Books read May 2022


Rod Dreher: The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,  p/b, Sentinel, New York, 2018  

Rod Dreher
The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher was brought up in a strict Methodist home and went his own way until finding Christianity in his twenties. He was, for many years a member of the Roman Catholic Church and more recently he joined the Orthodox Church in the USA.  He has been an aggressive commentator, journalist and writer for many years with some strong opinions which have brought him into considerable controversy and some of which he has retreated from. 

I was interested to read this book initially because I have always been a fan of the C5th/C6th writing of Benedict.  Benedict formulated a Rule for monks who wished to join his monastery and whose gentle but powerful and practical theology has influenced many Christians to this day, and not just those in the Orthodox Church. His influence and ideas have spread well beyond the monastery walls to aid many followers in their life of walking with Christ.

I was therefore quite surprised to find that there is only one chapter in this book dealing with St Benedict (chapter 3) and that relates to the year 2000 re-opening of the St Benedict’s monastery in Norcia, Italy, which had been suppressed in 1810 by Napoleon.  The Prior of the re-opened monastery is a 65 year old American Father Cassian who reopened the monastery with six other monks in 2000. Since the book was written massive earthquakes have shattered both the monastery and the old church to which it was attached in Norcia but there are hopes of rebuilding.  For those who would like to deepen their knowledge of the Rule of St Benedict  I would warmly recommend Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict, 1984 and reprinted many times since and still in print. It is a precious experience to read and I would count it in my top three Christian books I have ever read for helping me to draw closer to Christ.  

What we do have with Dreher’s  Benedict Option?  In brief this book seeks to find a way for conservative Christians to respond to the collapse of traditional Christian faith in mainstream American society. (He frequently refers to “The West” but his narrative and description largely refers to the USA, although there are some similarities with the collapse of conservative Christianity in Western Europe and in Australia and Canada.)

Dreher’s energetic ideas, packed with references to fellow travellers and writers, books and seminars revolve around an analysis of the demise of mainstream conservative American Christian culture, and how to re-energise it. He has chapters which include: a short history of the  conservative Christian collapse in America; political issues; the need for a recovery of ancient forms of worship and church order;  the idea of a Christian village; the challenges of Christian education in a negative school environment; the powerful impact of Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015,  and its impact on conservative Christians holding their jobs and livelihoods in American society; and two thoughtful and helpful chapters on Eros and the New Counter-Culture and on Man and the Machine. 

My initial disappointment about the content colours somewhat my view of this book but I think many would agree that Dreher’s work would have been better with strong editing, a slower pace and far fewer examples of discussions, books and conversation which come staccato like one after another. I keep having the feeling that Dreher is keen to show off his vast network of people and ideas.

A major weakness of the book in my view is that no attention at all is given to gay Christians who choose to remain celibate. In addition there is no discussion about ways in which conservative Christian churches might relate to gay members who wish to remain in the church. A chapter on mediating a response to deep differences of opinion within a church congregation would, I believe,  have significantly strengthened the appeal of this book.   3 stars. 

The book comes with a useful study guide and an excellent index. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night, London, Vintage, 2010 (1934).  

F Scott Fitzgerald

Insightful and beautifully written novel from the post-World War 1 late twenties world of rich and famous Americans spending substantial amounts of their money on the French Riviera. The key players are the world renowned psychiatric clinician Dr Dick Diver and his patient and later wife Nicole who brought exceptional wealth to their marriage.

As with Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby, the lifestyle, wealth and passion for the good food and alcohol of the good life bring with it many challenges and many tragedies. The difference with this novel, I think, is that we really like the key characters and wish things could be different. The novel is in two parts with the dramatic strength raised to far greater heights in part two.

Raymond Chandler wrote of Fitzgerald’s prose that it’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite. I cannot do better than that. The prose carries you away and it is very hard to put the book down once started. The rhythm, characters and story line carry you along as if you are there in person and cannot escape.  This is a seriously top drawer novel.  5 stars

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn:  One Day in the Life ot Ivan Denisovich; Trans. H.T. Willett, Foreward, Alexis Klimoff, p/b, London, Vintage, 2003 (1962, in Russian)  

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago many years ago and was deeply scarred by its horror,   use of terror to persuade, the torture,  cannibalism, murder, exiled list of Humanists, attacks on the Russian Church, the irrelevance of innocence, the insanity of Stalin, the sheer horror of his regime, the destruction of Warsaw, the failure of the allies to negotiate meaningfully with Russia after World War 11 and much much more horror. How can humanity survive such terror and stupidity? 

