BOOKS READ APRIL 2019
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together, translated by John W Doberstein, London, SCM, 1954 ; from German Gemeinsaames Leben, 1949.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is truly one of the heroes of Christian faith. Executed by the Nazis, close to the end of WW11 for plotting against Hitler’s life, Bonhoeffer was a theological giant, cut off in his prime. His books Letters and Papers from Prison, Ethics, The Cost of Discipleship and No Rusty Swords are rightly regarded as Christian classics. This little Book about the church, Life Together, just ninety five pages, is, in my view the best of all. In seemingly simple terms he packs in such helpful practical advice, spiritual wisdom and energising encouragement that the reader cannot help but be inspired to return to their church inspired and encouraged.
Chapter one is simply about Christian community. Bonhoeffer reminds us that we should not take our Christian community for granted. Many Christians around the world are on their own, literally. If we have a church fellowship we are fortunate. He reminds us that our Christian community must be based on Christ alone. If we are going to church for the social experience, because it is a “dream” church where everyone is “people like us” and “nice”, or a place we can go to have a “rapturous experience” or because the music is wonderful then we have failed to understand Christian community.
All of these are false motivations. Bonhoeffer writes that God is not a God of emotions but the God of truth..He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter , even though his personal intentions be ever so honest, and earnest and sacrificial. Bonhoeffer encourages us to give thanks daily ..even where were is no great experience, nod discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty. This must surprise us, especially those like me who have been fortunate in the past to belong to huge and powerful congregations, with exceptional music, outstanding preachers, deep spiritual maturity and close friendships.
Bonhoeffer celebrates the opposite..Christ bids me to celebrate fellowship for the sake of love …the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Chris; in the poor brother, Christ is knocking at the door… thus it is that really annoying person, that person with deep needs, that person who is not “people like us”, that person whose memory is gone, that person who is so depressing…is Christ knocking at the door. I found this chapter especially challenging.
Chapter 2 concerns “the day with others”…how we lead our daily lives and our worship life. Bonhoeffer helps us with the imprecatory psalms which seem so unChristian..what should we do with them? (you will need to read the book for the answer!); he reminds us that our church activity should be based on solid biblical ground. Rather than speaking to others on the basis of life experience or life coaching he calls us to base our counselling on Scripture. He encourages us in our ministries not to draw attention to ourselves, to use both formal and personal prayers, to heal our divisions on the same day and not let them fester. Bonhoeffer suggests that arguments about church music should not become heated or doctrinaire..it is the church which is singing not individuals getting off on what they like.
Chapter 3 concerns our personal spiritual life. Bonhoeffer reminds that unexpected, extraordinary experiences in meditation are welcome when they happen but if they do not it is not a sign that the meditation was useless. When we are distracted in our prayers he suggests we pray about our distractions. I have always practised this and it is helpful.
Chapter 4 is about ministry. Bonhoeffer reminds us that We should not try to fashion folk in our own Christian image. God did not give this person to me as a brother or sister for me to dominate and control, but in order that might find above him or her the creator. He urges us to practise the ministry of holding the tongue…to speak about a brother publicly or covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will. How much church gossip, anger and bitterness would be squished immediately if we kept to this rule?
Bonhoeffer reminds us Thomas à Kempis’ dictum that we should consider ourselves the greatest of sinners and urges us to see listening to others as the first service we owe them. Strikingly he notes that he who no longer listens to others will soon be no longer listening to God! About helpfulness he reminds us that we must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. About evangelism he notes that the speaking of the Word is beset with infinite perils…and yet we are called to this task. It requires training and care.
Chapter 5 is a brief reflection on the importance of Confession and Holy Communion. I was surprised to see no comment at all on baptism.
This is a little book to read, re-read and read again. You won’t agree with everything Bonhoeffer says but your spiritual life will be deepened and encouraged as you turn to Christ and his Word. 5 stars
Bertolt Brecht: Mother Courage and her Children with commentary and notes, translated from German by John Willett; commentary and notes by Hugh Rorrison, London, Methuen, 1983 (translation 1980; original German 1940).
Brecht’s impact on European and Western drama in general was revolutionary and this play demonstrates why. Gone are the “good guys vs the bad guys” of drama from Sophocles onwards and what we have is a new art form, known from the 1920s as “epic theatre” in which the audience is presented with an “objective case” about war and can make up their own mind about which side or neither is in the right. Written on the eve of World War 11 when Marxist leaning Brecht had left Germany this play is set in the C17th Religious wars between Protestant Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire but its relevance to WW11 cannot be doubted. Brecht apparently wrote the play as a warning to Denmark that attempting to stay neutral in relation to Nazism won’t save their country from significant damage and trauma.
