BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2019

Allan Bullock (Editor): The Marshall Cavendish Learning System: History, London WI, Marshall Cavendish Books, 1969

Historian Sir Alan Bullock
example of Marshall Cavendish learning system books.

This self-help learning system is astonishing for the vast amount of material put together with impressive academic credentials and accuracy but in a very readable manner and in a relatively short compass.  I have been long interested in the origin and rise of civilisations and the first two books in this outstanding series are particularly helpful. A key feature is the pictorial illustration of key eras and personalities. 

Title H1-  Cradles of Civilisation deals with the civilisations of  Sumer and Akkad; the Indus civilisation of north west India around Harappa; the rise of the Assyrian Nation; the Hittite Empire; the ancient empires of Egypt; the vast Persian Empire, and the later Ptolemaic empires of Egypt closing with Cleopatra’s failure to seduce Octavian and the conquering of Egypt by Rome.

Title H2 – Asia:The Dawn of History, deals with the creation of the  mysterious and ancient temples of South East Asia including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the “menace of the invading T’ai. This is followed by an account of the amalgamation of the earliest Chinese territories of Han, Wei, Chu, Chi and Yen under the banner of Ying Cheng, prince of Ch’in, from whence comes the name ‘China’. It becomes clear how much  Confucius’ influence is so significant for much of Chinese history in spite of the burning of his books and others by Li Ssu and the murder of the K’ung scholars under the Chi’n dynasty. These atrocities were made worse when the Chi’n dynasty itself fell under the power of Liu Pang’s peasant army who also burned the royal library—the only surviving complete collection of China’s ancient classics. 

This history is followed by the account of the youthful Chandragupta Maurya a one time supporter of Alexander the Great’s invasion who eventually led an army from northern India to conquer the Macedonian Seleucus Nicator’s  army and effectively become the first Indian leader to unite the various tribes of northern and central/south India. With the advice of his brahman advisor Kautilya  he ruled an increasing area of India from his capital Pataliputra in northern India. The narrative also deals with the development of India’s ancient faiths based on the influence of three amazing teachers Mahavira who developed Jainism, Gosala maskariputra who founded the Ajivikas movement and of course Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

The narrative then turns to India’s cultural conquest of South East Asia, and in particular the spread of Buddhism and the tension between developments in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism throughout South East Asia, including the magnificent Borubudur temple in central Java,  leaving Hinduism to a tiny remnant in Bali. In the late C13th the situation was altered again as South East Asia reeled under the Mongol attack from northern China and a new powerful influence arrived across the Indian Ocean —Islam which eventually controlled the Malayan Peninsula and all of the East Indies except Bali. The final two chapters deal with the rise and fall of various Chinese dynasties prior to the invincible power of the final Mongol invasion led by Genghis Khan and the golden age of his grandson Kublai Khan who ruled as Emperor of China for 35 years becoming the dynastic leader of the Yuan dynasty, and known to amazed Europeans through the writings of Venetian trader Marco Polo who lived in the Khan’s court from 1275-1292. After Kublai Khan’s death the vast Mongol empire which stretched from China to Europe could not be held together in spite of the fierce power of Timur the lame (Tamerlane) who waged brutal  destruction over all until his death in 1405.The Golden Horde, Persia, the Mamelukes and new Chinese dynasties arose to claim their own place under the sun.

Whilst I am sure all of this can be found online these days it is handy to have such a beautifully illustrated and professionally written accounts in two small books totalling 128 pages still available cheaply on line second hand!  5 stars.

Alice Walker: The Color Purple, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019 (1983).

Alice Walker

Complex rambling novel in the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots, looking at the life of post-emancipation black Africans especially in relation to the treatment of women and their fight for equality, education and standing. Written in the compressed language of everyday black Americans the essence of the novel is the different paths taken and eventual reunion of two sisters, Nettie and Celie, Celie as a young girl was repeatedly raped by a man she called Pa who turned out not to be Pa.  Pushed into an unhappy and servile marriage her life is turned around by an unlikely black female jazz singer Shugg who inspires her and also teachers her how to make genuine love.

