Philip Yancey:  I Was Just Wondering, Sydney, Strand Publishing, 2005 (1989)

This is one of Yancey’s earliest books…a collection of short pieces written when he was a regular writer for a monthly edition of Christianity Today, a task he commenced in 1983.  Yancey has since written some seriously honest, theologically challenging, spiritually uplifting and  influential books including What’s So Amazing About Grace, The Jesus I Never Knew and Soul Survivor,  which would feature in many Christian readers’ top ten Christian books list. This early collection demonstrates all the quirky, well balanced, widely read, supremely courageous traits which characterise Yancey’s acute observations of the world around him and how Christian believers should respond. 

In his forward Yancey sets a high standard indeed for himself.  Looking around at creation he “wants to express his own sense of awe and love for God’s creation. He quotes Renaissance polymath and mystic Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man which defined the role of humanity in creation as follows: ..the divine Artificer still longed for some creature which could comprehend the meaning of so vast and achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur.  

Whether Yancey has achieved that goal the reader of this collection will have to decide but for me, in these bite size articles Yancey manages to challenge and raise thoughts for me which seem fresh, new and often hurtfully sharp. He asks more questions than he provides answers for but the questions leave the reader troubled enough to soul search for his or her own authentic response. His inspiration is Walker Percy’s book The Message in a Bottle which commences with six pages of questions. Each section of Yancey’s book begins with a series of very good questions indeed.

Some of Yancey’s themes include: comparing running an acquarium with running a universe; wild animals and Job; theology derived from dirty jokes; why high school reunion folks are the just the same ten years later as they were in school; against psychological determinism; Chesterton’s view of the origin of pleasure; the midnight church of alcoholics anonymous which acknowledges dependency; the Bible’s lack of support for smugness eg about the AIDS epidemic; the impact of Christianity on medicine in India; former president Jimmy Carter now building houses for the homeless; missiles for hostages in Iran; comparing Pinochet and the Pope in Chile; Simon Wiesenthal and forgiveness for horrors committed; the liberation of Dachau and a US soldier’s responses; Jacques Ellul’s sense of personal failure to resolve secular activism with his devotional theology ..(love vs power); Henri Nouwen’s decision to give up international fame and influence at its peak to spend the rest of his life caring for one massively disabled and dependent young man; small idols and distractions that edge out God in modern life; growing up Fundamentalist is still better than growing up without any religious faith at all; living in an evangelical enclave compared with the pharisee in the Temple; society’s C20th reversal of William James’ findings in Varieties of Religious Experience; George MacDonald on grace; T S Eliot ..can a liberal intellectual darling become a Christian and stay a Christian? Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn..imprisonment and conversion; Shusaku Endo and The Silence … the fate of persecuted pre-war Japanese Christians; how could Nazism achieve what it did in middle class Germany and how will the US be seen in 70 years’ time? primal passion in Jeremiah; mixed metaphors in Hosea; why the pseudepigraphical Gospels of a miraculous Jesus don’t cut it; the spirit of arranged marriages and why they mostly work; nine possible answers to the riddle of Job; Helmut Thielicke’s view that Americans have an inadequate theology of suffering and why; the world judges God by those who bear his name cf Nietzsche: “His disciples will have to look more saved if I am to believe in their saviour”; black holes and God; whatever happened to heaven..and many more!   5 stars. 

Daniel Defoe: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent, (usually known simply as Moll Flanders), 

New York, The Bibliophilist Society, 1931 (original published in 1722). This 1931 hardback edition includes an introduction by W H Davies, (1871-1940), Welsh “people’s” poet and writer and also contains  outrageous  illustrations of Moll Flanders sexual encounters by American artist John Alan Maxwell. (In a profile of Maxwell in the February, 1948 issue of Esquire Magazine,[8] writer Robert U. Godsoe described the artist:

Here is a romantic painter of dangerously exciting women–women with ‘great mystery in their hair and moisture on their hands.’   (Wikipedia)

I remember reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe when I was quite young and although I found its length daunting I do recall that the old fashioned language was nevertheless direct and easy to understand. Defoe never wastes a word and does not worry too much about adjectives or description of surroundings. The story is everything and it rolls along with plenty of action. Moll Flanders is a rollicking tale indeed. Apparently loosely based on a historical London criminal identity Moll King it certainly soon takes off with a life of its own. The novel highlights the vast disjunction in the  early C18th and probably forever! between the aristocracy and the poor in England and the well-known misbehaviour of sons of the aristocracy with household maids which is where Moll Flanders’ troubles begin. On the other hand there is little moralising or preaching.

