Books read July 2017

BOOKS READ JULY 2017

(Ed.) John Elsner and Roger Cardinal,  The Cultures of Collecting: From Elvis to Antiques—Why do we Collect Things? Melbourne University Press, 1994.

An exceptional collection! of articles about collecting from many perspectives including psychoanalytical, economic and historic approaches and a scarifying analysis by post-modern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. In most cases the picture painted of collectors is not pretty so genuine collectors should approach  this book with care! Effectively illustrated with impressive academic reference resources. For a collector who wishes to delve into his or her own psyche this is the book!

John Eisner, one of the editors, in his Introduction notes, amongst other things, the following assertions:

Noah was the first collector! (p1)

– The supreme pioneer is the totalling collector, the ‘completist’ …perhaps a fetishist! (p3)

– ..to collect up to a final limit is to exercise control over existence itself..like God. (p3)

In the West…the great canonical collections…testify to the paradigm of Beauty as the exclusion of all ugliness, to the triumph of remembrance over oblivion, to the permanence of Being over Nothingness. Absurdly and dementedly eternalistic as they are, they carry such weight as to seem incontrovertible…one of the ambitions of this book is to challenge such self-assurance… (p4)

[collectors] rivalling God and teetering between mastery and madness (p6)

[for some]…building a collection of things is inseparable form building up wealth and prestige e.g. Henry Clay Frick, J.Paul Getty or Charles Saatchi.  (p6)

– ….less perfective collectors whose vocation sends them across the confines of the reasonable and the acceptable. These last — people like John Soane, Charles Wilson Peale, Kurt Schwitters, Sigmund Freud and Robert Opie — exemplify a genuine exposure to existence: indeed their project, at times melancholy, even morbid, and perhaps ultimately tragic, often carries with it an intimation of the failure that is always on the cards once mortal desire reaches the limits of what can and cannot be done.  (p6)

This is a complex, academic and in places quite difficult book and I suspect only a committed collector would stay the distance and even then would have to put up with a fair amount of criticism directed at the character of collectors and/or their motives. Nevertheless, as a collector, I could not put this down and for a look into my own psyche I know of no better book.  4 stars.

Alex Miller, Landscape of Farewell, Crows Nest NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2007

Another stunning novel from the pen of Alex Miller. Set in Hamburg, Germany and in the Central Highlands region of Queensland this novel forces us to become interested in the lives of a recently widowed septuagenarian German History professor Max Otto, haunted by the unknown career of his father in World War 11 and its potential horror and the hopes and dreams of a forty something single female indigenous Australian History professor, Vita, an indigenous activist. They meet at a History Conference in Hamburg and Vita manages to persuade Max to come to Australia to speak at a conference and meet her ageing uncle Dougald, child of a Scottish mother and an indigenous father who has his own ancestral demons to come to terms with. The result is another Millerenian journey of self-exploration and physical exploration of the dangerously enchanting but also forbidding  Australian landscape. Underneath these very human people stories is a deeper and more chilling motif of massacre, the continuing human tendency to seek to annihilate others and this story comes with a well-researched and surprising twist from early Australian history. Whenever I read an Alex Miller novel I think “who else has written so many soul-searching novels that are impossible to put down?”. I can’t think of anyone! 5 stars.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, London, SPCK, 2007

This is possibly the most controversial of N T Wright’s vast theological output and includes his famous assault on a type of Christianity that majors on the question “how do I get to heaven when I die?”  Wright answers this question by his full blooded defence of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the future bodily resurrection of believers and probably all people for a judgment “in the body”. Whilst, like John Packer, he stresses that this judgment will be by works he nevertheless reminds his readers that there will be no condemnation for those who are found in Christ and stresses that the vocation of those who respond to God’s call is to be an ambassador for Christ on earth.   He articulates a strongly inaugurated theology of the kingdom of God on a renewed earth which will be consummated at the appearance rather than the “second coming” of Christ. I note in passing that the term ‘second coming’ does not seem to appear in Cruden’s Concordance of the Bible.

Wright’s account of “heaven” is that it is a first stage ‘paradise’ of sleep/rest/beatific vision rather than a “disembodied eternal existence” which is  followed by his account of a second state recreation of the kingdom of God on a renewed earth. His argument is consistently, carefully, energetically and Biblically defended. His discussion of the replacement of our decaying bodies with undecaying bodies instead of the normal contrast between ‘natural/physical’ bodies and ‘spiritual’ bodies is unique. His robust treatment of how Christians should be busy about caring for the world ecology, people in crisis, beauty and spiritual health is a powerful antidote not only to C21st materialism and selfish self-fulfilment but also to American fundamentalism and much tepid modernist theology.

A useful reminder throughout the book is that Jesus’ resurrection occurred, according to the Biblical text, in this material world. The implication of this is that Jesus at his appearing and our own resurrection will be equally human (a strong defence of the permanent incarnation of Christ) and material even if it is to be some sort of transformed and perfected materiality.This is an area that John Polkinghorne took on regularly in his many writings ..the interface between two tangential worlds and ways of thinking and expression.

All of this runs counter to much of the daily thinking of the average western European or American or Aussie,  let alone the thinking of the “average” Christian and to much of “modern” theology. For example the thrust of this book is brought into sharp relief when compared with the “cosmic Christ” which appears so elegantly in the meditations of Richard Rohr for example.  It can even be said, I believe,  that few evangelicals bother to come to grips with the sort of problems that logically emerge from a thorough going belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Thus one of the effects of reading this book carefully is the challenge to the imagination to conceive of the “material” reality proposed by these central Biblical themes so vigorously defended here.

I found the last few chapters on the functioning church somewhat uneven. Wright’s criticisms of many Anglican churches doing away with formal liturgy and clerical dress need more nuancing. There are ways and ways of making this happen, some more successful than others but the reality is that today’s 30 – 40 somethings haven’t got much energy for Anglican liturgical pomp and dress let alone younger generations…they have too much going on with in their lives. It is enough for them to grapple with the essentials of the faith and how to live it in a post-Christian age without having to worry about the niceties of 500 year old ceremonial or even 1950s ceremonial.  I see the UK synod has given the ok for casual dress for clergy at appropriate services and for me, this is the way forward.

A challenging and demanding read.  4 stars.

C S Lewis, The Great Divorce, London, Fount/HarperCollins, 1977 (1946) A brief, curious and, as to be expected, brilliantly clever allegory of heaven and hell. Lewis takes a purgatorial view of hell in which many folk find themselves as thin “ghosts” in an afterlife of their own making but with some “solid people” present to help them re-think, a process better achieved by some than others!  An interesting addition is that Lewis’ long time inspiration George MacDonald appears as one of the “solid people” who assists the unnamed seeker after truth. Other famous folk from the past appear from time to time in Danteesque fashion. In the end The Great Divorce leads the reader to the realisation that it is our present life and the actions, motivations, drives and decisions those of us who have any real choice make, which provide the clue to how we will travel in the life to come if there is one (and which direct us to live as positively and humanely and thoughtfully as we can in this life!)

Disturbing and thoughtful! 4 stars.

Rob Bell, What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, London, WilliamCollins, 2017

Accessible, thought provoking and well researched analysis of the Bible’s meaning and relevance for today. Written in Bell’s unique dot-point and jaunty style which will either inspire or repel depending on your state of mind. Bell’s strong minded and fresh approach to the many questions which in the past have turned so many people off church and Bible is desperately needed by jaded Westerners, anxious about their own future and thinking the Bible is outmoded. Bell manages to cut through much of the ink wasted in the inerrancy debate using up to date scholarly and Spirit-filled material in a breezy, humorous and hard to put down style. For a defence of the detail of these arguments there is always the wealth of Bell’s online podcasts but for starters and a very helpful bibliography I cannot think of a better gift for someone who has never read the Bible since childhood but needs to.  5 stars and then some!

Wrangling with N T Wright: Surprised by Hope 2007

Wrangling with N T Wright:  Surprised By Hope, London, SPCK, 2007

  1. Preface p,xii  [In a 1995 British survey,] only a tiny minority, even among church goers, believed in the classic Christian position, that of a future bodily resurrection.  Should we then give up on the idea and take it out of our creed?

2. – What is the ultimate Christian hope?

–  What hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities with the world in the present?

3   What words would we like at our own funeral? Do we agree with Wright’s criticism of common forms of words in chapters 1 and 2 especially p20.

4.  pp25-6…there is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die’, and not a lot about post-mortem hell either….the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn’t work that way.  ‘God’s kingdom’ in the preaching of Jesus refers, not to post-mortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but about God’s sovereign rule coming on earth as it is in heaven……Heaven in the Bible , is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life.  I think this is the key idea and distinctive in this book.  The idea of Heaven and Hell referring to this life syncs with John Milton in Paradise Lost  Book 1….a man’s mind is its own place and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.  See also the paragraph at the bottom of p209. As long as we see ‘salvation’ in terms of ‘going to heaven when we die’, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for the future…

5.  p27 Many have embraced a universalism in which God will endlessly offer to the unrepentant the choice of faith, until all at last succumb to the wooing of divine love. fn14 refers to John Hick: Evil and the God of Love

5A p32 Wright seems to be iffy about cremation..Of course there were reasons of hygiene and overcrowding which led reformers towards the end of the last century to propose this step—which, as not all western Christians know, is still firmly opposed by the Eastern Orthodox…as well as Jews and Muslims…cremation has tended, classically, to belong more with a Hindu or Buddhist theology..when people ask for their ashes to be scattered in a favourite place..the underlying implication, of a desire simply to be merged back into the created world, without any affirmation of a future life of new embodiment, flies in the face of classic Christian theology. …I am not of course saying that cremation is heretical…I am merely noting that the huge swing towards it in the last century reflects at least in part some of the confusions, both in the church and in the world, which we have observed.

6.  p44  Is the problem with the Wittgenstein/Popper argument analogy that although people disagree re important details, nothing in either argument was “supernatural”?

7.  p49 The commonly held belief (when I was growing up) that when we die we shall become angels.

7r p53 ..within early Christianity there is virtually no spectrum of belief about life beyond death.   i.e.. unlike Judaism (different views from Essenes (a little holy group will rise); Sadducees (no resurrection); Pharisees (resurrection of the pious) or Stoicism (no resurrection) Mystery religions (spiritual resurrection). But in early Christianity all writers speak with one voice re the bodily resurrection of Jesus and in time all believers..all people.

8.  p55  I Corinthians 15:44 How should we translate  ψυχικον (psychikon) and πνευματικον (pneumatikon):

RSV/NRSV/GNB a physical body …………….a spiritual body

ESV/AV/RV/NIV/Phillips         a natural body………..…….a spiritual body

NEB an animal body…. .……….. a spiritual body

NLT as natural human bodies….as spiritual bodies

JB it embodies the soul………..it embodies the spirit

LB human bodies………………superhuman bodies

The Message Remix  natural……………………….supernatural

Moffatt an animate body……………a spiritual body

The NT for everyone (Wright) a decaying body……………an undecaying body

In either case what could a ‘spiritual body’  actually look like? Wright: It can be demonstrated in great detail, philologically and exegetically, that this is precisely not what Paul meant.  See also p 168 When Paul declares that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom’..he doesn’t mean that physicality will be abolished.  ‘Flesh and blood ‘  is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death.

9. p59   Two key mutations from Jewish views of resurrection. 1. That resurrection signalled not just the renewal of Israel but renewal of human beings in general.  2. That the Messiah would die and be resurrected.

10. p60  …how impossible it is to account for the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah without the resurrection.   (There were many claimants to Messiahship in the early N T period. They were all killed off by the Romans and left little trace. With Jesus the history is entirely different….this means we can already rule out the revisionist positions on Jesus’ resurrection that have been offered by so many writers in recent years.

11. p67  Despite a thousand Easter hymns and a million Easter sermons, the resurrection narratives in the gospels never, ever say anything like ‘Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death,’ let alone ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die.’… Jesus is raised, so we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world, making his kingdom come on earth as in heaven.  [cf 2 Corinthians 5: 15ff  If anyone in Christ he is a new creature. The old has passed away, behold the new has come. All this is from God , who through Christ reconciled us to himself  and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That is God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal to us. We beseech you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.]

11r  p81 Wright considers Thomas’ doubt to be almost scientific (Thomas, like a good historian wants to see and touch…Jesus presents himself but Thomas doesn’t . He transcends the type of knowing he had intended to use, and passes into a higher, richer one..) Is this a new way of reading the ‘doubting Thomas’  story? Is it a good way of reading it?

12.  p82 The epistemological weight is borne, not simply by the promise of ultimate resurrection and new creation alone,  but by the narrative of God’s mighty action in the past.  [The resurrection makes sense of the O T as well as the N T]

13.  p83 We are to be the stewards of the new creation IN THIS LIFE…..faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science….God …has raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving evidence which demands an explanation from the scientist as well as anybody else. [So also Polkinghorne, Berry, Collins, Barbour, Miller, Eagleton, Ruse, et al]

14.  p86  Against…. the intellectual coup d’état by which the Enlightenment convinced so many that ‘we now know that dead people don’t rise. as though this was a modern discovery rather than simply the reaffirmation of what Homer and Aeschylus had taken for granted. [which is why the Athenians scoffed at Paul when he spoke about the resurrection in Athens. (Acts 17)]

15  p87 Oscar Wilde’s play Salome in which Herod Antipas, on hearing of reports of Jesus rising from the dead says: “I do not wish him to do that…I forbid him to do that…I allow no man to rise from the dead. This man must be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead.”

16.  p93  Against the progress myth.   Are we making progress or not? Give examples. (p94 particular impact of evolutionary optimism and the philosopher Hegel and in the Christian world (p97 Teilhard de Chardin.

17, pp100-103 The impact of Platonism, Buddhism, Gnosticism on Christianity…a purely spiritual future existence…’Modern’  Gnostics include Blake, Goethe, Melville, Yeats, Jung  and I would add Harold Bloom ..hugely influential literary critic. Followers of such a view in the end do not care about the material future of the world…similar to Fundamentalist Christians of the “left behind” variety.

