An Easter Exercise for isolated corona virus individuals

An Easter Exercise for isolated thinkers during the Corona Virus from the book:

John Dickson: If I Were God, I’d Make myself Clearer: Searching for Clarity in a World Full of Claims, p/b, Kingsford, Matthias Media, 2002

John Dickson is a prolific writer of Ancient History, Theology and Apologetics. This little book seeks to answer the title’s criticism of God’s unclear revelation, a discussion that comes up often in explorations of the many world religions. The book is typically Dickson: brief, to the point, clear and full of accessible ideas and suggestions for moving forward. The following quotes/notes summarise his argument. (I hope accurately):

  1. When it comes to faith there appears to be no clarity, just a cacophony of competing claims.(p9)
  2. A pluralist approach accepts all perspectives as valid.(p.9)
  3. A New Age approach is popular because it does not make onerous demands (p.10)
  4. Many people, religious or not, like to think about religion; they sense that there is more to life than the material …a sense which at times requires gratitude for example, or a deeper meaning to ours and the world’s very existence. (p12)
  5. Questions of ‘spirituality’ do not go away. They seem to have consistently occupied human minds throughout history and even today in Western atheistic societies. (p12)
  6. ‘Religion’ of course does not just cover the big five (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism) but the I-Ching, Confucius, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, Aboriginal spirituality, Satanism and quasi-spiritual activities like the opening of the Olympic Games. (p13)
  7. In spite of limited formal worship in the C21st significant numbers of folk in the West believe in “The Almighty” eg in Britain in 2000, 62% with 69% believing in the existence of a human ‘soul’. (p14)
  8. Discussion about atheism vs faith is very prominent in the C21st with much energy  being expended in books and discussions both ways. eg Philip Adams, Richard Dawkins et al (p14)

9.   The daughter of renowned C20th atheist Bertrand Russell wrote about her father in strikingly        spiritual terms: “I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God, or, for those who prefer less personal terms, for absolute certainty. (p.15).

10.    Bertrand Russell himself wrote to his daughter after visiting a Byzantine Church in Greece: I realised then that the Christian outlook had a firmer hold upon me than I had imagined …I r ealised with some astonishment that I myself am powerfully affected by this sense in my feelings though not in my beliefs. (p15)

11.  In C1st Athens, the Apostle Paul found an inscription on an altar “to an unknown God”. (p16)

12   Paul goes on to argue in Athens that God has in fact arranged the times and places of human societies with the express intention that they should search for their Source of Life and perhaps “feel their way toward him and find him”. (p.17)  

13.  Every single society about which anthropologists and historians know anything significant has made ‘spirituality’ a key component of their cultural life. Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maories , native Americans, pre-Anglo Celts, nomadic Mongols, and modern Chardonay-yuppies… (p.18)

14:   ..the question of God is one of the few universally shared premises of humanity throughout time. (p.18)

15. But why do we in the Western world talk about these things so rarely. We think about them but we don’t talk about them. (p.18)

16.  In the West, Three out of four of us believe in the existence of God and the reality of the afterlife according to the most recent research, but you would never know it just listening to the media or work conversations. (p. 20)

17. I don’t know anyone who’s not interested in the idea of religion, whether they’re opposed to it or for it. (p.20)

18. In Australia, robbed of a broader meaning to our lives, we appear to have entered an era of mass obsession, usually with ourselves: our appearance, our health and fitness, our work, our sex lives , our children’s development, our personal development. (Source: Apocalypse No! Australia’s Commission for the Future) (p.21)

19. It’s as if we hope that the accumulation of numerous smaller ‘meanings’ will make up for the lack of a grand meaning…(p.22)

20. ‘Covetousness’ (the pursuit of material things) and ‘idolatry’ (the reverencing of material things)  are not so different after all, especially when they are a substitute for honouring the Creator of all things himself. (p.23)

21. We tend to agree there’s more to life than material possessions but settling for them all the same; admitting God’s existence in the world, but refusing his influence on our lives. (p.23)

22. The Apostle Paul brought his address to the Athenians to a close with this quote: The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all peop(le everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness. (p. 24)

23. Despite the sixth sense many of us have that there is probably a larger spiritual reality to be reckoned with, our society appears to prefer experiencing the smaller things of life with the other five senses. (p. 24)

24. How many times do we hear the message: “Life is about the job, the car, the house, the clothes, the investments, the retirement package, and so on.” (p. 25)

25. This question of pluralism is the question I want to confront in the rest of this book. (p26)

26. Some shonky Christian preachers preach a “Christian” “Gospel” of prosperity. That is  rubbish. (p.27)

27. Many people look for a spirituality without demands. (p.28)

28. Others think that religion is simply a matter of style or preference, a projection of our imagination and not a fact of the real world. (p.28)

29. Others suggest that the spiritual traditions of the world in the end point to one unified r reality. (p.29)

30. Australia’s many different cultures and faiths especially in large cities is very culturally enriching. (p. 30)

31. The benefit of a pluralist view is that it promotes tolerance rather than warfare. (p.30)

32. But pluralism’s fatal flaw is that while the various faiths agree in superficial things like they all say prayers, at the more basic level they tend to disagree with each other. (p.31)

33. Hinduism is polytheistic but Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, insisting instead that there was just one deity, while Buddhism as taught by Siddhartha Gautama, negated theism altogether. (p.31)

34. The people of the Book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) share many things in common but central to the Christian faith is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died on a cross and rose from the dead. This is non-negotiable for Christians but rejected by both Judaism and Islam. (p32)

35. Australian journalists have written articles purporting to show that Jesus really is shared by both faiths (Islam and Christianity) ..but a Jesus who was not the Son of God and who did not die on a cross is quite simply not the Jesus of Christian devotion. (p.34)

36. The faith traditions of the world are in no sense one. Perhaps one or other is true, perhaps none is true, but it is simply not possible that all, or even a few, are true. (p.34)

37. it is sometimes argued that to believe that a particular religion is true (and therefore that others are untrue) is arrogant since, in doing so you are consigning error to a huge portion of the rest of the world…the argument is valid to a point—lets face it, some Christians are arrogant, but all opinions, by their very nature, consign others to error.  Ironically, though, the views most open to the charge of arrogance are not the ancient monolithic ones such as Islam or Christianity, but the more recent ones like atheism and pluralism. (p.35)

38. Let’s start with atheism, the belief that there is no God or spirituality in the universe. This conviction is held by a tiny minority of the world’s population: according to the latest figures, just 2.5% [Source: Encyclopedia Brittanica,]

39.  Pluralism…is likewise arrogant since it claims to know something about all the faiths that none of the individual faiths is able to achieve…that there is an overarching faith which they all share. (p.36)

40. I do not personally believe that strongly held views—even those that negate the views of others —are in themselves presumptuous or bigoted. They can certainly lead to arrogance, but they do not in themselves constitute an arrogant claim. (p.36)

41. There is a legitimate fear that religious conviction will lead to religious intolerance and, as a consequence, to discrimination and violence. History is full of examples…(p.37)

42. But is an acceptance of all religious truth-claims the best way to respond to such dangers?…a better way forward, I believe, is to promote true ‘tolerance’, that is, not just to accept the validity of another person’s point of view but the more admirable ability to treat with respect a person with whom I deeply disagree. (p.38) 

43. By contrast, our common insistence upon mere ‘agreement’ is intellectually suspect and culturally insensitive. (p.39)

44. In short, I am suggesting that our society’s keenness to affirm all religious viewpoints stems, in part, from an aversion to think too hard about any of them. (p.41)

45. ..the result of all this is rather sad. Whether by an aversion to religious intolerance or a tendency to take the easy option, this acceptance of all faiths has the potential to leave us with no faith at all. God, whoever he or she is, remains for us a mystery. (p42)

46. Would not the Almighty—if indeed he exists—have made things decidedly clearer? The Apostle Paul….answered with a resounding yes, which moves the discussion to the idea of verifiability. (p42)

47. In all religious claims, how can the truth or falsehood of one’s claim be tested? (p.44)

48. If the Creator of the universe were the least bit interested in our devotion, he or she would surely do something ‘concrete’ to grab our attention, something we could all assess for ourselves and from which we could draw our own conclusions. Surely, he would have made himself clearer! (p49)

49. Mormonism provides a an example of a verifiable claim which, in my opinion, can be found (with a high degree of confidence) to be unwarranted. (p.50)

50. The claims of Judaism regarding the exodus from Egypt, while they cannot be proven, has enough evidence of verifiable claims that, when scrutinised…arouse not suspicion but a degree of confidence. (p.53)

51. Whereas Buddhism and Sikhism originated as offshoots and rejections from Hinduism, and Islam was a counter- movement to Christianity and Baha’i to Shiite Islam, Christianity began with a collection of devout Jews. (p.54)

52. In no sense was the early movement surrounding Jesus a rejection of Judaism. It was proclaimed thorughout the Mediterranean as the very fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. (p54)

53. The later Jewish leadership eventually rejected Jesus as Messiah, demanding that the followers of Jesus be excommunicated from the synagogues and regarded as blasphemers (this was shortly before A.D. 100) (p54)

54. This rejection centred on Jesus failing to fulfil the hope of a military Messianic leader who would free the Jewish nation from its Roman overlords. (p.55)

55. The Christian claim that Jesus is God begins with Philip’s question Lord, Show us the Father and Jesus’ reply: Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (p.57)

56. The news of Christ—his life, death and resurrection —is not mythical narrative revealed in the head of a prophet and transcribed in books called Gospels. It was a phenomenon of time and space; it was an event of history. At its heart, Christianity concerns the public, verifiable life story of the man Jesus, the man who claimed personally to reveal God and of whom God has ‘given assurance’ to use Paul’s words , by raising him from the dead. (p.59)

57. Christianity is potentially vulnerable to critical enquiry precisely because its main claims are verifiable. (p.61)

58. The fact that Christianity is so potentially vulnerable to scholarship and yet is still believed by so many professional scholars is not without significance. The openness of Christianity to rigorous scrutiny is in my opinion, one of the most exciting things about it. I want a faith that can be tested. (p.62)

59. …my aim here is not to ‘prove’ the Christian claim at all. …Rather it is intended to demonstrate that of all the great religious claims in the world the Christian one is the most easily and widely testable. (p.63)

60. First the language of these documents is not some strange tongue which on one understands any more. It is called Koine Greek and it is a very simple and widely understood language. (p. 64)

61. Secondly, the age of the documentary evidence is impressive..the earliest manuscript copies of the Gospels are dated around 200 A.D. , only 120 years or so after they were written.  (p.64)

62. Thirdly the volume of copies we possess is overwhelming…for the Gospels alone historians have over 2000 manuscript copies with which to work. (p.65)

63. Fourthly the stability of the copying process is very clear. Comparing copies of the Gospels produced in 600 A.D. with those copied in 200 A.D. we are able to confirm the high accuracy of the copying process. (p.65)

64. The broad outline of Jesus’ life is confirmed by several passing references to him in non- Christian writings …three from Roman authors (Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny) and four from Jewish pens (twice each in Josephus and the Talmud). (p.65)

65. ..equally impressive is the fact that the original time of writing was very close to the events themselves. The first Gospel was probably written in the mid-60’s A.D., just 30 or so years after Jesus’ death. (p.66)

66. Most New Testament scholars discern behind the Gospels at least five different sources, each composed prior to the Gospels themselves…the picture which emerges is strikingly similar across the sources. (p.67)

67. The incidental historical accuracy of the Gospels is also important. Much of what the Gospels say in passing about eg architecture or politics can be quite often confirmed by modern archaeological and literary analysis eg the recent discovery of the Pontius Pilate inscription.