And further,  once Solzhenitsyn was safely ensconced in the USA and equally depressed by the triviality of the concerns of the average American,  how powerfully he could write: “Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness: it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? and why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and wish you well….

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells the story of just one day of the fictional Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, in a Russian Gulag, the Stalinist labour camps to which millions of Russians were condemned for political deviation or for no reason at all.

Solzhenitsyn was no stranger to such a labour camp having spent four years hard labour in such a  camp and a further four years exiled in Southern Kazakhstan where he almost died from undiagnosed cancer.  Curiously the story details a relatively “happy” day for Shukhov but the “happiness” simply underlines the horror and brutality of the conditions under which the men worked, ate, froze to death in Arctic conditions and fought with each other for tiny morsels of food. Solzhenitsyn’s story, permitted to be published by Krushchev was never published in Russia. 

Solzhenitsyn survived attacks on his life and was eventually expelled from Soviet Russia and lived for some years in the USA.  His writings went a long way to dispelling the more charitable views about Stalin and Communism which followed from Russian support for the West in its struggle with Hitler’s Germany in World War 11. Solzenhitsyn eventually  returned to Russia in 1994.

This cleverly written story now seems to have a new life following Russia’s 2022 brutal and  indiscriminate military assault on the people of Ukraine.    5 stars.

Richard Rohr: The Universal Christ, p/b, London, SPCK, 2019  

Richard Rohr
The Universal Christ

Richard Rohr is an American Franciscan Catholic priest and founder of the Centre and School for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque New Mexico.  He has written many books and has a high media profile especially in Australia,  due to his online writing and classes. He is currently in remission from cancer but has said publicly that he is ready for death. He has called The Universal Christ his “end of life book”. 

The Universal Christ is a high octane read! Rohr has an energetic almost frenetic writing style which pushes ahead at an alarming rate throwing ideas, Biblical quotations and thought starters at the reader from start to finish.  Rohr’s focus is on the positiveness, the joys, the goodness, and the power of the Christian Gospel and other world faiths especially Buddhism.  There is not much at all in this book about sin, evil or Satan. In this regard there is a strong similarity with the Creational Spirituality of former Dominican monk and now Anglican priest Matthew Fox, especially his powerful book Original Blessing (1983).

I believe there are two books contained in The Universal Christ.  The first book contains the establishment of Rohr’s thesis that there is a clear distinction between Jesus of the New Testament, a map for the time-bound and personal level of life (p.20) and the figure of Christ who is the blueprint for all time and space and life itself. (p.20) Such a thesis will be contested not just by Christians but I am sure by those of other faiths as well. Christians will have difficulty with a sentence like Jesus is a Third someone, not just God and not just man, but God and human together. (p.19).  It has been hard enough for Christians to attempt to explain the idea of the Trinity!  Jesus as Not just God and not just man, a third someone,  is not going to do the job I think. Similarly  World leaders of other faiths are not necessarily going to fall in line to install “Christ” as the unifying power behind the world’s great religions.

Universalism itself has never been far away from the thoughts of many theologians including John Hick, Karl Barth,  liberal Catholics  Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner and evangelicals like Clark H. Pinnock in his persuasive book A Wideness in God’s Mercy (1992).

Laying aside this energetic argument in the first three chapters, Rohr proceeds to fourteen memorable chapters which will challenge and at times upset many earnest Christian readers but will make them pause, reconsider, think again  and read again. Not all will agree with Rohr’s conclusions about such topics as the following:  original goodness; the best criticism of the bad is still the practice of the better; people formed by God’s love are indestructible; God is eternal discovery and eternal growth; anonymous Christians (Rahner); the full journey towards wholeness must include the negative experiences (Jung) .. we must listen to what is urging us;  God protects us into and through death; the risen Christ is leading us somewhere good and positive; life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful; invoked or not invoked, God is still present (Jung); great love and great suffering brings us back to God; we must love God through, in, with, and even because of this world; Christianity’s unique trump card is always and forever incarnation; doing is more important than saying; following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world; the only way out of deep sadness is to go with it and through it; if you are frightened into God it is never the true God that you meet; Even God has to use love and suffering to teach you all the lessons that really matter; God comes to you disguised as your life…and there are many more challenging ideas and themes.

This book comes with Two Practices called Beyond Mere Theology…telling is not training. The practices are Simply That you Are; and All Physical Reality as a Mirror. In addition there is an epitaph from Simone Weil, an Afterword entitled Love After Love and two appendices: 1. The Four World Views; 2. The Pattern of Spiritual Transformation. Finally there is a detailed bibliography. 4 stars.