John Julius Norwich: The Popes: A History, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2011  

Church Historian John Julius Norwich has written an outstanding three volume study of the Byzantine era as well as a major two volume study of the Normans in Sicily alongside many other studies of European history. His study of the Popes is a massive achievement. While detailed information of the earliest period of Christian history is harder to find, Norwich plots a clear and helpful path through the complexity and challenges of emerging Christian faith in the Roman Empire as well as the tension between Constantinople and Rome for superiority and power. Constantine’s decision to embrace the Christian faith and the subsequent theological disputes are well covered as well as the chaos caused in Europe by the collapse of the Roman Empire. From Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) onwards every significant pope and antipope is given individual attention.

For the Christian reader much of this story makes for terrifying reading. Nepotism, greed, gross immorality and pride dominated the mind of most of those who were appointed by the largely Italian cardinals. Since the popes had temporal as well as spiritual powers they became “kings” of their own fiefs negotiating and fighting for their rights alongside the powerful Italian states including Venice, Genoa, Ravenna, Sicily, Bologna and many others. Even more intrusive were the regular armies from Austria, France, Spain and Germany, not to forget Napoleon,  who regularly invaded the Italian Peninsula in search of wealth, power and influence. The Pope became a political power (although with limited military strength) up against the Holy Roman Emperor from Charlemagne onwards, the Various kings of France and Spain and not forgetting the Normans who took over Sicily. On a regular basis Rome was sacked and brought to the ground with the Pope retreating to Avignon in France or to Bologne or some other bolt hole.

Somehow through all of this destructive chaos papal authority of some sort continued eventually facing the upheaval of the Reformation and the development of the Counter Reformation. It is at this point that some genuine spirituality emerged from the Catholic revolution created to rebuff Protestantism alongside the extension of Catholic faith overseas as new continents were discovered.   Meanwhile in Europe warfare between nations and powers continued from the C15th to the C21st with the Papacy playing various roles and eventually losing their temporal power to European nationhood with their “statehood” limited to the Vatican City. Norwich deals well with the C20th popes good and bad and his analysis concludes with a study of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict V1) The C20th failure of Pope Pius X11[1939-58] to speak for, defend and protect the Jewish community is a standing tragedy and horror in this story. 

Although this story is complex Norwich’s style is hard to put down. It leaves the Christian reader with much to think about and is a reminder that political leaders who claim to speak for the Christian Gospel are rare, face significant challenges and need much courage and prayer.   5 stars.

Alex Miller: A Brief Affair, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin  

Alex Miller is in my top five authors of all time. He is now 85 and I did not think we would see a new novel from him but here it is. A Brief Affair is vintage Miller with his central themes of the Australian bush, love/family/marriage, the alienation and failure of soul in education especially in Victoria.  Above all Miller  has the courageous willingness to dig deep and give meaning to the well springs of human thriving in our short stay on this planet.

His central character, Fran, forty two years old, is happily married with two children but yet seeking meaning and Spirit in her life and work. She lives between country and a daily lengthy commute to the city.. an increasingly popular yet challenging life for those who love the bush but for various reasons need to work in the city. We only have one life on this planet and whether rich or poor Miller suggests we need to have good reasons to get up in the morning and truly “be”. 

In my view Miller is the true heir of Patrick White in the ability of both men to “see into the life of things” and write powerfully and insightfully about both the banalities and the deep and sometimes dry spirituality of the Australian emptiness. The human experience would be a poorer place without Alex Miller to nudge us into a genuine search for meaning and truth each time we get up in the morning.  5 stars. 

Geraldine Brooks: Horse, h/b, Sydney, Hachette, 2022  

Outstanding horse racing and art history novel based around the mid-C19th American race horse Lexington, arguably the greatest race horse of all time and certainly the most celebrated and important breeding horse in the history of racing. The key figures, horse industry operators Robert Aitcheson Alexander, Richard Ten Broeck, Cassius Marcellus Clay and his wife Mary Jane and her daughter Mary Barr Clay, William Johnson, Harry Lewis, Willa Viley, Elisha Warfield Jr and John Benjamin Pryor and artists Thomas J. Scott and Edward Troy are all historical figures.  The New York art collector and Gallery owner Martha Jackson is also a genuine person.

Geraldine Brooks has woven a fictional story around this amazing horse and its owners and trainers  based around Jarret, a young negro groomer and trainer.  The fictional relationship between the boy and his horse is powerful and mesmerising. 

The narrative jumps between the C19th and the C21st as Jess a fictional Australian scientist and her close friend Theo, Nigerian-American art historian piece together what became of Lexington’s skeleton and the paintings Thomas J. Scott made of the great horse. Inevitably the narrative is tangled up with the horrific events surrounding the American Civil War as well as the trauma of race relations in America in both the C19th and the C21st. 

The result is a novel which requires attention, close reading and either a good vocabulary or an iPhone handy for some unfamiliar language. Whilst the chapter jumps between centuries was initially annoying the sheer magnetic power of the novel soon takes over.  5 stars. 

Michael Reeves: Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, p/b, Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2012  

What a delight to find an intelligible, easy to read and deeply Scriptural account of the doctrine of the Trinity. Michael Reeves, a theological advisor for the English Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) has written a book about the Trinity I found hard to put down. In five clearly written chapters Reeves asks the question What was God doing before Creation? and then spends three chapters dealing with the themes of Creation, Salvation and the The Christian Life. The final chapter discusses the uniqueness of the Christian understanding of God.

Reeves has a light touch but manages to cover a vast amount of ground. It is not a “how to” book for Christians. Rather it is a love story about one God in three persons. Reeves demonstrates that the Trinity is the vital oxygen of the Christian life and joy. It is understandable because the triune God has revealed himself to us. We do not need theologians five hundred years after Christ to explain the Trinity. The Apostle Paul understood clearly that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:11).The Trinity is not a mystery, it is a spiritual truth emerging from the New Testament. 

Reeves explains the meaning and joy of the doctrine of the Trinity with clarity, humour and a wealth of very readable historical data and more particularly with the help of numerous key figures in the history of Christian faith. Along the way he includes a helpful critique of Islamic theology about the nature of God, the challenge of Gnosticism, the problem of evil and its explanation, Pelagianism, as well as insights into musical harmony, mathematics and atheism.

Reeves pays particular attention to the Puritans especially Jonathan Edwards’ writings but also references Tolkien, Luther, Calvin and Hitchins amongst many others.  He is a critic of Schleiermacher and who made the Trinity “a mere appendix to the Christian faith” and is also a critic of Adolf von Harnack who dismissed the Trinity altogether.  

Delighting in the Trinity is an enjoyable read. I know of no other book on the Trinity that could be said to be “enjoyable”!  5 stars.