68. The claim of the resurrection itself must be admitted provisionally as evidence. (p.69)

69.  The veracity of the empty tomb is generally conceded. The body of Jesus was never produced to counter the claim.  (p.69)

70. The first witnesses to the resurrection were women. Highly unlikely to be made up given t that in this period a woman’s testimony was regarded as spurious and carried little legal weight. (p.70)

71. The few small divergences between the four gospels tell you the witnesses have not simply copied each other’s stories. (p.70)

72. ..the most compelling line of verification for the resurrection of Jesus is the transformation of Jesus’ followers…it is one thing to die for an ideology you simply believe to be true…but it is another thing tod die for a claim ..you know to be a lie. (p.70)

73. If the historical evidence points decisively in the direction of Jesus’ resurrection, our belief in a the existence of a powerful Creator gets us philosophically ‘over the line’ or ‘into the back of the net’ as it were! (p.72)

74. The intention here is not to ‘prove’ the Christian faith…but to set our briefly a number of significant lines of verification open to anyone who wants to explore the truthfulness of Christianity.  (p.72)

BOOKS READ MARCH 2020 (only 2 books this month as I have been cataloguing my library; but also a wonderful poem!)

Ann Patchett: The Dutch House, p/b, London, Bloomsbury, 2019

American bookseller, journalist and influential author Ann Patchett’s eleventh novel has a House as its central character! The Dutch House is an ecclectic,  over-engineered and richly furnished mansion in a quiet and leafy residential area of downtown Pennsylvania. The story is told through the eyes of Danny Conroy and his much loved sister Maeve and charts their story from childhood onwards through many twists and turns but the connecting link throughout is the Dutch House which exerts its own spell over them.  The novel has an easy flow which draws the reader onwards through all the normal tensions of childhood, growing up, unexpected changes, education, work and relationships, curiously oblivious to any political or major external events which might have made inroads into the story. If the centre of the novel is not the house it could be the inner psychological development and maturing of the mind of Danny Conroy. The novel is engaging to a degree, without in my view, ever reaching great heights.

Ann Patchett, author of the The Dutch House

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had 

the treasure in it.  I realise now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas

C S Lewis: The Weight of Glory: A Collection of Lewis’s Most Moving Addresses,p/b, London, William Collins, 2013 (1949)

 p.30f:   A very famous passage from Lewis about heaven (glory) from the first essay: The Weight of Glory.

…a desire [for our own far off perfect country and place; something I used to dream about when I was a child]  for something that has never actually appeared in our experience…out commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.  But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it;  what he remembered would would turn out to be itself remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things —the beauty, the memory of our own past— are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself ; they are only the scent of a flower  we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am: but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used fo break enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantments as well as for inducing them.

I have always found this passage deeply moving.  There is exceptional beauty on planet earth..in music, in drama, in writing, in nature, in persons, in architecture, in painting, in tapestry, in poetry, in nobility, in courage, in children, in love, and much else besides. Nevertheless such beauty is fragile, fleeting and leaves us at times desperate to reclaim it. Lewis helps us here to understand both heaven and the love of God.

Some Thought starters from the essay The Weight of Glory:

1. p.32;  … no social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics.  Have we come to grips with the inevitability of our own death? (Is corona virus also helping us to do this?)

2.  p33: Scripture is  symbolical when it speaks of the hereafter. The difference is that the scriptural imagery has authority. Do we accept the authority of Scripture?

3.  p34:  The Five promises of Scripture:  (i) That we shall be with Christ

(ii) That we shall be like him.

(iii) That we shall all have “glory”.

(iv) That we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained

(v)  That we shall have some sort of official position in the universe.

What do we think of Lewis’s understanding of the Biblical view of “how heaven works”? How does this relate to the more current understanding of Heaven as the renewed kingdom of God on earth. 

4. p.36:   Traditional Biblical imagery of salvation such as palms, crowns, white robes, thrones and splendour, does not impress Lewis and most “moderns”; he places more store in God’s people endeavouring to be “good and faithful servants”, a “creature before its creator”. What do we think about this and the danger of the “deadly poison of self-admiration”? (p.37)

5.  p.38   Lewis plays down the importance of “how we think of God” …”how God thinks of us in not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it isrelated to how he thinks of us.”  What do we think of how we should think??

6.  p.41  …in this universe we are treated as strangers, but we have a longing to be acknowledged.  Is this how you feel?

7. p.41  St Paul promises to those who love God not, as we should expect, that they will know Him, but that they will be known by Him (1 Cor. 8:3) It is a strange promise …but he follows up with the dreadful warning of Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats: Depart from me, I never knew you! Can we cope with the notion of being erased from the knowledge of him who knows all”?

There are eight other essays in this 2013 William Collins edition, at least one of which is not printed elsewhere. The essays vary from complex philosophical and logical arguments to quite small sermons including his very last sermon preached in Cambridge. Here is simply note some ideas that jumped out at me in this challenging collection of essays.

From “Learning in Wartime”  (1939)

p.51  If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

p.51  If you attempt to suspend your aesthetic and cultural life you will only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life. If you don’t read good books you will read bad ones.

p.51 The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul. 

p52  A man may have to die for his country but no man must, in any exclusive sense live for his country. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars etc…God’s claims are inexorable and infinite.

p.54  Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God: anything not offered to God is sinful.

p.55  Cultural activities are not in their own right spiritual and meritorious…poets and scholars are no more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks.

p. 56 Our appetite for beauty and truth exists in the human mind and God makes no appetite in vain. and therefore it must have a purpose cf. Aquinas’ theological argument that sex is good and would have existed apart from the fall. 

p.57  Loving knowledge for its own sake is not a good thing.

p.58 We need an intellectual defence against the heathen; bad philosophy needs to be answered.

p. 58 We need an intimate knowledge of the past to understand the present. and to deal with the great cataract fo nonsense that flows from the press and the microphone of one’s own age.

` p.61   Leave the future in God’s hands. We may as well for God will certainly retain it whether we like it or not.

From “Why I am not a pacifist”  (1940)

p.64 Conscience is not a separate faculty like one of the sense, but the conscience can be altered by argument.

p.65  There are two forms of conscience: (i) the pressure a man feels upon his will to do what he thinks is right; (ii) his judgment as to what the content of right and wrong are. 

“Transposition” (1944)An interesting Pentecost sermon preached at Oxford about heaven. Lewis himself seemed not to be completely happy with this and in 1961 added a substantial argument at p. 107 printed  in this addition. Because he is so intent on examining “the beatific vision” which I certainly agree is very important, he does not address the notion of a renewed kingdom of God on earth which I believe is central to understanding life after death, and thus this essay held less interest for me.

“Is Theology Poetry?”  (1944)  I loved this essay but the lecture, given to the Oxford Socratic Club,  is so complex and involved and requires following up so many hares running through so many burroughs in both theology and literature that it is impossible to summarise or pick out “zingers”. Suffice to say that theology has some poetic components and nature but in totality it is much, much more! This is an essay to savour and prove over a year or two of thought.

 “The Inner Ring”  (1944) was the annual commemoration lecture delivered at Kings College and was a healthy reminder to the students that being “in” was a superficial and dangerous activity and goal, bound to end in distress and much better ignored. Salutary and helpful.

“Membership” (1945)  is an excellent lecture analysing  he dangers of attempting to be a “solitary” Christian. The Church, for all its tensions and shortcomings, is an essential component of Christian experience.

“On Forgiveness” (1947) is a short sermon reminding us that most often when we make confession to God in prayer we are often  actually making excuses for ourselves and letting ourselves off the hook very lightly. A plea for honesty in our walk with God.

“A Slip of the Tongue” (1956) was Lewis’s last sermon, preached at Evensong in the Chapel of Magdalen College in Cambridge. It is a beautiful little sermon reminding us of that voice we have all heard in our private prayers which says: …to be careful, to keep my head, not to go too far, not to burn my boats.  I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerable inconvenient when I have come out again into my “ordinary” life. I don’t want to be carried away into any resolution which I shall afterwards regret…which will run up to big a bill to pay…for I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast! This sermon reminds me of the words of a former Archbishop of Melbourne who once admitted to a bunch of us meeting somewhere that sometimes in the morning he prays: “Lord please don’t let anything happen today!”.  Lewis’s final sermon closes with We may never, this side of death, drive the invader out of our territory, but we must be in the Resistance, not in the Vichy Government. And this, so far as I can yet see, must be begun every day. Our morning prayer should be something like..grant me to make an unflawed beginning today, for I have done nothing yet. 

BOOKS READ FEBRUARY 2020BOOKS READ FEBRUARY 2020

Joy Cullen: The Reverend George Cox: ‘A Man of Many Parts’, p/b, Mornington & District Historical Society, 2019

Teacher and historian Joy Cullen has uncovered a remarkablestory with her investigation into the “Renaissance life” of  the Gippsland clergyman, fire-fighting, naturalist, historian and community leader the Reverend George Cox. Cox was a parochial reader in Coalville Narracan and Mirboo North before being ordained deacon and priest in 1899 at Mirboo North and later St Mary’s Caulfield. In 1908 he returned to Gippsland and served as rector of Neerim South from 1908 – 1910 and at Yarram Yarram District from 1910 – 1915 when he enlisted in the AIF and served as a staff sergeant and unofficial padre in the Langwarrin Camp isolation hospital. Cox “retired” from the ministry due to ill health after the war but continued to serve in many effective ways in the parish of St Peter’s Mornington for 27 years until his death in 1946

What is remarkable about this man is the combination of his outstanding leadership and vocational evangelistic ministry skills which included running scout groups, youth groups, camping trips and his own outstanding tenor singing. His much loved parish ministry would be a good story in itself but Cox had two other  consuming passions.

Cox was a quite remarkable scientific field naturalist and fossil collector and his  notes and presentations on the flora, fauna and geology of both Gippsland and the Mornington Peninsula illustrated with his “powerful electric lantern with micro projection”, his formation of a children’s naturalist club and his notes and many contributions to The Victorian Naturalist are now held by the State Library of Victoria.

Quite separate from these activities Cox was an outstanding historian of early Gippsland and the  Mornington Peninsula. Cullen notes that his curiosity, research skills and energy resulted in an ongoing association with the History Society of Melbourne [Now the Royal Historical Society of Victoria] as well as the History Society of Melbourne where he read many formal papers. Cullen notes that Cox had an evidenced-based approach to history which was based on independent research (and which sometimes led into serious arguments)  and his cautious approach to premature publication demonstrated his care for accuracy and the avoidance of personal bias. A mark of Cox’s significance as a Gippsland historian was his invitation by Albert E Clark to Cox to write the Preface to his history of the Church in Gippsland, The Church of our Fathers. 

