Books read October 2018

BOOKS READ OCTOBER 2018

Oliver Goldsmith: The Vicar of Wakefield/She Stoops to Conquer, New York,  Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1965 [1766].

Oliver Goldsmith was born in Ireland, educated at Oxford and travelled throughout Europe before settling down to write in London. He would perhaps have not achieved recognition except for the friendship and patronage of Dr Samuel Johnson. The Vicar of Wakefield is his only novel and can be regarded as a novelistic version of the Biblical Book of Job. Wakefield describes the ministry of a well meaning and devout country vicar and his family whose fortunes take several turns for the worse, finally resulting in total destitution and the imprisonment of the vicar in a very ordinary prison.  The plot which, on his own admission, is full of wild improbabilities, nevertheless makes entertaining, humorous and beguiling reading. The vicar’s sincere but sometimes foolish simplicity is tempered by the author’s presentation of the value of the vicar’s simple faith in the Christian God and human communion.* 

There is something in this novel of the initial despair of the two eldest daughters in Austen’s later Sense and Sensibility.  The steady stream of horrific and unlikely unhappy outcomes followed by the joy of the final chapter compare exactly to the final chapter of Job which describes Job’s rehabilitation after the most horrific hardship.  Goldsmith succeeds in creating a novel which can still raise a smile and a sense of moral uprightness even after 250 years.

At the same time as writing a humorous and engaging moral tale Goldsmith takes the opportunity to expatiate on his favourite issues of the day including politics (chapter 19) in which he defends liberty and the monarchy but opposes the accumulation of wealth to the few;  a minor sub-plot which describes the attempts of his son to make his fortune by various entertaining means, at first in London and then in various parts of northern Europe (chapters 20 and 21); and an essay on the best way to encourage reformation of prisoners in gaol (chapter 26). Goldsmith’s generous and clever good humour refuses to be defeated by a potentially shabby and destructive C18th moral environment and his generous and gentle mode of argument would be welcome today in our C21st lust for entrenched oppositional  hatreds and certainties on Facebook and in the media.  This is a novel totally out of date and fashion but still very readable.  3 stars.

*taken from the Introduction to this edition by R. H. W. Dillard,pxix.

Oliver Goldsmith: She Stoops to Conquer, 1773. [publishing details as above]

Goldsmith was singlehandedly responsible for turning the mood of the English theatre scene from the choice of the somewhat wooden and immoral world of Restoration Comedy and the sanctimonious sentimentality of the London stage in the mid C18th. Goldsmith’s play is simply laugh out loud funny and is still so today and still presented for the joy and amusement of the many. It is a complete farce but in a believable and elegant way which would have made Noel Coward proud.  I really enjoyed reading this play and did laugh out loud!   5 stars.

Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own,  Frogmore, St Albans UK, Triad Panther, 1977 [1929]

Virginia Woolf is one of the twentieth century’s finest authors and this essay is about writing, in particular about women writing. The genesis of the novel was a request for her to give two lectures to the Arts Society at Newnham and Odtaa Colleges at  Girton, UK  in October 1928. The lectures are written in the form of a story or short novel and are written with all the exceptional grace, fluidity, imaginative force, elegance and learning that has marked her substantial works of fiction, literary criticism, memoirs and published letters.

Woolf’s key point about women writing is that before they can write they need both money and a room of their own in which to write.  Written just ten years after women in England were given the right to vote and where women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were hard to find and substantially under- endowed this essay is yet written without anger or to make a particular case.  It simply states the fact that prior to the nineteenth century women did not have money of their own and anything they did earn was their husbands; and secondly that even if they were well off and encouraged by their husbands they did not have a room of their own to write in but had to write in sitting rooms where there were always other folk present, making demands and needing to be spoken to. The first of these barriers (money) she admits is true also of men…men also need money so that they have time to give to the serious business of writing and she cites a detailed article proving this by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: The Art of Writing. (on page 101).

Woolf cites many other reasons why so few women wrote apart from the above and the fact that “scribbling” was not considered an appropriate thing for women to be doing. These barriers include the fact that writing usually demands a wide experience..travel, contacts, experiences that were rarely open to women prior to the nineteenth century. She also looks deeply into the “state of mind” of writers..which is hard to determine, but good writing should be free of anger; good writing simply is good writing and is harmed by bitterness or deep regrets of the past or anything else that gets in the way of the finest wisdom and words that humans can put together.

. In establishing the foregoing arguments Woolf manages to include a vast array of female writers in England from Elizabethan times onwards and also finds space to make some useful comments about the relative merits of various male English writers and in particular the atrocious, ignorant and baleful negative comments about women’s writing from several otherwise highly regarded literary critics.

