Rebecca McLaughlin: Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, h/b, Wheaton, Crossway, 2019
I have read many books on Christian apologetics but Rebecca McLaughlin has trumped them all with this incisive, delightfully and personally written, searingly honest exploration of some of the hardest questions the C21st constantly throws at Christianity. Many of McLaughlin’s responses will surprise and challenge readers. Unlike many writers we are treated to what appears to be an open book into her most personal thoughts about life, love and faith. Here are the questions:
Aren’t we better off without religion?
Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?
How can you say there is only one faith?
Doesn’t religion hinder morality?
Doesn’t religion cause violence?
How can you take the Bible literally?
Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?
Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?
Isn’t Christianity homophobic?
Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?
How could a loving God allow so much suffering?
How could a loving God send people to hell?
I doubt whether any thoughtful Christian, active in the world and listening to Western media has not had to face up to each of these questions. Here is a book to challenge and help. McLaughlin does not deny the truths and the force behind these questions. Nevertheless her respectful response meets the powerful critique supplied by Western thought leaders with equal and even more effective rebuttal. Her responses are based on up to date and well documented evidence and a disarming way of unpicking the seemingly irrefutable arguments of some of the finest faith deniers in the land.
Mclaughlin is same sex attracted yet happily married to a husband with three children. She holds a Cambridge doctorate in Renaissance literature and a degree in theology from Oak Hill College in the USA. Her responses to the above questions engages with a wide range of sociological research documents, many international literary works recent and older, interaction with many current atheist philosophers, film and television presentations, an array of scientific thought leaders and circumstances and individuals from her daily life and experience.
There is nothing simplistic about this presentation and it is not a book for young or inexperienced Christians. It could be a useful book for devotees of The Drum and other Western media outlets who appear to value any authority in the land apart from well thought out, highly qualified and articulate Christian leaders. It will not suit Christian leaders who simply deny the truths in these questions without working carefully through the issues involved from all sides.
Some thought tasters from McLaughlin include:
Too many churches enable a self-focussed Christianity that ignores New Testament ethics. (p.23)
For many the idea that Christianity is a white, Western religion, intrinsically tied to cultural imperialism, stands as a major barrier to considering Christ. (p.33)…most of the world’s Christians are neither white nor Western, and Christianity is getting less white Western every day. (p.43)
To say that all religions are just two sides of the same truth coin reduces pluralism to a patronising posture by which we don’t respect others enough to take their beliefs seriously. (p.49)
The premise of human equality is not a self-evident truth. (p.66)
If science is all we have, our sense of self is just an illusion – morality is no more than preference. (p.70)
Understanding more of science doesn’t make God smaller. It allows us to see His creative activity in more detail [experimental physicist Russell Cowburn). (p.100)
Paul does not say that the husband’s needs come first, or that women are less gifted in leadership than men, or that women should not work outside the home (p.142)…the early church was majority female (p.144)
On Slavery: …the church must face its moral failures.
Mclaughlin has written a book which would make an ideal series of weekly studies for a thoughtful parish. Her enthusiasm for life and her raw honesty is infective and challenging. I warmly commend this book. 5 stars and rising
Brenda Niall: Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers – Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson, p/b, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2020
Brenda Niall has written an engaging and informative analysis of the contribution of these four significant C20th Australian female writers.
Ethel Turner’s output of children’s classics was formidable over more than thirty years and her Seven Little Australians, although little read today, remains an Australian classic.
Henry Handel Richardson, penname of Ethel Florence Richardson, lived most of her life in London and was a retiring and exceptionally private person with a very interesting life story. I read The Getting of Wisdom in Year 12 English a long time ago and loved its mild satire of Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne and her detailed account of life for a teenage girl then. Her blockbuster three volume The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is one of the outstanding classics of Australian literature and a powerful read.
Barbara Baynton is a name I was not aware of but her harsh realistic stories of the Australian bush made an impact in her day. Perhaps more interesting was her colourful and dramatic life story. She is certainly the most extroverted of the four writers.
Nettie Palmer was a successful poet and the leading Australian literary editor of her day and her impact on the growth of Australian literature was substantial indeed. Married to novelist Vance Palmer they made a formidable team and an interesting story.