This remarkable little booklet comes with many beautifully presented photographs and detailed references.  George Cox was a true blue Aussie polymath and Renaissance man. This is a story to inspire and encourage all Gippslanders today as we continue to fight those fires, both literally and spiritually.

Timothy Keller: The Reason For God: Belief in God in an Age of Scepticism, p/b, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2009

Timothy Keller founded the extraordinarily popular Manhattan Redeemer Presbyterian Church which spawned a significant number of similar centres in New York and elsewhere. He now leads Redeemer City to City which trains pastors for ministry in cities globally.

The Reason for God is a thoughtful and demanding read in which he takes on the current Western culture of scepticism and indeed persecution of Christian faith in the Western world. The first seven chapters deal with common critiques of C21st Christian faith:

There can’t be just One true religion

How could a good God allow suffering?

Christianity is a straitjacket

The church is responsible for so much injustice

How can a loving God send people to Hell?

Science has disproved Christianity  and

You can’t take the Bible literally.

The second half of the book argues for the validity of seven reasons for faith:

– The clues in the world and in mankind that God exists

– How can we have any knowledge of God?

– The horror of human evil and inhumanity alongside the common view that the concept of sin is offensive and/or ludicrous to many

  • The key difference between Christianity and all other world faiths ..all other major faiths have founders who are teachers who show the way to salvation. Only Jesus claimed to actually be the way of salvation hiimself. 
  • The story and validity of the Cross
  • The reality of the Resurrection
  • The dance of God.

Much of Keller’s argument is based on actual conversations held with attendees, both believers and non-believers, of Manhattan Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Some chapters of this book are more difficult than others. The whole book is pitched at the level of an educated enquirer and it demands careful and logical thought. It would be ideal as a study book for seekers and it comes with careful referencing, additional detailed notes and a very useful index. I have read many books of apologetics in my life. This one would have to be in the top two or three.   5 stars and rising.

Amy Carmichael: “If”, London, S.P.C.K, 1963

This little book has been with me in times of spiritual need for well over fifty years. Born out of the pressures and challenges of Amy Carmichael’s selfless ministry in creating and working faithfully in the Dohnavur Fellowship in India, “If” is a very personal meditation on Calvary Love…the greatest love of all is not a pop song as it turns out but the love of Jesus of Nazareth for the world demonstrated on a lonely garden in Gethsemane and an even lonelier  cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. 

If”  contains a set of gently worded but spiritually demanding, honest and deeply personal questionings of our spiritual thought life and habits (many of them common and unhelpful habits). It is not attacking writing. It is a meditation, for self examination, for reflection, for self-knowledge, for self-repair and finally for the comfort that only the Holy Spirit can bring. 

The realisation that the greatest spiritual leaders and healers are after all only human and in need of forgiveness encourages us to pause, ponder and re-engage the heartbeat of our own spiritual journey.  There are books we always come back to. This one is a keeper.

Challenging ideas from Timothy Keller’s “The Reason For God” [London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2009]

Tim Keller , Founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

Challenging ideas from Timothy Keller: The  Reason For God: Belief  in an Age of Scepticism, p/b, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2009

p xvi f Both religious belief and scepticism are on the rise…surely that should lead to self-examination. The time for making elegant dismissive gestures towards the other sides past. Something more is required. But what?….each side should look at doubt in a radically new way…believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts…sceptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning.

p xx  Many see both sides in the ‘culture war’ making individual freedom and personal happiness the ultimate value rather than God and the common good. Liberals’ individualism comes out in their views of abortion, sex and marriage. Conservatives’ individualism comes out in their deep distrust of the public sector and in their understanding of poverty as simply a failure of personal responsibility.

p15  Everyone lives out of some narrative of identity, whether it is thought out and reflected upon or not.

p19 God’s grace does not come to people who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform. 

P20f  It is common to say that ‘fundamentalism’ leads to violence, yet as we have seen, all of us have fundamental, unprovable faith commitments that we think are superior to those of others.  The real question, then, is which fundamentals will lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive to those with whom they differ?

p23  Tucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil [and therefore there cannot be a God] is a hidden premise, namely, that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless…eg  Joseph story…although we can’t see it at the time, some ‘evils’ end up providing positive outcomes.   A tough one this…easier to write about I suspect than to live through. 

p25 If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. Indeed you can’t have it both ways.  [As above]

p27 The problem of evil is a problem for atheists as well as believers. …a secular way of looking at the world has no place for genuine moral obligation  of any sort….

p29f  Jesus’ suffering on the Cross goes far beyond that of Christian martyrs.  Jesus came to be with the Father for an interlude before his betrayal, but found hell rather than heaven open before him, and he staggered. On the cross, Jesus’s cry of dereliction – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – is a deeply relational statement….Jesus still uses the language of intimacy – ‘my God’ – even as he experiences infinite separation from the Father.

p32.  Resurrection = Restoration:  this means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater. 

p33 Sam Gamgee to Gandalf [Lord of the Rings]  Is everything sad going to come untrue? The answer of Christianity to that question is – yes.

p35   Is a belief in absolute truth the enemy of freedom? Most people I’ve met in New York City believe that it is….p37 Christianity looks like an enemy of social cohesion, cultural adaptability and even authentic personhood. However, this objection is based on mistakes about the nature of truth, community, Christianity, and of liberty itself.

p38  Christianity requires certain beliefs in order to be a member of its community, but, p.39 Every community holds in common some beliefs that necessarily create boundaries, including some people and excluding others from its circle.

p42 p.255 ch.3 fn. 22  Missionaries do impose their own culture on their converts, playing down some cultural aspects and playing up others but eventually converts come to terms with their own culture and traditions, jettisoning some things and keeping others.

p44.   There is no “Christian culture” the way there is an “Islamic culture” which can be recognised  everywhere.

p45   In current Western culture, freedom to determine our own moral standards is considered  a necessity fo being fully human…. This oversimplifies, however. Freedom cannot be defined in strictly negative terms, as the absence of confinement and constraint. In fact, in many cases, confinement and constraint is actually a means to liberation. eg the restriction of many hours of time for a musician to develop the skills to unleash the talent and ability that would otherwise go untapped…p46 if we only grow intellectually, vocationally and physically through judicious constraints – why would it not also be true for spiritual and moral growth?

p47  To truly love you have to lose independence

p49  In the most radical way, God has adjusted to us —in his incarnation and atonement.

p53  Christian theology has taught what is known as common grace. James 1:17 says, ‘Every good and perfect gift comes down from above…from the father of lights.’

p256 ch. 4 fn2 ..If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with HIm. [C.S. Lewis]

p53f   The mistaken belief that a person must ‘clean up’ his or her own life in order to merit God’s presence is not Christianity…’The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.’

p57 Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving or understanding – as Christ was.

p260  Ch5 fn10  The Bible clearly proposes that heaven and hell are actual realities, but also indicates that all language about them is allusive, metaphorical and partial.

p75  Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, wrote the remarkable essay ‘The Discreet Charms of Nihilism’. In it he remembers how Marx had called religion ‘the opiate of the people’ because the promise of an afterlife (Marx said) led the poor and the working class to put up with unjust social conditions. But, Milosz continued: “And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders are not going to be judged….[but] all religions recognize that our deeds are imperishable…..if there is no divine justice, belief in a loving God is meaningless. 

p80  We must not make settled, final decisions about anyone’s spiritual state or fate. 

p80  Because Christians believe souls don’t die, they also believe that moral and spiritual errors effect the soul forever….  [How does this square with p32 above…resurrection = restoration?  It also disallows annihilatiionism ] 

p82  I found no other religious text outside of the Bible that said God created the world out of love and delight. 

p83 the God of love is also a God of judgement who will put all things in the world to rights in the end. The belief in a God of pure love—who accepts everyone and judges no one — is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it outside Christianity. The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears.

p263 fn4 ch 7:  I take the whole Bible to be reliable not because I can somehow ‘prove’  it all to be factual. I accept it because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible.

p111.  Some texts may not teach what they at first appear to teach. Some people, however, have studied particular biblical texts carefully and come to understand what they teach, and yet they still find them outrageous and regressive. What should they do then?  I urge people to consider that their problem with some texts might be based on an unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over all others.   We must not universalise our time any more that we should universalise our culture. Think of the very term ‘regressive’. To reject the Bible as regressive is to assume that you have now arrived at the ultimate historic moment, form which all that is regressive and progressive can be discerned. That belief is surely as narrow and exclusive as the views in the Bible you regard as offensive.

p112f  We should make sure we distinguish between the major themes and message of the Bible and its less primary teachings. The Bible talks about the person and work of Christ and also about how widows should be regarded in the church. The first of these subjects is much more foundational. Without it the secondary teachings don’t make sense. We should therefore consider the Bible’s teachings in their proper order…You may appeal , ‘But I can’t accept the Bible if what it says about gender is outmoded.’ I would respond to that with this question — are you saying that because you don’t like what the Bible says about sex that Jesus couldn’t have been raised from the dead?…If Jesus is not who he said he is, why should we care what the Bible says about anything else?

p114 If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God. If God is not challenging you, your God is not real..you have a God of your own making.

p117  …there are no truly ‘generic’ non-denominational Christians. 

p145  ….our culture differs from all others that have gone before. People still have strong moral convictions,  but unlike people in other times and places, they don’t have any visible basis for why they find some things to be evil and other things good.  In the West we now have a climate of complete moral relativism.

p152 …. Nietzsche’s  well-known insistence that, if God is dead, any and all morality of love and human rights is baseless. If there is no God, argue Nietzsche, Sartres and others, there can be no good reason to be kind, to be loving or to work for peace.

p275f  Ch 10 fn 8:  list of Kierkegaard’s “god-substitutes.’     Very instructive! 

p165   An identity not based on God also leads inevitably to deep forms of addiction…family, work, achievement, hobbies etc. cf Augustine: ‘our loves are not rightly ordered.’

p166 problem of unresolved bitterness and the importance of forgiveness..cf Rwanda …there can be no forgiveness without accountability and repentance.

p171f  Kierkegaard: The almost impossible hard thing is to hand over your whole self to Christ.  But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call ‘ourselves’ —our personal happiness centred on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, despite this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you cannot do….I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

p277 Ch 11 fn 1 virtually all religions require to one degree or another a form of self-salvation through merit… Is Christianity then not a religion?

p178  The Devil, if anything, prefers Pharisees…they are more unhappy than either mature Christians or irreligious people , and they do a lot more spiritual damage.

p193  The importance of substitutionary atonement.  [Constantly under fire today ]..if you take away the Cross we do not have a God of love…he offers his own lifeblood in order to honour moral justice and merciful love so that some day he can destroy all evil without destroying us.

p202  re doubts about the resurrection:  If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said;  if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said?

p202.  If there was no resurrection where did the Christian church come from?

p208  [Christianity began with] the explosion of a New Worldview. It was an explosion…unlike the gradual evolution of all other religions even Islam.

p215 The Trinity …perichoresis = “Flowing around”

p216 The Trinity makes love possible. If God is unipersonal, then until God created other beings there was no love, since love is something one person has for another…therefore love would not be of the essence of God nor at the heart of the universe if there was no Trinity.

