BOOKS READ MAY 2021

Rose-Marie & Rainer Hagen, What Great Paintings Say, h/b, Cologne, Taschen  Bibliotheca Universalis, 2019

A remarkable treasury of art and history produced with the now routinely outstanding production skills of the Taschen team from Cologne. Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen have introduced and discussed one hundred exceptional works of art starting with an Egyptian wall painting from c1350 BC and running through to some exceptional works from the C20th with something wonderful on every page in between.  The writers have made no attempt to include every major artist but rather have focussed on pivotal moments in human history and culture, providing a feast of thoughtful reflections on the changing fashions of human endeavour, exploration, wars and taste. Read and study this book and you will be driven to follow many winding and often tragic paths of human history. 

Nevertheless history is not the most fascinating element of this monumental work. By the end of the book, the authors have well and truly taught the reader how to look carefully at the detail of art works. The reader is overwhelmed by what has been missed by a first or casual glance at a work of art.  Major themes, faces and work of intense beauty and feeling begin to emerge as the writers lead us gently through the artwork, helped by outstanding photographic close-ups of otherwise hidden figures in the painting. This is a book to savour and come back to often. It will also lead you to painters which were only names before and make you want to see more of their stunning achievements.  I have seldom enjoyed reading a book more than this one. I am sure they could writer another book about a different 100 artists.  5 stars and rising!

Rainer & Rose-Marie Hagen:

Rose-Marie Hagen was born in Switzerland and studied history, Romance languages, and literature in Lausanne. After further studies in Paris and Florence, she lectured at the American University in Washington, D.C.

Rainer Hagen was born in Hamburg and graduated in literature and theater studies in Munich. He later worked for radio and TV, most recently as chief editor of a German public broadcasting service. Together they have collaborated on several TASCHEN titles, including Masterpieces in Detail, Pieter Bruegel, and Francisco de Goya.

Murray Bail: Eucalyptus, p/b, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 1998  

Prizewinning love story centred upon a rural New South Wales town which manages to include the  botanical or common names of every known species of Eucalyptus known to man. This might seem a forbidding introduction and perhaps the death call for any novel but somehow Bail managed to maintain my interest.  In addition  to the nomenclature of eucalypts, the novel manages to capture  the feel of a relatively remote Australian country town and some brief glimpses of Sydney life. This would be a book in itself but Bail has a deeper task to achieve. He creates the opportunity to amass a collection of  unusual and surprising stories which would challenge The Arabian Nights or Boccaccio. 

These stories generally relate to male/female relationships and marriage and indeed marriage is a central feature of this novel with its competing characters and surprising ending.  As someone who lives in an area of significant beauty aided by many specimens of eucalyptus trees and wondering if I could ever distinguish their widely variant names, this novel maintained my interest. I admit to frustration at the mysterious  “God-like” presence who appears and disappears relatively late in the novel but the dénouement was, in the final analysis, satisfactory although there is a sense of disappointment that the worthy would be victor of the love match did not win his prize. This result was appropriate enough given that the way the prize was offered was a set piece of outrageous male chauvinism and personal selfishness on the part of the father.

This novel is easy to read ( I read it in one day), but requires perseverance. It made me want to read more of Bail’s work.   4 stars.

Marcel Proust: The Guermantes Way: Volume 3 of In Search of Lost Time, Trans., Intro. & Notes, Mark Treharne, General Ed., Christopher Prendergast, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (1921). French title : À la rechurche de Temps Perdu.  

IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME Volume 3 Guermantes Way

Volume 3 of Proust’s massive seven volume In Search of Lost Time, continues the author’s intensive account of French aristocratic life at the close of the C19th and early years of the C20th. Volume 1 dealt with the narrator’s early childhood, his family in the fictional town of Combray  and his childhood girlfriend Gilberte, as well as  the extended story of the mismatched love affair and marriage between the artistic dilettante Swann and the free living Odette. 

Volume 2 involves the narrator’s awakening adolescence, his lengthy stay in the fictional seaside resort of Balbec and his passion for the elegant school girl Albertine, and introduces us to Robert de Saint-Loup and Baron de Charles, two members of the fictional well connected and aristocratic Guermantes family.