I found this to be a moving and elegantly written piece of writing which left me with several images of beauty and the difficulty faced by the first women “scribblers”  that will be hard to forget.   5 stars.

David Attenborough: Journeys to the Other Side of the World: Further Adventures of a Young Naturalist, London, Hodder & Stoughton/Two Books, 2018 [1981]

I first approached this book with some nervousness thinking it might be a rather dry scientific analysis of a number of obscure creatures and plants from equally obscure places. I was delighted to be immediately enjoying Attenborough’s engagingly urbane, humorous and indeed exciting writing style. Attenborough’s courage, energy and determination captivated me immediately and I found this beautifully photographed and illustrated book difficult to put down.

This book is a follow up to his 2017 Adventures of a Young Naturalist and is an abridgement of three already published Attenborough works: Quest in Paradise (1960 ..a search for birds of Paradise in New Guinea); Zoo Quest to Madagascar (1961) and Quest Under Capricorn (1963..Northern Territory journeys).

The New Guinea material is extraordinary. Even in the 1960s New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland) was largely uncharted.  Attenborough and his intrepid cameraman journeyed where only one or two white explorers and administrators had ever been in search of birds of paradise. The hardships, climate, dangers of all kinds were extreme and the communications severely limited. Apart from anything else it is a story of survival and of powerful interest.

The Madagascar journey was historically and biologically very worthwhile but perhaps the least interesting of the three sections.   The final third of the book detailing 1960s journeys through the Northern Territory is mesmerising, humorous, revealing and challenging. The interaction of white Australia with indigenous ancient Australian culture in the 1960s is thrown into new relief when viewed from an outsider’s perspective.

I think this is a book I will long remember and return to.  5 stars

Greg Sheridan: God is Good For You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2018.

Greg Sheridan is a well known Australian media commentator on current affairs and since 1992 has been the Foreign Editor of The Australian newspaper. Sheridan is a committed Roman Catholic and his wife is a Sikh believer and they have three sons who are members of the Sikh community in Australia. He has written six books on Australian/International relationships and issues. This is his first book on religion.  Sheridan has clearly spent a considerable amount of time researching the material for this book and has interviewed in some detail a large number of political and religious figures in the process.

The book is divided into two quite different sections.  Part 1 is a defence of the validity and enduring value of the Christian faith even as it fades away in the West. The book has particular reference to Australian believers but with more than a nod to the Western world in general. Sheridan’s coverage includes an analysis of “the sins of Christians” including ancient scars such as the inquisition and the Crusades as well as the recent uncovering of horrific pedophile scandals. Sheridan writes as a committed Roman Catholic but has clearly researched deeply into many Protestant Christian communities and demonstrates an excellent understanding of their approaches and functioning.

Part 2 consists of a series of interviews with a significant number of politicians who espouse Christian faith from both sides of the political divide and other chapters on outstanding Christian leaders and spokespersons of a wide range of denominations and involvement including Planetshakers, Focolare, Monastics, Campion College and many others. Sheridan also devotes chapters to descriptions of vigorous “signs of life” in many Christian communities, new styles of church and worship  and organisations that are making an impact on Australian society. He closes with some advice to Christian leaders and churches on what needs to be done to reignite Christian faith in Australia.

Sheridan’s very up to date examples, his well known pithy and sharp style, his sensitive assessments of individuals and shades of difference in religious beliefs, his courage in fronting some formidable political leaders and his sympathetic attempts to get inside the real thinking of individuals about a topic which is seldom discussed in public make this book hard to put down. This book is half way between  serious research and serious investigative journalism. Insiders will quibble at some of his analyses and outsiders might think he spends too much time on some issues.  In my view he has sharply hit on just the right tone.

If Australian Christians don’t accept that their time in the sun is over, that their once privileged position no longer counts in Australian society, that in fact they are facing and will face increasing hostility and abuse for their views and that if they don’t regroup and reignite they will face oblivion, then it will not be Sheridan’s fault. He has sounded a bugle call for what needs to be done and given some fine examples. Ordinary Christians will sense a real challenge and excitement here. Church leaders and key operators should take careful note and read it twice. Truly a clarion call to the Australian church…Wake up ..get going…be alive and be faithful…don’t lie down and don’t water down. This is not the work of a professional theologian or of an ordained priest…it is the carefully delineated thoughtfulness of a highly committed Christian thinker and an at times brutally even-handed but also  highly competent  and sympathetic Australian journalist.  5 stars.

