Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, [in The Complete Oscar Wilde Illustrated: Stories,  Plays and Poems, London, Tiger Books International, 1994 (1890)  

Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Grey

Irish born Oscar Wilde was the master of the epigram and a ferocious writer of short stories, highly successful plays  and poetry.   The Picture of Dorian Gray is another take on the Faustian notion of a dice with the Devil, in this instance taking the form of well born, whimsical, outrageous  and decidely not well-meaning Lord Henry.  Henry was impressed by Dorian Gray’s beauty and became his society mentor and downfall.

The story turns on a painting of Dorian Gray produced by his friend Basil Hallward.  In the process of sitting for the portrait Hallward and Gray are joined by Lord Henry who takes an immediate interest in Dorian Gray’s extraordinary beauty and style. Lord Henry’s enthusiastic praise of Gray’s beauty leads the young man to begin to fear growing old and losing his beauty. When the painting is finally finished Dorian Gray is deeply distressed…with his eyes fixed on the portrait, he cries “I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will always remain young…If only it were the other way…”  And indeed, when Dorian Gray hung the painting in his own home, that very thing happened. Almost immediately the painting began to show signs of an ageing and less pleasant man,  while Dorian Gray himself remained young and beautiful. 

Immediately, under the baleful influence of Lord Henry, Dorian Gray’s  life spiralled down to ever increasing degrees of selfish, hurtful, dangerous behaviour and cultural greed, as well as the trashing of former close friends in the most sadistic way.   His place in society was saved by the impeccability of his surface manners and appearance but it was not long before folk who had been badly hurt by him would move away when he arrived in a room. He became an addicted devotee of fashion and Dandyism; he associated with the leading musicians and performers of his day; he hedonistically pursued his lust for beautiful things including Roman Catholic ritualism, Darwinian theoretical excesses, the study of fragrant and dark perfumes, the collection of native musical instruments, the opera,  the study and collection  of precious jewels, the pomp and ceremony of European courts, the study of exquisite embroideries and tapestries, the excesses of ancient kings and rulers in the vein of Louis XIV  and the Medicis, a passion for ecclesiastical vestments, the joy of travel and everywhere and in every way, surrounding his life with treasures.

As Dorian Gray’s ocean of selfish greed and horror swamped him his paranoia towards any threat led him to murder and destruction. The dice with the devil could have only one ending.

In between this sorry tale Wilde manages to implant his normal wit and and classy epigrams in the description of various garden parties and clever conversations. These brief moments provide clever light in an otherwise searing story. The sheer class, beauty and wicked pace of Wilde’s prose makes us wish that he had produced more novels. I believe few writers have matched his genius for wit, philosophical jousting and social comment. This is a moral tale with a huge reach. 5 stars and rising.

Emily Maguire: Love Objects, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2021  

Emily Maguire

Emily Maguire is an award winning Australian author and this is her sixth novel alongside many articles in Australian national daily news papers on sex, feminism, culture and literature. Love Objects has the phenomenon of hoarding as a central theme, but the novel is also a rich analysis of the generational interaction of two families with all the complexity, deep feelings, anger and joy which such relationships evolve over time.

A running theme throughout the novel is sexual relationships between young people.  The novel explores the dangerous and hurtful power of the internet to severely impact the personal lives of individuals when invidious  persons use hidden photography to go online without consent  and destroy the reputation and well being of victims.

The novel is set within a working class environment in which every key individual in two families is examined with scarifying honesty and a high degree of potential for humiliation. The language used is common in Australian society and at time brutal. This is a salutary read for Australian teenagers but few of those who need such a book would probably ever bother to read the novel. I suspect a movie script might reach a wider audience. 

The novel has a neat and tidy conclusion in which the three principal characters emerge with hopeful new beginnings. It would be wonderful if all human interactions and challenges worked out so well.This is a fast moving read which is never dull and keeps the reader anxiously wondering what on earth will happen next.

 I find it disappointing that the vintage Australian f-word can now just be taken for granted in serious literature. There is an unwritten statement that it is now ok and also an assumption that every child of a “working class family uses such language. The writer tries hard in two instances to show that wealthy Australians can also be pleasant understanding people who care about stuff but the two instances are underwhelming. As a working class boy myself, I would have preferred to see a wider spread of individual characters than the somewhat type casting that rises to the fore in this novel or are these all just Howard’s “battlers” at work.   3 stars, considering it is a sixth novel.

Anne Mueller von der Haegen & Ruth Strasser: Trans. Paul Aston, Peter Barton, Susan James, Eithne McCarthy, & Iain Macmillan:  Tuscany: Art and Architecture,  Cologne,  Könemann, 2001.