The narrative is breezy, entertaining, at times thought provoking, always engaging and leading on the reader to find out what could possible happen next.  Defoe’s Puritan Christian faith emerges very strongly in the prison section but even here there are no artificial conversions or dramatic changes of heart or character.  Nearly 400 years on Moll Flanders ages very well and in all that time I doubt it has very often been out of print.   4 stars.

Michael Glover, Great Works: Encounters With Art,  London & New York, Prestel, 2016.

Great Works:Encounters With Art is a beautifully crafted and richly produced book containing elegantly reproduced photographs of fifty major works of art, mostly paintings but some sculpture. Michael Glover is a London-based poet, art critic and magazine editor and writer.  This book is a collection of some of his many sharp and pithy analyses written mostly for the The Independent UK newspaper.   Many of these works are from British galleries but others are from galleries throughout Europe and the USA.

Many of my favourite paintings are discussed  here including Mantegna’s The Dead Christ from the Brera in Milan, Grünewald’s Resurrection of Christ from he Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France, Caspar David Friedrich’s Traveller Above the Mists  from Hamburg’s Kunstalle, Fragonard’s The Swing, from London’s Wallace Collection, and Massacio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden from Florence’s Brancacci Chapel.  In addition Glover has analysed Japanese woodblock prints, an ancient Assyrian low-relief lion sculpture and a large number of twentieth and Twenty first century artists including Paul Klee, Louise Bourgeois, Cy Twombly, and Marlene Dumas amongst many others. 

Glover’s attention to detail, flamboyantly thoughtful analysis, historical background and richly poetic descriptive language make reading this book a special privilege.  I was constantly amazed by his ability to point to aspects of a painting and minute details in paintings I thought I knew well and have never noticed before.  5 stars +

Alex Miller:  Watching the Climbers on the Mountain,  Sydney, Pan Books, 1998

Alex Miller’s first novel contains all the hallmarks of what in my view qualifies him as Australia’s finest writer since Patrick White, even though he was born in England. These hallmarks include deeply painted, intricate and alive  descriptions of outback Queeensland bush and mountains; equally intricate and crafted insights into characters especially male/female relationships; teasing plot development which several times threatens to terror and then recedes until finally delivering; a devastating study of coming of age for young children in remote outback Australia. 

Beyond all of the above the narrative contains a deeper search for meaning and understanding of being alive and surviving in life.  This is a tragic love story told with psychological tautness and with the occasional gem of a sentence that prophesies the greatness to come in future Alex Miller novels…. eg a  sentence such as old age is the only secure refuge from manhood (p66). This novel grips the reader from the first sentence and does not let go until the end.  I read it in three hours ..could not put it down.  (but then I am the president of the Alex Miller fanclub!); 5 stars.

This is a clever insight into the historical background of Jesus from a world class Danish New Testament scholar who has written in the areas of Early Palestinian Christianity, Early Christian traditions and Pauline theology from both a sociological and psychological perspective. 

Gerd Theissen: The Shadow of the Galilean, translated from German by John Bowden, London, SCM, 1987 (published 1986 in German).

The Shadow of the Gallilean

This text takes an oblique view of the background to Jesus’ ministry and the actual ministry itself with its results.  It is based on events in the life of a fictional non-observant but deeply thoughtful Jewish fruit and grain merchant Andreas from Sepphoris, a large Roman city in Galilee near Nazareth. Andreas had a long standing friendship with Barabbas and was inadvertently caught up in a riot in Jerusalem and imprisoned and questioned by Roman authorities. As a result and to buy his freedom Andreas agreed to be a fifth columnist, reporting to the Roman authorities on Jewish revolutionary activities.  This set up enables Theissen to explore the background religious and political  situation in Judaea and Galilee as it were from an interested but fairly neutral observer. 