Nettie is a determinedly self-educated woman protected early at home by Celie and who, by a complex set of circumstances ends up as a missionary in Africa. This enables Walker to describe and unpick the damage done to post-colonial Africans by the Western money grabbing “developmental” destruction of native vegetation, wild life and food sources, destroying much of the livelihood and lifestyle of many native Africans creating what is in effect a new kind of slavery. The narrative also underscores the complexity and hardships of Christian missionary work..a theme revisited in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Although there is some reconciliation in the conclusion, this narrative tells a harrowing tale of thoughtless and cruel white behaviour towards blacks in general as well as the environment and the equally cruel treatment of black women by their often uncaring and misogynist partners.    A powerful and harrowing novel which continues to make a big impact even after nearly half a century.  5 stars.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne: The Essayes Or Morall, Politike and Militarie of Lo. Michael de Montaigne, Knight: The Second Book, translated from the French by John Florio, London, The Folio Society, 2006 [1580 in Middle French; Florio’s English translation 1603]

Unlike the first book of Montaigne’s essays published at the same time, this second book is absolutely dominated by the towering chapter 12, An Apologie of Raymond Sebonde, which extends to 202 pages, well over half the book. Sebonde was a  C15th Catalan scholar, teacher of medicine and philosophy and a Professor of Theology at Toulouse. Sebonde’s major work had been given to Montaigne’s father by Peter Bunel who had been staying with him on his estate. Bunel was himself an outstanding scholar and linguist from Toulouse and expert in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. 

Sebonde’s book was written in Spanish and Montaigne’s father asked his son Michel to translate it for him into French.  Montaigne was clearly deeply influenced by Sebonde’s ideas and hence his remarkable essay and “apologie” of Raymond Sebonde. His essay/book ranges widely, commencing with the new bangles of Luther’s ideas which he saw were to shake the foundation of our ancient beleefe (p121), and this budding disease would easily turn to an execrable Atheisme. Seybonde wrote his book to establish and verifie all the articles of Christian religion against Atheists. (p122). 

Montaigne takes off from this starting point and commences a major examination and defence of the Christian faith. I was not expecting this because one of my criticisms of Book 1 of Montaigne’s Essays ( published at the same time and reviewed in this blog in August 2019) was that in spite of his vast collection of classical quotations from Greek and Latin authors and occasionally Augustine, there was virtually no reference to the Bible whatsoever. 

Here on the contrary we have a stirring theological/philosophical defence of the Christian faith including debates with Plato (p.128); about the immortality of the soul; about faith in Christ and the grace of God (p131); about Augustine (p133); about the nature of Heaven (p136); about natural theology at considerable length; about human sinfulness and vulnerability (p144); about procreation and marriage including some naughty bits (p164);  about the scope and genius of God’s natural creation; about wisdom (p178); against Stoicism; about human weakness and sickness; an aside about the evils of lawyers (p194); about the mystery of God (God is better known by our not knowing! (p195); about wonder above reason; about the long search to know we know nothing (p192); about the confusions and contradictions of the classical philosophers and the extremities of doubt (p199); about the probability of the reality of faith (p203); about Paul in Athens (p211); about the contradictions of Greek scientific ideas (p213); about our transformed heavenly bodies (p217); about the confusions of the classical account of the gods..(behold and read in Plato the gibberish of the gods, p249); about divine justice (p260); about the limitations of human reason (p275); about the “new found” learning of Copernicus (p281); about the absurdities of non-Christian cultures including Islam; about the dangers of the “changing English religion” ie the Reformation (p292); about the conflicting “faiths” produced by various philosophies..this section with a lengthy debt to Lucretius; and finally about the fleeting passing of time and the changing of all things.

In addition to this substantial book within a book Montaigne continues to entertain with provocative and thoughtful essays on subjects as trivial and as serious as human inconsistency, drunkenness, weird cultural customs, conscience, exercise, honours, children, much about warfare especially Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, books and authors (chapter 10..very interesting for book lovers like me), cruelty (Montaigne hates cruelty in war), death, desire, glory, presumption, telling lies, idleness, sickness, virtue, Siamese twins, anger, in defence of Seneca and Plutarch, good women and good men, and a finally a bitter and tumultuous tirade against the incompetence and gross errors and practices of the medical profession of his day. (for which he apologises to the Lady of Estissac to whom he had dedicated both Books 1 and 2. 