18.  p105-6 evil is real and powerful …but physical matter is not evil…nor, does evil consist in being transient, made to decay…rather the transience of the good creation that serves as a pointer to its larger purpose …Transience acts as a God-given signpost, pointing not from the material world to a non-material world, but from the world as it is to the world as it is meant to be one day to be; pointing, in other words, from the present to the future which God has in store. 

p106 What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil ‘earth’ and a good ‘heaven’)….Evil then consists, not in being created, but in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honour elements of the natural world rather than the God who made them.  Evil is a world out of joint with its intended purpose. 

 BUT SURELY, ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE, EVIL WAS IN THE WORLD BEFORE HUMANS….EG THE BENT SNAKE AND FALLEN ANGELS. What  about the origins of evil from the Biblical perspective. Is it all the fault of humans as Wright here implies? What is truly Biblical is that death of humans spread to all, because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)

19.  p111 if after his death [Jesus] had gone into some kind of non-bodily existence, death would not be defeated.  This discussion comes back to the doctrine of “the permanent manhood of Christ.”  cf Wright p126: It’s quite another to be able to envisage or imagine it, to know what it is we’re really talking about  when we speak of Jesus being still human, still in fact, an embodied human —actually, a more solidly embodied human being that we are—but absent from the present world . We need, in fact, a new and better cosmology, a new and better way of thinking about the world, that the one which our culture, not least post-Enlightenment culture, has bequeathed us.

20.  p113 …if creation was a work of love, it must have involved the creation of something other than God. That same love then allows creation to be itself, sustaining it in providence and wisdom but not overpowering it. Logic cannot comprehend love; so much the worse for logic.

20r p119..and a new creation born to which the present one will stand as mother to child. Wright talks a lot about redeeming the earth. How can that happen if we’ve destroyed it?

21.  p121 the question of the failure of the Church to explain clearly the meaning of the Ascension. Wright quotes Douglas Farrow:…where the ascension has been ignored or misunderstood one can trace a slide into muddled and even dangerous ideas and practices.

22.  p122  Basically, heaven and earth, in biblical cosmology, are not two different locations within the same continuum of space and matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation..

23.  p128  …today’s muddled world view …the whole point of the Christian faith is to follow Jesus away from earth to heaven and stay there forever.  So Away in the Manger …and lead us to heaven to live with thee there…

24.  p 132  ….the idea of judgment makes many people think of a vengeful, wrathful deity, determined to throw as many people as possible into hell. We have learnt to distrust people who love accusing and punishing others.  [so Rob Bell: Love Wins.]

25. p134 ‘Eschatology’, which literally means ‘the study of the last things doesn’t just refer to death, judgment, heaven and hell …it refers to the strongly held belief of most first-century Jews, and virtually all early Christians, that history was going somewhere under the guidance of God; and that where it was going was a new world of justice, healing and hope…a matter not of the destruction of the present space-time universe, but of its radical healing.

26.  p137 …despite widespread opinion to the contrary, during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return.  [I think i am correct in saying that the term “second coming” does not appear in Cruden’s Complete Concordance of every word in the Bible].  …when Jesus speaks of ‘the son of man coming on the clouds’  he is not talking about the second coming , but, in line with the Daniel 7:13  text he is quoting, about his vindication after suffering.  Similarly Jesus’ parables about the departing and returning King and his subjects refer to Jewish beliefs about  God leaving the temple during the exile and returning again to judge and make good.

27  p138 The fact that Jesus didn’t teach it  [the second coming] doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

28.  p140 …if the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching do not refer to the second coming , where does the idea come from? Quite simply from the rest of the New Testament. …’This same Jesus who’s has gone from you in heaven…will return in the same way that you saw him go into heaven… The Greek word  παρουσια (parousia) is usually translated “coming”; but literally it means “presence.”

.

29.  p145  Against the “rapture” and the “Left Behind” films. 1 Thessalonians 4 “meeting Christ in the air” refers to Christians being drawn to Christ at his appearing to celebrate his coming just as folk thronged out to meet a conquering hero or a bike rider as they near the city.

30.  p152-3  Wright, like John Packer before him, reiterates that the final judgment will be by works….the future judgment according to deeds, a judgment exercised by Jesus at his ‘judgment seat’, is clearly taught in, for instance, Romans 14:9-10, 2 Corinthians 5:10 and elsewhere….the picture of future judgment according to works is actually the basis of Paul’s theology of justification…..justification by faith is what happens in the present time, anticipating the verdict of the future day when God judges the world….it is common early Christian belief. [fn6 cites as refs:2 Tim.4:1; 1 Peter 4:5]

30.  p155 -6…Jesus remains other than the church, other than the world, even while being present to both by the Spirit…..And, precisely because Jesus is not collapsed into the church, or indeed the world, we can renounce on the one hand the triumphalism that conveniently makes his sovereign lordship  and excuse for its own, and on the other hand the despair that comes  when we see such hopes dashed, as they always will be, in the follies and failings of even the best and greatest Christian organisations, structures, leaders and followers.

31. p167 Wright quotes Paul: We must all appear before the judgment seat of the Messiah; and for that we shall need bodies….it may be at this point that Paul hints after all at a re-surrection of the wicked (in order to be judged in the body) as well as the righteous.  In my view it is much more than a hint…it is crystal clear.  Why would Christ judge some and not others when all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and he who is guilty of one sin is guilty of all.?

32.  p169 ..the early fathers at least as far as Origen insisted on [the bodily resurrection], though the pressures on them to abandon it must have been very great. Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian—all of them stress the bodily resurrection.  The doctrine of bodily resurrection is linked very closely to the doctrines of creation and judgment…As in Judaism, resurrection is the point where creation and judgment meet. Where one is abandoned, for whatever reason, the others soon follow.

33. p170 What we today call atoms and molecules pass through us with continuity of form but transcience of matter….it’s a good argument: as we now know, we change our entire physical kit, every atom and molecule, over a period of, at most, every seven years or so. I am physically a totally different person now from the person I was ten years ago. And yet I am still me. 

34 p170-1 A brief history of the doctrine of bodily resurrection.   Many of the leading theologians in the Patristic and mediaeval periods were quite clear about the two-stage post-mortem future [ie first sleep/“the rest”/paradise/“the beatific vision”  and  second the resurrection in the kingdom of God.  e.g. Gregory the Great,  Anselm,  Hugh of St Victor, Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairveaux. But a good deal of western mediaeval piety then took a very different turn, in which the twin destinations of heaven and hell, and the possible intermediate destination of purgatory, became far more important.  [esp. the influence of Dante (The Divine Comedy) …and later Milton (Paradise Lost); later still Newman: Dream of Gerontius]

35.  p171 …for Paul at least there is a special sense of resurrection which clearly applies to those who are in Christ and indwell by the Spirit ….that of ruling in the kingdom of God…even judging angels! ….Christians will still be busy….. forget those images about lounging around playing harps!   (p173)

36. p172  Wright commends C S Lewis as one of the few modern writers who has tried to help us with the task of imagining what the risen body might look like.  e.g. the Narnia stories and The Great Divorce.  [although on p 173 he criticises Lewis for promoting the idea of the immortality of the soul.]

37. p172 The ancient world did ask questions about which of our present characteristics and indeed present blemishes, will remain in the transformed physicality?  e.g. Jesus’ wounds were still visible after his resurrection…not now as sources of pain and death but as signs of his victory, so the Christian’s risen body will bear such marks of his or her loyalty to God’s particular calling as appropriate, not least where suffering is involved.  what of those who were burned at the stake for Christ, or eaten by sharks, or disembowelled? and what about cremation?

38.  p174.  The problem of rewards in heaven  (1 Cor 3.10-15) and p 181

39.  p179-180- 183  …the tendency towards universalism so evident in the last hundred years of Protestant thinking has produced a new situation, where not only professed Christians, but the mass of professed non-Christians, are going to have to be got ready for salvation in a the time after death. Like a badly sprung double bed, this has propelled the people who used to be positioned at either side, in either heaven or hell, into an uneasy huddle in the middle….we thus have a sort of purgatory for all…but Paul makes it clear here and elsewhere  [e.g.  in Romans 8] that it’s ithe present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. (p183)

40. p184   Prayers for the dead…Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God? 

41. p185  Against the departed saints  including the Virgin Mary as ‘friends at court”  working on our behalf.

42.  p188-9  Re hell…when Jesus was warning his hearers about γε’εννα (Gehenna)- the C1st Jerusalem rubbish tip)  he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else….We cannot therefore look to Jesus’ teaching for any fresh detail on whether there really are some who finally reject God, and who as it were have that rejection ratified.   p190 All this should warn us against the cheerful double dogmatism which has bedevilled discussion of these topics – the dogmatism, that is, both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn’t ‘going to hell ‘, and that of the universalist who is absolutely certain there is no such place. or that if there is it will, at the last, be empty.

43.  p191  The problem is that much theology…has become depressingly flabby, unable to climb even the lower slopes of social and cultural judgment, let alone the steep reaches of that judgment of which the early Christians spoke and wrote….

44.  p193 …the massive denial of reality [Hiroshima/Darfur/Auschwitz/Pol Pot/Stalin/Mao/Rwanda/Armenia/Syria/etc etc] by the cheap and cheerful universalism of western liberalism has a lot to answer for. 

45.  p195 Re the problem of a place of eternal torment in the kingdom of God Wright rejects “annihilatiionism’ because it seems like active destruction (p194) and comes to a scenario that includes beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all…these creatures [will] still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense…..hmmm […very speculative…]  Wright adds:  The last thing I want is for anyone to suppose that I (or anyone else) know very much about all this. Nor do I want anyone to suppose I enjoy speculating in this manner…in my view pp196-198, Wright’s summary,  demonstrates the best resolution of these complex issues. ( e.g. p196 [In Paul’s Letter to the Romans ] his great emphasis is that God has shut up all people in the prison-house of disobedience in order that he may have mercy on all .. (p197)..God is always the God of surprises…)  These pages deserve a second read!

46. p203 Precisely because the resurrection has happened as an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now.  

47. p204 Wright majors on 1 Corinthians 15:58 (always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain). ….the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’  in the present. It is a central, essential, vital and life-giving part of it….not about saving souls for a disembodied eternity, but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so that they could enjoy, already in the present,  that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose.

48. p211 We are saved not as souls, but as wholes. (All sorts of things follow from this. We might notice, for example, that theories of ‘atonement’ , of the meaning of the cross, are not simply a set of alternative answers to the same question. They give the answers they give because of the questions they ask. If the question is ‘how can I get to heaven when I die despite the sin because of which I deserve to be punished?’, the answer may well be ‘because Jesus has been punished in your place.’ But if the question is ‘how can God’s plan to rescue and renew the entire world go ahead despite the corruption and decay which has come about because of  human [and angelic] rebellion?’, the answer may well be ‘because on the cross Jesus defeated the powers of evil which have enslaved rebel humans an so ensured continuing corruption. Please note, these and other possible questions and answers are not mutually exclusive.)

49. p212-3 [We should not suppose] that we are saved, as it were, for our own private benefit, for the restoration of our own relationship with God (vital though that is!) and for our eventual homecoming and peace in heaven (misleading though that is!)…[We are saved] …designed-it isn’t too strong a word- to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to door the entire cosmos [and]…part of the means by which God makes this happen.]

50. p213-14 …Paul makes it quite clear that those who believe in Jesus Christ, who are incorporated into him through baptism, are already God’s children, are already themselves, ‘saved’; this stewardship cannot be something to be postponed for the ultimate future.  [note: we are saved for stewardship; cf Clarke  Pinnock’s view  that predestination is for vocation not for salvation. God’s desire is for Israel and the Church to be a light to the nations and a steward of the earth’s bounty.

50r  p223 …idolatry is always the perversion of something good…the proper response to idolatry, therefore, is not dualism…but the renewed worship of the Creator-God.  

51. p224 We cannot get off the hook of present responsibility, as many Christians try to do….by declaring that the world is currently in such a mess and there’s nothing that can be done about it until the Lord returns.

52.  p227-8 [on the other hand] we must ..avoid the arrogance or triumphalism of…imagining that we can build the kingdom of God by our own efforts without the need for a further divine act of new creation….But we must ….reject the defeatism…that says there’s no point in even trying.

53.  p230  The heirs of…liberal theology today are keen to marginalise the Bible, declaring that it supports slavery and other wicked things, because they don’t like what it says on other topics such as sexual ethics. But if you push the Bible off the table you are merely colluding with pagan empire, denying yourself the sourcebook for your kingdom-critique of oppression.

54.  p231 Many conservative churches ..[in America] still live by the belief that what’s good for America is good for God….the irony is that those American churches that protest most vocally against the teaching of Darwinism in their schools are often, in their public policies, supporting a kind of economic Darwinism, the survival of the fittest in world markets and military power….any attempt to work for God’s justice on earth as in heaven is condemned as the sort of thing those wicked anti-supernaturalists try to do. 

Wright has been accused of producing a ‘baptised neo-socialism’  by some conservative American commentators.

55.  p232-3 If people tell you that after all there isn’t very much they can do…press for some form of inaugurated eschatology. You would insist that the new life of the Spirit, in obedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ, should produce radical transformation of behaviour in the present life, anticipating the life to come even though we know we shall never be complete and whole until then.  Love this! This is real hope for the rest of our lives!

56. p234  A much needed theology of beauty!

57. p237 An amazing paragraph of honest self-analysis  by N T Wright! He finishes the para with:..as every generation has known, it isn’t the quality of the preaching that counts, but the faithfulness of God. Here Wright is channelling Barth who was channelling Luther!

58. p243 ..when people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope…

58r p244 The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should stand out in every town and village as the place  where new creativity  bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope which, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise. It seems to me that churches should be at the forefront of charitable works, art, evangelism etc.

59. p245 re re-shaping the church:  …without a hope-shaped mission, there is always the danger of mere pragmatism. And with pragmatism there often comes opportunism — for the advancing of agendas which are driven, not by the imperative to mission, but by one or other of the old models of church life which are now running out of steam.

60. p246 The resurrection is not an isolated supernatural oddity proving how powerful, if apparently arbitrary, God can be when he wants to…it is the decisive event which means that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven.

61. p247 If the resurrection is an event that actually occurred (in some sense) in time and space, as well as in the materiality of Jesus’ body…his Kingdom has been established. And this kingdom is to be put into practice by his followers summoning all nations to obedient allegiance to him, marking them out in baptism.