All of these writers were indeed friends at various levels and indeed rivals in the battle for recognition and success. Brenda Niall’s account is carefully documented and detailed and manages to keep the reader constantly interested in the twists and turns of the life-times of the four women. The account is also an interesting insight into the challenges faced by Australian women in making an impact on a literary scene dominated by the likes of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. Niall has written many studies of Australian literary life including major biographies of pioneer artist Geogiana McCrae, The Boyd Family and Archbishop Mannix.
This biography maintains steady interest, continues to surprise and demonstrates the emerging maturity of Australian literature in the first half of the C20th. 4 stars.
Kon Karapanagiotidis: The Power of Hope OR, How Community, Love & Compassion can Change our World, h/b, Sydney, HarperCollins, 2018
Kon Karapanagiotidis has written a heart-rending, searingly honest, loquacious, no holds barred assault on Australia’s refugee policy and its destructive impact on many asylum seekers in Australlia. He is the founder and CE0 of Asylum Seeker Resource Centre which in his hands grew from nothing to a major centre in West Melbourne and then Footscray with 125 staff and over 1200 volunteers.
The book is also a very personal analysis of his own life from a new Australian Greek boy growing up first in Mt Beauty and later in urban Melbourne at Thornbury HS, his impressive university career including a Law degree and his extraordinary life as a volunteer and activist and finally an entrepreneurial leader, a crusader for justice and a successful stand up comic. Alongside his success Kon does not hide his very real difficulties with insecurity, over-eating and failure with women. The Resource Centre commenced in 2001 and has had no Government funding from then till now. The Centre relies completely on supporter funding and the generosity of time by volunteers. Its services include legal, financial, political and psychological aid, art and music, food support and in general a safe place of refuge.
Kon’s book also moves into self-improvement mode with chapters on embracing your fears, how to be a man, body image, travel and major chapters on male cruelty and mistreatment of women and how to change it.
There is no room whatsoever in this book for any sympathy with Australian government leadership of either colour although there is no direct attack on any individual politician and there is praise for the support of Malcolm Fraser. Kon’s language is very direct and explicit in places and the life coaching tends to be repetitive at times. These are minor quibbles. This is a story that needs to be told even though the reading of it can be somewhat overwhelming and at times repetitive.
The book concludes with helpful lists of actions that could be taken by the reader. (1) Suggestions for volunteering (over 80 suggestions!); (2) an interesting “one week of change” which could include: reviewing your super for ethics, sustainable shopping, becoming a grassroots patron of the Arts, eat less meat, become a volunteer, host a fundraiser and get your kids involved in giving back. (3) Making change in the workplace ..20 suggestions for improving gender balance, equity and diversity. (4) An interesting selection of suggested reading to follow up his book.
This is a book to help us to ponder in what ways our treatment of refugees could be changed with greater assistance especially in their early days in Australia. We are a wealthy and richly blessed nation. We could be doing this difficult task more humanely. 4 stars.
James Rebanks: English Pastoral: An Inheritance, p/b, Penguin, Random House UK, 2020
A remarkable account of farming in the latter half of the twentieth century and today in England, detailing the devastating impact of pesticides and overuse of fertilisers and ploughing. Late C20th agriculture has lead to the degrading of many farm soils and the loss of huge numbers of wildlife and flower and grass species throughout Britain and the USA. James Rebanks is a third generation small farmer in the Lake District with an interest in seeking to maintain a balance between small farming and the wholesale selling up of small farms for huge large scale mechanised food production based on high powered fertiliser and ever increasing expenditure on machinery.
He is no idealistic dreamer and recognises that the world cannot be fed without large scale commercial farming but he makes a very good case for the argument that the ever increasing drive for cheaper supermarket food across the world will in the end destroy us. The argument is driven not by agriculturists but by large corporate business and achieved with artificial techniques like river straightening, forest clearing, pesticides and fertilisers which are not only degrading soils and forests across the globe but also destroying wild life and plant life at a horrifying rate.