BOOKS READ JANUARY 2020

Andreas Loewe and Katherine Firth; Journeying With Bonhoeffer: Six Steps on the Path of Discipleship,  p/b, 127 pages, Sydney, Morning Star Publishing, 2019

2020 is the 75th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom in the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria just three weeks before the camp was liberated by US army soldiers and World War 2 ended. Dr Andreas Lowe, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, church historian and expert on Protestant German history  and Katherine Firth, translator, academic, poet and educator   are both fluent in German. Working together they have produced “two books in one” which together, in the form of a powerful new biography of Bonhoeffer and six lessons for Lent,  enrich our understanding of Luke’s Gospel for the Lenten season and at the same time invite us drink deeply at the well of Bonhoeffer’s terse, demanding and trenchantly challenging theology in his book The Cost of Discipleship and in fresh translations by Firth of some of his intensely personal poetry.

Younger folk today will be less familiar with Bonhoeffer than the post world war 2 generation. They will not have heard his clarion call that when Christ calls us he calls us, his call leads to death; that God’s grace is costly, because it is costly to God, it cost him his Son; that discipleship is more than formulaic worship; that Christ did not call his disciples to a life of holy introspection, but a life of doing; that if we truly turn to Christ, then we need to shun those who claim to be alternative mediators; that as followers of Jesus Christ, then, we cannot remain hidden, and many more shafts which, once read, are not easily forgotten. 

Firth’s translations of Bonhoeffer’s poems  are fresh and immediate. Here are the last lines of Who Am I? (July 1944). 

Who am I? This or That?

Am I today this, then, and tomorrow something else?

Am I both at the same time? In front of people a hypocrite

and in front of myself a contemptible, whiny weakling?

Or, in the same way, which is still in me, the beaten army

that in disorder gives way in front of the

victory that has already been won?

Who am I? These solitary questions mock me.

As well: who I am, You know me, Yours am I, O God!

Ideal for a Lenten study group, this little book contains chapter questions, careful footnotes, further reading suggestions and a useful index. To be read with care …there is dynamite here …but also good comfort!  5 stars

Daniher, Neale:  When All is Said and Done, co-writer, Warwick Green, 

h/b, Sydney, Macmillan, 2019

I was at the MCG in 2006 when Melbourne last played in an AFL premiership grand  final match. Demon supporters had high hopes but Essendon’s “baby bombers” had only lost one match for the whole year and Melbourne was crunched badly. Melbourne’s coach Neale Daniher was angry and disappointed by his team’s capitulation but it was to be his only grand final appearance with the Demons in ten years of coaching despite getting the Dees to six finals series in nine years.  Now, fighting hard against the even tougher enemy of Motor Neurone Disease Daniher has written an intimate and honest account of his childhood background, education, family life, sporting achievements and his current fight to the death.

As well as giving the reader generous insight into his own character which he himself admits was intense, prickly and uninterested in small talk and trivia, this book also seeks to offer a philosophy of life with chapters on leadership, knowing yourself, not expecting a free ride, learning from others, taking the plunge, creating balance, admitting weaknesses, keeping calm, believing in yourself, mixing passion with purpose and not being too hard-arsed, amongst many other life secrets.

For me the life story was fascinating and a very enjoyable read, but the life coaching was too much, too repetitive and in need of editing. To be fair as a semi-retired teacher thirteen years older than Daniher, the energetic advice he offers about how to live life well has come too late to make much dint in my self-indulgent character. Also to be fair, Daniher in a “Letter to my grandchildren “ on p353 admits that they probably won’t take his advice either! …Don’t believe a word your grandfather has told you. Put everything I’ve said to the Bunsen Burner of your own life. Play on!

In spite of my world-weariness about life coaching, this book has assembled an excellent array of quotable quotes that bear close attention in any person’s life. Some which stood out for me I have listed below.

p35:   I believe the mark of a person is not what he or she thinks, says or feels —in the end, I believe we are measured by what we actually do

p38: You’re not special, but you could become special, you could do something special. You have the opportunity in life, but it’s up to you to reveal your character and make the most of that opportunity across your lifetime. Go out and do it.

p45: You work hard but you can’t control everything.”

p67:  Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

p50:  Ships are safe in the harbour, but it’s not what they are built for.

p.76:  Life doesn’t promise to be fair but it does offer opportunity.

p. 78: Do not try to be a man of success but try to be a man of value. [Einstein]

p 82: God gave you two eyes, two ears, and one mouth…so listen and observe  more than  you talk.  {Sister Teresita, primary school teacher]

p. 95: Is that all there is?

p. 97 We can use other people’s knowledge, but we can’t use their wisdom.

p.106 Honesty needs to be delivered in the right manner

p106  The shoe that fits one person, pinches another.  [Jung]

p129  It’s not the critic who counts. [Theodore Rooseveldt]

p. 139  The folly of relying on your meaning in life coming from something that is completely selfish.

p.146  Daniher studied theology at Melbourne University to better understand his faith.

p.150  Put your own mask on first before coming to help others [airline advice]

p152  If we cannot trust, then neither can we find love nor joy

p.156 Don’t wear your busyness as a badge of honour.

p157  Courage is the commitment to begin without any guarantee of success. [Goethe]

p.178  Feat is the reaction; courage is a decision.

p.214  Minds, not bodies, give up first.

p258  Be Yourself! Everyone else is taken.  [Oscar Wilde]

p284  The most secure prisons are the ones we construct for ourselves. [Gordon Livingstone, US psychiatrist]

p. 315  The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it  [Carl Jung]

p. 322   Success is never final

Failure is never fatal. 

A useful read!  4 stars

Thabo Makgoba:  Faith and Courage: Praying With Mandela, h/b, 246 pages including six very useful appendices. Foreward by Graça Machel, London, SPCK, 2019

What priest or Christian leader has never had pastoral counselling that blew up in their face or ministry initiatives that were so disastrous they wanted to quit? If this is you then here is a book to give you faith and courage! 

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba is the current Metropolitan of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the youngest person ever to be elected to this position. He is also chair of the International Design Group for the Lambeth Conference in 2020. This is the story of a poor young black lad who’s ancestors were royalty living in the high veldt beautifully forested escarpment of south east Africa. It was one of the last cultures to be hunted down and colonised by British rulers with the help of 8000 Swazi allies.

His childhood was far from royal, growing up in poverty with his twin sister in the overcrowded, poor, unkempt and downtrodden township of Alexandra. His home amounted to two rooms which together with another house and other backyard rooms housed around 20 families in total with four outside ‘bucket” toilets for them all.   His father who was a pastor of the Zion Christian Church, had at least four other wives and families  and  was  therefore often absent from home. It was a torrid chidhood. Apartheid ruled, pass laws were strict, street gangs dominated, life was cheap and dead bodies were often found on the street. Yet his father was ambitious for his tall young son who clearly had a mind to study. Somehow, often travelling two hours each way to better schools Thabo gained a strong secondary education and did well enough to gain entry to the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg where he studied science, education and psychology.

It seems from the start that Thabo was destined for leadership and his drive for excellence was allied with a passion to see justice and fairness achieved for the poor and dispossessed. At University he became involved with the Anglican Students Federation and as a committee member he became an underground member of the ANC, the African National Congress, gradually overcoming his terror of “whites”. In addition he joined the Release Mandella Campaign and became a “player” in Anglican synods, attracting attention. Almost inevitably he was targeted for ordination and eventually added theology to his list of studies.

The book charts with exceptional honesty the triumphs and failures of his career including his work as teacher, psychologist, pastor,  academic, College Dean, parish priest, Bishop and Archbishop. His forceful personality often got him into scrapes with the harsh pass laws, with colleagues and opponents and eventually with high ranking movers and shakers in the church including Archbishop Tutu. At the same time we learn of his marriage and family and the tragedy of the death of his twin sister.  

One cannot but be amazed by Thabo’s courage in facing all the tough issues whether political, the draining psychological counselling of drug addicts, the horrific violence against women, the trauma of spinally injured mine workers, and the bitter and physically dangerous infighting between overly zealous church members which sometimes ended with guns! Challenged by his mentors for being a minister without mentioning Christ, it is sometimes difficult in the first half of the book to see a priest at work rather than a social worker.

This all changes when Mandela’s third wife Graça Machel approached Thabo to support Mandela spiritually in the last five years of his life. Mandela’s importance to South Africa and its peoples was so overwhelming that it was difficult for anyone to be close to him. Thabo manages to break through this wall and a friendship and spiritual bond developed between him, Graça and Mandela. The prayers which Thabo records become a powerful statement of the “faith and courage’ needed to live in the new hard world of a post-apartheid South Africa especially in the period of the corrupt government of President Zuma. The book forces Western Christians especially to face up to the deep hurts  caused by the often brutal European colonisation of the rest of the world.

Thabo Makgoba is not the perfect priest and he is not without selfish ambition. He has successes and failures. Some things he is good at become so huge and burdensome he has to give them up. It is in fact the honest story of a faithful priest who simply saw needs and tried to help. Powerful indeed is his call for Anglicans to maintain unity along with their current deep divisions. 4 stars

Samuel Johnson: The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, Ed. & Intro.,  D. J. Enright, 

p/b, Ringwood, Penguin, 1979 [1759].

This little book (111 pages in my edition) provides a perfect example of “Johnsonian style”..concise, unadorned, perspicuous, logical, witty and genuinely thought provoking. Set in a mysterious land of pure delight and happiness and from which escape is difficult,  Prince Rasselas is restless in his life of saturated joy and longs to explore the difficult, rude and uncomfortable world of the majority of mankind. Aided by the insightful poet Imlac, and accompanied by his sister Nekayah and her maid Pekuah, Rasselas does find a way out of Abissinia and journeys in several lands with several adventures, in the meantime engaged in philosophic discussion about poetry, happiness, marriage, wealth, insanity, poverty, science, flying, astronomy, life after death and much besides. Their journey, which included considerable time in Egypt, including the abduction and rescue of Pekuah during a visit to the pyramids  ends with a visit to the catacombs and a discussion about life after death. Their final decision was to return to Abissinia persuaded that life was brief, and that knowledge,  justice, trust in God and eternity and the varied “stream of life” itself was as close to happiness that one could wish for.  A thoughtful and helpful read. 5 stars.