62. p252 Wittgenstein’s famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus….tellingly, section 7 consists of a single sentence: ‘What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence….Some things, Wittgenstein indicates, go beyond speech and philosophy, and about them one can and must remain silent. What I want to suggest, with great temerity, is that in the resurrection one is given the beginning of a new knowing, a new epistemology, a new coming-to-speech, the Word born afresh after the death of all human knowing and speech, all human hope and love, after the silent rest of the seventh-day sabbatical in the tomb.

63. p253 In John 20:19-23 Jesus called Peter to be a shepherd rather than a fisherman…the challenge to a new way of life, a new forgiveness, a new fruitfulness,  a new following of Jesus which will be wider and more dangerous that what has gone before. [We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us…2 Cor 5]

64. p255 There could not be a clearer statement of intent; the kingdoms of the world are now claimed as the kingdom of Israel’s God, and of his Messiah.

65. p270 Tom Wright here argues for a ‘mixed economy’ in worship …it would be silly to suppose that any one size or shape will ‘fit’ all worshippers…not to dampen the enthusiasm of new expressions of Christian life, but…they must not throw the banana away with the skin. [when you peel the skin and throw the bone away there’s nothing left to eat in a banana!]

66. p277 …the split between ‘saving souls’ and ‘doing good in the world’ is a product, not of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both within the western world. We return to the themes of justice, beauty and evangelism.

67. p283 If the gospel isn’t transforming you, how do you know that it will transform anything else?

68 p284ff Evangelicalism has been faithful in preaching new birth as a vital spiritual experience…what has proved  much harder to do is to articulate a theology of baptism  [and sacramental theology] to go with it.

69. p294 [the Book of Revelation] …is a vision of present reality, seen in tis heavenly dimension.

70. p299 I’d rather have a live church with problems than a dead church offering the spurious peace of the tombstone…

Why do Collectors collect what they collect?

WHY DO COLLECTORS COLLECT?

I have been making lists and been a collector of various bits and pieces since I was seven years old. This collection of essays has helped me to understand a little about who I am. 

(Ed.) John Elsner and Roger Cardinal,  The Cultures of Collecting: From Elvis to Antiques—Why do we Collect Things? Melbourne University Press, 1994.

An exceptional collection! of articles about collecting from many perspectives including psychoanalytical, economic and historic approaches and a scarifying analysis by post-modern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. In most cases the picture painted of collectors is not pretty so genuine collectors should approach  this book with care! Effectively illustrated with impressive academic reference resources. For a collector who wishes to delve into his or her own psyche this is the book!

John Eisner, one of the editors, in his Introduction notes, amongst other things, the following assertions:

Noah was the first collector! (p1)

– The supreme pioneer is the totalling collector, the ‘completist’ …perhaps a fetishist! (p3)

– ..to collect up to a final limit is to exercise control over existence itself..like God. (p3)

In the West…the great canonical collections…testify to the paradigm of Beauty as the exclusion of all ugliness, to the triumph of remembrance over oblivion, to the permanence of Being over Nothingness. Absurdly and dementedly eternalistic as they are, they carry such weight as to seem incontrovertible…one of the ambitions of this book is to challenge such self-assurance… (p4)

[collectors] rivalling God and teetering between mastery and madness (p6)

[for some]…building a collection of things is inseparable form building up wealth and prestige e.g. Henry Clay Frick, J.Paul Getty or Charles Saatchi.  (p6)

– ….less perfective collectors whose vocation sends them across the confines of the reasonable and the acceptable. These last — people like John Soane, Charles Wilson Peale, Kurt Schwitters, Sigmund Freud and Robert Opie — exemplify a genuine exposure to existence: indeed their project, at times melancholy, even morbid, and perhaps ultimately tragic, often carries with it an intimation of the failure that is always on the cards once mortal desire reaches the limits of what can and cannot be done.  (p6)

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote Le Système des objets (Paris, 1968), which has never been translated in full but some sections are contained in chapter 1 of this collection entitled The System of Collecting. Baudrillard is scathing about collectors as a “class” and his criticisms sound very harsh and yet most collectors would own the truthfulness of many of his criticisms of collectors.  Some points he makes are as follows:

For the child, collecting represents the most rudimentary way to exercise control over the outer world. (p.9)

…one invests in objects all that one finds impossible to invest in human relationships. That is why man so quickly seeks out the company of objects when he needs to recuperate…..this sort of passion is an escapist one….all kinds of neuroses are neutralized, all kinds of tensions and frustrated energies are grounded and calmed. Indeed, this is what lends them their ‘spiritual’ quality; (p11)

– ….the ridiculous facility with which they afford us a glorious, if illusory, gratification….the singular object never impedes the process of narcissistic projection. (p12)

Here, indeed, lies the whole miracle of collecting. For it is inevitably oneself that one collects. (p12) …he plays the game of constituting himself as a serial progression, at the same time as he constitutes himself as a serial progression, also at the same time as he constitutes himself as the ultimate term of the series —the one that wins. Here we find an explanation of the psychology of the collector: in collecting privileged objects, he constantly confirms himself as the one who wins. (fn 5 p175)

– …the collection is never really initiated in order to be completed (p13)

The man who collects things may already be dead, yet he manages literally to outlive himself through his collection…

– …possession derives its fullest satisfaction from the prestige the object enjoys in the eyes of other people, and the fact that they cannot have it ..…The jealousy complex, symptomatic of the passion of collecting at its most fanatical… What now comes into play is a powerful anal-sadistic impulse that tends to confine beauty in order to savour it in isolation….(p18)

One is always jealous of oneself. It is always oneself that one watches over like a hawk. And it is always in oneself that one takes pleasure.  (p18)

…the reader who cannot settle down to read unless he is surrounded by his entire library of books…it is not the book that matters so much as the moment when it is safely returned to its proper place on the library shelf.(p23)

– ….can objects ever institute themselves as a viable language? Can they ever be fashioned into a discourse oriented otherwise than toward oneself?…By the same token, the discourse voiced through his collection can never rise above a certain level of indigence and infantilism. 

Chapter 2 of the book is a remarkable interview and defence of the value of collecting with collector Robert Opie who has spent a lifetime amassing over 3 million examples of marketing, packaging and advertising materials.  He founded the Museum of Advertising and Packaging in the UK.

John Windsor is a teacher of transcendental meditation and spent two years with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who introduced TM to the West. His contribution in chapter 3 of this collection of essays is entitled Identity Parades and deals with the Hindu texts of the Vedas (and the Pali texts  of Theravada Buddhism)the fulfilment of the individual becomes pitifully dependent on the objects and circumstances of the outside world….Object-referral instead of self-referral. Its symptoms are tiredness and frustration…. (p49).  This is in line with the tradition of Indian, Sri-Lankan, Tibetan and South East Asian Hindu and Buddhist holy men and women for whom possessions are not sought and who rely on the gifts of others (who earn good karma for generosity) for their survival. When Ghandi was murdered (by a devout Hindu!) his possessions numbered his scuffs, staff, very thin garment and I think one or two pieces of written material. Clearly collecting objects was very low indeed on the list of priorities in Eastern religious thinking!

Roger Cardinal’s essay in chapter 4 is entitled Collecting and Collage-making: The Case of Kurt Schwitters.  Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was an amazing multi-media artist in Germany who escaped to Norway to avoid Nazi imprisonment  for producing “degenerate art” in Goebbels’ definition. After the German invasion of Norway Schwitters fled to Scotland and was interned in England.  Cardinal’s essay focuses on the extent to which Schwitter’s famous collages called Merz art  [from comm-merce?] pictures could be called collections. This was because Schwitters built his collages basically from bits of flotsam picked up from the street- paper scraps, fragments of newspapers, billboards, transport tickets and anything else left lying around on the street.  Nevertheless close analysis of many of his Merz art reveals that certain clear messages are being sent from words that can be read within the collages and from the arrangement of seemingly totally abstract and haphazard bits and pieces. Amongst many other artistic endeavours Schwitters produced over 2000 collages throughout his career from his earliest days experimenting with Dadaism in Germany to his final exile in Britain.  Cardinal writes:

– ….Inexorably categorised as we are under the category of mortals we may envisage collecting as an existential project that seeks to lend shape to hapless circumstance. To collate and arrange any objects, culturally marked or otherwise, is to invent a space of privileged equilibrium offering at least some respite from the pressures of life. What is curious to behold is that, for many collectors, existential tensions tend to derive not just from the plain business of living, but also from the collecting activity itself, by means of which they had hoped not to repeat life but to transcend it. I see the collector as one caught in a constant vacillation, between the hankering for perfection and the need to tolerate imperfection, between an ideal of wholeness and the anxiety of incompleteness, between mature composure and the immature thrills of hunting and scrounging. (p70)

– …The final element that, I believe, clinches,my comparison [between a collection and a collage] is that there is almost always an intention eventually to place the collage or the collection on display. Both ultimately exist to be shown, and implicitly to be shown to impress. We can say that both aspire to be noticed, inspected, admired, even envied? (p71)

–  [Schwitters] routinely labels the completed set with a number and a title….the practice is symptomatic of a collector’s scrupulous devotion to itemising and listing…(p78).

– [Merz art was] …a diary in which the individual subject records his struggle to hold together a few meagre certainties in a world that is being torn apart.

Cardinal quotes Susan Stewart, writer of several books on aesthetic theory; …’the possession of the metonymic object is a kind of dispossession in that the presence of the object all the more radically speaks to its status as a mere substitution and to its subsequent distance from the self.’ (p93)

– Cardinal writes  …while it may be true that Schwitters was conscious of handling the myths and mirages that help soothe the collective libido, documenting the little gratifications of contemporary Londoners in an epoch of austerity, his compilations of cigarette wrappers, food ads and jam labels can equally be read as a sublimation of private longings and grieving. (p95)

….the aroma of nostalgia the collages insinuate to us has to be measured against our own proclivity to romanticise the text of the past.. (p95)

Chapter 5 of this collection is written by Mieke Bal, a tertiary teacher in the Theory of Literature and lecturer in Visual and Cultural studies.Theories of literature regularly ask the question what is the true nature of narrative?

– Bal writes: Objectively narratives exist as texts, printed and made accessible; at the same time, they are subjectively produced by writer and reader. (p98)

– ….it is also obvious that verbal texts are not the only objects capable of conveying a narrative. Language is just one medium, perhaps the most conspicuous one, in which narrative can be constructed. Images, as the tradition of history painting demonstrates, can do so as well ….[cf the use of stained glass window images in Gothic cathedrals in the C13th and C14th when many worshippers could not read.] …not to speak of mixed media like film, opera and comic strips….What if the medium consists of real, hard material objects?…In other words, can things be, or tell stories? (p98f)  [eg a stamp collection teaching history such as the gradual change in images of Hitler on German stamps of the 1930s.]

– Bal quotes cultural and museum historian S M Pearce as follows: …the emotional relationship of projection and internalisation which we have with objects seems to belong with our very earliest experience and (probably therefore) remains important to us all our lives. (p102 and ref. fn7)

– Bal continues: From motivation in childhood Pearce moves to phenomenologically defined essential humanness — and storytelling is again an indispensable ingredient.  [Pearce’s work shows that ] collecting is an essential human feature that originates in the need to tell stories..(p103).

Hence, collecting is a story, and everyone needs to tell it. (p103)

– Bal notes that Pearce identifies 16 different possible motivations for folk commencing collections. They are as follows: leisure, aesthetics, competition, risk, fantasy, a sense of community, prestige, domination, sensual gratification, sexual foreplay, desire to reframe objects, the pleasing rhythm of sameness and difference, ambition to achieve perfection, extending the self, reaffirming the body, producing gender-identity, achieving immortality! (p102)

-Bal notes that some of these motivations require wealth e.g. aesthetics…can only be constituted within an experience of the world freed from urgency…[Pierre Bourdieu, fn13] (p103)

– Bal quotes W. Durose: If the predominant value is aesthetically pleasing it is not a collection. But, if it bears a relation to some other object e.g. one of a series, it is a collection. (p111)

– replotting an existing collection….the objects as signs become radically different. (p112) [eg changing a book collection from alphabetical by author to arrangement by content; or a stamp collection from by country to by theme e.g. animals].

If completion is possible, perfection is dangerous. (p113)

Perfection, the equivalent of death in the sense that it can only be closely approximated, not achieved ‘during the life time’ of the subject, is one of those typically elusive objects of desire like happiness….

In chapter 6 Nicholas Thomas, senior research fellow in anthropology at ANU writes about the nature of traditional museum methods of displaying collections.  He writes about the fetishism, the lack of context and dehumanising factors involved in the collection of native items during early European exploratory voyages to Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific including Cook’s journeys.  He is equally critical of the clinical display of such objects without context in C19th European museums and presentation documents.

Challenging the almost sacred vision of James Cook’s work and that of Robert Banks, his naturalist on his first journey, in the annals of Australian history, Thomas is quite critical of Cook’s voyages. He describes them as dedicated to the disclosure of the novel, and shifted restlessly from one discovery to the next, in a fashion reminiscent of Burke’s giddy curiosity, but affected a “great command’ through its assertiveness with respect to novelties, expressed graphically in charts and coastal profiles… (p128).  Thomas draws attention even more strongly to the failings of Robert Banks to adopt an appropriate scientific discipline….The editor of Cook’s account, John Hawkesworth,  was less circumspect than he might have been in alluding to the sexual contacts between the sailors and Tahitian women, and the prominence of Banks in his account suggested to many readers that Bank’s botany was fraudulent, ‘that he was more interested in exotic women than exotic plants.’  Banks’ doubtful behaviour was satirised on his return for example in the satirical verses entitled Transmigration, which read in part:

Ye who o’er Southern Oceans wander

With simpling B——ks or S——r;

Who so familiarly describe

The frolicks of the wanton Tribe,

And think that simple Fornication

Requires no form of palliation…  (p129)

Thomas further notes the  presentation of dislocated and out of context Chinese and Iranian artefacts in the early drawings by John and Andrew van Rymsdyk as presented in the British Museum….The giddy and random vision that this eclecticism prompted is distinctly Borgesian. (p134).

