John Dickson: The Christ Files: How Historians Know What They Know About Jesus, Sydney, Bluebottle Books, 2000
Australian John Dickson is an outstanding historian and theologian who manages to say more things in fewer words than any other person I have read. He also manages to communicate without using too much long and inscrutable vocabulary. In just 100 pages Dickson deals succinctly with:
types of historical scholarship In New Testament studies (the sceptical, the apologetic and the mainstream….The mainstream historians publish in reputable journals open to the criticism and review by their academic and trained peers; such sources are our best guide.
The references to Jesus in pagan writers ..giving precise detail and analysis of the comments by Josephus, Thallos, Mara bar Serapion, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata and Celsus.
The references to Jesus in early Jewish writers – helpful detail about the comments by Josephus, the Talmud, (baraitha Sanhedrin 43 a-b and baraitha Shabbat 104b) and a summary of the Jewish understanding of Jesus (quite detailed when you see the list altogether on p 31f).
The sources and historical veracity of the New Testament Gospel materials including a very balanced discussion of the priority of Mark and the possible existence of “Q”. This chapter includes a very useful discussion of how a historian goes about the task of weighing up the value a variety of independent historical sources within and behind the New Testament. This analysis included the criteria of coherence, dissimilarity, archaic style (the Gospels were written in Greek, but Jesus spoke Aramaic); the criteria of embarrassment, memorability and date.
A discussion about Jesus in oral tradition…”Jesus Remembered.” (the title of a useful book by James Dunn). This chapter contains very instructive analysis of two parables of the same story and comments on the differences within them and the possible reasons for the differences.
A discussion about the background context for the study of Jesus. Obvious candidates here are the Jewish Tanakh (The Old Testament); the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Mishnah; Josephus; Old Testament Pseudopigrapha; Graeco-Roman writers; Archaeology (especially the last 25 years); and the so-called Secret Gospels.
John Dickson concludes in part with this sentence: … I suspect one of the reasons we modern people avoid discussing Jesus and the Gospels is that our last brush with these topics was simplistic and shallow. Sometimes this is because we were six years old when we last gave consideration to Jesus ‘meek and mild’. Other times it is because the Christians we have encountered talked about their faith in facile and unreflective ways. But the Gospels surely deserve a second look!…the influence of Jesus is incalculable..the Gospels were composed after a very sophisticated process of eyewitness reporting, oral traditioning, source examination and critical reflection…tor these reasons and more, the Gospels deserve to be read seriously by believers and unbelievers, scholars and laymen alike. 5 stars and rising!
N T Wright: The Challenge of Jesus: Second Edition, London, SPCK, 2015 (1st edition 2000)
In his new preface to this edition Tom Wright reminds us that in January 1999, nobody imagined..what would happen less than three years later, as planes smashed into buildings and the world changed forever. The Western world , and the Western Church, was embarrassingly unprepared not just for the terrible and wicked deeds of September 11, 2001 but for the world-view challenges that it offered. For far too long, Western Christianity had believed, at least implicitly, that religion and politics were two such separate things that one didn’t really need to think too hard about how they might engage with one another. The reaction to the atrocity was then predictable: meet fire with fire…into this strange, dark new world, we urgently need new light. Jesus of Nazareth brought that light a long time ago. The world, and the Church, has found it too dazzling, and we have done our best to cover it up, talking busily about a private spirituality in the present and a ‘heavenly’ salvation. But when Jesus taught us to pray that God’s Kingdom would come, and God’s will would be done, on earth as in heaven, he actually meant it. (p.ix)
Wright’s solution to this problem is to challenge his readers to think historically about Jesus of Nazareth not theologically. He writes about Jesus as a historian not as a systematic theologian or a Biblical literature theorist. The result is indeed a fresh and startling book although careful readers of his foundational works Jesus and the Victory of God and The New Testament and the People of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God will be familiar with much of the detail of the defence of these ideas. What has changed from the first edition, apart from the new Preface, is not the content of the first edition but the context …The Western world is rapidly moving into a non-Christian, not to say anti-Christian understanding as the modernist world disintegrates and the post-modern replacement drifts in fits and starts on every vaporous current of ideas that flits past us, bur remorselessly always in a non-Christian direction in a google-saturated world. In this environment Wright calls us not just to be kingdom announcers, modelling the new way of being human, we are also to be cross-bearers. This is a strange and dark theme which is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. (p145). …It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world, so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world…(p146)…we are cracked vessels full of glory, wounded healers. (p149).
The essence of Wright’s argument about Jesus is summed up neatly in chapter 4 “The crucified Messiah”. Of course we understand that Jesus was a prophet announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God. (Unless you are a disciple of John Crossan’s theory of Jesus the Galilean peasant who was a spinner of whimsical and gnostic tales). But Jesus was far more than a prophet. His teaching (when it is not stripped bare by inadequate, faulty and unsubstantiated mid C20th modernist criticism which reduces his message to a bare thread), is unique, powerful, cutting, incisive and life changing and demonstrates that Jesus was a theologian…a theologian of huge originality and power. But of course, there is more! Was Jesus the Son of God? people ask and Wright’s answer is that this is the wrong question. We cannot study Jesus’s psychology but we can study what he says about his vocation. When we do we quickly learn that Jesus regarded himself at the embodiment of the Jewish Messiah…the longed hoped for saviour of the Jewish people who would free them from exile and slavery.
Analysis of second temple Jewish literature shows that large numbers of Jews in the C1st A.D. were longing for their deliverer to come in power, overcome the Romans and bring in the long awaited and prophesied kingdom of God. The Gospels show that Jesus did indeed believe himself to be the Messiah but a very different Messiah from the one the Jewish community was looking for. He was a servant Messiah not a warrior Messiah. Jesus’ violent acts in the temple, his warnings about the coming destruction of the temple, his authoritative offer of forgiveness of sins replacing temple offerings, his parables of the landlord’s son coming to claim ownership and getting killed, his announcements in the Nazareth synagogue when he invoked Isaiah’s prophecy as his task, his courageous establishment of a new covenant in his crucified body and blood and much more besides clearly shows us that Jesus knew quite clearly and determinedly who we was. To ask “did Jesus know he was God?” is the wrong question. Jesus’s vocation was to be God’s Messiah and he knew from Isaiah that the task would involve his death. Of course this is why Jesus’ disciples were so despondent after Jesus’ crucifixion.
As for the resurrection, Wright argues again historically and not theoretically or theologically. He notes there is no evidence for a form of early Christianity in which the resurrection was not the central belief. Wright moves on to show what resurrection belief was not. It was not some sort of “ultimate non-physical bliss” as seen in Philo’s account; nor was it some sort of disembodied existence in some heavenly state as in the apocryphal Book of Wisdom. Wright demonstrates that from the prophecy of Ezekiel 37 and Jeremiah onwards there was a sense in which “resurrection” would mean Israel’s return from exile and the renewal of their covenant in the inauguration of a new age. (p101). For the Jews who did believe in the resurrection (and there were many who did not eg the Sadducees) their view of resurrection was a reembodiment of God’s chosen people… believing Jews – an event for all true Jewish believers. As Wright notes, the early Christian notion of the resurrection of just one person, the Messiah (Jesus or any other Messiah), was nowhere on the second Temple Jewish wavelength. For just one person to be resurrected was a very singular and peculiar thing indeed. The Christian claim that, apart from the earliest appearances noted in 1 Corinthians 15, believers came to know to know the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread and in a sense of the power of the Holy Spirit was also a completely new deal although clearly foretold in Jeremiah’s prophecy. (p107) Of course Paul did go further and write about the eventual “resurrection body” in the future and here Wright explicates well the problems of the RSV and NRSV use of the terms the “spiritual” and the “physical” body and moves us again towards the notion of a renewed kingdom of God on a recreated and redeemed earth.
As I write this I fully understand that this book is full of demanding and difficult ideas and for someone looking for a simple answer when they are asked “Who is Jesus?” they may not have the stamina to stay with this analysis. In response Wright simply returns to the post-modern world outlined above. Evangelical Christianity in particular has tended to “deify” Jesus of Nazareth turning him into a “docetic” Christ… not a normal man at all. But Jesus was in fact a man, a human being… a man sent by God as John writes. And that man, from childhood it seems, had the deepest possible sense of his vocation as the long awaited Jewish Messiah. A Messiah who had to show the Jewish nation that true messiahship must incorporate the prophesied suffering servant of Isaiah rather than the military might of a Davidic King. Jesus of Nazareth was not at all interested in repeating the ultimately doomed fight of the Maccebean rebels against Roman oppression. If we are to be able to explain to non-believers the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” we must read the Bible historically and not (only) theologically and we may get further. I heartily commend this book. 5 stars.
Alex Miller: The Sitters, Crows Nest NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2003
Interesting and engaging novella by brilliant English/Australian author Alex Miller about art, love and family. This was his fourth novel following his multi-award winning The Ancestor Game which won the Miles Franklin award among many others and was simply a most stunning novel. The Sitters is far less complex but still, as always with Miller, engages he mind with many twists and turn. Ittells an intriguing story of an artist on the brink of fame and his on again off again relationship with university colleague Jessica. As in many Miller novels the action eventually centres on the dreamy and remote Australian rural outback, this time the Araluen Valley in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. All of Miler’s trademark skills are in evidence once more including philosophic, artistic and literary references, fine characterisations, complex family relationships and links between Australia and England. A very readable and thoughtful novel, interesting and engaging, without reaching great heights. 4 stars.