Some quotations from Book 2 which struck me as singular or of their time.

p63   Aristotle on loving others above self: profit is not so much to be esteemed or loved as honesty

p67  that which cannot be compassed by reason, wisdom and discretion, can never be attained by force and constraint.

p77  Re children and marriage…and ill hath their father brought them up, if he cannot hope, these coming to yeares of discretion, they shall have no more wit, reason, and sufficiencie, than his wife, considering the weakness of their sexe.

p90  I am not greatly affected to new books, because ancient Authors are in my judgement more full and pithy..

p104  Virtue provoked adds much to itself (Epanimandas);  to do well, where there was both peril and opposition, was the peculiar office of a man of virtue. (Metullus);  virtue rejecteth facilitie to be her companion.

p112  Against Stoicism: they are sharp-wittie subtilties, and without substance, about which Philosophy doth often busie itself.

p120  Knowledge is without all contradiction, a most profitable and chiefe ornament: Those who despise it declare evidently their sottishness..

p123  On Christianity: …Christians wrong themselves much, in that they ground their beleefe upon humane reasons, which is conceived but by faith, and by a particular inspiration of God.

p127  On Christian warfare: Our religion was ordained to root out vices, but it shrowdeth, fostrethand provoketh them. 

p132  To an Atheist all writings make for Atheism.

p178  Health I say, which is the goodliest and richest present, nature can impart unto us.

p181 ..onely humility and submission is able to make a perfect honest man.

p195  Augustine: God is better knowen by our not knowing him. 

p199  On philosophy: If we can know nothing, we cannot be certain that we know nothing.

p208 On wisdom: …it must not be thought strange if men desparing of the goale have yet taken pleasure in the chase of it.

p210  Plato…for the benefit of men, it is often necessary to deceive them…

p210  What greater vanitie can there be, than to goe about by our proportions and conjectures to guesse at God? And to governe both him and the world according to our capacitie and laws?

p211  On God:  …an incomprehensible power…

p226  On multiple universes: ..Now, if there be divers worlds, as Democritus, Epicurus, and well neere all Philosophy hath thought, what know wee, whether the principles and the rules of this one concerne or touch likewise the others?

p227 Mansiphanes said…that nothing is certaine, but uncertainty.

p240  Have I not seen this divine saying in Plato, that Nature is nothing but an ænigmaticall poesie?….Plato is but a loose poet. 

p297  Metrocles somewhat indiscreetly, as he was disputing in his Schole, in presence of his Auditorie let a fart, for shame whereof he afterwards kept his house, and could not be drawen abroad, untill such time as Crates went to visit him, who to his perswasions and reason, adding the example of his liberty, began to fart a vie with him, and to remove this scruple from his conscience…

p330  Pliny: This onely is sure, that there is nothing sure; and nothing more miserable, and yet more arrogant than man.

p343  Our glory is the testimony of our conscience.

p400  Vespasian: ..an Emperour should die standing upright.

p481  Homer..the first and last of poets.

Montaigne’s C15th language is hard work at times but becomes easier with familiarity. There is amazing triviality alongside impressive classical and historical analysis and much philosophical, moral and religious argument to think about. At times tedious, at others outrageous, nearly always thought provoking. It is worth the effort.  4 stars for me. 

Pearl S. Buck: The Good Earth, London, Pocket Books, 2005 (1931).

Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck (née Sydenstricker),  was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and The Good Earth, her second novel, published in 1931, won the Pulitzer Prize, the Howells Medal and was made into a major MGM movie in 1937 although its Hollywood romantic ending makes a travesty of the novel.  She was the daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries and lived most of her childhood in China becoming fluent in Chinese and English.  After graduating in the USA in 1914 she married agricultural economist John Lossing Buck and they returned immediately to China living in the impoverished community of Nanhsuchou. By the time of her death in 1973 she had published over seventy books.

The Good Earth, is the chronicle of humble but very determined and money wise rural farmer Wang Lung and his lifelong relationship with the land and its crops, set in the early C20th prior to Mao’s cultural revolution.  It is an epic and very personal journey of success and disaster,  drought causing famines, floods and locust ruined crops,  marriages and families, children and grand-children, his relationship to his gods, His outlaw relatives, starvation and begging, wealth and poverty and the impact of wealth on simple family life in a village setting.  The key players are his first wife O-lan, his second wife Lotus, his three sons and two daughters and his extended family. The narrative is told largely from within Wang Lung’s personal and private thoughts and words. The novel has an almost musical compelling harmony and progression of highs and lows, echoing and perhaps explaining the initial introductory opening of a quotation from Proust’s imaginary musical composer Vinteuil. I could not put this book down. It is a compelling read, 5 stars.

