Greg Sheridan: Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in our World, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2021 

Greg Sheridan

Greg Sheridan’s second book on Christianity follows up on his  2018 success with God is Good For You.  Christians is a book of two quitdifferent parts.  Part 1 contains a re-reading of the New Testament account of the life and activities of Jesus with a spirited defence of the historicity of the New Testament. Relying on recently published work by John Dickson, Is Jesus History? and Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eye Witnesses, along with other recent scholars, Sheridan argues a coherent and well documented defence of the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus life. 

Greg Sheridan: Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in our World

This defence includes a rebuttal of the mid-C20th liberal and rather tired theological narrative regarding the late dating and general unreliability of the New Testament documents. Part 1 also contains useful and energising chapters on the life of Mary, the doctrine of angels and the life of Paul the apostle whom Sheridan describes as  “Christ’s Lenin” in terms of his impact on the growth of Christianity.  What immediately comes across to the reader is Sheridan’s excitement about his faith, about the Bible and about the impact of Jesus on the lives of the people he writes about. 

Sheridan provides I believe a realistic case that disbelief in the story of Jesus cannot be based on historical data. The literary, archaeological and historical data is simply too strong. On the other hand Sheridan reminds readers that Christians must be clear about the limits of historical evidence. History certainly does not prove that Jesus was God and that he rose from the dead.

(p.15).  His conclusion is that It is reasonable to believe in God and reasonable not to believe in God.  At the same time Sheridan rightly takes aim at the idea, often supported in the daily media, that science has taken a stance against God. He concludes this is profoundly and extravagantly untrue. (p15).  In this introduction he concludes, I think rightly, that Most of the things we believe in life are reasonable but not proven. (p.15)

Sheridan spends some time on the fact that it is only the developed Western world (USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand) that has given up on Christianity. He notes that Christianity is an increasingly  powerful  influence on the lives of millions in Asia, including China,  South America and Africa and sadly proclaims that The West is a culture willing itself into amnesia and ignorance! (p.40). Noting that Australian culture has become more credulous about everything but Christianity (p.40), Sheridan quotes Chesterton’s observation that when you stop believing in Christianity you don’t believe in nothing, you believe in everything! (p203) In relation to the age old problem of evil and pain, Sheridan argues that Christian faith gives us a way of dealing with the pain that is an inevitable part of life. (p112).

Part 2 of this book is entitled “Christians and their New Worlds” and here Sheridan talks about “smuggling Christ into popular culture.”  (p.171) He covers writers who embed Christian faith in their work like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings alongside Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Dostoyevski amongst others. Sheridan also notes television productions like Jane the Virgin about American Latino Christian values and morality and the American cop show Blue Bloods which has a Catholic New York police chief as its hero.

The remainder of part 2 provides backgrounded accounts of some remarkable Australian Christians of many denominations who have literally changed the lives of thousands of others through their activities governed by their faith. These include missionaries, business leaders, politicians, army officers, Chinese Christian leaders, and one or two archbishops. 

This book is a substantial read and you have to stay with it.  Sheridan is a major public figure in Australian media and indeed world wide. His authority in the area of international relations is beyond dispute. For him to “come out” with his life long faith in Christ was a big step, I am sure, for him. But  this book is also impossible to put down due to Sheridan’s breezy and personal style.  He is excited about his faith and he calls us to be excited about ours.  5 stars!

Louis Stone: Jonah, p/b, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2013 (1911).  

English born but living in Australia from age 13 Louis Stone lived in Redfern and Waterloo in working class Sydney before qualifying as a school teacher and achieving some success as a writer, with Jonah being his major success.

Louis Stone

Louis Stone: Jonah

Jonah is a novel in two parts. Part One, entitled Larrikins All, describes street life in turn of the century inner-city Sydney in  working class suburbs where unskilled workers lived in run down housing with poverty close at hand and little for young men to do but lounge around the streets getting into trouble with street gangs, the police and alcohol. 

Jonah is the central character of the novel and the leader of The Push…the local group of toughs who ruled Botany Road and Cardigan Street. Jonah was a hunchback, deformed from birth but had the toughness and leadership skills to keep the group of twenty or so larrikins under control aided by his faithful and equally tough deputy known as Chook. Part 1 describes their aimless and poverty stricken lives mostly spent in part time jobs and pubs and looking for trouble on the streets at night as well as chasing girl friends. 

There is a vitality and mate ship in the description of their loyalty to each other, amidst poverty, hopelessness, danger and bravado.

Part Two, entitled The Sign of the Shoe, describes the attempt of both Jonah and Chook to raise themselves out of the poverty and violence and achieve something with their lives. In part this is due to the women in their lives but also the leadership skills that gave them authority in gangland also came to the fore when opportunity for work and girlfriends intruded on their consciousness. Jonah in particular rises to significant heights with his business acumen and determination but has to deal with the handicap of a feckless and lazy wife with no maternal instincts whatsoever.