Tim Winton: Breath, Camberwell, VIC, Penguin, 2008
Complex and troubling novel by Tim Winton who never fails to surprise his readers with his characters drawn with searing honesty, weaknesses as well as strengths, and who often fall into very deep waters indeed but always finishing with some form of redemption. Bruce Pike’s life story, growing up in a small country town in South Western Australia, his adventures with surfing, school and sex and his adult life as a paramedic provide Winton with a rich array of interesting characters of whom by far the most interesting is the ageing surfing superstar Sando. The “breath” theme emerges in many and unexpected places and the novel also has much to say about changing friendship patterns, deep water writers and scientists Hans Has and Jacques Coosteau and Peruvian American mystic Carlos Castaneda. Winton also manages to interweave Christian themes into his novel as well as reflections on fame, loss and mental illness. The deepest theme of all, however, is the majesty, spirituality, danger and power of the surf and the deep sea and its seemingly endless ability to entice its true believers into ever increasing trials of strength. This is a novel full of very powerful images, some very difficult to delete from the mind. 5 stars.
Bob Slosser: Miracle in Darien, Plainfield, NJ, Logos International, 1979
New York journalist with the New York Times and the National Courier Bob Slosser has written a unique portrait of the creation of a megachurch, St Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Darien, Connecticut. Slosser was a member of this church prior to and throughout the 17 year tenure of Everett L. “Terry” Fullam and he writes with a journalist’s eye and with what could only be actual notes taken at the time of sermons, prayers and even Fullam’s expressions of humour and other characteristics.
Terry Fullam was a Christian musician turned philosopher and theologian who graduated from Harvard with an MA and from Barrington College with a Doctorate in Theology and was a well-known speaker and song leader. He attended a service lead by the Revd Dennis Bennett, Rector of St Mark’s Van Nuys and was baptised in the Holy Spirit and became committed to charismatic renewal in the Episcopalian Church.
Called to be the new Rector of St Paul’s Darien in 1972 Fullam was ordained without attending a seminary program, by the Bishop of Rhode Island, and made an immediate impact on what was already a well-attended “standard” Episcopalian church. Fullam’s ministry based on the model of “everyone in the church is a minister” and his exceptional musical talents and with the help of his team exploded St Paul’s into a dynamic ministry with several pastors, major support staff who worked in counselling, welfare, finance for folk in trouble, youth and childrens ministry, prison ministry and a raft of other services. Fullam himself spent up to fifty per cent of his time on speaking engagements and missions outside the parish and after retiring from the parish he spent nine years travelling overseas encouraging spiritual renewal including over fifty separate visits to Israel. It is reasonable to say that Fullam was widely regarded as the leader of charismatic renewal in the North American Episcopalian Church deeply strengthening the beleaguered evangelical minority in that denomination.
Slosser’s writing is measured, detailed, full of scriptural references but does not beatify Fullam and demonstrates his weaknesses and challenges as well as his successes. An up to date reprint has been re-set at a more general and less personal level as a handbook for church spiritual growth and is highly regarded.
I was not sure what to expect from Miracle in Darien. In the end I could not put it down. It is a well – crafted, wise and spiritually thoughtful and uplifting read. 5 stars.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York & Canada, New Directions, 1972 (1962)
In spite of this non-speaking isolation Merton gained a wide reputation as a writer, social critic, and progressive thinker by the time of his death at fifty-two. He wrote more than seventy books, diaries, biographies, poetry, meditative writing and political essays as well as hundreds of journal articles.
Born in Prades, France, the son of artists who died when he was young, Merton lived in Bermuda and Britain before enrolling briefly in Cambridge University in England. In 1934 he entered Columbia University in New York City, where he earned a master’s degree in English, studying under Mark Van Doren. It was at this time that he went from agnostic to Roman Catholic. In 1941 after teaching English in a Harlem settlement house, he entered the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani, a cloistered Trappist monastery in central Kentucky.
New Seeds of Contemplation, is an impressive series of brief essays surrounding the “art” and process of Christian contemplation. It contains many profound and thought provoking ideas, theological insights, many practical suggestions and a number of warnings about the traps of leading a contemplative life. The chapter entitled “the moral theology of the Devil” is profound and chapter 15 “Sentences” contains wise advice including Sentence 1: To hope is to risk frustration. Therefore make up your mind to risk frustration, and sentence 7: If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn. Contemplation is a serious undertaking and not something one drifts into. There are salutary warnings and vast wisdom contained here but it is not all easy reading. 4 stars.
David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars, Maryborough Vic., Bloomsbury, 1994 (paperback film tie-in edition) originally published, UK, 1995.
Complex first novel by American writer, poet and journalist David Guterson and made into a major international movie success directed by Australian Scott Hicks. The novel is set in the mid 1950’s in the bitter winter of the North West Pacific Puget Sound area of the Washington coast, in a fishing and agricultural town settled by a significant number of Japanese strawberry and raspberry crop growers. Guterson has weaved an engrossing account of a murder trial centred on a death of a German/American fisherman at sea and a longstanding dispute over a land deal with the prime suspect being a Japanese man who had fought for the US in world war 11. The key players in the novel are Ishmail Chambers, a newspaper editor who lost an arm fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, Hatsue Imada, his Japanese childhood sweetheart whose relationship deepened into young adulthood and Kabuo Miyamoto the fisherman/farmer murderer suspect who was married to Hatsue Imada when all Japanese where interned in prison camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The snow falling on tall cedar forests in the midst of a violent storm is the constant visual and emotive backdrop of this visceral novel. Guterson also describes in some detail the trauma for interned Japanese families living in appalling conditions in remote camps in the USA as well as the bitter hand to hand fighting in the Pacific islands as the US entered the war and began to win back territory occupied by the Japanese. An engrossing and challenging read with perhaps a need for stronger editing in parts. 4 stars.
John Julius Norwich: Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe, London, John Murray, 2017
It is an extraordinary coincidence that in the decade between 1491 and 1500 four of the most influential leaders ever to hold power in Europe should be born. In the same half century came the explosion of the Reformation, the invention of the printing press, the beginnings of modern science and the age of world exploration.
John Julius Norwich has the remarkable gift of making history not only come alive but fascinating and enjoyable as well as informed. Henry VIII needs no introduction ..his six wives, mercurial temperament, lust for power and passion to win France for England, quite apart from his challenge to papal power and authority is a story often told but Norwich manages to introduce us to a more personal Henry ..his doubts and fears as well as his bombast. Francis 1, King of France, lusted after his Italian possessions especially Milan as much as Henry wanted France. Francis 1 was sandwiched between the two flanks of the mighty Holy Roman Empire, with Spain to the west and Germany, the low countries and the Balkans to the east. Frequently in opposition to Papal authority as well as Henry V111 he had few friends and needed the support of the Ottoman Muslim leader Suleiman the Magnificent to even the scales of power. Charles V, Hapsburg King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was certainly made in the tradition of Charlemagne. Multi-lingual, a fierce warrior, cunning diplomat, creative leader and fierce opponent of the Reformation, he also had no qualms about sacking Rome and effectively imprisoning the Pope.
Here were three high powered personalities indeed but the fourth was the greatest of all. Suleiman the Magnificent ruled the vast and complex Ottoman Empire with flair, intelligence and brutal power mercilessly quashing opposition from any quarter for over forty years. He was the only one of the four rulers to reach the age of 60, living into his 70s. The Ottoman rulers before him had already taken complete control of the Balkans and under Suleiman’s rule they annexed Hungary from the Hapsburgs before laying siege to Vienna itself. In addition with the help of the naval pirate Barbarossa Suleiman controlled the Mediterranean and Aegean coast from the Barbary Coast in North Africa in the South to Rhodes, the Balearic Islands and even Nice and laying siege to Malta. Suleiman was a statesman, a patron of the arts, a legislator and first and foremost a soldier with unparalleled strategic skills and died with his troops in battle.
With superb skill Norwich integrates the stories of these four amazing leaders seamlessly interleaving his considerable knowledge of the role of the papacy throughout this whole period. It is difficult to find a paragraph that is not memorable in this account. The pace never weakens and it is an adventure narrative full of pathos, drama, extreme violence, political and religious intrigue as well as dirty dealing when needed. One of the saddest parts of the narrative is the appalling treatment and annihilation of Protestant Christians in both France and the Balkans…a terror whose results are still seen today. I cannot think of a better entry to the study of European history than this energetic and stylishly fluent account. 5 stars.
QUESTIONS/COMMENTS FROM Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York & Canada, New Directions, 1972 (1962).
p 15: The love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good.
p 45 The cowardice that does what is demanded, in order to escape sacrifice.
p 49 ..the complacency of a will that loves its own excellence.
p 50 The sin? of Christian activity. In what way is Christian activity sinful?
p. 52f Solitude is not separation from other humans..If you go into the desert to get away from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils…go into the desert not to escape other men but in order to find them in God.
p 54 There is no more dangerous solitude that that of the man who is lost in a crowd, who does not know he is alone and who does not function as a person in a community either.
p 56 God does not give us graces or talents or virtues for ourselves alone.
p 57 In humility is the greatest freedom.
p 61f The holiness of God is seen in God becoming man and dwelling among sinners. God was not holy enough for man so they crucified him.
p 68 The trinity is an example of fellowship being possible in one person.
p 71 Christ is massacred in His members, torn limb from limb; God is murdered in men.
p 72 Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish.
p 75 The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved.
p 76 Contemplation is out of the question for anyone who does not try to cultivate compassion for other men.
p 79 The flight from the world is nothing but the flight from self-concern…it is dangerous to go i into solitude merely because you like to be alone.
p 82f Let there always be quiet dark churches in which men can take refuge… a place somewhere …where your mind can be idle, and forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship the Father in secret. There can be no contemplation where there is no secret.
p 84 Do everything you can to avoid the noise and business of men…Be glad if you can keep beyond the reach of their radios. Do not bother with their unearthly songs. Do not read their advertisements…no man who who seeks spiritual freedom, can afford to yield passively to all the appeals of a society of salesmen, advertisers and consumers. There is no doubt that life cannot be lived on a human level without certain legitimate pleasures. But to say that all the pleasures which offer themselves to us as necessities are not “legitimate” is quite another story.
p 85. We must be able to say no to our appetites.
p 85f No contemplative life is possible without ascetic self-discipline …drinking, smoking, eating, tv, sex and today data!…
p 86 Keep your eyes clean and your ears quiet and your mind serene. Breathe God’s air. Work, if you can, under His sky.
p 87 Keep your sense of compassion for the men who have forgotten the very concept of solitude. You, at least, into that it exists and it is the source of peace and joy.
p 96f Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps be all more or less at fault. …the moral theology of the devil grants an altogether unusual amount of importance to …the devil…one soon comes to find out that he is the very centre of the whole system, that he is behind everything…and that there is every chance of his doing so because, it now appears, his power is equal to God, or perhaps superior to it. In one word, the theology of the devil is purely and simply that the devil is god.
p 100 It is not humility to insist on being someone that you are not….how do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading somebody else’s life?
pp104-111 Sentences:To hope is to risk frustration. Therefore make up your mind to risk frustration
Do not be one of those who, rather than risk failure, never attempts anything.