Thomas further draws attention to the fact that in addition to the scientific work of “scientific” men like Robert Banks many ordinary sailors were busy collecting their own supply of native curiosities …it is clear …that many common sailors acquired substantial collections, often with a view to sale at home.  [p135]; The availability of these on-sold objects appearing on the open market would again be presumably without geographic or scientific context. The whole article draws attention to the different motives behind collections…especially formal museum collections …the curious, the scientist, the true connnoisseur, the commercial, the licentious….Even the triumph of capitalism did not enable this shadow of commerce to transcend the ambiguous licence of an endless, rapacious, unstable and competitive pursuit of novel objects.

In chapter 7 Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann, Princeton Professor in the Dept of Art and Archaeology writes about the treasuries and collections of the Hapsburgs as a precursor to Museum collections.

The Hapsburg treasury goes back at least to the rule of Duke Rudolf 1V of Hapsburg in the C14th whose records refer to keeping family property together, undivided by bequests; we also have information about the second Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Albrecht 11 whose historical records refer to a jewellery collection and in addition references to ornaments, silver plate, documents, insignia, royal regalia, crowns, sceptres, orbs and sacramental relics, books, reliquaries, as well as works of art. These collections were reorganised by Frederick 111 Hapsburg (ruled1440-93) and his successor Maximilian 1 (1493-1519) through new impulses transmitted from Burgundy and Italy. Justifications for a doctrine of magnificence were able to be found in Aristotle’s Ethics! and the hapsburgs were influenced by the example of the rulers of Medicean Florence and Aragonese Naples who justified the notion of expenditure on objects not just for their use but for their splendour, rarity or expense, thereby expanding the reputation of a prince. Jacobo Pontano of Naples thought that magnificence could be demonstrated by collecting objects such as bronzes, tapestries, furniture, carpets, carved ivory, precious boxes, books, vessels made of rock crystal, gold, onyx and other precious stones.

The Hapsburg collections were further refined by Ferdinand 1 and his brother Charles V, Holy Roman Emperors of the C16th where the term kunstkammer referring to a work of art (kunst) began to take over from schatzkammer (treasury). Ferdinand 11 maintained and added to the collection including a library and a collection of arms and armour. (a rustkammer). The collection was continued under the reign of Maximilian 11 and reached a peak in the reign of his son Rudolf 11 (reigned 1576-1612) developed at the Hradčany Palace in Prague which included formal gardens, wild animals, tamed deer and aviaries.

Kaufmann notes that Rudolf’s possession of a universal collection could symbolically represent his claims to mastery of the macrocosm of the greater world, and over the body politic of which he was sovereign. There was also an occult element to this collection….the sort of Hermetic project encouraged by Francis Bacon and reflected in some of Newton’s studies. The Hapsburg collection was diminished by the Thirty Years War but continued in the C17th under the Ferdinand 111 who ruled to 1657 and by now included a coin collection. During the reign of Emperor Leopold 1 (1658-1705) another collection was established in Vienna with an emphasis on northern European paintings and sculptures. Kaufmann notes that these tendencies came to fruition in the C18th  with Johann  Bernhard Fischer von Erlach [who] adumbrated an independent history of architecture….Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten [who] developed a philosophical aesthetics, …Gotthold Ephraim Lessing [who] laid the ground for an independent criticism of the visual arts …and Johann Joachim Winckelmann [who] established an independent history of art. (p147)

During the reign of Charles VI (died 1740), [the impact of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) ], ..a rationalized and orderly approach continued to be applied to the collections….some of the collections were even made accessible to the public…Fundamental transformation in the organisation of the collection had to wait until the reigns of Maria Theresa (d.1780) and Joseph 11 (d.1790) with new positions including a “Schatzmeistev”, a gallery inspector and other curators. In Maria Theresa’s reign and independent public picture gallery was established and the collections  were organised with new goals resulting from the imposition of what could be called modern rational principles of organisation. Educational or didactic goals, rather than a quest for rarity or a desire for splendour became the norm. (p148f)

Before the Musée Napoleon, the British Museum or the Altes Museum in Berlin, a public museum was created in Vienna that was devoted to the presentation a separate category of visual art….The importance of these innovations may be insufficiently appreciated, perhaps because their further consequences for both the museum and academic milieux were somewhat slow to be realised due to the Napoleonic wars  and the era of reaction that set in after Prince Metternic’s direction after 1815. (p151). It remains clear that the succesion of Hapsburg rulers who maintained the royal collections from the C14th can be genuinely regarded as the forerunners of the modern museum culture.

John Elsner, an editor of the whole book and Lecturer in classical art at the amazing Courtauld Institute (study centre and art gallery) in London wrote chapter 8 called  A Collector’s Model of Desire: the House and Museum of Sir John Soane. 

Sir John Soane, (1753-1837) was a major British architect and artist who designed many of the C18th and early C19th civic buildings of London. He was also an avid collector of art (amazing Canaletto and Hogarth and much more)  and European historical artifacts and books especially the sculpture and artifacts of classical history. His collection was donated to the nation on condition that it remained in his house in Lincoln’s Inn and that it be kept in its original state and order that he left it.  I have been several times to this house museum and it is a truly wondrous place of joy, delight and awe for collectors. Eisner’s rather jaundiced view is that Soane wanted this memorial to himself to stand egotistically as evidence that he himself was the C19th successor to the classical architects of old and his British forerunners like Wren and that the arrangement of his three storied collection is designed to prove this case. Whilst I am sure that Soane had his normal share of egotism which belongs naturally to “the great” my own view is that this collection has a unique charm and power in its original setting and it is a wonderful privilege to have a glimpse into Soane’s passions, gifts and interests displayed just as he himself wanted. Soane is the collector’s collector and in my view one of the greats and a must see for anyone interested in history and art who gets to London.

Anthony Alan Shelton wrote Chapter 9 in this collection of collections. His topic is Cabinets of Transgression: Renaissance Collections and the Incorporation of the New World. Shelton notes that some scholars thought of mediaeval attitudes and modes of persisting through the ‘Middle Ages’ from the third century A D to the mid-nineteenth century. Nevertheless all sides agree that the discovery of the “new world” made a significant impact on Renaissance thinking.  Shelton comments that cosmological uncertainty shadows the difference behind, and organisation of, Renaissance collections that attempted to incorporate representations of the fourth continent. (p177)

Shelton comments that the Mediaevals traditionally attributed marvellous and exceptional craftsmanship to communion with the divinely sanctioned order or the world (p180). On the other hand the mediaeval world also saw the marvellous as including contingent and altogether exceptional events. (p180).  In particular William of Ockham, who denied the existence of any cosmic order or chain of being that linked phenomena or events. According to Ockham, objects had only a nominal existence, and were unregulated by the mind of God. (p180)

For collectors of a nominalist persuasion, what was important were curiosities, rare or near-unique phenomena that were thought to have resulted from some exceptional condition or circumstance….collections of this kind flourished from c.1550, began to wane in the seventeenth century, and by 1750 were very rare indeed.  (p180). Renowned collections included those of Ulisse Aldrovandi at Bologna who used his collection for teaching and research, (p185); Antonia Giganti and the University of Leiden. Other collections included those of the Copenhagen Museum and the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Museum of Ferdinando Cospi in Bologna.

The perfection of the secularised model of the encyclopaedic ideal was achieved by the Medici when Francisco 1 became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1574..[who] put his collections on public display in the newly bullt Uffizi Palace in Florence….a representation of creation that allowed each princely ruler symbolically to claim his dominion over the world as a means of glorifying and celebrating a family’s influence, and legitimating its titles and position (p186)….This transfer to the public gallery of sumptuous private property, paralleling a change in its perception from souvenirs to the ‘great world’ metaphor, consecrating collection as an expression of the worthiness of an individual life. (p187).

This highly academic article proceeds to demonstrate with how much difficulty  European collectors and the public struggled to cope with New World artifacts and works of art that were not modelled in gold or precious stones but were in fact uniques and highly creative works of heart requiring enormous artistic skill and merit.  A particular example is that of feather costumes and other exceptional items made of feathers which the “old world” did not value and managed to lose or destroy. On the other hand exceptional articles made of gold and precious metals from the new world were often sent back in vast quantities  to Europe as “tribute” to European overlords seeking to avoid annihilation.

Much of this work was melted down and re-made in a European tradition and the protection of the new world was most usually not completed. In particular Motecuhzoma 11 sent to the Spanish explorer and overlord over 13 massive collections of gold and precious items in a vain bid to save his civilisation from rapacious Spanish acquisition. In addition to the treasures from Mexico the conquest of Peru in 1533 yielded further quantities of Indian bounty. The objects obtained by Pizarro from the ransom of Atahualpa alone were said to be sufficient to fill a room 25 feet long and 15 feet wide even when piled higher than the upraised arms of a tall man. P195)….none of the Peruvian artefacts from this period are thought to have survived. Much of the state treasure formerly belonging to Axayacatl was melted down and cast into ingots, while the jewellery was ‘undone and taken to pieces.’ (p197)

Shelton’s article moves forward to demonstrate that individual items of “paganism” from the New World were collected and analysed in Europe ..to consciously substitute the terms of the indigenous discourse to those commensurate with sixteenth-century Europe.  (p202)…The subordination of accurate cultural data to the vastly more important need to demonstrate the inclusiveness of paganism created an apparent homogeneity between the different high civilizations of the Americas, as well as blurring the their distinctions from other ‘pagan’ cultures. (p202)

Whether they mirrored the God-centred universe inherited by the Renaissance, or the emergent man-centred, pragmatic world manipulated by merchant princes and aristocrats, cabinets expressed a visual image of the inclusiveness of the European view of the world and its facile ability to incorporate and domesticate potentially transgressive worlds and customs. The truly marvellous and extraordinary accomplishment of mediaeval thought was that it made marvellousness itself a category of the mundane. (p203)

This article I found perhaps the most depressing of the analyses in this collection by reminding me of my own love of European culture and the danger of thinking of European hegemony over thought and art as the only way to look at this world of wonder and delight.

Chapter 10 in this collection is written by Susan Stewart, Professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia who writes on literary and aesthetic theory. Her particular interest here is the extraordinary life of the multi-talented revolutionary soldier, propagandist, civic official, engraver, museum keeper, zoologist, botanist, inventor, painter and founder of the first American museum…Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)  (p205)

Charles Willson Peale  is probably the most amazing single life described in this collection of essays which has already dealt with some very amazing folk. It is difficult to imagine anyone with the multifarious talents and courage and self-belief of Charles Willson Peale. Perhaps William Morris or Benjamin Franklin are the only other individuals that immediately spring to mind as bearing comparison.

Stewart notes that there is a passage underlined in a copy of Rouseau’s Emile that was once owned by Peale, which urges teachers never to substitute representation for reality, or shadow for substance, but to teach only from actual objects and the underlining is probably in Peale’s hand. (p209).

Peale’s Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures of 1800 is perhaps the fullest statement of his philosophy of collecting. He links himself in a great chain of largely unrecognised founders of national museums, from the Alexandrian library and repository of Ptolemy Philadephus (a kind of historical pun on his own name and location) to contemporary British and Continental museums. (p217).

Stewart notes in conclusion of this essay…Peale develops his museum as an antidote to war’s losses and as a gesture against disorder and the extinction of knowledge. In this nexus of motion and emotion, arrested life and animation, loss and memory, that Peale has bequeathed to us we can begin to recollect, with both a sense of difference and sense of urgency, a central issue regarding representation. (p223) I felt impelled to add, after reading of Peale’s life (he was a Deist)…a sense of a deeper pool, a wider vision, a longing for eternity,  a sure and certain hope of resurrection life in the eternal kingdom of God.  This is a man we need to know more about!

Chapter 11 in this collection is written by John Forrester, Cambridge Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science and discusses Sigmund Freud and his collection of Egyptian artifacts.

 Sigmund Freud, arch demystifier of religion and darling of the liberal left surprised many to learn that throughout his life he amassed a substantial collection of over 3000 Renaissance, ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Chinese sculptures and other figures. Freud criticised one of his biographers, Austrian Stefan Zweig, for the emphasis he placed ‘on the element of petit-bourgeois correctness in my person’ (p228) and responded by saying, amongst other things I have actually read more archaeology than psychology…(p229).  Forrester notes that his daughter Anna fostered the transformation from living collection into dead museum by preserving Freud’s study, with his collection intact and untouched over four decades. (p229).

Timms and Segal, who edited a collection of studies of Freud in exile in London (1988) noted that when Freud parted with most of his professional library when forced to leave Germany, very few books on archaeology or editions of the classics were sold—an indication of what lay closest to his heart. (noted in Forrester p296 fn6)

The majority of historians agree that the death of Freud’s father was a major turning-point in his life and work, precipitating him into a neurotic crisis of self-doubt and obliging him to undertake his self-analysis. (p232)….Beginning with the father’s death …Freud’s collection of antiquities elegantly demonstrates how a collection can symbolise the battle of life within death, of life being infiltrated by death, of a space cleared for the expression of this battle by the objects the collector has chosen as his personal representatives. (p232)

Freud himself wrote about the collector who directs his surplus libido onto the inanimate objective love of things. (p236) and that some collectors talk to their collections, just as dog-owners talk to their dogs. Forrester notes that Freud is a collector of farts and grimaces, an archeologist of rubbish avant la letter, as well as a collector of the fading, yet precious detritus of Western civilisation. The public Freud, with his reputation for shocking, distasteful and immoral claims about all human beings; the private Freud, with his well-ordered life and his bourgeois collection of culturally respectable art objects….how could the founder of the quintessentially modernist movement that is psychoanalysis have had such unimpeachably conservative taste in art?….this criticism has often been illustrated by referring to Freud’s own confessions of his inability to appreciate beauty in art in any other way than by analysing and understanding it. (p239)

Forrester notes that collections of jokes and dream texts must, without the benefit of hindsight, rank with stamp collecting and bottle-top collecting as narrowly conceived and single-mindedly eccentric. (p241). In Freud’s defence against eccentricity, Forrester notes that collected antiquities represent the first appearance of Freud’s vision of his work as embodying essential elements of the cultural traditions to which he was selfconsciously heir. Winckelmann the archaeologist; Goethethe worshipper of Italy; Akhenaten the founder of monotheism; Moses the Egyptian; Aeschylus the teller of ancient family tragedies; and Athena, representative of justice, mercy and wisdom: all these are embodied in the collection of objects, and it is their possession that realises Freud’s desire to be a universal and public citizen of this world, walking through the Museum of history and culture. (p241)

all of Freud’s collections were permeated by a public and enlightenment ideal….like all other ideals, it was revealed  as an illusion by the First World War.