Thoughtful and challenging thoughts from Andreas Loewe and Katherine Firth: Journeying With Bonhoeffer: Six Steps on the Path of Discipleship, p/b, Sydney, Morning Star, 2001

Thoughtful and challenging thoughts from Andreas Loewe and Katherine Firth: Journeying With Bonhoeffer: Six Steps on the Path of Discipleship, p/b, Sydney, Morning Star, 2001

This little book is packed with inspiration. Katherine Firth has written a new biography of Bonhoeffer and has also provided a fresh translation of a number of Bonhoeffer’s poems. Firth is fluent in German and herself a poet.  This work is complemented by six Bible studies for Lent from Luke’s Gospel written by Andreas Loewe.  The studies from Luke  are seen through the lens of ideas and frequently quotations emerging from Bonhoeffer’s challenging book The Cost of Discipleship as well as other material from a newly published German text of Bonhoeffer’s works.Noted below are some ideas from this jointly authored book which resonated powerfully with me. 

p.33  Firth notes the following about Bonhoeffer’s execution in the dying days of World War 2 at the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp in Bavaria. The prison doctor claimed that Bonhoeffer walked to the scaffold at peace and looking noble ‘at the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds’ — a story that has been repeated many times, including in the “New King James Version Modern Life Study Bible”. However the prison doctor’s job was to revive people as they were being executed so that the punishment would last as long as possible, so his story is considered unreliable by modern historians. Other witnesses say the execution took six hours, which would be consistent with the usual practice. We can see why von Dohnányi’s sedation was, in fact, a kindness. [von Dohnányi was a fellow conspirator  executed with Bonhoeffer; his German anti Hitler doctor had heavily sedated him before his execution]. We know Canaris [a fellow conspirator with Bonhoeffer and the leader of the attempted coup] was stripped naked as a humiliation before being hanged and it is likely this was true for all the conspirators.  In short, Bonhoeffer’s death was as horrific as he expected.

p. 44: Bonhoeffer: – ‘Levi, the tax collector the toll collector, and the four fishermen hear and obey, and do what Jesus commands them to do….they simply get up and follow. They hear the Word and do it without questioning whether or not they fully understand that is asked of them. Faith will grow out of that first ‘doing’, that first stepping out.’

p. 45-46: Bonhoeffer: ‘But if they want to learn to believe in God, they have to follow the Son of God incarnate and walk with him.’  Andreas Loewe: We actually need to get up and walk with Jesus, in order to be his disciples. Bonhoeffer shows discipleship is not just having knowledge about God, but learning to believe in God….The first step leads us away from our preoccupation with our own lives to life with Jesus.

p.54:  Andreas Loewe: …Jesus reminded him [the lawyer whose question prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan], …that in order to live forever with him, which is what eternal life is, he needed to do more than formulaic following of God’s commandments.

p.56:  Andreas Loewe notes that Bonhoeffer highlights ‘inadequate obedience’ …The call is made, and we want to obey and follow, but the demands the ‘doing part’ of the call makes on us are too hard.”  Bonhoeffer also notes “inadequate faith”.  Andreas Loewe comments: the lawyer sees an ambiguity in the command ..[to love your neighbour as yourself] …he questions, ‘who then is my neighbour’ and, unable to accept the command, is left behind by Jesus.  That is one of the slyest forms of disobedience to God’s call. Loewe quotes Bonhoeffer again: What then happens is that people get so stubborn in their disobedience…that they claim they can no longer discern between what is good and what is God’s command. They claim it is ambiguous and permits various interpretations.

p65:  Commenting on the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Andreas Loewe notes: If limitless grace is careless and wasteful, these parables show us what God thinks grace is worth….they also show us how tireless Christ is in his seeking for those who are lost: raking through the dust and debris of our spiritual homes in the same way a householder woman cleaned out every nook and cranny of her own…I wonder whether we wish to be found in this way, whether we wish for our lives to be turned upside down by Christ?

p66.  Andreas Loewe asks us about how we feel when Christ goes off looking for other lost sheep after we ourselves have been found and welcomed. There can be…a sense of loss as the shepherd sets out to search for, call and bring in other lost sheep.

p67:  Andreas Loewe comments on Bonhoeffer’s question: “What does it mean to cheapen grace?”  Loewe writes: There is a clear line in Bonhoeffer’s thinking between extending Christ’s invitation to come and follow him to all people, and telling all people that they are all right in what they believe. The two, for Bonhoeffer, are utterly incompatible: we pour away Christ’s love when we confirm others in their unbelief. Because belief is costly. Loewe quotes Bonhoeffer: “Is the price we are paying today with collapse of the organised churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquired too cheaply? We gave away preaching and sacraments cheaply, performed baptisms and confirmations ; we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally; out of human love we handed over what holy to the scornful and unbelievers.”

p.69-70  Loewe suggests that the answer to Jesus’ questions in Luke 15 {“what man of you?” (lost sheep) and “what woman?” (lost coin)] is “few people”!   Most of us would be content with the other 99 sheep or the other nine silver coins and thus Loewe further notes: there is no costly risk-taking among them, and (thus) there is also no rejoicing…Luke shows us the extravagant love of God…This is  the meaning of  Bonhoeffer’s phrase “God’s costly grace”. Loewe notes: Jesus brings light and order to the house, that is true. But that light and order comes at the cost of breaking all the habits that prefer darkness and mess.

p72 Bonhoeffer concludes: Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it cost the life of God’s son.

p73. In question 5 Loewe notes. God’s love is also entirely free. Do we personally, or in our community, require people to strive to deserve grace, when grace comes freely? Do you exert ‘strength, effort and discipline which is unnecessary, even dangerous, since everything is already prepared, and fulfilled by grace?  ….an excellent and demanding question!

p.77  Andreas Loewe quotes Bonhoeffer’s words: The cross is suffering with Christ. ….The cross is not random suffering, but necessary suffering. The cross is not suffering that stems from natural existence; it is suffering that comes from being a Christian. The essence of the cross is not suffering alone; it is suffering and being rejected….A Christianity that no longer took discipleship seriously remade the Gospel into only the solace of cheap grace. Moreover it drew no line between natural and Christian existence….Here it has been forgotten that the cross always means being rejected, that the cross includes the shame of suffering. Being shunned, despised, and deserted by people …is an essential feature of the suffering of the cross, which cannot be comprehended by a Christianity that is unable to differentiate between a citizen’s ordinary existence and Christian existence.

p.78f. Andreas quotes Bonhoeffer: “The cross is not random suffering, but necessary suffering.” Andreas comments…following Jesus means rejection and suffering. It means shouldering daily the cross that Christ himself bears …It is in this shared bearing that we are enabled to undertake the daily task of denial of self in order to follow Christ.

p.80f  Andreas Loewe notes that  Bonhoeffer makes a sharp distinction between suffering and rejection. Only one of the two carries shame…..Rejection goes well beyond suffering, takes away and admiration, and sympathy. Bonhoeffer writes: Rejection removed all dignity and honour from [Jesus’ ] suffering. It had to be dishonourable suffering….Loewe notes that Bonhoeffer comments that from the beginning of the church’s story …suffering and rejection, self-denial and death to self are an integral part of our faith…Bonhoeffer is uncompromising. We cannot try to avoid suffering because ‘that is the way for Satan to enter the church.’ These comments must be seen in particular in the light of the establishment of the Nazi Reich Church with its glorification of Hitler and the Aryan race.

p.82f  Andreas Loewe notes that for Bonhoeffer, ‘suffering’ does not mean unremitting torment, nor seeking out acts of self-martyrdom or ascetic exercises. Instead it means freedom from the fear of suffering. If we are not afraid of suffering, or losing our possessions, of looking foolish —then we cannot be imprisoned by these things….Bonhoeffer writes; “therefore, once again, before the law of discipleship is proclaimed, even the disciples must be set free.” Andreas comments; The freedom from yourself does not mean replacing yourself with a void. It means replacing yourself with knowing Christ. Bonhoeffer uses “kennen” here (knowing from personal relationship) rather than “wissen” (knowing about something or someone)

p86f  Andreas Loewe notes:  No-one may judge how much someone else can or should suffer. He quotes Bonhoeffer: “Everyone gets a different amount” of suffering, so that our cross is one we can carry.

p90  Bonhoeffer reading: Jesus’ call to discipleship makes the disciple into a single individual. Whether disciples want to or not, they have to make a decision; each is called alond.. each has to decide alone..Each must follow alone…Out of fear of such aloneness, a human being seeks safety in the people and things around them.

p91  Andreas Loewe: Christ called [his disciples] not to a life of holy introspection , but a life of active doing in his name.

p93  Andreas Loewe: Discipleship is a life-long commitment…Before we commit, we too should consider whether we are able to embark on the costly journey of daily carrying the cross and following Jesus. In Bonhoeffer’s case, he was choosing to set out to wage a war and build an edifice he knew he was likely to lose in this world.

p94f  Andreas Loewe: Christ leaves room for a genuine decision. Individuals are each given the opportunity to reject the invitation, are given space for the realisation that Jesus is not for them. That is a fair response to Jesus’ call: not all will follow. But those who do accept Jesus’ call, need to put Jesus above all. Andreas quotes Bonhoeffer: Christ intends to make the human being lonely. As individuals they should see nothing except him who called them…It is impossible for a human being to avoid ever being left by another. In human relationships, we constantly move away and return, until we move away from this life through death. But God is able to be with us always.

However this does not mean that we should never work to begin in relationship with other humans; simply that we should do so through Christ…Christ needs to mediate all relationships…In becoming human, Jesus put himself between me and the given circumstances of the world. 

p96 Andreas Loewe writes: If we truly turn to Christ, then we need to shun those who claim to be alternative mediators. And that is what ‘hating ‘ the world means….The idea that the followers of Jesus may relate to the world apart from their discipleship is alien to Bonhoeffer.

p102 Bonhoeffer writes: Human beings should not be feared. They cannot do much to the disciples of Jesus. Their power stops with the disciples’ physical death…

p105  Bonhoeffer writes: Who can claim the people’s love and sacrifice so exclusively, if not the enemy of humanity or the Saviour of humanity? Who will carry the sword into their homes, if not the devil or Christ, the Prince of Peace?

p106  Bonhoeffer writes: Whenever Christ calls, his call leads us to death…the cross stands at the beginning or our community with Christ.  Andreas Loewe writes: when we do what Christ calls us to do, we become Christ-bearers to others.

p107  Andreas Loewe writes: As followers of Jesus Christ, then, we cannot remain hidden, and leave the witnessing about the One who called us to “the stones of Jerusalem that would shout out”.

p111  Andreas Loewe asks: How can we carry on a form of ‘living dying’ that includes joy and ‘complete assurance for every new day.’

BOOKS READ DECEMBER 2019

William Styron: Sophie’s Choice, p/b, London, Vintage, 2000 (1979)

This is an epic, perhaps overlong novel in many parts.  In the first instance it is a novel about the unsuccessful and almost humorous search to lose his virginity by a 22 year old impecunious literature student and would be writer from Virginia, but living in New York. These sections throughout the book are tedious, dismal, voyeuristic,  unnecessarily specific and coarse as well as being exhausting to read. 

In the second instance it is a tale of an ultimately doomed love affair between the  beautiful and exotic Polish holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowksa and highly intelligent but fundamentally flawed and paranoid schizophrenic New Yorker Nathan Landau. This account is frightening, instructive and attention gripping and provides the emotional centre of the novel.

Thirdly, through sometimes awkwardly introduced through flash backs from Sophie, the novel is a compelling reminder of the ferocious determination of pathologically minded Nazi leaders to completely exterminate the European Jewish community as well as their vast pogroms against Slavic peoples, Russians, the Polish nation and any one weak or ill or old and unfit for work in the nations conquered by soldiers fo the third reich.  Although this section has been criticised for treating the holocaust as a general statement of the evil deeply inherent in humanity and playing down antisemitism by Christians, as well as implying that Southern American slavery was relatively not such a bad thing at all.,   it nevertheless provides a horrific reminder of the horror and genocide of the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Sophie’s choice was to decide which of her children was to be murdered immediately on arrival at Auschwitz. Styron admits that this section is autobiographical of his time in Brooklyn when he met a holocaust survivor. This is a horrifying scene, magnified with exceptional emotional power by Meryl Streep in the film version.