Our minds are like crows. They pick up everything that glitters, no matter how uncomfortable our nests get with all that metal in them.
If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticised, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some people will condemn.
You cannot be a man of faith unless you know how to doubt.
True faith is never merely a source of spiritual comfort. It may indeed bring peace, but before it does so it must involve us in a struggle.
We are so convinced that past evils must repeat themselves that we make them repeat themselves.
The really “new” is that which, at every moment, springs freshly into new existence.
We need to learn how to renounce our resentment towards the absurdity and moral anarchy of modern society without becoming complicit or arrogant…we reject society’s premise by the liberty given to us by our faith in God..we are commanded to come out of Egypt!
The poet enters into himself in order to create. The contemplative enters into God in order to be created.
p 125 Sinners are people who hate everything, because their world is necessarily full of betrayal, full of illusion, full of deception. And the greatest sinners are the most boring people in the world because they are also the most bored and the ones who find life most tedious.
p127f Faith is first of all an intellectual assent..faith is not expected to give complete satisfaction to the intellect …yet it does not frustrate the intellect or deny it…the act of faith is an act in which the intellect is content to know God by loving Him and accepting His statements about Himself on His own terms.
p 128 Faith is also a grasp, a contact, a communion of wills…one must assent to God.
p 130 Ultimately faith is the only key to the universe.
p 133 It is unwise to try to unlock the meaning of the three persons in one nature.
p 134 We feel the weakness and instability of our spirit in the presence of the awful mystery of God…a subjective sense of our own helplessness is perfectly compatible with true faith.
p 139 φυχος (psuchos) = animal soul; νους (nous) = mind, reason, knowledge; πνευμα (pneuma) = spirit; σοφια (sophia) = wisdom, an alternative name for God in the Old Testament Wisdom literature.
p 142 The Church is at the same time esentially traditional and essentially revolutionary… Christianity is a living and perpetual revolution.
p145 “…the dry outer crust of formality which the Church sometimes acquires.”
p 146 Mysticism and dogma are not opposed..they need each other.
p 146 …therefore beware of the contemplative who says that theology is all straw before he has ever bothered to read any.
p 151 No one can be quite sure just how Christ looked….No one can dismiss the man Christ from his interior life on the pretext that he has now entered by contemplation into direct communication with the Word.
p 153 The “what” in Christ is vastly less important than the “who”.
p 154 Do we need a “picture” of Christ to help us in our prayers?
p 160 People waste their whole lives in appalling labour and difficulty and sacrifice to get things that make real life impossible.
p 163 Life in Christ is life in the hidden mystery of the Cross.
p 165 Reference to “the real Presence” and p. 168 all graces come to men through Mary.
p 169 Mary is as nothing in the presence of God.
p 176 Do not think you can show your love for Christ by hating those who seem to be his enemies on earth…He loves them.
p 178 A man cannot be a perfect Christian – that is, a saint, unless he is also a communist. Try to share some or the poverty of the poor.
p 180 Despair is the ultimate extreme of self-love…because our resources inevitably fail us, we are all, more or less, subject to discouragement or despair.
p 181 The beginning of humility is the beginning of blessedness…if we were incapable of humility we would be incapable of joy.
p187 Place no hope in the inspirational preachers of Christian sunshine!
p 196 We must distinguish between self-will and liberty.
p 204 …many never come to suspect how much they are governed by unconscious forms of selfishness, how much their virtuous acts are prompted by a narrow and human self-interest.
p 210 …striving for complete emptiness…cf 231 “Be empty and see that I am God”…cf p 265 ..but in the contemplative, all complexities have now begun to straighten themselves out and dissolve into unity and emptiness and interior peace…cf p268 ..emptied of attachments..cf p 278 the experience of God opens out inside you as a terrific emptiness…cf p287f ..can such union with God be the object of inordinate desire?…you cannot inordinately desire that God’s will be done for His own sake. But it is in these two desires perfectly conceived and fulfilled that we are emptied into Him and transformed into His joy and it is in these that we cannot sin. cf p291f ..the union of the simple light of God with the simple light of man’s spirit, in love, is contemplation. The two simplicities are one. They form, as it were, an emptiness in which there is no addition but rather the taking away of names, of forms. of content, of subject matter, of identities.
p 212 The most important thing in life is a feeling of interior peace.
p 217 Meditation…teaches you how to become aware of the presence of God : and most of all it aims at bringing you to a state of almost constant loving attention to God, and dependence on Him.
p221 If you have never had any distractions you don’t know how to pray.
p223 It is no use trying to clear your mind of all the material things at the moment of meditation if you do nothing to cut down the pressures of work outside that time.
p235 Let us never forget that the ordinary way to contemplation lies through a desert without tread without beauty and without water…ie contemplation comes through a suffering journey..with no refreshment for their imagination and intellect and for the desires of their nature.
p 243 There is no such thing as a kind of prayer in which you do absolutely nothing.
p 247 Merton refers to “stigmata” but offers no comment on whether or not it actually happens.
p 250 Christ came on earth to form contemplatives?? Is this why Christ came?
p 253 A contemplative cannot operate in a situation of extreme poverty.
p 254 Contemplation …is the normal perfection of theology…unless they are united, there is no fervour, no life and no spiritual welfare in theology, no meaning and no sure orientation in theology.
p 259 Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for spiritual JOY. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and spiritual joy you have not yet begun to live.
p 266 [The contemplative’s] life is a prolonged immersion in the rivers of tranquillity that flow from God into the whole universe and draw all things back into God.
p 269 ..if your experience of God comes from God, one of the signs may be a great diffidence in telling others about it.
p 271 No-one teaches contemplation except God.
p 279f Merton introduces a definition of a human person which includes the person (the spiritual and hidden self, united to God) and the ego (the exterior, empirical self…a kind of mask for the hidden self….it is our whole reality (not a distinction between “body” and “soul”). This insist self ..has its own way of knowing, loving and experiencing, which is a divine way and not a human one…. What do we think about this division?
p 285 Merton refers to this perfect contemplation in which the should vanishes out of itself by the perfect renunciation of all desires and all things…is such perfect contemplation on earth possible?
p 288 [Contemplatives} are the strength of the world…they are the ones who keep the universe from being destroyed…. They shall inherit the land…They see God. He does their will, because His Will is there own… hmmm..
p 290 God made the world in order that He Himself might descend into the world.
p. 295 God’s presence in the world as Man depends, in some measure, upon men.
Indigenous Australian author Alexis Wright won the Miles Franklin award for this powerful and consuming novel about her northern Australian homeland of the interior country surrounding the Gulf of Carpentaria. The setting of the novel is the fictional mining town of Desperance, a remote community divided by an upwardly socially mobile white community (Uptown) led by the racist and violently corrupt mayor Stan Bruiser and the ineffectual and sleazy policeman Truthful. Uptown is supported by the mine and its politely racist families would prefer the indigenous community would either come over to their side or just go away. The dispossessed indigenous community is also divided within itself by ancient family feuds between families who live on different sides of the town…Norm Phantom’s mob in Pricklebush on one side and every other indigenous family on the other side (The Westsiders).
Wright’s pulsating organic writing manages to create a depth of reality which engulfs the reader with its passionate perfumes and more often the stinking odours of rotting fish, windswept dust or poisonous odoriferous winds and water from the mine. The writing has elements of magic realism intertwined with ancient Aboriginal lore of the bush, the plants, the sea, the rocks, the history, the rivers, the climate, the past and indeed the future. The image of the stranded Elias at night sitting in his boat in the middle of an inland lagoon in the middle of the scrub will be fixated in my mind I suspect for a very long time.
There are key figures who engage our sympathy – the anti mine terrorist Will Phantom, the sexy and sleazy Angel Day, the prophetic cult leader Mozzie Shipman, the tragic fisherman Elias, the old man who knew everything Joseph Midnight, the Bohemian priest Danny with his souped up black Valiant and many others. Wright’s deft touch includes mystery, wonder, humour, spirituality, pathos and hope all mixed up in a kaleidoscope of colour and mixed emotions.
Norm Phantom is the lynch-pin of the narrative but his is an ambivalent and equivocal figure. His sea-lore and mystical fishing and navigating skills and his ability to communicate with the deep see Groper fish fills the reader with admiration and wonder as do his artistic skills demonstrated in his transformational fish collages.His common sense rejection of his fire-brand son Will’s terrorist approach to the mine helps us to see him as a progressive and thoughtful indigenous leader, someone who could make a difference as shown by his saving of his grandson Bala. On the other hand his liaison with the desirable but dangerous Angel Day and his apparent indifference, even hatred of his children including his inability to act on his own disgust with the libidinous Truthful’s lust after his daughter and his reliance on a visionary knowledge of the future rather than any direct action begin to make us wonder whether his lack of action is the cause of some of the town’s misery. His epic sea journey to see Elias appropriately laid to rest in a deep sea Groper Fish sea cave is mesmerising and memorable as is his Old Man of the Sea untidy and dangerous journey back home.