Mother Courage bases her whole existence around her cart of sellable goods which is pulled along by her children and the occasional male friend who might turn up. She is quite willing to change sides abruptly depending on which side is winning the war. It is in her economic interest that the war continues for as long as possible. Even though she eventually loses all three children in different circumstances, all of them tragic, we find her at the conclusion setting off almost joyfully because the armistice has broken and the war has resumed.
This is bleak Brechtian drama with no redeeming characters and only Courage’s third child Kattrin, who is unable to speak, emerging as a heroine who saves a city from anihillation. The clergyman is cowardly, flabby-minded and only preaches with passion on the occasion of the appearance of a rival for a relationship with Courage. The generals are alcoholic incompetents leading armies who scramble for whatever food, woman or safety they can scrounge. The Cook and would be lover of Courage proves to be a pervert and a selfish go-getter. The political leaders seem far away and irrelevant to the appalling conditions on the ground and the common victims at all time are the peasants and commoners whose property and lives are shown to be at the mercy of the first comer. Brecht had summaries of each act projected on screens in his productions so that the audience was already aware of the drama about to unfold and can effectively become if not participants, then judges of the characters and are called upon themselves to have a view about the sordid and vicious realities of warfare.
This play is a powerful, amoral, disquieting and critical assault on the dismal realities of European history in both the C20th and C17th. There is only minimal redemption here. 4 stars.
Tara Westover: Educated, London, Windmill, 2018
Extraordinary autobiographical account of growing up as the youngest child in a rural backwater of Idaho in the United States. Westover’s parents were extremist anti-government, anti-medicine, anti-hospital, anti-education loners psychologically and pathologically attached to an annihilationist view of world history which was to come to an end in their lifetime. They were attached to the Mormon church which met in the nearest town but their behaviour and beliefs were extremist and they were not well regarded by the Mormon church who they despised at “gentiles” or fake Mormons. The father in particular was a completely dominant and controlling misogynist and manic religionist whose sone were trained in his image and one of whom became pathologically destructive towards women.
Only the first three boys had any education and that only for about three years until they were old enough to work in the father’s metal scrap and barn building businesses. The mother was completely dominated and intimidated by the father and earned money as an untrained mid-wife and herbalist. All of the children went to work in very dangerous conditions in the scrap yard including the girls. They had no birth ceritificates, no medical records, no educational records
The narrative reveals in excruciating detail the evil and and increasingly violent tyranny of one of the boys over the sisters including Tara. Three of the brothers, Tyler, Richard and Tony eventually broke away from the family, married and had children and lived relatively normal though still scarred lives. Tara tells of her gradual separation from her parents through odd jobs in the town, a supportive grandmother and two supportive aunts and eventually, almost miraculously and after extraordinary effort finds her way to Brigham Young University and by dint of a very fine though untrained mind and some exceptional support, to a doctorate at Cambridge. Yet the power of the family remained and her final “escape” was a near thing.
This is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. It is desperately honest, horrific in its descriptions of family brutality and frightening in its revelation of the damage that psychological pathology can produce on the mind of even strong and highly educated people. This book is strong meat! Ultimately a triumphant hymn of praise to education and good educators but the personal cost and trauma of its protagonist is a tragedy of Shakespearian or Zola-like proportions and not a read for the faint-hearted. 5 stars.
Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection,Sydney, Picador, 2002 (1999)
Engaging and lively love story centred in a rural one horse New South Wales town called Karakarook. The dying town is trying to forge a new identity as a tourist destination and fighting to save their unusual wooden bridge. Shy and socially clumsy middle aged and divorced engineer Douglas Cheeseman, sent to destroy the bridge and build a new one, falls stupendously and very quickly in love with equally divorced (three times) and on her own reckoning “dangerous” Harvey Savage, a quilter and museum administrator sent from Sydney to help set up a heritage centre in the town. Having her last husband commit to a violent suicide, Harvey was not looking for a new partner in a hurry but on arrival immediately attracts a life-time friend in a stray-dog as well as the determined Douglas Cheeseman.
What in my view is a sub-plot in the narrative, perrfectionist one child younger mum Felicity Porceline, the wife of the local bank manager, becomes the story of the title. Out of all character, Mrs Porcelline enters into an erotic relationship with single man Alfred Chang (“Freddy”) a butcher and amateur photographer, especially of beautiful women!