Fourthly Styron provides us with a running commentary throughout the novel of the style and importance of a vast array of C19th and C20th American and European writers and poets and their characteristics and strengths. This preoccupation with styles of writing quickly begins to feel like a manual of how to write the great American novel. Many of the writers he mentions are little known today and it is difficult to avoid the impression that Styron is showing off his grasp of the last two centuries of American and European literature.

Putting all these components together results in an uneasy mix in my view. The reader needs a strong sense of determination to see this novel through. Having said this, once read, there are many shattering and frightening and powerful images which will remain in the reader’s consciousness for a long time indeed. 3 stars.

Lord Michele de Montaigne, Knight,  The Essayes or Moral, Politike and Militarie Dicourses: The Third Book, h/b, Folio, London,  2006 (1588).

MONTAIGNE

The third and final book of  Lord Montaigne, C16th  French Knight, “one of the gentlemen In Ordinary of the French King Henry”, philosopher and arguably the world’s first essayist, was written eight years after his  first two books and written at a time when Montaigne seems very aware of his increasing age…it seemeth, custom alloweth old age more liberty to babbel,and indiscretion to talke of its selfe.  The essays in this book are much longer than those in Books 1 and 2 with the exception of An Apologie of Raymond Sebonde in Book 2 which is very long indeed. Nevertheless the contents of the thirteen essays still stray well beyond their the topics of their titles. It seems possible to detect a deeper sense of self-analysis in this last book and a degree of defensiveness about the way Montaigne conducted his public life prior to retiring to his private estate to read and write.

The topics are as varied and vibrant as the first two books with perhaps fewer military chapters and towards the end, fewer quotations from Greek and Latin ancient philosophers and writers. There are chapters on profit and honesty, repenting, commerces or societies which includes interesting comments on poetry and books and  diversions in conversation.  An amazing fifth chapter entitled Upon Some Verses in Virgil, begins with a lively interaction with early Greek and Roman philosophers but eventually leads to an outrageous and lengthy discussion of sexuality which is frequently R-rated and would certainly outrage C20th feminists although more likely to be  appreciated by the morality of the C21st.  This highlight is followed by discussions about coaches, greatness, conferring and conferences, vanity, the writing of wills, and of the lame or cripple, of human character, nature and appearance.

 The final chapter, entitled “Of Experience”  is the most personal and private one of all which includes  diatribes against several professions including lawyers, doctors, against having too many books! against judges, against having an oversupply of  laws, against ignorance and lack of curiosity, against self-conceit, and in favour of learning, goodwill and boldness. There are  excruciating details of Montaigne’s habits, health, diet, toilet habits, illnesses, and an analysis of positive and negative attitudes to death.  Bloom, who rates Montaigne at the highest level in his Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, (2002) writes about this chapter: I cannot think of another essay, in the tradition that reaches from Montaigne to Freud, that so profoundly searches out the metaphysics of self, and that so persuasively urges us to accept necessity. (0.45)

Throughout the whole of Book 3   Montaigne’s hero and mentor is Socrates with Plato a poor second who suffers by comparison with Socrates whom Montaigne calls “the wisest man that ever was”.

I found it a huge challenge to read the three quite large books which make up Montaigne’s Essays especially in the 1603 English translation of John Florio which is effectively Shakespearian English. On the other hand there is impressive wisdom and insight in Montaigne which I am glad I have been able to ponder. I think he deserves his place in the higher echelons of Bloom’s list of 100 geniuses although the extraordinary length and minute detail of Montaigne’s self-analysis of his own character I think we could have had less of. 

Regarding the wisdom and clear thinking of Montaigne I attach some examples below:

p13: When an urgent circumstance, or any violent and unexpected accident, induceth a Prince for the necessitie of his estate, or as they say for state matters, to breake his worde and faith, or otherwise to forceth him out of his ordinary duty, he is to ascribe that necessity unto a lash of God’s rod: It is no vice, for hee hath quit his reason, unto a reason more publike, and more powerfull,but surely ’tis ill fortune….We cannot doe every thing, nor bee in every place. When all is done, thus and thus, must wee often, as unto our lat Anker and sole refuge, resigne the protection of our vessell unto the onely conduct of heaven.  [i.e.  in the end God rules!]

p.19:  To write books without learning, is it not to make a wall without stone or such like thing

p.22:   That is an exquisite life, which even in his owne private keepeth it selfe in awe and order. 

p.27:  On repentance: Surely there can be no perfect health; where the disease is not perfectly removed. Were repentance put in the scale of ballance, it would weigh downe sinne.  I finde no humour so easie to counterfeited as Devotion: If one conforme not his life and conditions to it, her essence is abstruse and concealed, her appearance gentle and stately…repentance doth not properly concern what is not in our power; sorrow doth. 

p.37:  Montaigne is no great  fan of poetry but prefers it to those medling with Rhetoricke, with Law, and with Logicke, and such like trash, so vaine and unprofitable for their use….Poesie is a study fit for their purpose: being a wanton, ammusing, subtill, disguised, and pratling Arte; all in delight, all in shew, like to themselves.

p39:  The company of faire, and society of honest women is likewise a sweet commerce for me. 

p.42: On books: I enjoy them, as a miser does his gold; to know, that I may enjoy them when I list; my minde is settled and satisfied with the right of possession.  I never travel without bookes, nor in peace nor in warre.. and p. 44: Bookes have and containe divers pleasing qualities to those that can duly choose them. But no good without paines; no Roses without prickles.

p44.  On wealth:  A great fortune is a great bondage (Seneca)….

p. 48. On death: It belongeth to one only, Socrates, to accost and entertaine death with an undaunted ordinary visage, to become familiar and play with it. He seekers for no comfort out of the thing itselfe. To die seemeth unto him a naturall and indifferent accident…and p. 50, quoting Zeno: No evil is honourable; death is; therefore death is no evil. 

p.60:  On old age: Seeing it is the mindes priviledge to renew and recover itself in old age, I earnestly advise it to do it.

p.62.   On confession: Every one is wary in the confession; we should be as heedy in action….Why doth no man confesse his faults? Because hee is yet in them.  [Seneca]

p.65 On sex:   Goddesse, thou rule’s the nature of all things,

Without thee nothing into this light springs

Nothing is lovely, nothing pleasure brings.       [Lucretius}

p139:  Montaigne writes at length in chapter 6 against the damage done by Western hegemony to the colonised world…amazingly C21st imagery and foresight writing in the C15th.

p. 233:   We are so farre enough from being honest according to God: For, wee cannot be such according to our selves. Humane wisedome could never reach the duties, or attaine the devoires it had prescribed unto it selfe….I am so distasted and out of liking with the world, wherein I live and frequent: but well I know, I should have small reason to complaine, the world were distasting and out of liking with me, since I am so with it.

p.234:  Plato saith, that “who escapes untainted and cleaner-handed from managing of the world; escapeth by some wonder.

p250:  He that lives not somewhat to others, liveth little to himselfe.. He that is friend to himself, know, he is friend to all.  [Seneca]

p255:  The more we amplifie our neede and possession, the more we engage our selves to the crosses of fortune and adversities. 

p.258:  We must not run headlong after our affections and private interests.

p.278  a man were better bend towards doubt, than encline towards certaintie, in matter of difficult triall and dangerous belief.  [Augustine]

p. 284: On learning: We neede not much learning to live at ease. And Socrates teacheth us, that we have both it, and the way to finde and make use of it, within us….We have neede of little learning to have a good minde [Seneca]

p. 290:  There can be no worse estate of things  be imagined, than where wickednesse commeth to be lawfull…there is nothing more deceiptfull to shew, than corrupt religion, when the power of Heaven is made a pretence and cloake for wickednesse. 

p293  Hee is of most power, that himself in his owne power. [Seneca]

p. 299: Philosophy teacheth us, ever to have death before our eyes, to fore-see and consider it before it come.  If we have not known how to live, it is injustice to teach us how to die.

p304  on himself:  …here I have but gathered a nosegay of strange floures, and have put nothing of mine unto it, but the thred to bind them…p323: ..I study myself more than any other subject..

p367:  The glorious masterpiece of man, is, to live to the purpose.

p.371: on life: A fooles life is all pleasant, all fearfull, all fond of future [Seneca] …according as the the possession of life is more short, I must endevour to make it more profound and full. 

p. 376  Montaigne’s final word: The best and most commendable lives, and pleasing men are (in my conceit) those which with order are fitted, and with decorum are ranged to the common mould and humane model: but without wonder or extravagancy. Now hath old age need to be handled more tenderly. Let us recommend it unto that God, who is the protector of health, and fountaine of all wisedome: but blithe and social. Montaigne closes with a quote from Horace, Ode. 31:17

Apollo graunt, enjoy health I may

That I have got, and with sound minde, I pray:

Nor that I may with shame spend my old yeares,

Nor wanting musicke to delight mine eares. 


Books read November 2019

BOOKS READ NOVEMBER 2019

Amor Towles: Rules of Civility, London, Sceptre, 2012 (2011).

Amor Towles (2018)

Graduate in English from Yale and Stamford Amor Towles was born and bred in Manhattan and was an investment professional for twenty years before turning his hand to writing with this, his first novel, Rules of Civility. The title comes from the transcription by a young George Washington 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. These rules were based on C16th French Jesuit document and Washington’s transcription is word for word from Francis Hawkins’ English translation of 1640. Clearly the rules served him well in his future career. 

Towles’ novel is written from the perspective of one year (1938) in the life of a young American girl  Kate Kontent  of Russian extraction,  making her way in “the greatest city on earth”. The novel is classy, sharp, witty, humorous, tragic in parts, down to earth, clever, disarming, engaging and very difficult to put down. Even though the subject matter is, in one sense, somewhat trivial…the life of one person in one year…Towles manages to hang on to his reader for the next episode. One reason is the sheer mystery surrounding the second mainstay character of the novel, the somewhat Gatsbyish Tinker Grey and his alter ego artist brother Hank and Kate’s mercurial friend Eva.  Towles treats us to the swankiest and the grooviest and also the worst  of 1938 New York and for those lucky enough to have spent time there, the novel can bring back many memories of amazing buildings and soul encouraging music. 

I found this novel trivial/boring and at the same time emotionally convincing enough to want to read to the end.   4 stars. 

Matthew Keale: English Passengers, Camberwell, Penguin, 2001 (2000)

Engaging and lively story of early C19th Manx sailors and the early  history of Van Diemen’s Land focussing on the skills of smugglers, C19th horrific views about craniology and the superiority of the English,  the British  treatment of convicts, the massacre of the indigenous population,  the dangers of the Australian bush and the vagaries of sailing from merry England to primitive Australia. Kneale’s characters are fictional but based on genuine historical figures especially the Tasmanian sections.  The vast collection of characters is constantly reintroduced as the narrative  proceeds so it is not a book that can be put down for a moment, the reader needing to keep close tabs on who was who.  