The pace of the narrative varies radically. We are drawn unerringly through hair-raisingly fearful and rivetingly physical escape and attack narratives that you cannot put down until you reach a climax..including the sickening attack on Kevin and the three young petrol sniffers. But then comes the slow, deeply moving and intense scrutiny of the harshly beautiful Carpentaria landscape with its tyrannical climate changes, obliterating cyclones, dangerous floods and heat and vast consuming distances. This is landscape painting of the highest order, well and truly ready to match both Patrick White and Alex Miller.
This text fills the reader with a sad longing for what might have been in the development of our young nation; shame for the murder, racism and damage inflicted on indigenous communities by “civilised whites”; wonder at the brooding force and power of the natural physical order of the north and a genuine fear for the fragility of the fraught relationship between an ancient civilisation and its relatively recent arrivals. I was both exhausted and exhilarated when I finished this substantial Tolstoyan-like massive novel. 5 stars.
John Wyndham: The Day of The Triffids, Ringwood AU, Penguin/Michael Joseph,1971. (1951).
Englishman John Wyndham was a classic 1950s Sci-Fi writer also responsible for the The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos. The Triffids are stinging plants that have evolved the ability to walk. A 24 hour shower of eerie green lights has blinded pretty well the whole of England and presumably the world enabling, the Triffids to begin to gain control. The story is about two accidentally sighted survivors who had missed the light show. Bill and Josella meet on the street, fall in love and through sadness, horror and many adventures begin to raise a family in the ensuing chaos of a totally broken England, but only just. The future remains uncertain as diverse colonies huddle together fighting hunger, disease and predatory behaviour by other groups.
The book raises interesting questions about the power of sight and how precious it is and how helpless most of us would be without it. It is also a powerful commentary on the tension between helping others and surviving yourself. It is also a study of human drives and personality types. Interesting to compare it with the C21st more hardcore approach of current post-nuclear story tellers like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Henry David Thoreau: Walden, or Life in the Woods, Everyman’s Library: London, J M Dent/New York, E P Dutton & Co., 1912 (1854).
One of the “American Transcendentalists”, and protege of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau was a prolific essayist, poet, philosopher, sometime teacher and manual labourer. His father had French ancestry from the island of Jersey and his mother was the daughter of a Puritan Minister. Brought up in Concord, Massachusetts, then a country of woodland, lakes and pastures, he graduated from Harvard College but refused to pay the $5 to receive his certificate. Thoreau had little interest in career and wealth and would have been a common labourer and something of a drifter, refusing to pay taxes and therefore occasionally imprisoned, he survived on odd jobs and occasionally teaching. He was fortunate to have the support of Emerson who encouraged publication of his articles, employed him from time to time and provided the land for his wooden hut which be built close to Walden Pond. Thoreau built and lived in this isolated one room hut for two years, planting a bean field, and fishing and hunting. Walden is the story of these two years. Thoreau never married and died of tuberculosis at age 44, never having travelled outside north-eastern America and Canada.
It is difficult to describe the impact made by Thoreau’s writing in Walden. In exalted prose and some poetry he describes the natural wonderland of forest, pond ( a very large pond), plants and animals that greeted his daily woodland ramblings. He still regularly visited the local village and had many visitors to his hut but by and large he lived his solo life for two years. Everything comes under scrutiny …the sounds of the forest and bird life, the seasons of the lake including the iced up winters, his rumination on solitude, philosophy, early history of the area, his bean field, food (“this slimy, beastly like, eating and drinking”), religion, loons, poetry, business, fires, the harsh winter cold, the beauty of ice and the rapture of Springtime. Every now and then we glimpse his immense learning. Comfortable in Greek and Latin with an exhaustive knowledge of Greek mythology, he is equally at home with the Hindu mysticism of the Bhagavad-Gita as Cato or the Bible. He read widely in travel literature and had a vast knowledge of global geography and history without ever leaving the North American mainland. His writing about meditation and thinking would today be described as writing about mindfulness. The dream-like writing leads the reader on gently and instructively and although the minute details of birds and fish and ice might seem unnecessary, somehow he continues to engage interest.
There are some classic sentences in Walden that live today most especially perhaps: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (p5). He asks: will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? (p98) He quotes Confucius: Virtue does not remain as an abandoned orphan; it must of necessity have neighbours. (p119)
He was consumed by the idea of solitude and the individual. I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing my experience but taking no not of it…when the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a word of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbours and friends sometimes…I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. (p119) He cared little for money..for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days and spent them lavishly. (P169) Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth. (p174). He valued “siting and doing nothing” above all: Enter ye that have leisure and a quiet mind, who earnestly seeks the right road. (p257); In a pleasant Spring morning, all men’s sins are forgiven. (p277). About Springtime he writes: There needs no further proof of immortality. All things must live in such a light. O death, where is thy sting?” He ponders the inscrutability and mystery of existence: At the same time we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable…
Walden closes with the simple sentence: I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847. But he then adds a chapter entitled Conclusion which is much more didactic and philosophical. He challenges his readers to take hold of life and celebrate its beauty. The universe is wider than our view of it (p282). Thoreau encourages us to be explorers .. Be a Columbus…open new channels, not of trade but of thought…there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an islet , and yet unexpected by him. (p283) He opposes Mirabeau’s opposition to the sacred laws of society and defends just government (p284). He writes: however mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorer when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. (p289). Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul. (p290) Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. (p291) Thoreau closes with Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
Walden is a tale to be read slowly and thoughtfully, not rushed through. Thoreau was a massive fighter against slavery and an environmentalist well before Rachel Carson. A philosopher who is clear, consistent and easily understood! How rare is that? 5 stars.
Peter Jones: Imagist Poetry, London England, Penguin,1972.
In the first decades of the C20th poetry, like art, underwent a massive change in form, structure, and just about everything else. Prefigured by Japanese Haiku poetry, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the French vers libre Symbolists including Rimbaud and Mallarmé, a small group of American and English poets gravitated together and began to produce a radically new form of cut down and highly compressed and intuitive poetry. They came to be known as “The Imagists”, a name coined by Ezra Pound.
The American poets were Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), John Gould Fletcher and Amy Lowell, and the British poets were Richard Aldington, F.S. Flint and D. H. Lawrence. Five volumes were produced: Des Imagistes, edited by Ezra Pound, Some Imagist Poets 1914, 1915 and 1917 all edited by Amy Lowell and finally a much later Imagist Anthology of 1930 edited by Richard Aldington.
The editor of this collection, Peter Jones is an English and Classics teacher, publisher, poet and literary critic and has created a fascinating and accessible collection of poems and a careful and well documented introductory study of “the imagists” and associated poets including Edward Storer, T. E. Hulme, Skipwith Cannell, John Cournos, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams.
Imagism is a poetry of intuition rather than description and it was written in free verse with a radical rejection of traditional poetic devices, especially alliteration and metre as well as a revolt against Victorian moralism. It is the poetry of presentation, not representation and a kind of accurate mystery (Aldington). It owed a debt to Bergson’s philosophy of image and intuition and had a tinge of the metaphysical around the edges. At the same time it ran straight into the horrors of WW1 and a deeper sense of evil challenged the evanescent sense of mystery and awe in their later works. Although this group had dispersed by the 1920s they laid a foundation for a major new direction for much C20th poetry writing, well and truly preparing the way for the exceptional genius of T S Eliot who was also influenced by Pound and who came on to the organising committee of the Imagists towards the end of its life.
Peter Jones touch is light and easy to understand just as many of the poems are elusive, complex and difficult to understand. Jones includes both positive and critical responses of the day and a useful feature is his inclusion of poems already written and then rewritten by the same poet in the Imagist style (usually severely cut but achieving a pleasing and favourable result. Jones also includes the Prefaces to the 1914 -17 collections, biographical notes on each poet represented, a useful bibliography of the texts discussed in the introduction and a very useful guide to further reading regarding the development of Anglo-American poetry up to the 1960s. This is altogether a marvellous collection of diverse materials and a very helpful introduction to a group of less well known poets with the exception of Lawrence and Joyce. 4 stars.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together, translated by John W Doberstein, London, SCM, 1954 ; from German Gemeinsaames Leben, 1949.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is truly one of the heroes of Christian faith. Executed by the Nazis, close to the end of WW11 for plotting against Hitler’s life, Bonhoeffer was a theological giant, cut off in his prime. His books Letters and Papers from Prison, Ethics, The Cost of Discipleship and No Rusty Swords are rightly regarded as Christian classics. This little Book about the church, Life Together, just ninety five pages, is, in my view the best of all. In seemingly simple terms he packs in such helpful practical advice, spiritual wisdom and energising encouragement that the reader cannot help but be inspired to return to their church inspired and encouraged.
Chapter one is simply about Christian community. Bonhoeffer reminds us that we should not take our Christian community for granted. Many Christians around the world are on their own, literally. If we have a church fellowship we are fortunate. He reminds us that our Christian community must be based on Christ alone. If we are going to church for the social experience, because it is a “dream” church where everyone is “people like us” and “nice”, or a place we can go to have a “rapturous experience” or because the music is wonderful then we have failed to understand Christian community.
All of these are false motivations. Bonhoeffer writes that God is not a God of emotions but the God of truth..He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter , even though his personal intentions be ever so honest, and earnest and sacrificial. Bonhoeffer encourages us to give thanks daily ..even where were is no great experience, nod discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty. This must surprise us, especially those like me who have been fortunate in the past to belong to huge and powerful congregations, with exceptional music, outstanding preachers, deep spiritual maturity and close friendships.