The novel moves along at an engaging pace and the author manages to maintain our interest in characters that do not initially show much promise at all. Surprising twists and turns keep the reader on tip toe and make the novel hard to put down. This novel, written in 1911, still has much to say what really matters in a life lived in a worthwhile manner, whatever the circumstances.

5 stars. 

Sebastian Schütze,  Caravaggio: The  Complete Works, Trans. Karen  Williams, h/b, Cologne, Taschen, 2000

Sebastian Schütze: Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio revolutionised Western art in the C16th and early C17th.  His startling and powerful and very human representation of human portraits and events, many of religious religious themes for ecclesiastical patrons have the power to touch us even more today than when he began his work. Critic Roger Fry describes him as the first modern artist, the first artist to proceed not by evolution but by revolution. (p.314)as

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Schütze has five detailed chapters describing Caravaggio’s  early work in Lombardy, early and later work in Rome, his late oeuvre in southern Italy: Naples-Malta-Sicily and a final epilogue entitled Reflections and Refractions.  These chapters are complemented by richly presented full scale paintings including a number of fascinating enlargements demonstrating his ground-breaking naturalism. There follows a complete and detailed catalogue of all Caravaggio’s works with commentary, photographs and bibliography of each painting including autographs, copies and attributed works.

The art world was late in recognising the ground breaking importance of Caravaggio’s work and information about him is hard to find. The first major exhibition of his work was not held until 1951. He left no personal testimony about his work and no letters from him have ever surfaced.  In addition many modern biographers have focussed on details of his controversial personal life to the detriment of an understanding of his formidable contribution to naturalism in his painting.

In May 1606 the painter inflicted a mortal wound upon Ranuccio Tomassini in a fight and had to flee Rome to Naples, Malta, Syracuse, Messina, Palermo and back to Naples and finally dying in Porto Ercole in mysterious circumstances on his way to Rome to receive a pardon from the Pope. This book is not about these events but about the paintings. For this reason Schütze has focussed on Caravaggio’s early biographers for his analysis (Mancini, Baglione and Bellori)  rather than modern accounts based on very limited evidence of the reality of his personal life.

The energy, humanity and story in these paintings have been for me a long time passion. Ann and I tracked down Caravaggio’s work in churches and galleries in Rome, Malta and galleries around the world. In my view there is no one who communicates the passion, delicacy and power of human and divine stories and events better than Caravaggio. Schütze’s work and the excellent translation by Karen Williams have created a detailed and captivating analysis in a book which is itself a work of art.  5 stars.

Alison Weir: Mary Boleyn: ‘The Great and Infamous Whore’, p/b, London, Jonathan Cape, 2011.  

Alison Weir

Alison Weir: Mary Boleyn.

Mary Boleyn was the elder sister of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry V111.  Information about Mary Boleyn is very scanty indeed and the result is that “historians” and other would be biographers and novelists have made up much of their own material to fill the gap not provided by the extant evidence.   The vast majority of Alison Weir’s footnotes in this study are made up of rebuttals of assertions made by a lengthy array of would be commentators who have made assertions that have no historical back up or a simply in error.  

Thus the slander that the young Mary Boleyn, in 1516  a lady in waiting to Mary Tudor, had a brief affair with King François of France dates from more than twenty years later. It was made by Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza, the Papal Nuncio in Paris, who wrote that the French king knew her here in France “per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte” (“for a very great whore, and infamous above all”).  This statement was of course aimed at further discrediting Henry V111’s decision to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and to separate the English crown and nation from papal rule. 

Like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, the facts that are available show that Mary Boleyn was “more sinnned against than sinning”. Weir demonstrates that while it may well be true that Mary Boleyn was for a brief time the mistress of both Francois 1,  and later for a brief time maybe the mistress of Henry V111,  in both cases, if this is true, the young girl had little power to avoid both situations. Weir argues that both situations did occur and that probably Mary Boleyn’s youngest child Katherine was the result of her affair with Henry V111 although this again cannot be proven.

Mary Boleyn married twice for love and her son Henry Carey (Baron Hunsdon) rose in stature to become a favourite of Elizabeth 1, eventually buried with significant pomp and grandeur in an extraordinary tomb in Westminster Abbey.  She lived quietly and at times in some poverty and avoided the scandals which brought about the downfall of her more illustrious sister Anne. Although adhering fiercely only to known historical data this meticulous analysis, together with sumptuous photographs of paintings of the key players, make for compelling reading. The reader begins to feel immersed in the tumultuous reign of the Tudor monarchs. Five stars.