Theissen achieves this at several levels.  His study includes a close up look at the Essenes/Qumran community; the wilderness prophets and mystics including Bannus and John the Baptist; the Zealots and sicarii resistance fighters, the Pharisees and Sadducees, first century Greek poets and mystics and of course Jesus of Nazareth.  In addition Theissen carries on a conversation about his writing with a fictitious New Testament historian and scholar “Dr Kratzinger”. This discussion enables Theissen to deal with the many historical, textual, doctrinal and historiographical issues that abound in New Testament studies.  He does this by a comprehensive footnote system which provides up to date and helpful data on all of the above issues. In this process he challenges many mid C20th liberal theological biases in the study of the New Testament text and provides useful insights into alternative ways of looking at the material now backed up by a vast amount of research into first and second century  Jewish and early Christian literature and the pseudopigrapha, and ever increasing excavations of inscriptions and other archaeological data. Of course the book and its narrative can be read for interest on its own without any reference to the detailed footnotes which are kept to the rear of the book. 

The result is a multi-layered book which retains interest and indeed a high level of intrigue and excitement. Although some of the contacts Andreas made look a little too convenient stylistically this is a minor criticism and the reader understands in any case what Theissen is trying to achieve. This book is a creative, careful and entertaining way of entering into reasonably high level introductory New Testament studies and a reading guide and the footnotes provide many suggestions about further exploration if the reader is so motivated. 

Apart from anything else this study demonstrates firstly that the narrative about Jesus’ crucifixion is very complex and has many threads..there is no single reason for the crucifixion; and secondly that there can be no doubt about the subjective authenticity of the appearances tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-9. [p211]

I enjoyed this book more than I expected and it has left some images and sayings in my head that I won’t forget. One is a convert who says: If he has died for me, then I am obliged to live for him. 5 stars.

Jordan Bernt Peterson: 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos, London, Allen Lane (Penguin imprint), 2018.

Jordan Peterson (born June 12, 1962) is a Canadian clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. His main areas of study are in abnormal, social, and personality psychology, with a particular interest in the psychology of religious and ideological belief, and the assessment and improvement of personality and performance.  (Wikipedia)

Jordan Peterson has been described in the New York Times in 2018 as the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.. I do not normally read self-help books and it is unfair to call 12 Rules for Life just a self-help book. In fact it is very difficult to attempt to summarise or concisely define the elements of this book. Peterson’s erudition covers an exceptionally deep and wide ranging knowledge of both psychological theory as well as current research on a huge array of topics. The Wikipedia article on Peterson alone lists over 16 significant published papers on psychological research in major journals.  His broader lectures and on-line teaching have reached a vast audience.

In 2013, Peterson began recording his lectures (“Personality and Its Transformations”, “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief” and uploading them to YouTube. His YouTube channel has gathered more than 1.8 million subscribers and his videos have received more than 65 million views as of August 2018.

All of this background alone would make for an interesting read on how to live a meaningful life but Peterson’s interests go far deeper than psychology and psycho-therapy.  His knowledge of religious literature is deep and far-reaching including the ancient Sumerian/Babylonian creation and flood myths; the equally ancient Hindu Vedas, the tao te ching, the Hebrew Scriptures, the teaching of Jesus, the early Greek philosophers, and bringing it up to date, an exhaustive knowledge of Marxist ideology and C20th Communist history.  In addition Peterson demonstrates a close reading of Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and Nietzsche as well as the poetry of Yeats, Milton, Eliot and  a host of current writers and commentators on “life in the Western world”. 

Peterson’s comments go deep, they are clear, they are based on sound reasoning and evidence, they are acute and cutting but also humble and careful and many are based on his own personal experiences from a life which has had more  very tough encounters than most.  indeed, Peterson’s courage in challenging many C21st currently held and frequently regurgitated viewpoints and assumptions in the media has earned him as many enemies as friends and makes for stirring and at times uncomfortable home truth reading. 

In his own words his 12 rules are as follows:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone your are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to someone else today.
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
  8. Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street. 

I can only say that reading this book is guaranteed to change a little and perhaps a great deal of how you think and live is deeply insightful, at times humorous, profoundly engaging and important writing…nothing he writes about is fatuous or trivial. There are some weaknesses eg there seems to be some repetition at times and a need for more careful editing in some places but this is carping criticism.  The book is strong meat. The reader needs to concentrate and be prepared to think very hard indeed and then change some things. Those who stay the distance will find much to help them live more fruitfully and effectively in the C21st.   5 stars.