BOOKS READ AUGUST 2019

James M Barrie: Peter Pan, Scholastic, n.d. with Introduction by Jack Gantos.

JAMES BARRIE
Peter Pan

J M Barrie wrote Peter Pan as a play in 1904 and it became his best known work.  He later retold the story as a narrative called Peter Pan and Wendy in 1911.  Although I have read “Peter Pan” many times as a child and in a children’s version this is the first time I have read the unabridged narrative. I have always been interested in the idea of humans flying and for many years in my youth I used to dream very realistically that I was flying, not just around my room, but outside over the twenty acre former CEBS site in Frankston where my father was the Camp Warden and my mother was the chef.  I always awoke refreshed and excited by these dreams remembering how I could look down on our house and the oval and tennis court  and the hall from above and that it was exhilarating to be flying fast and far. I have never forgotten these dreams and I used to feel very sad when I totally woke up and realised I couldn’t actually fly on demand! 

Children’s story Peter Pan  may well be,  but the original narrative is actually a novel for adults more than children. It has a dark side from the beginning with its description of Peter Pan as selfish, even spiteful, a tease, quite dangerous when teaching the children to fly and seldom concerned for the feelings of others. Captain Hook is living out his revenge for all his enemies from his English public school  days  and has a sensitive musical side with his ability on the harpsichord.  The  surprise pirate attack on the redskins is a vicious slaughter and Tinkerbell’s jealous plot to get Tootles to kill the “Wendy bird” is a tragic and threatening little event. Nevertheless Tinkerbell is surely redeemed by her sacrificial drinking of the poison Hook had prepared for Peter Pan and it is indeed good to know that fairies will come alive again as long as children believe in them

 Adults fare no better with the Darling’s parenting coming under withering fire both at the beginning and at the end of the narrative. The whole narrative has an edgy feel unlike anything in Lewis Carol or A A Milne. Even in Tolkien the heroes may be tempted to turn aside but they are never mean spirited.  In spite of this uneasiness the story of the “boy who refuses to grow up” and the dream of Never land being passed on from Wendy to her daughter and grand-daughter tugs at the heart-strings of all our memory of childhood.  J M Barrie was a complex man and this story, like many of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen has some powerful messages for adults as well as children about the realities of our true selves and of life.    3 stars.                                                                                      

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne:  The Essayes, or Morall, Politike and Miliitarie Discourses of Lo. Michael de Montaigne, Book 1, translated by John Florio, London, The Folio Society, 2006 [ Florio’s original translation 1603; Montaigne’s original Book 1 published in French in 1588.]

Montaigne [1533 – 1592] was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance and had a vast and profound influence on Western philosophy and literature including Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche and most probably towards the end of his writing, William Shakespeare.  Montaigne popularised the essay as a literary genre and in Harold Bloom’s Genius: A Mosaic of  One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, Montaigne stands in the first lustre, along with Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton and Tolstoy. I have only read Book 1 so far so I will reserve judgment because there are two more huge books to come!

Lord Montaigne
Essays Book 1

Book 1 contains 57 essays of varying lengths and significance. Some of forty pages and some of one or two pages. Some of weighty issues eg “the institution and education of children”  and others of triviality eg “ A  trick of Certaine Ambassadors”. Florio’s translation is brilliant but the early C17th English takes some getting used to eg the often used “whilome” means “of former times”  and there are some wonderful French words that are not translated at all for example “embabuinized” (in Essay 39, On Cicero).  which is not in my Harrap’s French Dictionary either. 