In Volume 3 the family has moved to Paris and live in an apartment in the classy Faubourge Saint-Germaine, close to the fictional Guermantes family heightening the Narrator’s passion for the Duchesse de Guermantes with whom the Narrator inevitably develops a thwarted passion. This volume deals with the Narrator’s eventual success in joining the fictional  influential artistic and literary Salons first of Mme Villeparisis and later the much more acceptable salon run by the Duchesse de Guermantes and her unfaithful husband the Duc de Guermantes; the deepening friendship between the Narrator and Robert de Saint-Loup including the  true life divisive legal scandal of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France; the death of the Narrator’s beloved grandmother; the flowering of the Narrator’s friendship with Albertine; the commencement of a fiery relationship between the Narrator and the Baron de Charles, and a brief final interaction with the very unwell Swann whom the reader was lead to believe died in Volume 1. 

Once again we are treated to extensive ruminations by the author on a variety of philosophical and artistic ideas and some extraordinarily long sentences.  For me this was the most difficult of the first three volumes of this massive work. The difficulties are due to the author’s extended analysis of what seem to be endless and rather trivial interactions at the various salons. These interactions included bitchy remarks about people not present, extended debates about the value and significance of family titles and connections and endless attempts to make intelligent comments about art, manners and politics of the day. The historical notes are essential and very helpful but in the end one would need to be expert in French history, philosophy, art, theatre and music to truly enjoy the subtlety of these discussions. I put the level of difficulty close to the reading of Joyce’s Ulysses and the localised characters in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, for both of which detailed notes are essential. 

Will I continue with the next four volumes of Proust?  That I cannot answer…I may not live that long!    3 stars.

Graham A. Cole: Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, And Demons, h/b,   Wheaton Illinois, Crossway, 2019

Graham Cole
Against The Darkness

Graham A. Cole: Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, And Demons, h/b,   Wheaton Illinois, Crossway, 2019

Christianity has from the beginning been based on a supernatural event, the rising up  of Jesus Christ from the dead. Even two thousand years later, in a super high tech, universe exploring age, the death and resurrection of Jesus remains the central celebration of Christian communities from across the globe. 

Millions of apologetic arguments have been mounted in support of this extraordinary event in time by theologians and writers from every generation from the apostles to the Christian historians and Biblical scholars of our own day. Aside from small numbers of more sceptical “earth based” theologians and sceptics from the late C19th onwards the church in general continues to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection and its importance for Christians every Sunday, admittedly in the West to fewer and fewer worshippers but worldwide to millions of Christians throughout the world. 

It is a very different situation when it comes to the Christian doctrine of Angels, Satan and Demons. In Pentecostal churches throughout the world certainly these doctrines are regularly spoken about and spiritual warfare is frequently a topic on the preaching and teaching program. But in the more staid mainline churches, apart from the angels on Christmas day it is rare to here a sermon on angelology, Satan or the Devil, or demons. When these terms come up in Bible studies demon possession is frequently spoken about in terms of psychological or mental illness.  Systematic theologians like Louis Berkhof don’t rate it all and the terms are frequently omitted in many systematic theologies including many by evangelical writers.

Australian theologian and philosopher of religion Graham Cole, former Principal of Ridley College, and currently Dean and Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity  School in Deerfield, Chicago, has accepted the task of unpacking this set of doctrines for the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series. 

Against the Darkness is a closely argued and carefully written explication of the significance of angels, Satan and Demons in the Bible and the Church. The ground covered by Cole in this 270 page book is immense and the breadth of scholarship surveyed covers every major denomination and includes detailed work on the Islamic view of angels, Satan and demons. Unlike many authors who have written in this area Cole is particularly careful to focus only on what can be gleaned from the Biblical text itself (and once a reader gets to the end he or she will be amazed at how many references to angels, Satan and demons occur in the Bible!). I know I was. 

Key issues carefully examined in this book include, amongst many other things: exorcisms,   the nature, power and limitations of spirit beings, the question of possession by evil spirits, Christ’s and the apostles’ dealing with demon possession in their earthly ministry, spiritual warfare, Christus Victor, the “sons of God”, “the man of lawlessness”  and the interpretation of the Book of Revelation, how to discern whether or not a spirit is from God, eschatological theology, and the place, if any, of angels, Satan and demons in the major Christian creeds, articles of faith, catechisms and confessions.  

Cole’s book contains suggestions for further reading, detailed scriptural and general indexes, and a useful glossary of some unfamiliar theological terms.

This would not be an easy read for a young Christian although I know many young people who are deeply troubled by some of the issues raised. Cole has not written for fellow theologians either although he critiques many of their works.  This series has been created for serious church goers to understand their Christian faith more fully with expert assistance. The book  would make for a very lively study group and I think it would change the view of many about the dangers of the power of evil but also about the grace and authority we have been given to live in the joy and beauty of God’s love and to be able to repel any evil impulse that comes our way.  5 stars.

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