Kneale’s style is horrifyingly explosive in dealing with the extermination of Tasmania’s indigenous population and its treatment of convicts. This difficult material is neutralised to a degree by the sanguine humour of the Manx sean Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, who, whilst no Puritan, is the reader’s favourite hero in the narrative and the person we most want to prosper even if he is defrauding the very efficient Britsh Empire Customs service. The other key figure is the part aboriginal Peevay who carries the weight of both indigenous survival as well as hopes of integration.  There are many other unforgettable characters including the fundamentally flawed Anglican preacher the Revd Geoffrey Wilson who has decided that the Garden of Eden is to be found in Van Diemen’s Land.  Much more formidably flawed is the doctor and would be craniologist Dr Thomas Potter who can well be regarded as the novel’s chief villain. 

This novel deserves a wider audience than it gets. It’s author himself is a formidable traveller, having scaled mountains from Ethiopia to New Guinea.  5 stars but requires commitment and concentration!

Eleanor Atkinson: Greyfriars Bobby, p/b, Ringwood, Puffin,1994

Eleanor Atkinson

American journalist, teacher and writer Eleanor Atkinson wrote this exquisitely charming and endearing story of the faithful highland terrier Bobby who spent most of his life in the Edinburgh cemetery keeping guard on the grave of his old shepherd friend Auld Jock who had died of old age. The story is written for adults and much of it in highland slang for which thankfully, there is a glossary at the back of the book. Remarkably Atkinson never visited Scotland, which is difficult to believe given that her deep knowledge of Edinburght’s streets and nineteeth century geography and that of the surrounding region is acute and detailed. Although somewhat sentimental to the modern ear the novel still tugs at the heartstrings. One comes to believe in Bobby as a genuine person and there is a genuine degree of tension in the many scrapes he gets into. A beautifully written account of a special little ‘imaginary’ dog.  4 stars.

Peter Corney: The Gospel and the Centrality of the Cross, self-published, Peter corney.com, 2019

I read The Gospel and the Centrality of the Cross with great interest. The book began with a series of studies for a series of seminars for preachers based on 1 Corinthians 13 to which Peter has added some very useful chapters containing observations on the exercise of power and authority in contemporary culture. It certainly covers a set of ideas that have been central to my own interests over the years. I note especially the side-lining of Christian faith through scientific reductionism, the cultural captivity of the church, the media/atheist sidelining of Christian faith from public discourse, the clear handling of the misunderstood doctrine of penal substitution and the dangers of radical individualism. Each chapter has some very useful questions and throughout there are excellent suggestions for further reading.

I can see how useful the studies from 1 Corinthians would be for a group of preachers to work through. I am not so sure about the further application of the booklet into say a parish study group. In a conservative parish it would be welcomed and tertiary trained church members would gain by a discussion of the arguments. A liberal catholic or ‘nothing’ parish  would struggle with some of the sophisticated wordiness of the concepts even though the writer has successfully avoided philosophical jargon. The purpose of the book is to find a way forward to return the Cross to a central position in Christian preaching. Preachers who read it I think will find many lines of approach that will be useful and effective. 

The only other comment I would make is that the media/public anger against Christianity in general rather than the Cross in particular,  is not dealt with directly (I know you can’t do everything in one booklet). I think a tone I missed in this book was an admission that the Church should acknowledge more directly its deep errors, both past and present and find a way to nevertheless validate the central claims of Christ especially the doctrine of atonement which is the central teaching of the Christian faith.  I suppose an example is Natasha Moore’s recent on line article “Religion Poisons Everything” .   To deal with the current societal  anger about  such folk I think preachers need to find a cutting edge of raw honesty to go with the excellent theology explained in this book  This is a minor criticism. Peter Corney has eloquently and clearly given a clarion call for a return to the heart of the Christian Gospel in preaching and I applaud his acheivement.  5 stars.

Books read October 2019

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, translated by Jamie McKendrick, introduction by Simon Mawer, Illustrated by Laura Carlin, London, The Folio Society, 2014 [In Italian, 1962; McKendrick translation, Penguin 2007]

Italian Jewish  author and literary editor Giorgio Bassani won the Viareggio prize with this first novel which was also made into a major movie.  Partly autobiographical, the narrative deals with the lives of Jews living in Ferrara as Mussolini’s Fascist grip on Italy tightened and Hitler’s expansionist policy in Europe in the Czech Republic and Poland rapidly gained ground. Bassani himself was imprisoned under Mussolini and later married and lived in Florence and Rome under an assumed name until the end of the war. Bassani’s other claim to fame was his publishing of Giuseppi Tomasode Lampedusa”s novel Il Gattopardo, (The Leopard) in 1958.

The novel is a beautifully written and consuming tale of unrequited love with Giorgio falling in love with the beautiful but cold, enigmatic and deceptive Micòl, the daughter of an aristocratic Sephardic Jewish family the Finzi-Continis. The story proceeds under the ever darkening clouds of the restrictive Fascist Jewish restrictive freedom rules which eventually expanded to a full -scale pogrom which engulfed  the whole Finzi-Continis family, arrested and dispatched to a German concentration camp, never to return. Much of the action of the novel centres around the aristocratic house and extraordinary gardens of the Finzi-Continis which includes a tennis court that becomes a focal point of the novel’s life. 

Novelist  Simon Mawer who writes the introduction to the Folio edition of the novel notes that there is a Jewish cemetery in Ferrara which includes a “Mura degli Angeli (The Wall of the Angels) and there was a large house and garden with a tennis court owned by a Jewish Professor Silvio Magrini with a son Uberto who died young of  lumphogranuloma like Michòl’s brother Alberto in the novel. The Magrani  family were indeed deported to Germany in 1943 and perished in a German concentration camp. There was, however, no Michòl in the Margrani family, so the thwarted love affair is fictional. 

Jamie McKendrick’s sensitive translation adds greatly to the readability of this sensuous and delicate novel and helpfully includes translations of the  excerpts from various Italian poets included in the text.  A thought provoking and oblique look at the darkest period of C20th history and its impact on “normal” Jewish family life.  5 stars.

Jane Smiley:  A Thousand Acres, London,  Flamingo 1992 (1991).

An epic family drama reminiscent of the Forsyte Saga in which a farming family of just two generations manages to both gain and lose one thousand acres of top quality arable crop and pig farming land in Iowa. The novel throws a glance at Shakespeare’s “King Lear” with the three sisters in the narrative paying out big time (with some justification in this case) on their father. Along the way Smiley manages to include incestuous parental upbringing of children alongside cruelty and domination of women, adultery, sexual promiscuity and unfaithfulness in marriage, attempted murder, religious, marital and sisterly jealousy,  legal and financial manipulation, small town bigotry,  anti-Vietnam War conscription sympathy, ecologically based farming vs large scale long term crop production for profit and if I think long enough several other themes. The story is told through Ginny, one of three daughters of the overbearing and morally unpleasant and ambitious father whose wife had died while the children were young and vulnerable.

 I found the weight of all these very unsatisfactory people and circumstances hard work and struggled to maintain interest in the novel. The novel does build to a quite tensing climax but then fades away to a benign and rather hopeless drab and somewhat meaningless life for the key narrator. The truth is that there is not even a glimpse of a morally good or strong person in this narrative or even someone with a burning ideal.  I found myself asking..what is the point of this novel? What is it trying to tell us. Is it “trust absolutely no-one?”. In which case it is a highly successful novel! 3 stars.

Paul Gallico, The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk, Melbourne, Wyatt & Watts, 1947 (1941)

Paul Gallico

American novelist Paul Gallico wrote this little World War 11 Dunkirk story loosely based on English ornithologist , conservationist and painter Peter Scott. The hero Philip Rhayader is a crippled painter and sea-bird lover who builds a sea-bird sanctuary on the English southern coast near Chelmbury. A young Saxon girl Frith brings him an injured North American snow goose blown off course by a major storm. Rhayader heals the bird and a friendship develops between the painter, the bird and Frith. During the Dunkirk evacuation, Rhayader plays a major role with his row boat ferrying British soldiers from the beach to waiting ships in the Channel with the snow goose flying above dodging bullets like an omen of safety. It is a touching story designed to encourage heroic bravery during the war and still carries an emotional power.   4 stars.

Lady Sarashina: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, translated with notes by Ivan Morris, Ringwood, Penguin, 1983

Lady Sarashina is the author’s invented name for the unknown author of this amazing C11th Japanese narrative and set of poems which takes in the whole life of a woman frustrated by the tension between her father and her career as a lady in court, later her husband and her career in court and her own desire to deepen her spirtual life with courageous pilgrimages to remote Buddhist temples as well as the poems with which she records her life and interactions with others.
Ivan Morris..outstanding translator of many significant early Japanese works otherwise unavailable in readable English. Morris’s detailed notes and historical background are extraordinary in their depth and scholarship.

Eleventh Century Japanese prose and poetic recollections of a woman whose true name is not known , spent largely in Kyoto but also some time in an eastern province where her father was the governor.  Her story includes beautifully detailed descriptions of natural scenery especially in her travels to far-flung monasteries to which she made pilgrimages.  The narrative includes her frustration when both her father and eventually her husband were posted to positions far away while she remained in the capital. She was intermittently a lady-in-waiting to the princess as well as caring for her father and eventually her husband and children. Translator Morris notes that the poems in Lady Sarashrina’s book are all “thiry-one syllable tanka constructed in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. The narrative contains over one hundred poems of which three quarters were written by Lady Sarashina.  Although her life is un-exceptional and somewhat frustrating I found the poems restful and soothing. The book makes several references to the much more well known Tale of Genji from a similar period.   The introduction, maps and detailed notes by Ivan Morris are impressive indeed and give a fascinating insight into C11th  upper middle class Japanese life. 4 stars.

BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2019

Allan Bullock (Editor): The Marshall Cavendish Learning System: History, London WI, Marshall Cavendish Books, 1969

Historian Sir Alan Bullock
example of Marshall Cavendish learning system books.

This self-help learning system is astonishing for the vast amount of material put together with impressive academic credentials and accuracy but in a very readable manner and in a relatively short compass.  I have been long interested in the origin and rise of civilisations and the first two books in this outstanding series are particularly helpful. A key feature is the pictorial illustration of key eras and personalities. 

Title H1-  Cradles of Civilisation deals with the civilisations of  Sumer and Akkad; the Indus civilisation of north west India around Harappa; the rise of the Assyrian Nation; the Hittite Empire; the ancient empires of Egypt; the vast Persian Empire, and the later Ptolemaic empires of Egypt closing with Cleopatra’s failure to seduce Octavian and the conquering of Egypt by Rome.

Title H2 – Asia:The Dawn of History, deals with the creation of the  mysterious and ancient temples of South East Asia including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the “menace of the invading T’ai. This is followed by an account of the amalgamation of the earliest Chinese territories of Han, Wei, Chu, Chi and Yen under the banner of Ying Cheng, prince of Ch’in, from whence comes the name ‘China’. It becomes clear how much  Confucius’ influence is so significant for much of Chinese history in spite of the burning of his books and others by Li Ssu and the murder of the K’ung scholars under the Chi’n dynasty. These atrocities were made worse when the Chi’n dynasty itself fell under the power of Liu Pang’s peasant army who also burned the royal library—the only surviving complete collection of China’s ancient classics. 