Montaigne’s writing is filled with Latin and Greek quotations from the Classical period. His formal education, organised with great care by his father,  was undertaken entirely in Latin by a master who had no French and Montaigne thus became a fluent Latinist and indeed Latin was his first language He was taught Greek at the same time by a teacher who used games and fun activities not formal grammar. The major classical influences on his writing are from Plutarch, Seneca and Plato but many others are frequently mentioned including Juvenal, Lucretius. Horace, Herodotus, Ovid, Lucan, Cicero, Aristotle, Martial, Virgil, and some more modern authors for his day including Dante. This list is far from complete. Fortunately in Florio’s translation these quotations are printed in Latin or Greek and then translated into very clever English.   I understand from elsewhere that Many of Montaigne’s Latin translations come from Erasmus’ Adagia including all his quotations from Socrates.   Plutarch and Seneca were his other major sources. A large number of the essays are about military battles and individual feats of bravery or cowardice both ancient and in his own time. One thing that did surprise me was that Montaigne, a devout Roman Catholic but bitterly opposed to the French war against Protestantism,  at least in Book 1,  takes not a single quotation from the Bible in spite of a careful defence of  conservative Catholic Christianity in Essay 56. 

Essays which I found particularly impressive and interesting were chapter 8 on Idleness; 

Chapter 19 – That to Philsophize, is to learn how to die (at least four major essays in Book 1 centre on death);

Chapter 22 Of Customs, and how a received law should not easily be changed;

Chapter 23 On Honesty and Justice in Politics; and 

Chapter 24 On Pedantisme (Pedantry)

Individual quotations that stood out for me included:

p126: “those whose sufficiencie is placed in their sumptuous libraries!  Hmmm! (ch.24)

p132: “We can never be wise, but by our own wisdom”. (ch.24)

p132  “The role of education is religion, truth and virtue, self-control and courage.

p135  Montaigne is critical of his own learning, admitting that he only knows well Seneca and Plutarch.  (ch.24)

p144 “according to Platoes mind, who saith, constancie, faith, and sinceritie, are true Philosphie”. (ch. 25)

p144 “..visiting of forraine countries, and observing of strange fashions , are very necessary…” (ch. 25)

p157  “ She loveth life ; she delights in beautie, in glorie, and in health. But her proper and particular office is, first to know how to use such goods temperately, and how to lose them constantly.  (ch 25).

p158  “We are taught to live, when our life is well-nigh spent”  (ch 25) …Montaigne is of the view that by the age of 20 we should know all we need to know and learn and we should then be out and about getting on with a serious vocation, because life is very short.

p.215 “…said Plato,”it is an easie matter to please, speaking of the nature of the Gods, than of men.”  (ch.30) “…nothing is so firmly beleeved, as that which a man knows least. “…”But I utterly disalow al common custome amongst us, which is to ground and establish our religion on the  prosperitie of our enterprises.

p231 “Even from my infancie, Poesie hath the virtue to transpierce and transport me” (ch.36)

p236  “..we are not borne for our particular, but for the publick good.”  (ch38).

p246 Bookes are delightfull; but if by continuall frequenting them, we in the end lose both health and cheerfulnesse (our best parts) let us leave them. I am one of those who thinke their fruit can no way countervaile this losse. (ch38)

p247 We must tooth and naile retain the use of this lives pleasures, which our yeares snatch from us, one after another. (ch.38)

p249  “Let honest Ideaes still represent themselves before your mind….(Seneca) ..be contented with your selfe; to borrow nothing but from your self…(Ch.39)

p252  “Wise men say, that in respect of knowledge, there is nothing but Philsophy, and in regard of effects, but Vertue. (Seneca).  (ch.39)

p262  Regarding pain: “I have no commerce or dealing with her: But it is in our power, if not to disanull, at least to diminish the same, through patience: And thought the body should be moved thereat, yet to keepe the minde and reason in good temper.. “(ch 40)

p269   “Verily,  it is not want, but rather plentie that causeth avarice.”   (ch40).

p276   “This is the totall summe of all, that you be master of your selfe”  (Cicero) (ch.41)

p336  “Whatsoever it be that falleth into our knowledge and jovisance, we finde, it doth not satisfie us, and we still follow and gape after future, uncertaine, and unknowne things, because the present and knowne please us not, and doe not satisfie us….Man supposing it is the vice and fault of things he possesseth, feedeth and filleth himselfe with other things, which he neither knoweth, nor hath understanding of…. (Ch53)

p340  “… if these Essayes were worthy to be judged of, it might in my opinion happen, that they would not greatly please the common and vulgar spirits, and as little of them, the latter over much; they might perhaps live and rub out in the middle region. (ch.54)

Mary Renault: The Mask of Apollo, London, New English Library, 1968 (1966).