Rebanks notes that farming is a matter of life and death. (p.99) …in the early C20th hunger was only a generation away for many families in Britain and around the world. My grandparents had lived through food shortages and periodic high prices that were common in Britain …This scarcity can be seen in the small stature of the oldest people I knew, who often stood a foot or so shorter than their sons and grandsons. Rationing in wartime was a stark reminder that food could not be taken for granted, when feeding the country required importing 20 million tons of food a year and overseas supplies were vulnerable. So humanity needed food and business provided but at what future cost?
Rebanks details the amazing achievement of Fritz Haber, who in 1909 worked out how to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen to make it usable for plants. and his college Carl Bosch found a way apply this process industrially to make things sell. (p106). The result was ammonium nitrate fertiliser which transformed agriculture and society, enabling enormous population growth. Haber’s extraordinary ability was not always put to benign use. His other legacies included turning in ammonium nitrate into war explosives and he also pioneered the development of poisonous chlorine gas for use int the trenches of World War ! and the pesticide gas Zyklon-B used later in Nazi death camps to kill millions of people (p107). Later on in 1939 Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller developed dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which could kill insects, fungi, bacteria and eliminated typhus from large parts of Europe as well as eradicating malaria from the USA.
Rachel Carson’s amazing 1962 book Silent Spring finally woke the world up to the dangers ofpesticides, arguing for targeted use instead of the wholesale destruction of fragile ecosystems and forests around the world. Although DDT is now banned the rapid engulfing of the world’s forests and wild spaces goes on apace again driven insatiable big business and politics, not by wise eco-management.
In his final section Rebanks proposes some solutions to world degradation. They include ancient farming techniques replacing ploughing with a mix of crops and rotational ….animal grazing/fallow and returning hedgerows, natural rivers and swamps to their natural state. But he also calls for new ways of doing things including soil science and health studies, effective grazing practices, learning from ecologists about recreating habitats and natural processes (p.202)…to do this we have to opt out of the cheap food dogma that has driven farming and food policy for the past few decades…We can build a new English Pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all….the modern world worships the idea of self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is a another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in a little life on the land. In a noisy age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly might be a virtue. (p.210)
Rebanks accepts the idealistic impossibility of his plea for a new world of farming…Farming for nature is a form of economic suicide! (p.230), and he accepts that farming is a form of slavery”! (p.228). Yet his call to the world to wake up is real. I have to ignore my accounts in this bid for good food husbandry and hope the rest of the world comes to its senses someday soon. (p.231). He has a love/hate relationship with the plough. We can’t all be fed from pastoral systems. The plough, and the annual crops it makes possible—corn, wheat, barley, soy, sorghum, cassava, potatoes and rice—provide food for most human beings. But in the past thirty years we have learned that ploughing is ecologically disastrous. (p239). Finally he suggests that farming is an exercise in humility (p.242) and that it takes a village to make a good farm work. (p.242)…I am tired of absolutes and extremes and the angriness of this age. (p.269).
In this essay I have picked out the bones of Rebanks’ argument. The real strength of this book lies in his romantic and blissful descriptions of the recreation of wildlife, insects, plants, animals , creeks, rivers, trees and bogs that have come back to life on his little farm. His writing leads the reader on to yearn for a sweeter, more quiet, more beautiful, natural and peaceful age. This is a book to savour alongside consideration of the argument which may well determine the future of all of our lives in coming generations. 5 stars and rising
Farrukh Dhondy: Rumi: A New Translation of Selected Poems, p/b, New York, Arcade, 2013
Jalal-ad-din Rumi was a C13th spiritual master, teacher and poet. Born in Tajikistan he founded the Mawlawi Sufi order, a mystical spiritual brotherhood based on the teachings of Shamsuddin of Tabriz. Rumi’s major spiritual work was the Mathnawi, which for Sufi followers is often regarded as the “Koran in Persian”. In addition Rumi wrote a set of lyric poems Divien-e Shams-e Tabrizi, a translation from which has excerpted and interpreted the poems and sayings in this collection.