Grenville won the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction with this novel and its whimsical humour, unique perception of the chatter and lifestyle of the women in Australian country towns, and the strange tension and loneliness of the Australian bush all combine to create a humorous, enchanting and at times even tensing novel. 5 stars.
Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game,
translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston, Ringwood, Penguin, 1972 (this translation,1960; in German Das Glasperlenspiel, 1943)
[Subtitle: A tentative sketch of the life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht together with Knecht’s posthumous writings, edited by Herman Hesse.]
German author Herman Hesse (1877 – 1962) settled permanently in Switzerland as a protest against German militarism in the First World War. Hesse was unable to have this or any of his books published in Nazi Germany but he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 for this, his last novel.
The complex story is set somewhere in the C25th century in a central European region called Castalia, a specially dedicated educational province within a larger independent nation. Students were selected from secondary colleges across the State to study at tertiary level at Waldzell which has been set aside as a specialised centre for high achieving students. Outstanding students from this group were encouraged to take part in a highly complex game and activity called “the Glass Bead Game” which is difficult to describe but includes exceptional skills in musicology, mathematics, languages, architecture, art, science and virtually any other major area of study (except, perhaps for history!) In its foundation this group of students were joined by another group of “journeyers to the East” who brought back a significant influence of Chinese philosophy especially of The Book of Changes, the I-Ching which brought a powerful component of meditation into the game and lifestyle.
Absolutely outstanding students were recommended to join “the Order” which was a select group of leaders who controlled the curriculum and development of the Glass Bead Game and the whole educational centre of Waldzell. The “Ludi Magister” is the senior principal and controller of the Glass Bead Game and highly honoured and revered.The period follows the “century of Wars “ and is called the Feuilleton era..devoted to literature, philosophy, research, knowledge and wisdom.
The culture of Castalia honoured order, truth, normality, reason, lawfulness, beauty, calm and moderation. It was a culture of quintessential intellectual genius, meditative wisdom and harmony but in Knecht’s time it has gone beyond its greatest height of intellectual and mystical flowering and has begun to lose its inventive and intellectual power and drive…it has become overly delicate, comfortable and self-satisfied.
The novel basically tells the intellectual and spiritual formation and life story (a “bildungsroman”) of Joseph Knecht who, after many complex encounters and challenges rises to the role of Ludi Magister. Along the way he faces many problems and challenges, some of whom represent major philosophical heavyweights in Hesse’s own philosophical world. Thus Thomas von der Trave, the previous Ludi Magister, is a thinly veiled Thomas Mann; Knecht’s best friend Fritz Tegularias stands in for Nietzsche; and the Benedictene Father Jacobus makes an impressive Jacob Burckhardt, the exceptional German historian of the Renaissance.
Hesse manages to include most of the major C19th and C20th musicians, as well as Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Pindar, Goethe, Froberger, Faustianism, Montaigne, Opitz, entelechy, C18th German pietists (Bengel, Zinzendorf, Oetinger), Taoism, Franke of Halle, Pythagoras, Plato, Confucius, Cicero, Catholicism, Buddhism and many more central philosophical ideas and tensions. In addition the account of Knecht’s eight year reign as “Ludi Magister” is an excellent study of outstanding leadership principles!
The story comes complete with a selection of Knecht’s poetry which reveals much of his inner mind. In addition one of the tasks of a senior applicant for the Order is to write a series of three “other lives” based on someone living at three different times. Knecht unusually chooses three different ancient historical periods, ( a culturally ancient, pre-literate shamanistic “rain-maker” and mystic; a C3rd Christian desert hermit/confessor; and a Hindu Brahman prince, devotee of Vishnu in his avatar as Rama. These three “lives” are as powerful and effecting as Knecht’s own story, which, in spite of the philosophical complexity, manages to hold a committed reader in thrall.
This is a difficult and disturbing novel. It is not for the faint-hearted. It reaches out to the highest possible ideals made all the more urgent and mordant given its date of writing. Hesse has a breath-taking and detailed grasp of many deep philosophical and theological ideas and faiths…he seems to be somehow inside of each.
But Hesse also manages to sow doubt in the reader’s mind about the ultimate power and value of these very high ideals and modes of living. There is always the ongoing threat of evil and brutal power as well as unique weaknesses in each philosophical ideal whether it is the uncertainty of illusion in Hinduism, the sheer hardship of maintained Christian love, the limits of calm meditation to deal with physical realities and so on. Knecht’s fraught attempt to re-enter the real world will perhaps disappoint many readers…or perhaps the ending will affirm that it is not the destination but the journey that matters. In spite of the Nobel Prize, just 4 stars!