Mary Renault was an outstanding English novelist and historian of Ancient Greece and its literature. . The Mask of Apollo is one of eight novels she wrote in this genre and tells the double story of Plato’s Academy and substantial role in the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily and secondly the tragic story of Syracuse itself under the tyrant Dionysius 1 (423 -367 BCE), his son Dionysius  11 (who ruled Syracuse as tyrant from 367-357 and from 346-334, and40 his son-in-law Dion (408 – 354) who also ruled as tyrant of Syracuse. Told through the eyes of the fictional actor Nikeratos, the novel is a slow burner. Without any background the reader takes some time to get the feel and sense of the novel and the culture but within a few chapters the narrative has a mesmeric effect which makes it difficult to put down. An unsettling element is the homosexuality and bisexuality of Nikeratos which makes no material impact on the narrative but is everywhere present. Renault had a life-long relationship with fellow nurse Julie Mallard and the couple moved from England to live permanently in Durban South Africa seeking a more liberal and less repressing atmosphere to continue their life together and it is at least possible that C4th BCE Greek sexual mores suited her historical research. This is rich reading indeed. Reader’s of Plato’s The Republic and Greek philosophy in general  will be interested to see a more personal side of Socrates, Speusippus, Xenocrates,  Aristotle and Alexander the Great as well as constant reference to the Greek dramatists.   5 stars. 

The Mask of Apollo
Mary Renault

Henry James: The Europeans, Camberwell VIC, Penguin, 2005 (1878)

Henry James

American born Henry James, brother of renowned psychologist William James,  studied law at Harvard before moving  to Europe at age 32 and becoming a writer.  He lived first in Paris for one year before settling in England and eventually becoming a naturalised citizen one year before his death in 1916. He wrote some twenty novels of which Portrait of a Lady is perhaps the most well known. James also wrote short stories, plays, books of criticism, autobiography and travel. 

The Europeans records the adventures of two siblings, Eugenia and Felix,  born to American parents living in Europe.  Eugenia is the central character of the novel. She is  a thirty something attractive, stylish and ambiguous figure  seeking an escape and financial security away from an unhappy morganatic marriage to a German aristocrat.  Felix, her younger brother is a painter with an indefatigable joie de vivre and a permanently sunny disposition. They have both enjoyed a peripatetic somewhat bohemian  lifestyle in Europe before deciding to seek out their American relatives in Boston. Their Boston relatives, the Wentworths are serious minded, stable, steady Puritans and the cultural clash and interaction is the substance of the novel, in particular the  romantic relationship between the rebellious Gertrude Wentworth and the whimsical bohemian  Felix. This relationship is matched by the equally complex and uncertain  relationship between Eugenia and another cousin, successful entrepreneur Robert Acton, a strangely laconic, unemotional and calculating figure.The back cover of my Penguin edition describes the novel as a subtle and gently ironic examination of manners and morals.   I agree and found this novel to be engaging, clever, and very enjoyable.  5 stars.

Mick Pope: All Things New: God’s Plan to Renew the World, Reservoir VIC, Morning Star Publishing, 2018.

Scientist Mick Pope has a Ph.D in Meteorology and is completing a Masters in Theology at the University of Divinity.  He is a lecturer in Meteorology, Professor in Environmental Theology at Missional University, an on-line Christian Centre of Higher Education based in North Augusta, South Carolina, and a member of the Centre for Research in Religion and Public Policy attached to the University of Divinity.  He has also lived in India with his family for 16 years, working with the urban poor,  and has published two previous books on climate, the second with Claire Dawson. 

This is a complex and demanding read for all sorts of reasons. Even the cover is complex. It contains a kintsuge style image of a beautiful white sphere with cracks that have been repaired by pure gold…creating from something broken something else far more beautiful than before. Pope’s  reach is vast and  global, starting with 9/11 and the falling man— an event which for Pope underscores the existence of pure evil (although we do not have to look far in the history of the C20th to find even more telling examples). If the philosophy of evil is a difficult start, Pope quickly moves to the 2013 super typhoon of Haiyan in the Philippines which annihilated 6,300 people and severely affected over 11 million others. 