Andrew Moody: The Will of Him Who Sent Me: An Exploration of Responsive Intra-Trinitarian Willing, Bletchley, Milton Keynes UK, Paternoster, 2016.

Coleridge, in his once very popular Aids to Reflection (1825) wrote: …I have not entered on the Doctrine of the Trinity….[this doctrine] demands a power and persistency of Abstraction, and a previous discipline in the highest forms of human thought… (In Aphorism 96). I note also the Psalmist in Ps 131:1b ..I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me….

I should have taken both pieces of advice to heart before starting on Andrew Moody’s extraordinary  account of his Doctoral thesis which seeks to search out the possibility of an inter-trinitarian response from the Son to the Father within the one will of God who is Father, Son and Spirit. Needless to say this book is a difficult read even for someone well versed in theology. Three reasons for this difficulty stand out immediately, one practical and the other two inevitable.

On the practical side there are some problems with the layout printing of the book as the extensive footnotes often extend beyond the page of their notation requiring much turning forward and back and the footnotes can’t be ignored because much of the “juice” of the argument is contained within them. In addition there are numerous proofing errors and some web-references especially have been distorted by a copying process which makes them difficult to read.

The inevitable further  difficulties are first, the specialised language especially with terms emerging from analytical philosophy.  Immediately the reader is confronted with words like causal taxis, perichoresis, dyothelitic and monothelitic theology, aseity, innascibility, condescent, ectypal, supralapsarianism, apophatic,  decretive and so on which one hasn’t used since third year systematic theology research if even then.  Secondly of course is the Latin! I have good Biblical Greek but never studied Latin. The first chapter of this discussion focussing first on the “Pro-Nicene Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus), and followed by the magisterial work of Augustine and the Mediaeval Western synthesis after Augustine in chapter three inevitably involves extensive use of Latin sentences not all of which are easily translateable and to a non-Latin student this is a very tough beginning.

With all of these precautionary warnings this book is yet a vigorous and thought provoking read. Moody bravely jumps into the fray of tensions between the competing ideas of the subordination of the Son to a Monarchic  (and masculine) Father  verses a theology of total equality of the three persons of the Trinity, not least in lively disputation with his former teacher Kevin Giles amongst many others. After a while the reader becomes genuinely interested and excited by the whole notion of “ responsive intra-trinitarian willing” (RITW), which seems at first  an obscure central argument for a substantial book. Inevitably also these arguments tie in with current debates within evangelical circles between complementary and egalitarian models of Christian ministry. Moody steers a bravely fair and moderate path between these attached and divisive issues pointing out with clarity the strengths, weaknesses and challenges on both sides.

Another exciting part of the book for me is Moody’s helpful exploration into the current revival of Orthodox approaches to the mystery of the Trinity especially in the work of George Palamos and in addition the revival of Hegelian dialectic in various ways in Moltmann, Pannenburg and Robert Jenson, and in addition the revival of Christian Neoplatonic ideas in the work of Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart, with even a glance at the “radical orthodoxy” of John Milbank. A strength of this book is the vast array of primary and secondary resources and books referred to. Having all this material together in one place is a substantial achievement and very helpful for anyone wishing to do further work on Trinitarian studies.

In the end for me, with my no doubt  too simple view of things,  there seems to be no realistic way to define finally the notion of the Trinity in Christian thought. Some approaches such as Arianism and tri -theism are definitely out; but when it comes to further delineation every writer, no matter how careful, in prosecuting their case, and trying to find analogies, will inevitably move at times towards either  modalism or put too much stress on the individuality of the “persons” within the Trinity.  The reasons I draw this conclusion are threefold. (i) the complex   philosophical terms inevitably required to define the indefinable are themselves subject to varying interpretation; (ii) The sheer extraordinariness of the incarnation of the divine Son of God as the man Jesus of Nazareth puts almost impossible stress on the notion of divine willing since Jesus has both a human and a divine will and as Moody shows some writers arbitrarily use this fact to decide that some Biblical events relate to the Son’s human will and some to his divine will and do so inconsistently (iii) any attempt to adequately define the reality and nature of “God” in any religious faith is doomed to inadequacy because in the end there is inevitably mystery here beyond human understanding.

This book is a tribute to Moody’s amazingly elastic and deeply penetrating mind and his grasp of many of the threads which make up current theological discourse. If you are looking for a simple and straightforward guide to the theology of the Trinity don’t start this book. If you seek a genuine exploration of the power and purpose of the trinitarian revelation of God to mankind according to the Church’s finest thought leaders throughout the last 1500 years then this book is an excellent place to start. It will set your mind to exploding in five directions at once. It has for me!  Five stars!

 

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