Brooks’ novel Alcot began his life as a book peddler to the wealthy and fell in love with the leisured life of the mind. [p341] but he later in life became a passionate supporter of the anti-slavery movement. Alcot’s sixty one journals and his letters fill thirty severn manuscript volumes in the Harvard College Library,  [p340].   Secondly March’s character was based on the celebrated New England clergyman and Army Chaplain Arthur Buckminster Fuller. At the same time Brooks reveals to us a very different ‘Marmee” from Louisa May Alcot’s 1868 novel. Marmee’s fierce temper is just hinted at in Alcot’s Littlee Women. In March her temper is revealed in its full force.

March is revealed to us in Brooks’ imagination as an idealistic and well educated but diffident “progressive” Christian man who volunteers to fight in the Civil War without reference to his wife, who is unsuited either spiritually or physically to the rigours of a vicious and murderous conflict, who is vulnerable to beautiful women and who then idealistically seeks to solve the educational challenges of the Southern slaves who had been “freed” to work on the “contraband” cotton farms. These ventures were set up with limited capital after the abolition of slavery by idealistic and/or opportunistic northern speculators who had little idea how to work with slaves at all let alone recently “freed” slaves who were still vulnerable to occasional destructive waves of white supremacists who had yet to be persuaded that the war was lost. Apart from anything else this story removes any faint suggestion that the American Civil War was a fight between the good and right Yankee north and the evil and callous Southern slave owners. Brooks demonstrates that greed and self-serving opportunism were present on both sides and subsequent history has shown us that the “race problem” remains.

Somehow March does survive all this to be reunited with his family and yes Brooks allows us closure in her final sentence. But both Marmee and March have been through so much in the journey that one wonders for the future. 5 stars

Kevin J. Vanhoozer: Biblical Authority After Babel, Grand Rapids, Brazos, 2016

Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the USA.  He writes prolifically from a reformed position but with a broad sweep covering theologies, theologians and literature from many fields and approaches. His General Editorship of Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible is an impressive gift to theological scholarship.

Biblical Authority After Babel takes its title obviously from the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel built by “mankind” to reach up to God. God was not pleased with their arrogance and “came down” and confused their languages so that they could not complete the tower.  Vanhoozer is responding particularly to Alister McGrath’s claim in his recent book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea that the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” led directly to the notion that every Christian has the right and authority in the Spirit to interpret the Bible for themselves. Thus according to one way of reading McGrath, the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world,  a “Babel” of scepticism and schism which divides, confuses and continually multiplies into the many thousands of denominations and Protestant ideologies in the world today. At the same time Vanhoozer takes issue with other historians who argue that Protestantism, by its removal of any “magisterial” shared framework for the integration of knowledge, has been responsible for the gradual secularisation of the modern world See Brad Gregory:  The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society.

Vanhoozer states early on that there is no merit in giving pat answers to complex questions, (p9) and this book is certainly no easy read due both to Vanhoozer’s carefully worded and detailed writing but also to the double layered layout of the book. Thus there are two over-arching themes of the book.

The first is Vanhoozer’s attempt to use “retrieval theology” to analyse again the fundamental theology and thinking of the C16th Reformation. “Retrieval theology” is the name for a mode or style of theological discernment that looks back in order to look forward. (p23). What Vanhoozer seeks to “retrieve” are the four classic Reformation “Solas” and explain their true intention and meaning.  Sola is the Latin for “alone” and Vanhoozer deals with Grace alone; Faith alone; Scripture alone; and In Christ alone.  He adds his own fifth sola ..For the Glory of God alone.  Vanhoozer has a final chapter in which he attempts to synchronise Protestantism with Evangelicalism and in a sense to retrieve Evangelicalism, a term which is increasingly confused and under fire.

The above would be meat enough for one book but on top of this significant retrieval  analysis Vanhoozer details and defends his version of the interpretative practice of “mere” Protestant Christians (p62) channelling C S Lewis at this point.  To do this, Vanhoozer  creates a total of twenty theses  throughout the book to delineate this Protestant interpretative practice sometimes using philosophical/theological terms such as material principle, formal principle, the triune economy of light and so on which are not always clearly enunciated.(to me anyway). The result of these two over-arching themes is that the reader is divided between sorting our the “five” solas at the same time as getting a handle on the “twenty” theses of Protestant interpretative practice and it takes care and patience to push through to the finish line.

In spite of these difficulties Biblical Authority after Babel is a far-reaching and worthwhile read and indeed it provides a program for Protestants and evangelicals to understand what they have in common and to direct their energies towards the unities of Protestant belief and practice rather than concentrating on the relatively minor issues that divide some Protestant believers.

In particular Vanhoozer argues strongly for the necessary existence of the church community as also an interpretive community, creating an essential guard against individual flights of fancy and heresy in personal Biblical interpretation. In other words the worshipping community itself is the  “interpreting community” for each individual Christian. The worshipping community including its eldership/leadership becomes the safeguard agains the “interpretive anarchy” so feared by the modern opponents of the Reformation’s impact. 

On the other hand Vanhoozer has stayed away from any actual issues in this lengthy discussion choosing rather to focus on a theoretical way forward. Much as I admire his attempt it seems to me that the book would have been stronger with at least a chapter on the hard issues. Aside from one indeterminate footnote he has avoided the same-sex attraction issue which, at least in the Anglican Church , has already caused substantial division and heart ache and won’t be going away any time soon. Equally the coherent and jaunty writing and podcasting output of Rob Bell’s influential body of work has a vast world wide following. Bell can still, I believe,  be considered “evangelical” while calling for a radically different approach to many conservative doctrines and earning the ire of hardliners like John Piper. Vanhoozer’s “model” may find a way to deal with issues like these two but it would have been useful to have a chapter with attempts at a practical way forward.

Vanhoozer’s very impressive reading guide alone is one major value of the book. There is enough food for thought here for a solid one year course in Biblical and Theological hermeneutics. An impressive and thoughtful book but only for those who are committed to theological analysis and prepared to stay the distance.   4 stars.