Bonhoeffer celebrates the opposite..Christ bids me to celebrate fellowship for the sake of love …the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Chris; in the poor brother, Christ is knocking at the door… thus it is that really annoying person, that person with deep needs, that person who is not “people like us”, that person whose memory is gone, that person who is so depressing…is Christ knocking at the door. I found this chapter especially challenging.
Chapter 2 concerns “the day with others”…how we lead our daily lives and our worship life. Bonhoeffer helps us with the imprecatory psalms which seem so unChristian..what should we do with them? (you will need to read the book for the answer!); he reminds us that our church activity should be based on solid biblical ground. Rather than speaking to others on the basis of life experience or life coaching he calls us to base our counselling on Scripture. He encourages us in our ministries not to draw attention to ourselves, to use both formal and personal prayers, to heal our divisions on the same day and not let them fester. Bonhoeffer suggests that arguments about church music should not become heated or doctrinaire..it is the church which is singing not individuals getting off on what they like.
Chapter 3 concerns our personal spiritual life. Bonhoeffer reminds that unexpected, extraordinary experiences in meditation are welcome when they happen but if they do not it is not a sign that the meditation was useless. When we are distracted in our prayers he suggests we pray about our distractions. I have always practised this and it is helpful.
Chapter 4 is about ministry. Bonhoeffer reminds us that We should not try to fashion folk in our own Christian image. God did not give this person to me as a brother or sister for me to dominate and control, but in order that might find above him or her the creator. He urges us to practise the ministry of holding the tongue…to speak about a brother publicly or covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will. How much church gossip, anger and bitterness would be squished immediately if we kept to this rule?
Bonhoeffer reminds us Thomas à Kempis’ dictum that we should consider ourselves the greatest of sinners and urges us to see listening to others as the first service we owe them. Strikingly he notes that he who no longer listens to others will soon be no longer listening to God! About helpfulness he reminds us that we must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. About evangelism he notes that the speaking of the Word is beset with infinite perils…and yet we are called to this task. It requires training and care.
Chapter 5 is a brief reflection on the importance of Confession and Holy Communion. I was surprised to see no comment at all on baptism.
This is a little book to read, re-read and read again. You won’t agree with everything Bonhoeffer says but your spiritual life will be deepened and encouraged as you turn to Christ and his Word. 5 stars
Bertolt Brecht: Mother Courage and her Children with commentary and notes, translated from German by John Willett; commentary and notes by Hugh Rorrison, London, Methuen, 1983 (translation 1980; original German 1940).
Brecht’s impact on European and Western drama in general was revolutionary and this play demonstrates why. Gone are the “good guys vs the bad guys” of drama from Sophocles onwards and what we have is a new art form, known from the 1920s as “epic theatre” in which the audience is presented with an “objective case” about war and can make up their own mind about which side or neither is in the right. Written on the eve of World War 11 when Marxist leaning Brecht had left Germany this play is set in the C17th Religious wars between Protestant Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire but its relevance to WW11 cannot be doubted. Brecht apparently wrote the play as a warning to Denmark that attempting to stay neutral in relation to Nazism won’t save their country from significant damage and trauma.
Mother Courage bases her whole existence around her cart of sellable goods which is pulled along by her children and the occasional male friend who might turn up. She is quite willing to change sides abruptly depending on which side is winning the war. It is in her economic interest that the war continues for as long as possible. Even though she eventually loses all three children in different circumstances, all of them tragic, we find her at the conclusion setting off almost joyfully because the armistice has broken and the war has resumed.
This is bleak Brechtian drama with no redeeming characters and only Courage’s third child Kattrin, who is unable to speak, emerging as a heroine who saves a city from anihillation. The clergyman is cowardly, flabby-minded and only preaches with passion on the occasion of the appearance of a rival for a relationship with Courage. The generals are alcoholic incompetents leading armies who scramble for whatever food, woman or safety they can scrounge. The Cook and would be lover of Courage proves to be a pervert and a selfish go-getter. The political leaders seem far away and irrelevant to the appalling conditions on the ground and the common victims at all time are the peasants and commoners whose property and lives are shown to be at the mercy of the first comer. Brecht had summaries of each act projected on screens in his productions so that the audience was already aware of the drama about to unfold and can effectively become if not participants, then judges of the characters and are called upon themselves to have a view about the sordid and vicious realities of warfare.
This play is a powerful, amoral, disquieting and critical assault on the dismal realities of European history in both the C20th and C17th. There is only minimal redemption here. 4 stars.
Tara Westover: Educated, London, Windmill, 2018
Extraordinary autobiographical account of growing up as the youngest child in a rural backwater of Idaho in the United States. Westover’s parents were extremist anti-government, anti-medicine, anti-hospital, anti-education loners psychologically and pathologically attached to an annihilationist view of world history which was to come to an end in their lifetime. They were attached to the Mormon church which met in the nearest town but their behaviour and beliefs were extremist and they were not well regarded by the Mormon church who they despised at “gentiles” or fake Mormons. The father in particular was a completely dominant and controlling misogynist and manic religionist whose sone were trained in his image and one of whom became pathologically destructive towards women.
Only the first three boys had any education and that only for about three years until they were old enough to work in the father’s metal scrap and barn building businesses. The mother was completely dominated and intimidated by the father and earned money as an untrained mid-wife and herbalist. All of the children went to work in very dangerous conditions in the scrap yard including the girls. They had no birth ceritificates, no medical records, no educational records
The narrative reveals in excruciating detail the evil and and increasingly violent tyranny of one of the boys over the sisters including Tara. Three of the brothers, Tyler, Richard and Tony eventually broke away from the family, married and had children and lived relatively normal though still scarred lives. Tara tells of her gradual separation from her parents through odd jobs in the town, a supportive grandmother and two supportive aunts and eventually, almost miraculously and after extraordinary effort finds her way to Brigham Young University and by dint of a very fine though untrained mind and some exceptional support, to a doctorate at Cambridge. Yet the power of the family remained and her final “escape” was a near thing.
This is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. It is desperately honest, horrific in its descriptions of family brutality and frightening in its revelation of the damage that psychological pathology can produce on the mind of even strong and highly educated people. This book is strong meat! Ultimately a triumphant hymn of praise to education and good educators but the personal cost and trauma of its protagonist is a tragedy of Shakespearian or Zola-like proportions and not a read for the faint-hearted. 5 stars.
Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection,Sydney, Picador, 2002 (1999)
Engaging and lively love story centred in a rural one horse New South Wales town called Karakarook. The dying town is trying to forge a new identity as a tourist destination and fighting to save their unusual wooden bridge. Shy and socially clumsy middle aged and divorced engineer Douglas Cheeseman, sent to destroy the bridge and build a new one, falls stupendously and very quickly in love with equally divorced (three times) and on her own reckoning “dangerous” Harvey Savage, a quilter and museum administrator sent from Sydney to help set up a heritage centre in the town. Having her last husband commit to a violent suicide, Harvey was not looking for a new partner in a hurry but on arrival immediately attracts a life-time friend in a stray-dog as well as the determined Douglas Cheeseman.
What in my view is a sub-plot in the narrative, perrfectionist one child younger mum Felicity Porceline, the wife of the local bank manager, becomes the story of the title. Out of all character, Mrs Porcelline enters into an erotic relationship with single man Alfred Chang (“Freddy”) a butcher and amateur photographer, especially of beautiful women!
Grenville won the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction with this novel and its whimsical humour, unique perception of the chatter and lifestyle of the women in Australian country towns, and the strange tension and loneliness of the Australian bush all combine to create a humorous, enchanting and at times even tensing novel. 5 stars.
Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game,
translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston, Ringwood, Penguin, 1972 (this translation,1960; in German Das Glasperlenspiel, 1943)
[Subtitle: A tentative sketch of the life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht together with Knecht’s posthumous writings, edited by Herman Hesse.]
German author Herman Hesse (1877 – 1962) settled permanently in Switzerland as a protest against German militarism in the First World War. Hesse was unable to have this or any of his books published in Nazi Germany but he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 for this, his last novel.
The complex story is set somewhere in the C25th century in a central European region called Castalia, a specially dedicated educational province within a larger independent nation. Students were selected from secondary colleges across the State to study at tertiary level at Waldzell which has been set aside as a specialised centre for high achieving students. Outstanding students from this group were encouraged to take part in a highly complex game and activity called “the Glass Bead Game” which is difficult to describe but includes exceptional skills in musicology, mathematics, languages, architecture, art, science and virtually any other major area of study (except, perhaps for history!) In its foundation this group of students were joined by another group of “journeyers to the East” who brought back a significant influence of Chinese philosophy especially of The Book of Changes, the I-Ching which brought a powerful component of meditation into the game and lifestyle.
Absolutely outstanding students were recommended to join “the Order” which was a select group of leaders who controlled the curriculum and development of the Glass Bead Game and the whole educational centre of Waldzell. The “Ludi Magister” is the senior principal and controller of the Glass Bead Game and highly honoured and revered.The period follows the “century of Wars “ and is called the Feuilleton era..devoted to literature, philosophy, research, knowledge and wisdom.
The culture of Castalia honoured order, truth, normality, reason, lawfulness, beauty, calm and moderation. It was a culture of quintessential intellectual genius, meditative wisdom and harmony but in Knecht’s time it has gone beyond its greatest height of intellectual and mystical flowering and has begun to lose its inventive and intellectual power and drive…it has become overly delicate, comfortable and self-satisfied.
The novel basically tells the intellectual and spiritual formation and life story (a “bildungsroman”) of Joseph Knecht who, after many complex encounters and challenges rises to the role of Ludi Magister. Along the way he faces many problems and challenges, some of whom represent major philosophical heavyweights in Hesse’s own philosophical world. Thus Thomas von der Trave, the previous Ludi Magister, is a thinly veiled Thomas Mann; Knecht’s best friend Fritz Tegularias stands in for Nietzsche; and the Benedictene Father Jacobus makes an impressive Jacob Burckhardt, the exceptional German historian of the Renaissance.