The Sufi tradition grew up in the C8th alongside Sunni and Shia Islam as a third way of understanding Islam. Sufism stresses the mystical and spiritual aspects of Islam and, as with the Qu’ran, Sufism interacts with both the Christian and Judaic faith traditions and even has significant links with Hindu concepts such as the essential philosophy of Advaita Vedanta faith found in the Hindu Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. as well as pre-Christian, Buddhist, Platonic and Aristotelian thought. In addition, because the Islamic faith had conquered Persia in the C7th it was inevitable that Sufism would also be influenced by the ancient Persian state faith of Zorastrianism. Jesus (‘Issah’ in Rumi’s texts) is a key person to be honoured and adored as the one who took away the sins of God’s people.
The Sufi mystic/spiritualist approach to Islam and other world faiths played down the role of the literal word of the Qu’ran and also the traditional essential journey to the Kaaba in Mecca. Sufism placed its stress on inward spiritual teaching including ecstatic experiences especially the wild and energetic Dervish order. The result is a deeply thoughtful, experiential faith. Dhondy writes in his introduction that the essence of Sufi devotion is the spiritual awakening, the realization, the cleansing, the enlightenment, the oneness—the light. (p.xxiv). Sufism is happy to say that there are truths and epiphanies in other mystical religions.
Ibin ‘Arabi, a Sufi mystic of the same century as Rumi wrote:
My heart has become capable of every form: it a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christians, and a temple for idols and the pilgrims to the Ka’ba and the tables of the Torah, and the book of the Qu’ran. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camel take, that is my religion and faith.
Rumi was influenced by the C5th Al-Ghazali, and significantly by Ibin ‘Arabi quoted above who taught forty years prior to Rumi, before Rumi fell under the spell of Shamsuddin of Tabriz.
Rumi himself became a C20th cult figure alongside the likes of Kahlil Gibran. Quoted frequently by pop Queen Madonna in the C20th Rumi also played a major role in the teaching of wealthy New Age surgeon, writer and influencer Deepak Chopra..
Farrukh Dhondy,, an Indian of Parsi descent, whose great grandfather was a Persian scholar, does not read Persian. He has used the translations of several scholars of Rumi’s work and attempted to use his knowledge of Persian poetic rhythm to enable the form and metre of the original work to speak in today’s idiom. The result is a curious mix of modern and ancient forms of speech which at times appear to me to trivialise some important ideas. Nevertheless the book is a good start to Rumi’s thought inviting a search for more scholarly translations. Rumi’s thoughts go deep and make you stop and think. A few brief examples must suffice here.
p22: The Blasphemers:
You kept company, O Rumi, with blasphemers who
they hadn’t shut the door.
Don’t burn the blanket infested with a single flea
Don’t turn away from the human who is as flawed as thee.
p33: From Science:
Issah caused the dead to
cast off their shrouds and rise
by breathing into dust a living soul
saying, ‘Rise, your faith has made thee whole!’
p63 From Light on Light:
Of flamboyance my love is now accused
My heart’s a drum, its beating is excused
By he who sent an Issah to the fight
To spread the vision of the light on light.
p.105 Issah and the Fools:
Issah the healer
(To him all praise)
Had the Word from God
Which was able to raise
The dead and breathe
Life into a wraith
Not to crowd the planet
But to bring us to faith.
p. 105 The Pearl:
Death holds no terror for the one who can
See beyond this life’s short and fitful span
The knock of rocks, the churning ocean’s swell
Do not affect the pearl inside the shell.
p.52 Final Ecstasy:
Reason cannot ever grasp
That final ecstasy
To bring a thinker to his God
Is to make a blind man see.
Try this experiment
and think of nought
But only that
which creates all thought.
p.88 He Listens
There are no rules of worship
He will hear
The voice of every heart
That is sincere.
p. 89 Wild Dog
Stop the wild dog’s bite with a muzzle
Love is the solution to that eternal puzzle
What is your destiny? What is your duty?
Give way to love, give way to beauty.
p. 91 Names
God taught the earthly Adam
To name all things although
He taught the angels only
What he wanted them to know.
I find much helpful truth in Rumi’s C13th words. 5 Stars!