The remainder of Forrester’s analysis of Freud’s collections is an attempt to demonstrate the value of his collections to illustrate his psycho-analytical techniques. The degree to which the reader will find this analysis persuasive will depend on the value placed by the reader on Freudian psycho-analysis. I personally find Forrester’s argument unconvincing..but then I would, wouldn’t I!

The final essay in this collection of essays on collecting is written by Duke University Romance Studies and Literature Professor Naomi Schor and is called Collecting Paris. It focusses on her personal collection of magnificent black and white Paris postcards of the belle epoch.

Schor’s essay is a useful summary of the whole collection. She begins with a very helpful analysis of the ideas of German/Jewish philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin who channelled Proust in arguing that most closely approximates that of the author in that collecting  and especially (though not exclusively) book-collecting involves the retrieval and ordering of things past; (p252) Schor quotes a  Benjamin lecture: ‘every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.’ (p252)

Schor notes that ..collecting, is for Benjamin a form of psychotherapy, a healing anamnesis, a means of re-membering his fragmented past (p253) ..and that act is figured as profoundly magical. (p254)

Schor usefully re-summarises the  “phallo-centric” view of collectors demonstrated by Jean Beaudrillard and Susan Stewart’s distinction between souvenir and collection.

Schor’s belle epoch postcard collection beautifully illustrated in this book demonstrates the recording of a place in time, in this case Paris, arguable the world’s most visited city. Schor notes that being and collecting are intimately related  (p259) The poignant part of this collection is her ambivalent relationship with Paris having Jewish parents who fled Poland to Paris and then fled Paris successfully to Spain (sadly unlike Walter Benjamin who was caught at the Spanish border). The anti-semitism rife in Paris leading up to and during World War 11 conflicts deeply with her architectural and lifestyle love affair with Paris as demonstrated in belle epoch post-cards. The essay doubles as a useful history of post-cards…a major collection area for many. Along the way Schor notes that post-card collecting is largely a feminine affair…men do not write post-cards to each other. (p262).

In a way Schor’s essay is a fitting conclusion to this collection of collections because it demonstrates that collecting fulfils many important functions central to human existence, eccentric and at times chaotic though many collectors may be.

Books read June 2017

June 2017:

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night,

Amazingly contemporary play with its gender twisting characters (Viola …in Shakespeare’s time a boy playing a woman pretending to be a man!) and speaking into current gender theory and queer theory semiotics.  Seen in conjunction with the British National Theatre production featuring a female “Malvolia” (showing at the Nova in June 2017) the impact is powerful indeed.  Called a comedy by Shakespeare and elsewhere called As You Will, the “comedy” has some dark moments indeed, not least because of the haunting songs of longing, love and life delivered by the eloquent and highly sophisticated “fool” Feste. I think indeed it is a tragicomedy produced as it was, near the end of the reign of Elizabeth 1. The tragic figure is indeed Malvolio betrayed not by hubris perhaps but by an over-whelming vanity and lack of self-perception. Nevertheless he does not deserve his cruel and over the top treatment by his tormentors whose quest for personal pleasure and revelry leaves no room for reasonable boundaries…a message for our time methinks.   The fraught love affairs Viola/Cesario and Orsino and Cesario/Olivia/“Cesario” disturbed and disrupted by mistaken identities is indeed a comedic masterpiece and the total impact simply underscores the absolute and never equalled genius of a playwright who, after 500+ years still somehow transcends time and philosophy to transfix us in the C21st.    5 stars

Mariilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self,  New Haven/London, Yale University Press, 2010

HIghly acclaimed as the author of a prize-winning quartet of novels about family life in mid-West America (Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila ) Robinson has also demonstrated an impressively  comprehensive understanding of philosophical and scientific thought and writing from the Greeks to the Reformation to Post-modernism. The majority of writers who delve into the science vs religion debate and write populist books with the victor being one or the other often cite earlier writers by the briefest of references only.  Robinson has not only read them in detail but is able to interact with them with an understanding and philosophical perspicuity which is breathtaking. I refer to writers like Russell, Freud, Descartes,  Fichte, Comte, Grotius, Darwin, Nietzche, Emerson and Leibniz.

Robinson’s insights are powerful and important. Some key ideas are:

  • the distinction between genuine science and parascience.
  • the irreconcilability between the conclusions of the “fathers” of modernism i.e. The Freudian neurasthenic is not the Darwinian primate, who is not the Marxist proletarian, who is not the behaviourist’s organism available to to being molded by a regime of positive and negative sensory experience. To acknowledge an element of truth in each of these models is to reject the claims of descriptive sufficiency made by all of them. (pxvi)
  • the rejection with inadequate rationale of the testimonies to human inwardness of history and culture.
  • the meaning of the great paradox and privilege of human selfhood, a privilege foreclosed when the mind is trivialised or thought to be discredited. (pxviii)
  • the first premise of modern and contemporary thought …the notion that we as a culture have crossed one or another threshold or realisation that gives the thought that follows it a special claim to the status of truth….that the world of thought , recently or in an identifiable moment in the near past, had undergone epochal change. Some realisation has intervened in history with miraculous abruptness and efficacy, and everything is transformed. (pp1-3) Robinson questions this assumption that “enlightenment changes everything!”
  • the commonly expressed statement that everything must be subject to materialist explanations”  could be usefully rephrased as available to tentative description in terms science finds meaningful….the strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and that the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are very inclined to encourage false expectations.
  • ..granting the plausibility of the idea [of multiverses] what does it imply? Its power, when used polemically, is based on the fact that, in a multiverse, absolutely anything is possible…

These are just a few of the breakthrough moments in this demanding and unsettlingly thoughtful book about the inwardness of the mind. Robinson focuses in detail on altruism and on the “Freudian self” and along the way also deals directly and honestly with the influential writings in these areas  of Bertrand Russell, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennet, Jung, William James, Richard Rorty, E O Wilson and John Searle. The end result of this exploration is a penetrating if quite gentle undercutting of the noisy and unfounded confidence of many ardent and determined defenders of both modernism and post-modernism against the possibility of any valid form of spirituality or meaningful or coherent “inwardness” involving the human mind. Robinson in this book nowhere offers a defence of transcendance but clears a path in such a remarkably lucid way that if there is no transcendence we must just have to invent it to explain so much of the meaning of humanity and  human culture.

Not for the faint-hearted this book encourages careful re-reading and further explanation.    5 stars

Richard Attenborough, In Search of Ghandi, London, The Bodley Head, 1982   Having just enjoyed viewing the film The Viceroy’s House about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 my longstanding interest in Mohandas K Ghandi (Mahatma) was revived and I was delighted to read this exceptional account of the eighteen year journey of the production of the film Ghandi which was directed by Richard Attenborough. Attenborough himself acted in many British and Hollywood movies, was Chairman of the British Film Institute, the Royal Academy of Film and Television Artsa trustee of the Tate Gallery and Sussex University of Sussex Pro-Vice-Chancellor. His brother David is still famously making extraordinary environmental and bio-geographical television productions including Lite of Earth. 

The grinding account of the failed promises and commitments of film company directors, financiers and politicians combined with the cultural, spiritual. political and religious sensitivities involved with a figure as god-like in India as Ghandi make this an enthralling story. in addition the overwhelming complexity of the elements of modern movie making is an enthralling story in itself. Taking so long to actually bring to the screen the book’s narrative is in part inevitably a biography of Attenborough himself as the journey inevitably involved his whole family and work as well as almost bankrupting him. The book contains many historic photographs of Ghandi as well as exceptional still from the movie.  Hard to put down.   4 stars.

D H Lawrence, The Virgin and the Gypsy, Harmondsworth, UK, Penguin, 1986 (1930).  Pulsating, sensual novella of the coming of age of a young thoughtful but flighty Middle Class north country girl and her meeting with a strong-minded, winsome and somewhat mystical  Romany gypsy. Vintage Lawrence with his full-bodied, almost violent language and his exceptional ability  to capture the north country landscape, the apparent shallowness and double-mindedness of Middle Class morality and the yearning of the thoughtful for meaningful love. An almost perfect novella of 84 pages.  5 stars.

Quotations from Manning Clark: “Puzzles of Childhood: His Early Life.”

John Masefield: The three great comforters: art, alcohol, religion

Charles KIngsley: the opium of the people

Rabelais: le grand peut-être = the great maybe

Mozart: wrote The Magic Flute and The Requiem in the same year

Heraclitus: To God all things are fair and good and right but men hold some things wrong and some right.

Thomas Carlyle on Voltaire: One of the dry souls of the Enlightenment

Manning Clark: A Man should write about things that matter

Emile Bronte: for a lover the universe could never turn to a mighty stranger

the price of liberty is eternal vigilance

Mallarmé:   The sea is sad, alas,

And I have read all the books.

Be correct..for being correct is a measure of a man’s virtues

Alexis De Tocqueville: L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution: “the field of the possible is much more vast than those who live in a particular era generally conceive.”

Melville: Ghastly countries produce ghastly theologies

W E Housman: (wrote A Shropshire Lad): it rains into the sea, but still the sea is salt 

Adam:  England is a nation of shopkeepers (stolen by Napoleon)

Ortega y Gassett: Can high culture survive in the age of the masses?

De Tocquville: Can there be historian in a democratic society?  The great mass of mankind had un gout depravé for equality. To satisfy their hunger for material well-being (their earthly not their heavenly bread) and for this taste for equality, human beings would hand over their freedom to someone they loved to worship. Only the great and strong love and cherished liberty, the ones who hungered for ‘heavenly bread’.

Mac Crawford: Historians do not give answers; they just ask questions

Marx: All previous philosophers have assumed that their task was to describe the world ; the duty of the philosopher is to change the world

Manning Clark: 1939: I believed then we could all be changed. Now I am not so sure whether we can be changed. I still believe in a change in society, but not a change in the human heart, because that can never be. Why should a lover change the beloved?

Browning: “Oh to be in England, now that April’s here.

Pater on the Mona Lisa: She is older than the rocks among which she sits

Manning Clark: It is a contradiction about Australians that we boasted of ourselves as democratic and egalitarian yet accepted a tyranny of opinion.

Omar Khayyam:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and saint and heard great argument

Around it and about; but evermore

Came out by the same door as I went in.

Freud: Never reply to criticism- the only way to reply to criticism is to write another work

James McAuley a disappointed radical.

Emerson: The vision by which we hoped to guide our lives would be obscured all too often by our own follies, weaknesses and madnesses.

E M Forster: Our civilization recommends ideals and practises

brutality.

Henry Lawson: from a poem: the old dead tree and the young tree green [contrasting England and Australia]

Kolynos Smile = toothpaste advertisement smile (Kolynos was a major toothpaste company prior to Colgate)

John Ruskin: Betrayal is one of the principal manifestations of human evil. The great mass of humanity cannot live with good or innocent people.

Manning on Geoffrey Searl’s biography of Monash: fair-minded and judicious

Manning Clark: Man is broad, far broader than his portrait, as painted by the self-appointed improvers of humanity.

Manning on Tolstoy: encouraged others to think about the things that really mattered.

Hindu aphorism: the roots of the Lotus flower feed on the slime

Some thoughts about the battle for the Bible, the inerrancy debate and the claim of some that the Bible was “given” to the Church and its contents “decided by” the Church….from Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics, volume 1.1 pp 99-101 and from little old me in my study!

2. THE WORD OF GOD WRITTEN.  (p99)

Church proclamation must be ventured in recollection of past revelation and in expectation of coming revelation. The basis of expectation is obviously identical here with the object of recollection. Hoping for what we cannot see, what we cannot assume to be present, we speak of an actualised proclamation, of a Word of God preached in the Church, on the basis that God’s Word has already been spoken, that revelation has already taken place. We speak in recollection.

What is the meaning of this recollection of past revelation?….[it] might mean the actualisation of a revelation of God originally immanent in every man [Romans 1:20] i.e. of man’s own original awareness of God …of the timeless essential constitution of man himself, namely, his relation to the eternal or absolute….

pp 99-100 Augustine, following Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis (ἀναμνησις) understood “memoria” along these lines. Barth quotes Augustine  in Latin from Confessions, Chapter 10 on memory and the human yearning for happiness and for God. e.g. 10:20 (22) (trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford): “My question is whether the happy life is in the memory. For we would not love it if we did not know what it is. We have heard the term, and all of us acknowledge that we are looking for the thing….The thing itself is neither Greek nor Latin. Greeks and Latins and people of other languages yearn to acquire it. Therefore it is known to every one….”  cf also Book 1:1 “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and heart is restless until it rests in you.”  Barth continues:  According to Augustine God is what we all seek as we all seek a “vita beata” (“blessed life”)…”Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: Late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into these lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all.  [Augustine Confessions Book 10:38 (trans. Henry Chadwick)]

Barth also quotes Abraham Heidan, a C17th Calvinist who introduced Cartesianism into theology….What is the use of instruction or teaching.The “idea Dei” does not come to us from without (aliunde). It is “power known from  the beginning of our existence (“potentia nobis semper inexistens)”.

p100 Barth asks the hypothetical question: Why could it not have pleased God to be immanent to his Church, as the foundation which was hidden for a time, but which steadily endured because it had been timelessly laid, so that standing on it need only be a matter of profound self-reflection?…this being recollection of God’s past revelation? Why not? The neo-Platonist and the Catholic churchman could obviously exist quite well in personal union in Augustine. Why should not both have been right? ….The real reason is that God did not make this specific use of His freedom or potency….The Church is not alone in relation to God’s Word. It is not referred to itself or consequently to self -reflection. It has not the confidence to appeal to itself as the source of the divine Word in support of the venture of proclamation. 