This history is followed by the account of the youthful Chandragupta Maurya a one time supporter of Alexander the Great’s invasion who eventually led an army from northern India to conquer the Macedonian Seleucus Nicator’s  army and effectively become the first Indian leader to unite the various tribes of northern and central/south India. With the advice of his brahman advisor Kautilya  he ruled an increasing area of India from his capital Pataliputra in northern India. The narrative also deals with the development of India’s ancient faiths based on the influence of three amazing teachers Mahavira who developed Jainism, Gosala maskariputra who founded the Ajivikas movement and of course Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

The narrative then turns to India’s cultural conquest of South East Asia, and in particular the spread of Buddhism and the tension between developments in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism throughout South East Asia, including the magnificent Borubudur temple in central Java,  leaving Hinduism to a tiny remnant in Bali. In the late C13th the situation was altered again as South East Asia reeled under the Mongol attack from northern China and a new powerful influence arrived across the Indian Ocean —Islam which eventually controlled the Malayan Peninsula and all of the East Indies except Bali. The final two chapters deal with the rise and fall of various Chinese dynasties prior to the invincible power of the final Mongol invasion led by Genghis Khan and the golden age of his grandson Kublai Khan who ruled as Emperor of China for 35 years becoming the dynastic leader of the Yuan dynasty, and known to amazed Europeans through the writings of Venetian trader Marco Polo who lived in the Khan’s court from 1275-1292. After Kublai Khan’s death the vast Mongol empire which stretched from China to Europe could not be held together in spite of the fierce power of Timur the lame (Tamerlane) who waged brutal  destruction over all until his death in 1405.The Golden Horde, Persia, the Mamelukes and new Chinese dynasties arose to claim their own place under the sun.

Whilst I am sure all of this can be found online these days it is handy to have such a beautifully illustrated and professionally written accounts in two small books totalling 128 pages still available cheaply on line second hand!  5 stars.

Alice Walker: The Color Purple, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019 (1983).

Alice Walker

Complex rambling novel in the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots, looking at the life of post-emancipation black Africans especially in relation to the treatment of women and their fight for equality, education and standing. Written in the compressed language of everyday black Americans the essence of the novel is the different paths taken and eventual reunion of two sisters, Nettie and Celie, Celie as a young girl was repeatedly raped by a man she called Pa who turned out not to be Pa.  Pushed into an unhappy and servile marriage her life is turned around by an unlikely black female jazz singer Shugg who inspires her and also teachers her how to make genuine love.

Nettie is a determinedly self-educated woman protected early at home by Celie and who, by a complex set of circumstances ends up as a missionary in Africa. This enables Walker to describe and unpick the damage done to post-colonial Africans by the Western money grabbing “developmental” destruction of native vegetation, wild life and food sources, destroying much of the livelihood and lifestyle of many native Africans creating what is in effect a new kind of slavery. The narrative also underscores the complexity and hardships of Christian missionary work..a theme revisited in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Although there is some reconciliation in the conclusion, this narrative tells a harrowing tale of thoughtless and cruel white behaviour towards blacks in general as well as the environment and the equally cruel treatment of black women by their often uncaring and misogynist partners.    A powerful and harrowing novel which continues to make a big impact even after nearly half a century.  5 stars.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne: The Essayes Or Morall, Politike and Militarie of Lo. Michael de Montaigne, Knight: The Second Book, translated from the French by John Florio, London, The Folio Society, 2006 [1580 in Middle French; Florio’s English translation 1603]

Unlike the first book of Montaigne’s essays published at the same time, this second book is absolutely dominated by the towering chapter 12, An Apologie of Raymond Sebonde, which extends to 202 pages, well over half the book. Sebonde was a  C15th Catalan scholar, teacher of medicine and philosophy and a Professor of Theology at Toulouse. Sebonde’s major work had been given to Montaigne’s father by Peter Bunel who had been staying with him on his estate. Bunel was himself an outstanding scholar and linguist from Toulouse and expert in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. 

Sebonde’s book was written in Spanish and Montaigne’s father asked his son Michel to translate it for him into French.  Montaigne was clearly deeply influenced by Sebonde’s ideas and hence his remarkable essay and “apologie” of Raymond Sebonde. His essay/book ranges widely, commencing with the new bangles of Luther’s ideas which he saw were to shake the foundation of our ancient beleefe (p121), and this budding disease would easily turn to an execrable Atheisme. Seybonde wrote his book to establish and verifie all the articles of Christian religion against Atheists. (p122). 

Montaigne takes off from this starting point and commences a major examination and defence of the Christian faith. I was not expecting this because one of my criticisms of Book 1 of Montaigne’s Essays ( published at the same time and reviewed in this blog in August 2019) was that in spite of his vast collection of classical quotations from Greek and Latin authors and occasionally Augustine, there was virtually no reference to the Bible whatsoever. 

Here on the contrary we have a stirring theological/philosophical defence of the Christian faith including debates with Plato (p.128); about the immortality of the soul; about faith in Christ and the grace of God (p131); about Augustine (p133); about the nature of Heaven (p136); about natural theology at considerable length; about human sinfulness and vulnerability (p144); about procreation and marriage including some naughty bits (p164);  about the scope and genius of God’s natural creation; about wisdom (p178); against Stoicism; about human weakness and sickness; an aside about the evils of lawyers (p194); about the mystery of God (God is better known by our not knowing! (p195); about wonder above reason; about the long search to know we know nothing (p192); about the confusions and contradictions of the classical philosophers and the extremities of doubt (p199); about the probability of the reality of faith (p203); about Paul in Athens (p211); about the contradictions of Greek scientific ideas (p213); about our transformed heavenly bodies (p217); about the confusions of the classical account of the gods..(behold and read in Plato the gibberish of the gods, p249); about divine justice (p260); about the limitations of human reason (p275); about the “new found” learning of Copernicus (p281); about the absurdities of non-Christian cultures including Islam; about the dangers of the “changing English religion” ie the Reformation (p292); about the conflicting “faiths” produced by various philosophies..this section with a lengthy debt to Lucretius; and finally about the fleeting passing of time and the changing of all things.

In addition to this substantial book within a book Montaigne continues to entertain with provocative and thoughtful essays on subjects as trivial and as serious as human inconsistency, drunkenness, weird cultural customs, conscience, exercise, honours, children, much about warfare especially Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, books and authors (chapter 10..very interesting for book lovers like me), cruelty (Montaigne hates cruelty in war), death, desire, glory, presumption, telling lies, idleness, sickness, virtue, Siamese twins, anger, in defence of Seneca and Plutarch, good women and good men, and a finally a bitter and tumultuous tirade against the incompetence and gross errors and practices of the medical profession of his day. (for which he apologises to the Lady of Estissac to whom he had dedicated both Books 1 and 2. 

Some quotations from Book 2 which struck me as singular or of their time.

p63   Aristotle on loving others above self: profit is not so much to be esteemed or loved as honesty

p67  that which cannot be compassed by reason, wisdom and discretion, can never be attained by force and constraint.

p77  Re children and marriage…and ill hath their father brought them up, if he cannot hope, these coming to yeares of discretion, they shall have no more wit, reason, and sufficiencie, than his wife, considering the weakness of their sexe.

p90  I am not greatly affected to new books, because ancient Authors are in my judgement more full and pithy..

p104  Virtue provoked adds much to itself (Epanimandas);  to do well, where there was both peril and opposition, was the peculiar office of a man of virtue. (Metullus);  virtue rejecteth facilitie to be her companion.

p112  Against Stoicism: they are sharp-wittie subtilties, and without substance, about which Philosophy doth often busie itself.

p120  Knowledge is without all contradiction, a most profitable and chiefe ornament: Those who despise it declare evidently their sottishness..

p123  On Christianity: …Christians wrong themselves much, in that they ground their beleefe upon humane reasons, which is conceived but by faith, and by a particular inspiration of God.

p127  On Christian warfare: Our religion was ordained to root out vices, but it shrowdeth, fostrethand provoketh them. 

p132  To an Atheist all writings make for Atheism.

p178  Health I say, which is the goodliest and richest present, nature can impart unto us.

p181 ..onely humility and submission is able to make a perfect honest man.

p195  Augustine: God is better knowen by our not knowing him. 

p199  On philosophy: If we can know nothing, we cannot be certain that we know nothing.

p208 On wisdom: …it must not be thought strange if men desparing of the goale have yet taken pleasure in the chase of it.

p210  Plato…for the benefit of men, it is often necessary to deceive them…

p210  What greater vanitie can there be, than to goe about by our proportions and conjectures to guesse at God? And to governe both him and the world according to our capacitie and laws?

p211  On God:  …an incomprehensible power…

p226  On multiple universes: ..Now, if there be divers worlds, as Democritus, Epicurus, and well neere all Philosophy hath thought, what know wee, whether the principles and the rules of this one concerne or touch likewise the others?

p227 Mansiphanes said…that nothing is certaine, but uncertainty.

p240  Have I not seen this divine saying in Plato, that Nature is nothing but an ænigmaticall poesie?….Plato is but a loose poet. 

p297  Metrocles somewhat indiscreetly, as he was disputing in his Schole, in presence of his Auditorie let a fart, for shame whereof he afterwards kept his house, and could not be drawen abroad, untill such time as Crates went to visit him, who to his perswasions and reason, adding the example of his liberty, began to fart a vie with him, and to remove this scruple from his conscience…

p330  Pliny: This onely is sure, that there is nothing sure; and nothing more miserable, and yet more arrogant than man.

p343  Our glory is the testimony of our conscience.

p400  Vespasian: ..an Emperour should die standing upright.

p481  Homer..the first and last of poets.

Montaigne’s C15th language is hard work at times but becomes easier with familiarity. There is amazing triviality alongside impressive classical and historical analysis and much philosophical, moral and religious argument to think about. At times tedious, at others outrageous, nearly always thought provoking. It is worth the effort.  4 stars for me. 

Pearl S. Buck: The Good Earth, London, Pocket Books, 2005 (1931).

Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck (née Sydenstricker),  was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and The Good Earth, her second novel, published in 1931, won the Pulitzer Prize, the Howells Medal and was made into a major MGM movie in 1937 although its Hollywood romantic ending makes a travesty of the novel.  She was the daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries and lived most of her childhood in China becoming fluent in Chinese and English.  After graduating in the USA in 1914 she married agricultural economist John Lossing Buck and they returned immediately to China living in the impoverished community of Nanhsuchou. By the time of her death in 1973 she had published over seventy books.

The Good Earth, is the chronicle of humble but very determined and money wise rural farmer Wang Lung and his lifelong relationship with the land and its crops, set in the early C20th prior to Mao’s cultural revolution.  It is an epic and very personal journey of success and disaster,  drought causing famines, floods and locust ruined crops,  marriages and families, children and grand-children, his relationship to his gods, His outlaw relatives, starvation and begging, wealth and poverty and the impact of wealth on simple family life in a village setting.  The key players are his first wife O-lan, his second wife Lotus, his three sons and two daughters and his extended family. The narrative is told largely from within Wang Lung’s personal and private thoughts and words. The novel has an almost musical compelling harmony and progression of highs and lows, echoing and perhaps explaining the initial introductory opening of a quotation from Proust’s imaginary musical composer Vinteuil. I could not put this book down. It is a compelling read, 5 stars.