Ever since our first visit to Italy I have had a complete addiction to the region of Tuscany, alongside it seems, many other Australians and many English and American poets, artists and writers and film makers.  There is something about the light at sunset, the little villages set among hills, the green paddocks surrounded by poplars, the ancient Villanova and Etruscan culture, the extraordinary early Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance flowering of architecture, art and sculpture and the sequestered villages alongside major centres like Florence, Siena and Pisa. 

So many heroes of literature,  thinking, art and architecture emerged from Tuscany including Boccacio, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Caravaggio, Cellini, Cimabue, Dante, Donatello, Fibonacci, Fra Angelico, Galileo, Gentile Artemesia, Giambologna, Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli,  Mantegna, Massacio, the amazing Medici Dynasty especially Cosimo 1 and Lorenzo 1 the Magnificent, Michelangelo, Raphael, Ucello, Vasari and many others.

 Ann and I have spent happy days in and around Arezzo following the Piero della Francesca trail,  long stays in Florence and San Gimignano and return visits to favourite places like Montepulciano and the stunning church of San Biago, Lucca and Pisa.  For none of these visits did I have access to Mueller and Strasser’s amazingly detailed and descriptive Tuscany. Perhaps it is just as well. I would have stressed out my longsuffering wife even more by hunting down every major artistic work in every cathedral and gallery. 

Ten years would not be enough to get to know Tuscany fully. But this work is an excellent substitute. It is detailed but precise and not too much to take in. There are extremely helpful appendices of architectural form, a glossary of terms used, brief histories of Etruscan and Roman history in Tuscany, brief biographies of individuals mentioned and an excellent index. This is not a “travel” book in the sense that there is no advice re trains, roads to take, places to stay or restaurants etc. Neither does it deal with Tuscan cookery or wines. It is a culture vulture book, compact and easily stored in a travel bag and very clearly translated. 5 stars and rising.

John Dickson: Is Jesus History?  UK, thegoodbook Company, 2020

John Dickson

John Dickson is an outstanding Australian historian and  theologian and a  visiting academic at Oxford University and Ridley College Melbourne. This little book (just $15.00 at Koorong) is deceptive. Dickson is mounting an argument that like many legal cases, most historical knowledge is based on testimony of those who were present at the event. This is so particularly with ancient history where cameras, electronic recording and television were absent. 

The overwhelming conclusion established in chapter 1 of this book is that the vast majority of historians today, whether Christian believers or not,  acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was a real figure in the history of Roman occupied Galilee and Judea.  Historians accept that the four New Testament Gospel accounts of Jesus’s activities and the comments of Paul the Apostle in his letters are bona fide historical accounts as valid as the historical writings of the Roman historian Tacitus written just twenty years later.  E. P. Sanders, a major historian of Judaism in the centuries before and after Christ, and no friend of Christian apologetics or of theology, nevertheless writes: 

There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity. [E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1993), quoted by Dickson on p. 19}  

Dickson goes on to argue that in fact much of what we “know” to be true, we accept by faith. He writes …through long experience of interacting with others in the world, we have come to think that it is wise, most of the time, to put a good measure of trust in the testimony of others, when those people seem to be giving that testimony in good faith. (p.24). That is in general, faith in testimony is a generally reliable bridge to personal knowledge.

Dickson accepts that at times human testimony is flawed or malicious, so much depends on a person or writer’s general reliabilty and the coherence of their testimony. The remainder of this book is a defence of these characteristics in relation to the text of the New Testament. It is a lively and interesting discussion and the truth and coherence of the New Testament writers is well defended with clear evidence. 

Of course the key argument  is Dickson’s defence is the final chapter on the resurrection. His argument here goes to a person’s belief about the universe itself. If “the laws of nature” define the limits of what is possible then there is no place for a miracle of resurrection. But if one sees those laws as pointing to the existence of a law-giver, to God, then of course the possibility of resurrection is real. Dixon’s historical defence of the resurrection rests on the fact that the evidence is early, it is widespread (i.e. more than one source, and the witnesses are credible. 

This is an engaging book to give to a Christian seeker or simply to remind a believer why they believed in the first place. It comes with useful suggestions for further reading.

Graham A. Cole: Faithful Theology: An  Introduction, p/b, Wheaton,  Crossway, 2020

Graham Cole
Faithful Theology: An Introduction

I have never been a fan of systematic theology!  Having been a teacher of Biblical Studies/Texts and Traditions and Religious Studies for over thirty years much of my reading has been in Biblical commentaries and texts on particular issues. Of  course I have dipped into the greats for theological examinations and particular issues but that’s not the same as reading a complete Systematic Theology. Although I have read through Calvin’s Institutes twice over the years, he is an easy read compared with the formidable demands of Karl Barth in fourteen volumes, Wolfhart Pannenburgh in three, Edward Schillebeeckx in two or even Paul Tillich in 1 volume!  