This catastrophe serves as his introduction to a very detailed analysis of global warming. Using the data from a variety of sources to highlight the imminent danger of rising sea levels. This data includes analysis of the vast increase in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere arising from greenhouse gas emissions, massive forest clearing and cement production; the dramatic acceleration of human economic activity in the last seventy years,  booming population growth,  massive use of fertilisers, urbanisation, ocean acidification from warming, extinction rates, ozone depletion rates (which have been reduced substantially) but still impacts rainfall in Australia and New Zealand, biogeochemical flows, 2.4 billion people still lacking access to sanitation, depleted and unreplaceable agquifers, clearing vast tracts of land for farming, atmospheric aerosol loading and air pollution, large scale ice melting at the poles, (curiously cleaning up air pollution will increase global warming will increase the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface), declining global crop yields and rainfall, increased impact of lyme disease and other pathogens that flourish in hot conditions, and the danger of anthrax arising from melted ancient prehistoric animal carsasses. 

Pope acknowledges that some gains have been made. The news is not all bad. Rates of homicide have fallen by a factor of 50 and death in war by a factor of 20 and gains have been made in world poverty. But the unbridled confidence of the likes of cognitive psychologist  Stephen Pinker,  (Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress)  and zoologist and journalist  Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) have been savaged by Terry Eagleton (Hope Without Optimism),  and historian Peter Harrison amongst  others. Pope summarises  Eagleton’s critique of  Pinkerton as essentially a conservative, ruling-class ideology that tells us things are basically ok and assures us that the future will be a benign version of the present.  (p25)

Up to this point the average reader would think they are reading a science based textbook about how to deal with an out of control humanity’s mindless assault on our physical environment.  But in Chapter 3 Pope turns to theology for some analysis and solutions to the state of our struggling planet. Like Jordan Edwards, Pope turns to the  Genesis creation and flood narrative and the disorder and chaos caused by mankind’s rejection of God’s love and will for mankind and suggests that we start to take seriously the danger of structural evil as a spiritual power, using Walter Wink’s concept of the “Powers”.  Pope suggests some spiritual humility before a Christian reading of Scripture will help us to understand that greed is not good, that the comfort of the West has been built on the rape of the rest of the world and that Paul’s image of the creation groaning in torment awaiting a new creation In Romans 8 is not far from our present reality. 

In Chapter 4 Pope takes issue with  some science fiction and eco-technological  solutions to solve our ailing earth problems including physicist  Margaret Wertheim’s argument that cyberspace may provide an alternative to an out of date heaven, cosmologist Carl Sagan’s techno-Gnosticism and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s faith in Artificial Intelligence to solve all our earthly problems. Pope does not deny that technology will play a role in preventing the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change and he discusses these solutions in some detail along with their limitations. More frightening are the American  “Doomsday Preppers” who are hoarding supplies and arms against the inevitable breakdown of society à la Cormack McCarthy’s dystopian novel The Road, and the anxiety we all feel about the potential for a new arms race in the Trump era. It will surprise no-one that Pope is no fan of Mr Trump!

If all this wasn’t difficult enough Pope turns his attention in chapters 5 – 8 to an analysis of the most complex book in the Bible, Revelation.  Pope works with some excellent scholars including N T Wright,  Richard Baulkham, Leon Morris,  Michael J Gorman and Stanley Grenz to show that the traumatic events threatening to engulf our fragile planet have already been laid out in this C1st apocalyptic book of the Seer,  John the Divine. Revelation was a warning to Christians suffering under the persecution of Roman tyranny but it is also a warning to us in the C21st suffering under the tyranny of our own selfishness, greed and failure to grasp obvious reality. At the same time Pope is keen to demonstrate that a simplistic view of “Heaven” as some sort of ethereal paradise elsewhere after death where we will have peace and love and live free of the perils and realities of planet earth is not a biblical view at all. In fact Revelation, Romans 8, Isaiah and Jeremiah all point to a renewal of humanity and of the earth in a kingdom of God in which all of creation and life will be recreated. We have not only a part to play in this renewal, it is our Christian task and responsibility as stewards. Flying off to heaven in some sort of weird rapture based on a faulty reading of 1 Thessalonians and a few “Left Behind” movies won’t cut it.  

Chapters 9 – 11 spell out this renewed Kingdom of God.  We will need a renewed economics, of course a renewed physical earth and above all, a renewed imagination to envisage and see through the trauma to the hope of a new creation. This is our task, our stewardship. The stakes are high.  Here is a fine handbook to achieve the goal and it comes complete with an excellent study guide for group discussion.  5 stars.