 [When you think about it, how could the Church have the arrogance to ever consider itself to be the source of the divine Word. It is true that Christian believers in the third and fourth centuries, empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, had to make decisions about which particular books and letters should become officially the “canon” of Holy Scripture. But these historic decisions did not suddenly transform these  writings into some supernaturally inerrant “Bible”.  The canon was developed and finally accepted by “the Church” of its day (C4th) simply to aid the fight against unhelpful heresy and to provide clear teaching to believers. The Church considered these early records of the witness to Jesus the Messiah to be the most useful and helpful to Christian believers and as a general principle they chose those documents with genuinely apostolic authorship or written by folk very close to the apostles e.g. Mark and Luke. The question of whether or not these documents were “inerrant” was not one that would have been on the minds of the Church Councils which decided upon the canon. Consider the following:

  1. It is quite possible that early papyri and phrases in the early Fathers contain authentic sayings of Jesus not included in the New Testament (see e.g. J.Jeremias: Unknown Sayings of Jesus, London, SPCK, 1958). The chronology of for example the Corinthian letters is not totally clear and it is probable that some letters or parts of letters of Paul to the churches he founded have now been lost. In some Old Testament passages e.g. 1 Samuel 13:1 the earliest texts have gaps.
  2. The canon was developed gradually within the Church with some books taking longer to be accepted and denied than others…some books like Jude contain ideas that are not entirely “orthodox”; other books  considered, but not finally included like The Shepherd of Hermas would have done the Church little harm.
  3. Even the finally accepted canon contained and contains material capable of different interpretations by sections of the Church some of which were ruled rightly or wrongly as heresy by the “Church” in the past, sometimes to the detriment of the Church e.g. Nestorian Christianity; the deutero-canonical books of the “Apocrypha” accepted as “The Bible” by the Roman Catholic Church; The division between Arminian and neo-Calvinist approaches to human free will in post-Reformation churches. the doctrinal divisions between Eastern and Western Christianity (The “Orthodox” Church); the fine divisions in trinitarian and Christological debates. (see J N D Kelly: Early Christian Doctrines, London, Adam & Charles Black, 1960; G L Prestige: God in Patristic Thought, London, SPCK, 1952 (1936) or even the C21st e.g.: Rob Bell: Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions, London, Collins, 2012.
  4. The Biblical text inevitably takes on different flavours when it is translated into other languages both in the early church and today e.g. the confusion over words like μετανοια  (“repentance”) in Greek becoming paenitentiae (“penitence”) in the Latin Vulgate.
  5. The criteria  for Biblical inclusion used by the early Church (e.g. apostolic authorship and/or folk who were close to the apostles e.g. Mark, Luke) are not completely clear cut e.g.  the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels we have do not contain authorial signatures or clear cut evidence of their author. Thus there is debate in the Church about apostolic authorship. e.g. Pauline authorship of Hebrews is not strongly held today but there is no clear consensus on who did write Hebrews. The same could be said for the Epistle of James.]
  6. The earliest Christian believers obviously became committed “Christians” without having the “official Bible” which was not designated as “The canon of Scripture” for three centuries. They used and shared a wide variety of texts, letters and translations some more helpful than others. In some repressive societies today Christian believers have to do without the Bible on pain of death.
  7. “The majority”  church can come to widely held and accepted decisions about Christian doctrine that were once strongly opposed by the “the Church” e.g. the role of women in Christian leadership.
  8. Inevitably “The Church” becomes inextricably bound to ecclesiastical and indeed secular politics resulting, both in the past and today,  to some folk being excluded or, in the past,  even executed,  for holding different interpretations of Scripture than those held by the prevailing “Church” of the day (or in the C21st the prevailing loudest voice whether it be the media, the Fundamentalist church or the Liberal Church.  In any case; both scholars and rank and file believers in every Christian denomination or tradition often do not necessarily hold as “Biblical truth”  ideas sourced or developed from the Bible prevailing in the tradition they belong to whether that is the Roman Catholic Church, the “Reformation” Church, the “Charismatic” Church, the “Puritan” Church or the “Evangelical” Church or a hundred other varieties of interpretation.

Do these seven points and no doubt many others mean that the Bible is not important for Christians or that it is not inspired by God’s leading and power? Not at all.  If the inspired Biblical writers had not committed  to writing their knowledge and personal experiences and visions of God,  our knowledge of the revelation of God in the Messiah Jesus would be severely impaired. Yes we would still have the scattered references to Jesus in Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny. Yes we would still have the scattered archaeological remains in the catacombs, in Capernaum, the Pilate stone and so on. Yes we would have the voluminous but sometimes inconsistent writings of the early Fathers although these would be much less consistent without the written Scripture; yes we would have the very confused and sometimes very unhelpful pseudepigraphical “Gospels” of various C2nd and C3rd Judaio/Christian/Gnostic sects but these are are fringe documents.  Yes we would have the creeds and conclusions of various early Christian Councils but these are simply doctrinal summaries. But these scattered and somewhat obscure evidences are paltry compared with the recorded words of inspired Old Testament prophets, wisdom teachers and historians and the apostolic and early Christian writers of the New Testament documents.

So the Bible is central to the Judaeo-Christian faith but we worship the triune God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not the Bible. Endless debates about the “inerrancy” of the Bible unhelpfully distract Christians whose vocation is to live and proclaim the joy of knowing Jesus Christ as the Lord of all creation, the Lord who, in Christ has reconciled the world to Himself, the Lord who is the  Redeemer of the whole of creation.

pp 100-101  Barth continues;….the basis of which alone [the Church] may actually venture its proclamation does mean for it a return to its own being, but to its self-transcendent being, to Jesus Christ  as the heavenly Head to whom it, the earthly body is attached as such, but in relation to whom it is also distinct as such, [and subject to error] who has the Church within Himself but whom the Church does not have within itself, between whom and it there is no reversible or alternating relation…He is immanent in it only as He is transcendent to it…..It has pleased God to be its God in another way than that of pure immanence.  [Phew!  hard paragraph but worth grappling with!]

p101…the distinction of the Head [God] from the body [the Church] and the superiority of the Head over the body find concrete expression in….Holy Scripture…which is there and tells us what is the past revelation of God that we have to recollect. It does so in the first instance simply by the fact that it is the Canon…that which stands fast as normative, i.e. apostolic, in the Church, the “regular fides”, i.e. the norm of faith, or the Church’s doctrine of faith….there then develops from the 4th century onwards the more specialised idea of the Canon of Holy Scripture i.e. the list of biblical books which are recognised as normative, because apostolic….

With its acknowledgement of the presence of the Canon the Church expresses the fact that it is not left to itself in its proclamation…the commission…the object…the judgment…the event of real proclamation must all come from elsewhere, from without, …with its acknowledgement that this Canon is in fact identical with the Bible of Old and New Testaments…this reference of its proclamation to something that is completely external is not a general principle…whose content might be this or something quite different….but ….a received direction…by which the very Church itself stands or falls.

p102  …in Holy Scripture, too, the writing is obviously not primary, but secondary. It is itself the deposit of what was once proclamation by human lips. In its form as Scripture, however, it does not seek to be a historical monument but rather a Church document, written proclamation. The two entities may thus be set initially under a single genus, Scripture as the commencement and present-day preaching as the continuation of one and the same event… Barth quotes Luther: “The Gospel simply means a preaching and crying out loud of God’s grace and mercy merited and won by the Lord Christ with his death. And it is properly not what stands in books or is made up of letters, but rather an oral preaching and lively word and a voice that rings in the whole world…we let John Baptist’s finger point and his voice sound: ‘Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.’

Barth continues: In this similarity as phenomena, however, there is also to be found…the supremacy, the absolutely constitutive significance of the former for the latter, the determination of the reality of present-day proclamation by its foundation upon Holy Scripture…the basic singling out of the written word of the prophets and apostles over all the later words of men which have been spoken and are spoken today in the Church.

Some gems from Kenneth Clark, “Civilization”

 

Some gems from Kenneth Clark,  Civilisation, London, The Folio Society, 1999.

 

p.13:   Ruskin: Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts,  the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.    Cf Clark: but this doesn’t mean that the history of civilization is the history of art – far from it. Great works of art can be  produced in barbarous societies.

 

p.14   The Greek ideal of perfection –  reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium.

The enemies of civilization – fear (of war, invasion, plague, famine); fear of the supernatural;  exhaustion and hopelessness from too much material  prosperity.

p.15  Of course civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity – enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence – confidence in the society in which one lives,  belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers.

 

p.23:  Civilisation means something more than energy and will and creative power -…it needs  permanence – [wanderers don’t have permanence]

 

P23:  St Gregory, who looks so intensely devoted to scholarship on a tenth-century ivory, St Gregory himself is credited with having destroyed many volumes of classical literature, even whole libraries, lest they seduced men’s minds away from the study of holy writ. And in this he was certainly not alone. What with predudice and destruction, it’s surprising that the literature of pre-Christian antiquity was preserved at all. And in fact, it only squeaked through.  ….[because practically all men of intellect joined the church and some eg Gregory of Tours, were remarkably intelligent and unprejudiced men and Alcuin of York – collector of manuscripts for Charlemagne]

P 24:  monasteries couldn’t have become the guardians of civilization without stability – Kingdom of the Franks. It was achieved by fighting. All great civilizations, in their early stages, are based on their success in war.

 

P31:   We have grown so used to the idea that the Crucifixion is the supreme symbol of Christianity that it is a shock to realize how late in the history of Christian art its power was recognized. In the first art of Christianity it hardly appears; and the earliest example, on the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, is stuck away in a corner, almost out of sight…. It was the tenth century….that made the Crucifixion into a moving symbol of the Christian faith.

 

P32:  The Church was not only an organizer; it was a humaniser [and the dominant power at the end of the tenth century]

P.33: It could be argued that western civilization was basically the creation of the church. [not as the repository of Christian truth and  spiritual experience but as the dominant power – (did not suffer the  inconveniences of feudalism;  no question of divided inheritance – could conserve and expand properties; it was democratic – ordinary men of ability could rise in the church; it was international.]

 

p.39:  This feeling of tugging, of pulling everything to bits and reshaping it, was characteristic of twelfth century art, and was somehow complementary to the massive stability of its architecture. And I find rather the same situation in the realm of ideas. The main structure, the Christian faith, was unshakeable. But round it was a play of minds, a tugging and a tension, that has hardly existed ever since and was, I think, one of the things that prevented Western Europe from growing rigid, as so many other civilizations have done.

 

 P.48:  Chartres is the epitome of the first great awakening in European civilization. It is also the bridge between the Romanesque and the Gothic.

 

P.59:  The great, indeed the unique, merit of European civilization has been that it has never ceased to develop and change. It has not been based on a stationary perfection, but on ideas and inspiration; and even the ideal of courtesy can take an unexpected form. [St Francis  of Assissi] (Francesco Bernadone) [but including fashion, manners]

P. 62:  Cities, citizen, civilian, civic life: I suppose that all this ought to have a direct bearing on what we mean by civilization.  [nineteeth century historians maintained that civilization began with the Italian republics of the fourteenth century ] Civilisation can be created in a monastery or a court as well as a city but Italian republics were realistic contrast chivalric aims; (although of course not democratic – ruled by oligarchies]

P.76 Vasari, Renaissance historian of Art: The spirit of criticism:  the air of Florence making minds naturally free, and not content with mediocrity…. Clark: our contemporary attitude of pretending to understand works of art in order not to appear philistines would have seemed absurd to the Florentines.

P.82:  The discovery of the individual was made in early fifteenth –century Florence. Nothing can alter that fact. But in the last quarter of the century the Renaissance owed almost as much to the small courts of northern Italy –  Ferrara, Mantua, and above all, Urbino….one of the high water-marks of western civilization…….P.83: The Duke of Urbino”s (Federigo Montefeltro) biographer Vespasiano di Bistici,  who furnished the duke’s library, asked the duke what is necessary in ruling a kingdom: the Duke replied: essere umano –‘to be human’. Whoever invented the style, this is the spirit that invades the Palace of Urbino. [also the rediscovery of Greek philosophy through the neo-Platonists]

P.87:  Looking at the Tuscan landscape with its terraces of vines and olives and the dark vertical elements of the cypresses, one has the impression of timeless order….noble proportions seem to be the basis of Italian architecture;P.88…already awareness of nature is associated with the desire to escape and with hope of a  better life….

 

 

 

P.90 Renaissance pride:  Alberti:A man can do all things if he will. Clark:how naïve Alberti’s statement seems when one thinks of that great bundle of fears and memories that every individual carries around with him; to say nothing of the external forces which are totally beyond his control. …the civilization of the early Italian Renaissance was not broadly enough based.

 

P.93:  Great movements in the arts, like revolutions, don’t last for more than about fifteen years. After that the flame dies down, and people prefer a cosy glow.

 

P.96: The qualility of the heroic is not a part of most people’s idea of civilization. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilized life. It is the enemy of happiness. And yet we recognize that to despise material obstacles, and even to defy the blind forces of fate, is man’s supreme achievement; and since, in the end, civilization depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man.

 

P.98:  The shadow in Rembrandt – a means of concentrating on  the parts that are felt most intensely…

 

P.106 The Renaissance convention of depicting Biblical characters as  perfect human specimens became a deadening influence on the European mind. It deadened our sense of truth, even our sense of moral responsibility; and led, as we now see, to a hideous reaction.

 

P. 118 re Erasmus’ huge following during the Reformation: It shows that people, even in a time of crisis, yearn for tolerance and reason and simplicity of life – in fact for civilization. But on the tide of fierce emotional and  biological impulses they are powerless.

 

P.121: There can be no thought without words. Luther gave his countrymen words. Erasmus had written solely in Latin. [vernacular plus printing press – ordinary people could read and think for themselves]

P.122:  Montaigne  on the Reformation: In trying to make themselves angels, men transform themselves into beasts.

 

P. 123 Elizabethan England: – It was brutal,  unscrupulous and disorderly. But if the first requisites of civilization are intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality….then it was a kind of civilization.

 

P. 126: We have been conditioned by generations of liberal, Protestant theologians who tell us that no society based on obedience, repression and superstition can be really civilized. But no one with an ounce of historical feeling or philosophic detachment can be blind to the great ideals, to the passionate belief in sanctity, to the expenditure of human genius in the service of God, which are made triumphantly visible to us with every step we take in Baroque Rome.  [eg Michelangelo, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; impact of sack of  Rome in 1527]

 

P. 126: One of the reasons why mediaeval and Renaissance architecture is so much better than our own is that the architects were artists.  Eg Brunelleschi; Bramante; Raphael; Peruzzi; Giulio Romano; Pietro da Cortona; Bernini.