Hesse manages to include most of the major C19th and C20th musicians, as well as Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Pindar, Goethe, Froberger, Faustianism, Montaigne, Opitz, entelechy, C18th German pietists (Bengel, Zinzendorf, Oetinger), Taoism, Franke of Halle, Pythagoras, Plato, Confucius, Cicero, Catholicism, Buddhism and many more central philosophical ideas and tensions. In addition the account of Knecht’s eight year reign as “Ludi Magister” is an excellent study of outstanding leadership principles!
The story comes complete with a selection of Knecht’s poetry which reveals much of his inner mind. In addition one of the tasks of a senior applicant for the Order is to write a series of three “other lives” based on someone living at three different times. Knecht unusually chooses three different ancient historical periods, ( a culturally ancient, pre-literate shamanistic “rain-maker” and mystic; a C3rd Christian desert hermit/confessor; and a Hindu Brahman prince, devotee of Vishnu in his avatar as Rama. These three “lives” are as powerful and effecting as Knecht’s own story, which, in spite of the philosophical complexity, manages to hold a committed reader in thrall.
This is a difficult and disturbing novel. It is not for the faint-hearted. It reaches out to the highest possible ideals made all the more urgent and mordant given its date of writing. Hesse has a breath-taking and detailed grasp of many deep philosophical and theological ideas and faiths…he seems to be somehow inside of each.
But Hesse also manages to sow doubt in the reader’s mind about the ultimate power and value of these very high ideals and modes of living. There is always the ongoing threat of evil and brutal power as well as unique weaknesses in each philosophical ideal whether it is the uncertainty of illusion in Hinduism, the sheer hardship of maintained Christian love, the limits of calm meditation to deal with physical realities and so on. Knecht’s fraught attempt to re-enter the real world will perhaps disappoint many readers…or perhaps the ending will affirm that it is not the destination but the journey that matters. In spite of the Nobel Prize, just 4 stars!
Building a Christian life with Bonhoeffer about being and living in a worshipping family and community.
Notes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together, London, SCM, 1954. (Translated by John W Doberstein, 1954) (published in German, 1939)
Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a small but very powerful book which covers a series of suggestions about how Christians should live, work and worship together both in their families and in Christian communities. The following notes pull out some of Bonhoeffer’s key ideas and suggestions.
Chapter 1: Community, Covers the working of the Christian family but the principles widen out to the family of the church.
Life Together begins with a quotation from Psalm 133:…Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. Bonhoeffer underlines the importance of unity both in the family and in the local church.
Bonhoeffer notes on p7 that it is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians…the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. This is a good reminder to pray for folk who do live in minority environments or have no-one that they can realistically fellowship with in person. One gets the feeling that Bonhoeffer was not a fan of closed monasteries.
On fellowship with other Christians, Bonhoeffer notes (p10): The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure. There is strong encouragement from meeting and praying with Christian brothers and sisters. Throughout my working life in schools I have always managed to have a weekly prayer partner in my school environment. It is a huge blessing.
On p13 Bonhoeffer notes: Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ . On this presupposition rests everything that the Scriptures provide in the way of directions and precepts for the communal life of Christians. The sub-text of this point is that the community of the church we attend is not really Christian at all, no matter how vital and busy, if it is not a community based strongly in and through Jesus our Lord. Otherwise we could just as well be a bowling club or a reading group. On p14 Bonhoeffer continues: One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood.
On the desire (I have often heard expressed and often felt myself) for the perfect church Bonhoeffer writes on p14: Just as surely God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great general disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves…By sheer grace god will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth…He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions be over so honest and earnest and sacrificial…we must give thanks daily …even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, faith, and difficulty….These are typically tough words from Bonhoeffer.
I do not think he is saying there should be no emotion in our community or worship but rather that Christ’s church cannot be built on pure emotion..it must be built on Christ alone. I do not think either that he means we should not aim high..rather that when we fail to achieve what we think should be or happen in our church, we ought not to blame ourselves or our fellow Christians…we simply must work within the fellowship we have; we should not get depressed or down-hearted and we should keep on praying for the blessing of God’s Holy Spirit. It is God’s church and he will build it. Trying to build it with our own strengths and gifts alone will simply result in disillusion and burn out. In addition I am sure he is reminding us that “when we think we are strong then we are weak”. We are in the greatest spiritual danger when we become proud and over-confident of our spiritual maturity and “joyful Christian life”. Pride does go before a fall and spiritual pride is the deadliest of sins. When we become dependent on ourselves and not God’s mercy we are in the greatest of dangers.
On p17 Bonhoeffer notes: A pastor [nor a church member] should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. Hmm.. this will reduce a large number of Christian conversations!
In a footnote on p19 the translator, John W Doberstein, explains the words he uses for translating the Greek pneumatikos ( Greek πνευματikος , German geistlich ) and the Greek psuchikos ( Greek ψυχικος, German seelisch ). He translated geistlich as “spiritual” and seelisch as “human”. He felt that “psychic” has a different connotation in English and although he didn’t say so “soulish” is not really a word. [Of course the New Testament gets itself into difficulties any way in 1Corinthians 15 where Paul distinguishes between the “physical” (Greek φυσικος – phusikos ) body and the “spiritual” (Greek πνευματikος – spiritual body which could be interpreted as an “immortal soul which is without a body… which is not his intention as shown by his argument at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15. Small wonder that Christian theologians easily get themselves into differences and difficulties when they begin writing in detail about the “resurrection of the body”!]
On p22 Bonhoeffer writes: Where Christ bids me to maintain fellowship for the sake of love, I will maintain it. Where his truth enjoins me to dissolve a fellowship for love’s sake, there I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my human love. On a first reading, this passage appears to contradict his statements on p14 that we should expect much weakness, faith, and difficulty in our Christian community. In fact what I think he is saying is that when an allegedly ‘Christian” community says outright that it will have no truck with prayer, or Bible or preaching Christ or talk of salvation or repentance then indeed it should rename itself and become something else. I once was paid to run a youth group of over 80 members in a wealthy inner Melbourne community but when it came to worship they said “ok, but no hymns, no Bible readings, no prayers!”. These were thus difficult gigs to present and although the members came (they had to if they wanted the youth club afterwards), not a lot of spiritual growth occurred. We occupied a lot of lives on a Friday evening for two years but the only observable life changes I recall were those in a small group of eight who met separately at a different time for Bible study and prayer. When we left that church, the youth group disappeared overnight. On the other hand I have read of other folk who laboured faithfully on an overseas mission field for perhaps fifteen years and had not one observable convert. They maintained their faithful vision.
On p23 Bonhoeffer writes spiritual love…will not seek to move others by all too personal, direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another. It will not take pleasure in pious, human fervour and excitement. It will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this Word for a long time…Once again Bonhoeffer steers away from too much emotion in our evangelistic efforts. (Not sure how he would have related to a Billy Graham Crusade meeting). I also understand this paragraph to say that we need to give folk space, and not badger them with the Gospel or try to force something on them they are clearly uncomfortable with. Paul’s encouragement to preach “in season and out of season” is not intended to encourage bullying or rudeness I am sure. Bonhoeffer is also saying I think that “scalps on the evangelistic belt’ is not what we are about in speaking a word of Christian encouragement to another traveller.
On p24 Bonhoeffer seems to show a dislike for para-church organisations with a single aim or function. He writes life under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather when it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian church.
On p24 Bonhoeffer writes that there is no such thing as a church consisting of only spiritually strong people. …the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother, Christ is knocking at the door…when a community of a purely spiritual kind is established, it always encounters the danger that everything human will be carried into and intermixed with this fellowship. A purely spiritual relationship is not only dangerous but also an altogether dangerous thing…Nothing is easier than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but nothing is more fatal to the sound, sober, brotherly fellowship of everyday life. We cannot stay on the mountain-top! We have to walk through life’s valleys as well as its peak experiences.
Chapter 2: The Day with Others…about Christian practices.
On p32f Bonhoeffer describes some difficulties we encounter when we try to pray the Psalms. Sometimes they say exactly what we want to say…especially when we want to shout God’s praises or communicate our deep distress. But some of the psalms are very personal to individuals and may not be “us” at all. And then there are the imprecatory psalms..how do we pray them in relation to Jesus’ command to love our enemies?
One particularly helpful solution which Bonhoeffer offers on p34 is that in the psalms..there are two voices, bringing the same concern to God..the one who prays is never alone…there must be a second person…Jesus Christ himself, praying with him.
In regard to reading the Scripture, Bonhoeffer notes (p36) there is little doubt that brief verses cannot and should not take the place of reading the Scripture as a whole..and further (p36)..the reason we find it hard to read large sections of Scripture is because we are ignorant of the contents of Scripture! In relation to the public reading of Scripture, Bonhoeffer stresses that it is very important not to try to draw attention to yourself.
In regard to singing hymns in church Bonhoeffer is very much opposed to folk who sing harmony in church (something I love to do!) Bonhoeffer things this is showing off (p44) …It is not you that’s singing, it is the church that is singing! He write of the great power of the church singing together in unison. Regarding the perennial problem of what hymns/songs to sing and how to sing them Bonhoeffer offers the advice that any doctrinaire attitude, which we meet so often in this area, comes of evil. (p44).
In regard to devotional prayers, Bonhoeffer argues that one person in the family group only should do this (p46)…I am not sure why he would insist on this.
In regard to formal, liturgical prayers, Bonhoeffer accepts that they can be a help (p47) …but often ritual becomes an evasion of real prayer.