When my son Andy placed Graham Cole’s little paperback in my hand I thought, now’s the time to start!   So this is an excellent book for anyone to read to find out what the mystery of systematic theology is and whether the task is worth the effort!  The Revd Dr. Peter Adam writes that we are all theologians, and we all practise theology, good or bad. Ministers and lay people need to learn how to do theology, to think theologically, to increase our theological awareness and theological ability and to think God’s thoughts after him. 

Graham Cole’s book is based around five sources of knowledge about systematic theology. These are:  The Word of revelation (The Bible);  The Witness of Christian of Christian Thought and Practice (Church History); The World of Human brokenness (World history, the nature of man and the problem of evil);  The Work of Wisdom (Human intellect and insight, ideas and faith); and finally, The Way of Worship, (“Putting it all together in truth and love”). In this final source, Cole focusses helpfully on the doctrine of the Trinity. This little book comes with scriptural and general indexes and a guide to further reading. It can be read comfortably in two days. 5 stars

I note below some sentences or famous words that I found helpful.

  • On the Bible: Scripture interprets scripture; Scripture is not to be interpreted against Scripture; plain Scripture is to interpret obscure Scripture. (p.27)
  • Have many teachers but only one Master. (Christ). (p.28)
  • …the role of [literary] genre in a wise [Bible] reading strategy. (p.30)
  • Turn what you read about God into prayer and praise to God. [John Packer] (p.32)
  • Cranmer’s Collect on the Scriptures:

Blessed Lord, which hast called all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, and inwardly digest them; that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our saviour  Jesus Christ. (p.37) 

–    “Tradition in its proper sense is the interpretation and application of the eternal truth in the vernacular and life of the present generation.  Scripture without such a tradition is impossible. [Herman Bacinck] (p.41)

  • Living dogmatics never allows its problems to be self-originated as by a virgin birth, but it is always being fertilized, achieving its productive impulse through the questions of the time. [Helmut Thielicke] (p.58)
  • “Scriptures contain a body of divinely given information actually expressed or capable of being expressed in propositions” [Carl Henry] contrast with:  “ categories we employ in theology are by necessity culturally and historically conditioned, and as theologians  each of us is both ‘ a child of the times’ and a communicator to those times.” [Stanley Grenz] (p59.)
  • The humble theologian is open to correction and further reform of thought and life. Again, the Reformation slogan semper reformanda (always reforming) in the light of God’s word is sound. The unteachable theologian is an oxymoron. (p.60)
  • Our theological awareness shows itself in our prayers. (p.62)“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” [Evagrius Ponticus, 345/6-399] (p.62) 
  • Augustine: “You move us to delight in praising You. You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The Confessions. (p64)
  • Reason must not be reified as though it were a thing separate from us. Reason does not function on its own, in a spiritual vacuum. Persons reason. Persons mount arguments, question, or demolish them, and marshall or dismiss evidence. And persons do that either in submission to God or in conflict with him.(p.70)
  • there is a moral dimension to knowing ….”Logic is rooted in Ethic, for the truth we see depends upon the men we are” [P T Forsyth]…Forsyth must not be misunderstood. He did not argue that the truth depends upon the kind of moral agents we are. But our ability to recognize the truth, see the truth, has a moral component.  Virtue epistemology has its place. (p.71)
  • It is also important to recognise that the possession of knowledge does not guarantee either virtue or wisdom. Paul wrote to the Corinthians how knowledge can puff one up. (p71,fn3)
  • Sin causes not a cognitive disability but an affective disinclination to trust in God, honour him, or give thanks to him. (p.72)
  • Dogmatic rank is fundamental to wise theological thinking. The phrase means that teachings need to be ranked, and the ranking has to do with importance for faithfulness and fellowship. [cf Jesus’ discussions with the Pharisees and scribes re tithing mint, dill and cummin, but neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (p.76)
  • “In the essential, unity, and in the non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, clarity. [Rupertus Meldenius (1582-165, Lutheran theologian].  (p. 78)
  • It is so easy to think that only the imaginable is conceivable. (p.79)
  • Criteria for judgment of theological claims: a) is it scriptural?  b) is it rational (i.e. is it nonsense of self-contradictory? c) is it liveable…am I able to live as though my claim or theological proposal were true? (p. 82)
  • Four questions for theological proposals: (i) factual? (ii) semantic – i.e. what does the word mean? (iii) moral? (iv) pastoral? [p84f)
  • Anselm: Faith seeking understanding. (p.101 fn) “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam” (“I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand”).
  • Luther: Life is lived coram Deo (before God). (p105)
  • Doing theology then is a way of loving God with our minds, hopefully renewed minds in the Pauline sense.  (p105)