P.l33:   The leaders of the Catholic Restoration had made the inspired decision not to go half-way to meet Protestantism in any of its objections, but rather to glory in those very doctrines that the Protestants had most forcibly, and sometimes, it must be admitted, most logically had repudiated. [eg divine appointment of the Pope; relics; veneration of the saints; the assumption of the Virgin Mary]

P.142:  Misgivings about extreme baroque art and architecture summed up in the words ‘illusion’ and ‘exploitation’.  Of course, all art is to some extent an illusion. It transforms experience in order to satisfy some need of the imagination. But there are degrees of illusion….One can’t help feeling that affluent Baroque, in its escape from the severities of the earlier fight against Protestantism, ended by escaping from reality into a world of illusion. P.146: [exploitation – expressions of private greed and vanity. Farnese, Borghese, Ludovisi competing to build the largest and most ornate….I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room [except the reading room of the British Museum!]

P. 150:  In studying the history of civilization one must try to keep a balance between individual genius and the moral and spiritual condition of a society. However irrational it may seem, I believe in genius. I believe that almost everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals. Nevertheless, one can’t help feeling that the supremely great figures in history –  Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe – must be to some extent a summation of their times. They are too large, too all –embracing, to have developed  in isolation.  Eg Rembrandt in Holland: …the spiritual life of Holland needed him and so had, to some extent, created him.

 

P. 155:  Izaac  Walton:  The Compleat Angler.   Study to be quiet.

 

P. 158:   ….although one may use works of art to illustrate the history of civilization, one must not  pretend that social conditions produce works of art or inevitably influence their form.   Eg  Velasquez:  Las Meninas  (‘The Ladies in Waiting) – produced in the superstitious, convention-ridden court of Philip the 1V in Spain)

 

P.l64:  Scientific revolution in England …and so began (with Newton) that division between scientific truth and the imagination which was to kill drama, and give a feeling of artificiality to all poetry during the next hundred years.

 

P. 164: French  prose was the form in which European intelligence shaped and communicated its thoughts about history, diplomacy, definition, criticism, human relationships – everything except metaphysics. It is arguable that the non-existence of a clear, concrete German prose has been one of the chief disasters to (sic) European civilization.

 

P. 164:  The industrial revolution in Britain produced the squalid disorder of industrial society. It has grown up as a result of the same conditions that allowed the Dutch to build their beautiful towns and support their painters and print the works of philosophers – reason:  human greed.

P. 175:  Pater: (of the Venetians)  they painted the musical intervals of our existence when ‘life itself is conceived as a kind of listening.’

P. 180:  Opera, next to Gothic architecture, is one of the strangest inventions of western man. It could not have been foreseen by any logical process. Dr Johnson’s much quoted definition, which as far as I can make out, he never wrote, ‘an extravagant and irrational entertainment’, is perfectly correct and and at first it seems surprising that it should have been brought to perfection in the Age of Reason. But cf. Rococco Architecture.

P. 182: In defence of reason and the enlightenment esp Voltaire.  The smile of reason may seem to betray a certain incomprehension of the deeper human emotions; but it didn’t prclude some strongly held beliefs – belief in natural law, belief in justice, belief in toleration. Not bad. The philosophers of the Enlightenment pushed European civilization some steps up the hill….

 

P. 187: Of the French salons:  Solitude no doubt is necessary to the poet and the philosopher, but certain life-giving thoughts are born of conversation, and conversation can flourish only in a small company where no one is stuck-up. That is a condition which cannot exist in a court…

 

P. 189:  A margin of wealth is helpful to civilization, but for some mysterious reason great wealth is destructive.  I suppose that, in the end, splendour is dehumanizing, and a certain sense of limitation seems to be a condition of what we call good taste.

 

P. 191:Talleyrand: only those who experienced the social life of eighteenth century France had known the ‘douceur de vivre’, the sweetness of living.

P. 195:  in defence of Voltaire:  ..by the middle of the eighteenth century serious minded men could see that the Church had become a tied house – tied to property and status and defending its interests by repression and injustice. Voltaire:  écrasez l’infame! Crush the vermin!

P. 226.  Connection between art and warfare:  Ruskin: No great art ever yet rose on earth but among a nation of soldiers.

P. 238: on the emergence of the Middle Class;  The early nineteenth century created a chasm in the European mind as great as that which had split up Christendom in the sixteenth century, and even more dangerous. On one side of the chasm was the new middle class nourished by the Industrial Revolution. It was hopeful and energetic, but without a scale of values. Sandwiched between a corrupt aristocracy and a brutalized poor, it had produced a defensive morality – conventional, complacent, hypocritical.  The bourgeois.

P.240:  on the impurity of humanity:  …all those forces that threaten to impair our humanity: lies, tanks, tear-gas, ideologies, opinion polls, mechanization , planners, computers – the whole lot.

 

P. 243:  attempt to define civilization and against those who say civilization is only possible with slavery;  only if one defines civilization in terms of leisure and superfluity.  Rather it  is creative power and the enlargement of human faculties.

 

 

 

Books read May 2017

BOOKS READ MAY 2017

1. William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Ed. Jonathan Bate & Eric Rasmussen, Macmillan, The RHC Shakespeare, 2010 (1604)

Interesting morality play and comedy based around the antics of the easy going and rather weak Duke; the apparently highly moral but in reality hypocritical and rapacious Angelo, Deputy Duke; the devout Isabella; and the impatient but deeply in love Claudio and Juliet. The comedy is supplied by Elbow the simple policeman, Froth, a foolish gentleman, Pompey the clown, and Lucio the fool/fantastic.  I had forgotten how much sexual innuendo controls the language of Shakespearian comedy!  As a moral piece this play leaves a sour taste as just about everyone involved has to be tricked into doing the right thing! A rather whimsical overview of the Elizabethan world and playhouse with few redeeming characters.  3 stars

2.  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Translation with an introduction and notes, Maxwell Staniforth, Preface by  A C Graying, The Folio Society, London, 1964 (c late C2 AD)

Serious thoughts from a serious man, Roman emperor and military leader. Profoundly influenced by the writings of Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy but also quotes frequently from Plato and Euripides. Surprising views about suicide and of course a rather cold approach to emotion in general and passion in particular. Mostly very wise advice from a very wise man. The Meditations is not a continuous argument but a series of observations and rumination about life, morality and ideal human behaviour. Much of it was written during the emperor’s hard fought military battles with the “barbarian” hordes laying siege to the Danubian border of the Empire in middle Europe. It is a serious but engaging read and provides food for a thousand discussions. 5 stars

3. William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1999. (C17th)

Pithy, complex poetry addressed to both sexes and to the bard himself all about love, lost love, love gained, love stolen; love uncertain, love at great cost, ridiculous love, forlorn love, love from afar, trusting love, longing heart broken love, love for men and love for women. Few words are wasted here and the contracted and sometimes obscure meanings often take some digging out. In spite of all this ingenuity there is still nothing better than:

Shall I compare thee

to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely

and more temperate…. 4 Stars.

4. Daryl Tonkin & Carolyn Landon, Jackson’s Track, Viking, Ringwood,1999

Extraordinary historical account of the life of Daryl Tonkin and an indigenous community living in West Gippsland along Jackson’s Track in the temperate mountain ash forests between Drouin and Jindivick in the middle years of the C20th. The community was built around white man Daryl Tonkin and his brother Harry who ran a timber cutting business near Jackson’s Creek. They were Melbourne born but former Queensland cattle drovers who settled at Jackson’s Track and employed many indigenous workers to help with the business. Daryl Tonkin eventually scandalised the local community by setting up a bush home with Euphemia Mullins, an Aboriginal girl and they had nine children. Many other families came to live in the area including the Rose and Hood families and others from the Lake Tyer’s mission in East Gippsland, from related families in Dimboola and from the Walaga Lake area in southern NSW and from elsewhere.  Daryl was self-educated and was encouraged to write his memoir by American  school teacher Carolyn Landon who had come to work at Warragul High School in the late 1990’s and was teaching Pauline Mullins children, the grandchildren of Daryl Tonkin and Euphemia Mullins. When I was principal of St Paul’s Anglican Grammar School in Warragul in the 1990s I met Carolyn and was amazed to learn of a thriving indigenous community living and raising families in the forest area as late as 1962. Pauline herself became an indigenous educator assisting staff at Warragul High School to communicate with indigenous students and is now an oral historian writing especially about indigenous and white Australian relationships. Many of the Mullins/Tonkin children became Australian badminton superstars, winning State and National championships between 1967 and 1986. Lionel Rose of course was to become World bantamweight boxing champion.

The book has many highlights including the story of the Tonkin brothers’ amazing business know-how and successes and the tension with their city based, racist but highly skilled and driven sister Mavis who lived with them for a time. The family almost imploded after Daryl’s decision to live with Euphemia but brotherly loyalty and hard won values won through. In the end, however, it was the combination of four factors that destroyed the thriving 150+  Jackson’s Creek  indigenous community. First the post-war rural drive for farming land and the subsequent need for roads and fences encroached on the size and health of the forest, impacting also on wild-life, the basis of indigenous hunting and food gathering. Secondly an emerging Middle class white community, scandalised by what they saw as primitive indigenous living conditions, combined with ready access to alcohol in Drouin and significant pressure from the local constabulary led to constant political pressure to have the community removed. Thirdly, a conservative Christian evangelistic movement, critical of native beliefs and values  persuaded some families to give up their old ways. Finally a misplaced assimilation theory, forced education pressure in inappropriate schools and forcible resettlement of families into initially inappropriate and inadequately prepared “white” housing in Drouin was followed by the wholesale destruction and bulldozing of the community.

In many ways this story is a tiny microcosm of white/indigenous relationships across Australia in the middle years of the twentieth century. Daryl Tonkin lived happily in Jackson’s Creek for 22 years and in his final years drifted back to bush living in the Jackson’s Creek area although maintaining his love and care for Euphemia and their children. Daryl died, age 90 in 2008. Carolyn Landon went on to do extensive research about the whole Jackson’s Creek community and her results and further information about this story can be found in Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation: Brabulwoolong Woman, published by Monash University.  Jackson’s Track is a truly unforgettable story! 5 stars.

5. Gabriel Garcia Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, Ringwood, Penguin Books, 2009 (1967, 1970-English).

This is Colombian born Marquez’s passionate, energetic and enthralling novel about one hundred years in the life of a mythical, isolated  South American village, Macondo in a mythical Columbia. He is still probably the most read Latin American novelist today and Marquez won the Nobel Prize for his efforts over two years which nearly beggared his family.   The story follows four generations of the family of one José Arcadio Buendía and his formidable wife Úrsula Iguarán. In each generation one of the sons is named José Arcadio so the family tree in the Penguin edition and hopefully in others, is necessary for a constant reminder of who was who and when. Like many Latin American writers, Marquez demonstrates a significant debt to Argentinian poet, philosopher and short story writer Jorge Borges, with its combination of the literary style of magic realism with historical elements. One example is the account of the1928 banana war massacre in Ciénaga, near Santa Marta in Columbia allegedly backed by US marines.

This is a wild, haunting, sad, funny, erotic, at times frustrating and always challenging read!  The narrative operates at many levels and can be read as:a commentary on the fragility, “thinness” and trauma of human civilisation; on the erotic power of true love and passion versus the drivenness of lust; on the impact of European hegemony over South American politics and life; on the ultimately ridiculous divisions between “left” and “right” in politics and the horrific lies and pointlessness of war; on the complexity and perhaps ultimate futility of the search for the world’s knowledge, especially perhaps its failure to overcome passion; on the power of nature to reclaim lost human worlds; on the depth of the spiritual life-force which can survive the worst of human nature,  shallow moral rules, and religious invention. This is not a book to pick up and put down. It needs to be read with attention and at say three sittings but it repays with a thousand ideas that will remain in the mind of the reader for a long time.

The link between the four generations of Buendias is the mysterious Gypsy philosopher Melquiades who lives throughout the 100 years and keeps re-appearing to the four José Arcadios and who has written the meaning of the lives of the Buendia family and much else on parchments written in code…in Sanskrit , which was his mother tongue, and he had encoded the even lines in the private cipher of the Emperor Augustus and the odd ones in a Lacedemonian military code!  (Shades of Leonardo Da Vinci!) The attempt by each José Arcadio to decipher these documents is a thread that unites the novel although its power and interest lie elsewhere.    Five stars and counting.

Wise thoughts from Marcus Aurelius: Meditations.

Wise words from  Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Roman Emperor and philosopher (AD 121-80)

Marcus Aurelius learned Stoic teaching by reading the Discourses of the philosopher Epictetus. (AD C50-C120). Stoicism is a deterministic, pantheistic and materialistic philosophy in which everything which happens is ruled by a supreme Logos or Reason. Marcus Aurelius calls this reason various names including God, the gods, Nature, Zeus, providence, fate, necessity or law. In the material world, reason, the supreme power is fire, air or force; in humanity it is soul, reason, mind or breath.

In Stoicism man’s chief end is happiness expressed in virtue. God or Nature  guides every kind of growth into perfection..a natural life ruled by reason resulting in virtue. This will ensure that person is not tossed around by emotion or passion and is insulated against every event or trauma in life including death because self-discipline, unflinching fortitude, just and virtuous dealing and complete freedom from passion are the marks of the virtuous person. Stoicism encourages kindness towards others including those who do evil things (they need “instruction”) and rates ethical, just and true behaviour as the highest good. There is no life after death and mankind’s task is to live a virtuous life seeing death as part of the natural order. In what comes as a serious shock Marcus Aurelius is quite at ease with suicide if living in a reasonable society is not possible. It is possible to live on earth as you mean to live hereafter. But if men will not let you, then quit the house of life; though not with any feeling of ill-usage. ‘The hut smokes; I move out.’ No need to make a great business of it. Nevertheless, so long as nothing of the kind obliges me to depart, here I remain, and none shall hinder me from doing what I choose—and what I choose is to live the life that Nature enjoins for a reasonable member of a social community.

In sum, Stoicism means a life of steely determination to live calmly, reasonably and virtuously and to encourage others to do the same. Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald , or a purple robe insists perpetually, ‘Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true. [Book 8:15]

Meditations was written in Greek and consists of twelve “note” books of philosophical observations…there is no consistent argument, just a series of remarks and discussions, some just a sentence, others up to three pages. In addition to Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius drew frequently from Plato and Euripides and less often from Hesiod, Homer and Aristophanes and some of his quotations are from sources now unknown. Many of these  notes and ideas were noted down during Marcus Aurelius’s lengthy  and very tough campaigns against the Barbarian hordes on the Danube frontier.