In regard to dissension within the church or family, Bonhoeffer is strong (p56)…It is a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that every dissension that the day has brought must be healed in the evening. It is perilous for the Christian to lie down to sleep with an unreconciled heart.
Chapter 3: The Day Alone:…about individual Christian devotional practice.
On p57f Bonhoeffer notes: Many Christian people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone…who hope they will gain some help in association with others. They are generally disappointed. Then they blame the fellowship for what is really their own fault? The reverse is also true: let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone.
On p59f Bonhoeffer writes; There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing.
Regarding personal devotional times and the use of Scripture, Bonhoeffer notes we are better with a brief selected text, rather than a long consecutive passage. We should ask “what is the text saying to us?” not “‘what should I preach about it or tell others about it?” (p61f)
On p63 Bonhoeffer notes ..it is not necessary that we should have any unexpected, extraordinary experiences in meditation. This can happen, but if it does not, it is not a sign that the meditation period was useless. Bonhoeffer seems to be encouraging us not to set the bar too high in our expectation of “spiritually uplifting” moments in our devotional lives. When these times comes it is a blessing but it is not a sign of spiritual slackness or weakness if they are not occurring.
Regarding folk losing concentration in meditation Bonhoeffer notes (p64f) Many folk get upset when their mind strays in meditation. When this happens it is often a help not to snatch back our thoughts convulsively, but quite calmly to incorporate into our prayer the people and events to which our thoughts keep straying. I think this is excellent advice and it is an approach I have always felt to be particularly helpful
Chapter 4: Ministry. Bonhoeffer notes many important ministries…many of them seldom spoken about:
p70: The ministry of holding our tongue…it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him…to speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will.
p. 71 Bonhoeffer notes that we should not try to fashion folk in our own image. God did not give this person to me as a brother for me to dominate an control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator.
p72 In a Christian community everything depends on whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain…a community which allows unemployed members to exist within it will perish because of them. [nb I think he means “unemployed” in the sense of not having a role in the Christian community!
p73 the first man who was born on this earth was Cain. A useful insight…Adam was created in Paradise.
p74 As a rule we shouldn’t be running around insisting on our rights. Paul insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen but I believe he did this hoping to testify to Christ before the Roman Emperor himself.
p74. In community, it is important to consider ourselves s the greatest of sinners…Thomas à Kempis: Never think that thou hast made any progress till thou look upon thyself as inferior to all.
p75 The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them….He who no longer listens to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God.
p76 The ministry of helpfulness: We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.
p77. The ministry of bearing: For the pagan the other person never becomes a burden at all. He simply sidesteps every burden that others may impose upon him. Here in this passage only, I disagree strongly with Bonhoeffer. In my experience pagans are often the first responders and helpers in a crisis and often seriously put themselves out. I think Bonhoeffer underestimates selfless and caring pagans many of whom often put Christians to shame.
p80 The ministry of proclaiming: Bonhoeffer notes that the speaking of that Word is beset with infinite perils….and yet we are called to this task..training and care is required…
p 84 The ministry of authority: Bonhoeffer notes that the desire we so often hear expressed for ‘episcopal figures’, ‘priestly men’, ‘authoritative personalities’ springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men ….The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.
Chapter 5: Confession and Communion.
On p86 Bonhoeffer notes Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinners suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners.
On p88ff Bonhoeffer puts up a strong case for confession to a fellow Christian individually and personally, not just corporately in worship. There do seem to be significant difficulties in this process.
Alister McGrath: Enriching Our Vision of Reality: Theology and the Natural Sciences in Dialogue, London, SPCK, 201
Molecular quantum theorist turned theologian Alister McGrath is a prolific writer with 42 major works to his name in the Wikipedia article under his name which is current only to 2015. He has written several books since that date including this one. The relationship between Christian faith and science is a major pre-occupation of McGrath’s and this book is one of the best of many which he has written in my view. It is more personal than many of his previous works and it describes something of the progression of McGrath’s understanding of Christianity throughout hie eventful career so far. The book is in three distinct parts:
i) an opening essay on The Christian Vision of Reality.
ii) a comparison of the work on science and religion produced by three major influences on his life and thinking.. Chemist/physicist Charles Coulson, Scottish Theologian with a scientific bent Thomas Torrance and Oxford Professor of mathematics and later Oxford Professor of Theoretical Physics John Polkinghorne who also turned to Christian theology later in life.
iii) a series of “parallel conversations” between theology and science including topics such as ways of seeing reality, the legitimacy of faith, models and mystery, religious and scientific faith and natural theology as well as an interesting study of Darwin’s religious thought. The book has detailed explanatory references and notes, a core reading guide and a more specialist reading guide.
In brief the book’s target is Scientism ..an Enlightenment based understanding of reality and meaning which takes account only of phenomena which can be currently understood by certain current scientific rubrics. McGrath is a staunch defender and explicator of science but is critical of current metaphysical interpretations of science (p.177). This is a passion he shares with English philosopher of the mind Michael Scruton. McGrath notes that neither science nor theology can ever hope to attain or establish a “logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny”. [p65] Ways forward include the notions of “warranted” or “justified” belief (Plantinga) and also “personal knowledge” (Polanyi). McGrath further notes that both science and theology deal with beliefs that are sufficiently well motivated for us to commit to them, knowing that they may be false but nevertheless believing that they the best explanation presently available to us”. [p66] Supporters of radical empiricism limit reality to what can be observed. [p81] In the quantum age this sort of approach becomes meaningless.
McGrath further notes that both science and faith are prone to exaggerate their capabilities. Religion cannot tell us the distance to the nearest star, just as science cannot tell us the meaning of life. But each is part of a bigger picture, and we impoverish our vision of life and the quality of our lives as human beings if we exclude either or both.(p161). McGrath explains that in science, the criticism of a justified or motivated belief is not whether it conforms to rational preconceptions of what things ought to be but whether this is what the evidence requires.” [p.97] His implication is that the same principle applies to theological beliefs such as belief in the resurrection of Jesus. McGrath further notes that the first great enemy of science is not religion but dogmatic rationalism which limits the reality to what reason determines is acceptable….quantum physics of course, is counter-intuitive and bears little relation to what reality ought to be like. The question becomes: who decides when there is enough evidence to justify a belief?. [p.98] The most popular method today is called inference to the best explanation. [p101]
Another characteristic of McGrath’s writing is his determined distinction between theology and religious studies: Theology is distinct and cannot be collapsed into some generic concept of religious studies. [p58]McGrath takes particular aim at the term “secular humanism”. Any form of humanism ultimately rests on an understanding of what human nature is, including what longings, desires, and aspirations are naturally human. A Christian humanist declares that humanity finds its true goal in discovering God. A secular humanist declares that humanity finds its true goal in rejecting God. But to pretend that ‘humanism’ is necessarily ‘secular humanism’ is indefensible.(p161). Two recent psychological explorations in this area include first, Justin Barrett’s work on the cognitive science of religion investigating the natural tendency of he human mind to desire or be inclined towards God; [p168] and secondly the work begun by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Heidt on the psychology of awe. [p179]
A strength of McGrath’s writing is his vast research and reading. He digs up quotations and arguments from many quarters including psychology, sociology, the history of science, philosophy and theological writers ancient and modern. Some examples include Einstein, never short of a quote: the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. [p64). American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman: the scientific imagination finds itself stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend the things which are there. (p81).
Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was critical of one-eyed reason, deficient in its vision of depth. (p82) Noble laureate biologist Peter Medawar was a powerful critic of over-confident science with his book The Limits of Science. McGrath quotes him as follows: Scientific reasoning is therefore at all levels an interaction between two episodes of thought — a dialogue between two voices, the one imaginative and the other critical. [p82f] McGrath also notes Augustine: is comprehendis non est Deus…”if you can understand it, it’s not God1” [p130]
In the area of biological evolutionary theory McGrath stresses that we are right to be suspicious of reductionist accounts of human beings. [p156] For a start is the fact that humans can [and regularly do] effect their own evolutionary development. [p150] He is scathing about writers who overplay the fact that homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes (chimpanzees) share 98 per cent of their DNA, pointing out that homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes last shared a common ancestor somewhere between five and seven million years ago [p155].
All in all this is a highly entertaining and challenging book which mounts a powerful case for the legitimacy of Christian theology and Christian experience as an authentic and truth seeking experience and a valid mode of human expression at the same time as it challenges the claim of some scientists that the only valid form of knowledge is that which emanates from a scientific view of the world 5 stars.
John Polkinghorne: Scientists as Theologians: A Comparison of the Writings of Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne, London, SPCK, 1996.
This is an unusual book in that a commentary on a group of writers would normally be written by someone outside the group. Such is Alister McGrath’s book on the science and faith work of Coulson, Torrance and Polkinghorne, reviewed above in this post. but in this case Polkinghorne includes himself as one of the authors under discussion. On Polkinghorne’s own admission (Preface p.x) this is problematic and he admits that inevitably he gives greater space to his own point of view in those areas where there is a difference of opinion amongst the three.
I have been reading all three of these authors throughout most of my academic life, having studied biology and biogeography as a major at the University of Melbourne, sparking a lifelong interest in the natural world and then studying theology through London and LaTrobe universities and the Australian College of Theology as well as co-writing with the late Dr Tony Pepper the book Science and Faith -What is the Problem? The Limits of Science and the Challenge of Faith, Adelaide, DigitalPrint, 2012.
I therefore need to declare my own bias that I find Polkinghorne’s theology far more congenial to my evangelical and Biblical understanding of the Christian faith than the more liberal/process theological approach of Barbour and Peacocke. Having said that, physicist, professor of physics and professor of Science, Technology and Society as well as professor of religion, Ian Barbour was really the doyen and creator of the science and faith dialogue in the C20th and until his death in 2013. His massively influential works including Issues in Science and Religion, London, SCM, 1996; the Gifford Lectures: Religion in an Age of Science, 1991 (revised and reprinted in 1997 as Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, Harper, San Francisco; and Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion, Harper and Row, 1974 are all must reads for anyone wanting to get a handle on the key issues in the science and religion debate.