The following quotations are from: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated and notes by Maxwell Staniforth and Preface by A C Grayling, London, The Folio Society, 2002.

Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt from my grandfather Verus  Book 1:1

My mother set me an example of piety and generosity, avoidance of all uncharitableness—not in actions only, but in thought as well —and a simplicity of life quite unlike the usual habits of the rich.  Book 1:3

To my great grandfather I owed the advice to dispense with the education of schools and have good masters at home instead— and to realise that no expense should be grudged for this purpose! Book 1: 4

Thanks to Diognetus I learnt not to be absorbed in trivial pursuits…[eg stamp collecting??]  Book 1:6

From Rusticus …I was to be accurate in my reading, and not content with a mere general idea of the meaning;  Book 1:7

It was the critic Alexander who put me on my guard against unnecessary fault-finding . People should not be sharply corrected for bad grammar, provincialisms, or mispronunciation….Book 1:10

To my mentor Fronto I owe the realisation that malice, craftiness, and duplicity  are the concomitants of absolute power; and that our patrician families tend for the most part to be lacking in the feelings of ordinary humanity.

Alexander the Platonist cautioned me against frequent use of the words ‘I am too busy’ in speech correspondence, except in cases of real necessity; saying that no one ought to shirk the obligations due to society on the excuse of urgent affairs. Book 1:12

Catulus the Stoic counselled me never to make light of a friend’s rebuke… Book 1:13

From my brother [note: Marcus Aurelius did not have a brother…Staniforth: most probably a corrupt text..] I learnt to love my relations, to love the truth, and to love justice……and became acquainted with the conception of a community based on equality and freedom of speech for all, and a monarchy concerned primarily to uphold the liberty of the subject.  He showed me the need for a fair and dispassionate appreciation of philosophy, an addiction to good works, open-handedness, a sanguine temper, and confidence in the affection of my friends. Book 1:14

The qualities I admired in my father were….his complete indifference to meretricious honours; his industry, perseverance, and willingness to listen to any project for the common good … Book 1:16

To the gods I owe…finally, that with all my addiction to philosophy I was yet preserved from either falling a prey to some sophist or spending all my time at a  desk poring over textbooks and rules of logic or grinding at natural science. Book 1:17

Are you distracted by outward cares? Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the good and learn to curb your restlessness. Book 2:7

In your actions let there be a willing promptitude, yet a regard for the common interest; due deliberation, yet no irresolution; and in your sentiments no pretentious over-refinement. Avoid talkativeness, avoid officiousness. Book 3:5

If mortal life can offer you anything better than justice and truth, self-control and courage — that is, peace of mind in the evident conformity of your actions  to the laws of reason…Book 3:6

keep your principles constantly in readiness for the understanding of things both human and divine; never in the most trivial action forgetting how intimately the two are related.  Book 3:13

Nowhere can a man find a quieter or more untroubled  retreat than in his own soul; above all,  he who possesses resources in himself, which he need only contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind—the ease that is but another word for a well-ordered spirit. Book 4:3

Do not copy the opinions of the arrogant, or let them dictate your own, but look at things in their own light. Book 4:11

Life, in a word, is short; then snatch your profit from the passing hour, by obedience to reason and just dealing. Book4:26

Either a universe that is all order, or else a farrago thrown together at random yet somehow forming a universe. But can there be some measure of order subsisting in yourself, and at the same time disorder in the greater whole? Book4:27

Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it. Book 4:31

If, then, you would avoid discouragement, never become unduly absorbed in things that are not of the first importance. Book 4:32

to do justice is the only wisdom. Book 4:37

You have no real love for yourself; if you had, you would love your nature, and your nature’s will.  Book 5:1

Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity, for example, and dignity; industriousness, and sobriety. Avoid grumbling; be frugal, considerate, and frank; be temperate in manner and speech; carry yourself with authority.  Book 5:5

philosophy wills only what your nature wills… Book 5:9

….Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity, for example, and dignity; industriousness, and sobriety. Avoid grumbling; be frugal, considerate, and frank; be temperate in manner and in speech; carry yourself with authority.  Book 5:5

philosophy wills only what your own nature wills…

can there be anything more agreeable than the exercise of the intellect? Book 5:9

look at the characters of your own associates; even the most agreeable of them are difficult to put up with ; and for the matter of that, it is difficult enough to put up with one’s own self.  Book 5:10

Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts….Book 5:16

the chief good of a rational being is fellowship with his neighbours—for it has been made clear long ago that fellowship is the purpose behind our creation. Book 5:16

Do not fall a too hasty prey to first impressions. Book 5:36

…even dying is part of the business of life; and there too no more is required of us than ‘to see the moment’s work well done.’ Book 6:2

To refrain from imitation is the best revenge. Book 6:6

…pretentiousness is the arch deceiver, and never more delusive than when you imagine your work is most meritorious  Book 6:14

In all things call upon the gods for help—yet without too many scruples about the length of your prayers; three hours so spent will suffice.  Book 6:23  hmmm!

…no pain is contrary to the nature of man, as man, so long as he is doing man’s work. And if it accords with nature, it cannot be evil. Book 6:33

All proceeds from the one source, springing either directly or derivatively from the universal sovereign reason. Even the lion’s open jaws, the deadly poison, and all other things that do hurt…Book 6:36

with things formed by Nature, the power that fashions them is still within them, and remains in them. All the more, then, should you have it in reverence, and be assured that if only you live and act according to its will, you will have all things according to your liking.  Book 6:40

when we limit our notions of good and evil strictly to what is within our own power, there remains no reason either to bring accusations against God or to set ourselves at variance with men.  Book 6:41

he who directs all things will find some good use to make of you, and give you your place among his helpmates and fellow labourers. Book 6:42

If the gods took counsel together about myself, and what should befall me, then their counsel was good. For it were hard to conceive of divinity counselling unwisely. After all, what incentive would they have to work my hurt? Where would be the gain, either to themselves or the universe  which is their chief care? Book 6:44

In this life one thing only is of precious worth; to live out one’s day in truthfulness and fair dealing, and in charity even with the false and unjust. Book 6:47

The man of ambition thinks to find his good in the operations of others; the man of pleasure in his own sensations; but the man of understanding in his own actions. Book 6:51

a  man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions. Book 7:3

…God is one, pervading all things; Book 7:9

Just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, “Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true.”  Book 7:15

Happiness, (εὐδαιμωνια), by derivation means ‘a good god within’; that is, a good master-reason. Book 7:17

Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours. At the same time, however, beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind. Book 7:27

Put on the shining face of simplicity and self-respect, and of indifference to everything outside the realms of virtue or vice. Love mankind. Walk in God’s ways. Book 7:31

Of pain. If it is past bearing, it makes an end  of us; if it lasts, it can be borne. Book 7:33

If a man has greatness of mind, and the breadth of vision to contemplate all time and all reality, can he regard human life as a thing of any great consequence?’ — ‘No, he cannot.’—‘So he won’t think death anything to be afraid of?’— ‘No.’  [Plato: The Republic, 486] Book 7:35

Chief of all features in a man’s constitution, therefore, is his duty to his kind. Next after that comes his obligation to resist the murmurs of the flesh. …..And thirdly, the constitution of a rational being should make him incapable of indiscretion. Book 7:55

Dig within. There lies the well-spring of good; ever dig, and it will ever flow. Book 7:59

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing… Book 7:61

the needs of a happy life are very few. Mastery of dialectics or physics may have eluded you, but that is no reason to despair of achieving freedom, self-respect, unselfishness, and obedience to the will of God.  Book 7:67

When you have done a good action, and another has had the benefit of it, why crave for yet more in addition—applause for your kindness, or some favour in return—as the foolish do. Book 7:73

Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just—though with courtesy, modesty and sincerity.  Book 8:5

an opportunity of pleasure is something no good man would ever repent of having let pass. If follows, therefore, that pleasure is neither good nor helpful. Book 8:10

so a rational being has power to turn each hindrance into material for himself, and use it to set forward his own endeavours.  Book 8:35

a mind that is free from passion is a very citadel. Book 8:48

Dilatory action, incoherent conversation, vague impressions; a soul too inwardly cramped; a soul too outwardly effusive; a life without room for leisure—avoid such things…..How be lord yourself…by safeguarding the right to be your own master every hour of the day, in all charity, simplicity and modesty. Book 8:51

it is a sin to pursue pleasure as a good and to avoid pain as an evil…if he is bent on the pursuit of pleasure, he will not stop at acts of injustice, which again is manifestly sinful….He therefore who does not view with equal unconcern pain or pleasure…clearly commits a sin. Book 9:1

Despise not death; smile, rather, at its coming; it is among the things that Nature wills….Never, then, will a thinking man view death lightly, impatiently, or scornfully; he will wait for it as but one more of Nature’s progress. Book 9:3

A man does not sin by commission only, but often by omission. Book 9:5

Everything bears fruit; [including evil and immorality] man, God , the whole universe, each in its proper season.  Book 9:10

Work yourself hard, but not as if you were being made a victim, and not with any desire for sympathy or admiration. Book 9:12

do not expect Plato’s ideal commonwealth….Philosophy is a modest professor, all simplicity and plain dealing. Never try to seduce me into solemn pretentiousness. Book 9:29

…When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all things are yours, that all comes from the gods, and that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of the perfect living whole — so good, so just, so beautiful—which gives life to all things..Book 10:1

For when a man realises that at any moment he may have to leave everything behind him and depart from the company of his fellows…every care, every distraction is laid aside; his only ambition is to walk in the straight paths of law, and by do doing to become a follower of God. Book 10:11

Now your remaining years are few. Live them, then, as though on a mountain-top Book 10:15

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.  Book 10:16

Do we need 10 volumes of Karl Barth’s Dogmatics?

Karl Barth writes in Church Dogmatics 1.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God, London/New York, T&T Clark, p/b 2004 (1936) p.88

The presupposition which makes proclamation proclamation and therewith makes the Church the Church is the Word of God. This attests itself in Holy Scripture in the word of the prophets and apostles to whom it was originally and once for all spoken by God’s revelation.

This is true but who we worship is not the holy scripture but the Lord of all creation. We believe God has revealed Himself to prophets and apostles, and supremely in Jesus the Messiah who taught his disciples orally. The Scripture writers were inspired by God’s Spirit to trust God and to write down God’s words in the various ways and styles  in which they came to know, believe and trust in God and in Jesus His Son and they also wrote down those experiences and histories and traditions of those who came before them. They wrote within the human world view and understanding of their times as they drew near to God and He inspired them to write.

What they wrote was remembered initially orally and eventually written down either by the them or others and collected and brought together by others again. None of these saints responsible for the final form and translation of the words of Holy Scripture were superhuman and so none of what they spoke and wrote, and what has been collected and translated is necessarily inerrant or even complete e.g. there are gaps in the Old Testament text; there are singular words whose meaning today is uncertain because there is no other context to gauge its meaning; there are passages whose words are known but whose meaning is ambiguous;  there are textual uncertainties because with many available early texts and translations the task of identifying the most likely original text is not an exact science although the methodology is highly developed; in some cases such as the ending of Mark’s Gospel there seems to be a section missing; in some cases of apostolic writing, especially Paul he explicitly states that his view is his own, or is the custom of the churches he founded not from the Lord. Peter’s own writing suggests that sometimes what Paul wrote is hard to understand. In addition the apocalyptic sections of both the Old Testament and the New Testament are highly symbolic and the key to their interpretation although perhaps clear to their first audience is not always completely clear today.

The upshot of all of this is that the Word of God we proclaim is  the triune God who has chosen to reveal Himself in creation and in His incarnate Son and He has given us His Holy Spirit to be with us and to write and know in our hearts his everlasting love and truth. His revelation is indeed in the written word and as the written word says, in the beauty and wonder of HIs created universe evolving over billions of years, and in the power and guidance of His Holy Spirit who inspires and teaches us daily of God’s will for our lives.

So the Bible as we now have it, God’s word to us written down, is not inerrant or to be worshipped. It is inspired by God and early copies of its contents have been remarkably kept for us in almost miraculous ways e.g. the work of Tischendorf and the discovery of the Qumran early texts of the Hebrew Old Testament. We need to take very seriously indeed the words of the Bible for within it we find the very Word of God for our lives on earth. We ignore God’s Word to us in the written word at our peril because we throw away the gift of His Holy Spirit interpreting these words to us. To lose ourselves in mystic meditation can be spiritually rewarding and we must continually seek to draw nearer to God. But we are not just called to be spiritual individuals cultivating our own spiritual health.

We are also called, indeed predestined for a vocation, to be active witnesses of the glory of God, to be a holy priesthood, to bear witness to His revelation so that the light of God’s love can shine brightly and clearly in our lives even though we live in a world laid siege to by powers of evil which exist, which hurt and which destroy lives on earth. There are mysteries here hard for us to understand. Why did God choose Israel and then the first apostolic generation?  We can only say with Job, who are we to question God?  Why does he even allow evil within His creation? The only satisfactory answer to this second question is the genuine freedom God gifted to heavenly beings and to His creation. Which of us would willingly give up our freedom for a robotic existence?

Why is all this so hard that it needs theologians to wrestle with its true meaning? It is clear that each of us has different spiritual gifts and these gifts distributed by the Spirit include teaching, ministering and proclamation. Who of us would like to be without, say for me, C S Lewis, Lesslie Newbigin, Leon Morris, F F Bruce,  Alister McGrath, Peter Adam, John Macquarie, P T Forsyth,Helmut Thielicke, N T Wright or Phillip Yancey? Do we need 10 volumes of Dogmatics from Karl Barth?…I’ll let you know if and when I ever finish reading them!  But  for most of us mere mortals our task is simple…to read, mark and  inwardly digest God’s Word written and in creation, then live faithfully, courageously and trustingly with hope and love and to witness joyfully, truly and appropriately until we indeed can behold God’s glory face to face and ask Him our questions ourselves and then we won’t need Karl Barth to explain it all! But for now..I am finding Karl Barth as helpful and stimulating as I did forty two years ago when I first read   The Doctrine of the Word of God for my London BD studies.