Likewise Oxford biochemist and ordained Anglican priest the late Dr Arthur Peacocke has been equally active in writing about the life sciences, in particular his two major works: Creation and the World of Science, Clarendon, Oxford, 1979 and God and the New Biology, Everyman 1986. All of these books have been referenced in Polkinghorne’s analysis in this book.
John Polkinghorne himself has been a prolific author in this area since resigning from his position as Oxford Professor of Mathematical Physics and becoming ordained as an Anglican priest. He has written 34 books on Science and Faith seeking to communicate the notion that there is no fundamental difficulty for Christians in the world of Science.
Polkinghorne notes that Ian Barbour identified four models in the area of joint reflection on issues of science and religion: (i) conflict (eg creationism – Henry Morris et al; the new atheism- Dawkins, Dennett et al., p5) (ii) independence ( eg Stephen Jay Gould..”non-overlapping magisteria), p5; (iii) dialogue eg Barbour, Peacocke; the cosmological anthropic principle etc: religion has to do what science has to tell it about the nature and history of the physical world but also, religion can offer science a deeper and more comprehensive account of reality, p5f (iv) Integration ..a still closer relationship eg Theilhard de Chardin (p.6). Polkinghorne prefers a two-fold classification of (i) consonance ( Science does not determine theological thought but it certainly constrains it. Physics provides the ground plan for the edifice of metaphysics; Polkinghorne seeks to find a ‘causal joint’ of providential interaction between science and theology(p6f); and (ii) Assimilation (a greater degree of merging of the two disciplines). Polkinghorne would place himself in the Consonance category and Barbour in the assimilation camp with Peacocke somewhat unhappily in the middle.
Polkinghorne also notes, however (p12f ) that all three authors agree that science and theology are indispensable partners, together with other forms of enquiry such as aesthetics and ethics, in the even-handed exploration of reality and in the search for a unified account of resulting human knowledge. All three are opposed to the reductionism that often emerges with unbelieving scientists who often espouse a covert scientism that attributes subjective experiences of beauty and moral imperative to the contingent ‘hard wiring’ of the human brain, developed to implement a portfolio of strategies for survival. He notes with approval philosopher Nancey Murphy’s contrast arising from the difference between widespread participation in the common Christian life and the specially contrived experience created in the scientific laboratory. ‘In physics, nearly all knowledge comes from the professional to the amateur. In the case of theology…knowledge of God begins with the amateurs..and the professional theologian is dependent on the findings of this community.’ (p13f)
Polkinghorne identifies his philosophical position as “critical realism” (p14) ..the rooting of knowledge in interpreted experience treated as a reliable guide to the nature of reality…motivated belief is held to afford an insight into what is actually the case and cites Barbour: existence is prior to theorising. Polkinghorne notes that epistemology models ontology…intelligence is the key to reality …God is not available for inspection but then neither are quarks or gluons…entities with explanatory power are candidates for acceptance as components of reality.
Polkinghorne notes the stable existence of diverse faith traditions (p18) amongst many cultures which could be said to contrast with the constant changing of scientific theories as new discoveries, approaches and evidences are developed and observed. Science appears to describe an all-embracing and self-contained causality a work in forming the future from the present…religion, on the other hand, wishes to speak of divine activity in response to prayer …there must be a way out of this dilemma ..while philosophers may question free will, it seems to me to be the basis for rationality as well as action…What would validate human utterance it it were merely the mouthing of automata. (p30).
In the area of mathematical quantum physics Polkinghorne’s major research area, he notes that the existence of intrinsic unpredictabilities within the account of the observable world which does not permit the determination of a specific outcome on numerous occasions (p34). When combined with the discovery of chaotic systems the two developments challenge the notion of scientific certainty. Equally, early church thinking on the two natures of Christ arose out of the struggle with experiences of the divine; not as outsiders might think, out of unbridled speculation without evidence.
Polkinghorne wrestles with the problem of differing religious approaches to God in the world religions and accepts that some elements of religious faith are culturally limited and determined. Whilst Barbour and Peacocke are happy to find God’s truth in other religious faiths, Polkinghorne is in favour of an inclusivity which he describes as recognising the salvific presence of God in non-Christian religions while still maintaining Christ as the definitive and authoritative revelation of God. (p60)
In relation to the Bible Polkinghorne recognises the efforts of outstanding Biblical scholars over the years nevertheless he has a view that the meaning of the Biblical text cannot be left in the hands of the scholars..(who in any case often disagree with one another). (p67) He notes ..Like Peacocke, I incline to “an a priori more “trusting” attitude to the scriptures, though neither of us wishes to be credulous. (p67).
In relation to the incarnation Polkinghorne rejects Barbour’s idea that the human Christ was simply a human being in whom the Holy Spirit was intensified to the highest possible degree, arguing that Christian experience demands divine presence rather than divine inspiration …so that the incarnation must be expressed in ontological rather than functional terms. However mysterious and difficult to articulate …it seems to me that an indispensable Christian insight is that in Christ the Creator actually shared in the travail of his creation. (p70), Thus Polkinghorne ends up stressing the importance of Chalcedon and the doctrine of the two natures of Christ (p71) and further notes it is the work of Christ which is the key to the nature of Christ. (p71)
All of this starts to sound very complex and Polkinghorne remarks disarmingly that like quantum theory Christian thought cannot be reduced to the banalities of common sense. (p.74). Likewise regarding the resurrection, Polkinghorne remarks, accurately I think, that it seems entirely possible that if Jesus had not risen from the dead we would probably have never heard of him. (p74). Polkinghorne and Peacocke both grapple awkwardly with the actual nature of the resurrection body as to an extent Paul also does in 1 Corinthians 15. Polkinghorne notes that Peacocke’s view is effectively totally reliant on the American theologian Phoebe Perkins who writes of the resurrection body as a new kind of reality, previously unknown. (p74) Polkinghorne himself notes that in Christianity there is a a destiny for matter as well as humankind. (p77). He is not troubled, unlike Peacocke, by the problem of different atoms in the resurrection body escaping the issue by the simple statement we shall be resurrected, not reassembled. (p78.)My own view of this is that our personal “atoms” are regularly changed over many times in our lifetime and it does not seem to affect who we are so I doubt it will trouble the resurrection body! Re the virgin birth and X and Y chromosome problems Polkinghorne’s view is that it was a miracle, Peacocke’s that the story was a myth. Barbour does not deal with it.
In general this is an engaging, if at times quite difficult read. Polkinghorne does not have McGrath’s fluency of expression but on the other hand he gets right down to real details that real questioners would ask about apparent conflict between science and Christian faith. In particular, he writes especially for those who, like me, want to hold on to both the validity of a scientific world view as well as a faith in Christ centred on the revelation of God’s incarnate Word in faith experience, the life and history of the church universal and in a written scripture inspired by God.
This book comes with an excellent index and some notes along with copious references to the primary sources of the three authors. (which is a difficulty if the reader does not have ready access to them). A minor weakness is that there is no separate list of books referred to. Much ground covered with three major authors in view and much to think about. 5 stars.
Colette: Gigi, London, Vintage, 2001 (1953 England; 1944 French original).
Arguably France’s most successful female writer of fiction,(Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, (1874 – 1954) , was forced by her first husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, publishing entrepreneur and notorious libertine, to put his name on her first four “Claudine” novels. Claudine became a sensational style icon following Colette’s huge success with these novels. Divorced after a stormy relationship Colette eventually won the legal right to publish her original novels in her own name and went on to make her literary reputation with Chérie and La Fin de Chérie. Gigi, one of many “short, intense récits which she made her speciality” (Drabble) was later a hugely successful motion picture in 1958. The brief narrative delicately describes the emerging friendship and eventual love affair between 151/2 year old schoolgirl Gilberte and 25 year old millionaire and likeable playboy Gaston Lachaille. Largely ignored by her depressed second fiddle opera obsessed mother Gilberte is chaperoned by her fiercely protective and severe but loving grandmother but groomed by her well-connected and manipulative Aunt Alicia. The emerging delicately formed friendship is entrancingly told in just 57 pages. Roger Senhouse, who has translated many of her works into English seems to have managed not to interfere with Colette’s elegant, sardonic and slightly titillating style. Keira Knightley has played Colette in the recent (2019 release) movie of her life with good reviews in Melbourne. The film sensitively highlights Colette’s genius in both writing and vaudeville, her determination to overcome humiliation and despair and her eventual iconic fame.
Colette: The Cat, Vintage, London, 2001 (1933, French original, La Chatte).
Engaging novelette about a morganatic marriage between a beautiful and determined young woman and a twenty something heir to a fortune tied to his ageing mother, a beautiful old house and garden and a cat. Spoiler alert forbids me to discuss the plot but this is literally a difficult book to put down. It has all the attributes which made Colette so famous..wry humour, mismatch in relationships, complex relationships, change through time, and deceptively simple plot line. 5 stars.
Clement Greenberg: Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston, Beacon Press, 1965 (1961) and The Art Museum, London, Pantheon, 2011.
Described in the Washington Post review as a tough-minded, rightfully opinionated critic, Clement Greenberg published an outstanding collection of reviews of artists, sculptors, novelists, poets and cultural issues in 1961. Formally published in the US in Partisan Review, The Nation, Commentary, Arts, Art News and The New Leader between 1941 and 1959 these detailed and learned essays provide clear evidence that Greenberg had taken over the mantle from the late Bernard Berenson of America’s pre-eminent art critic of the period 1940 to 1960. Greenberg is remembered particularly for his defence and promotion of the work of Jackson Pollock, well known to Australians through Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s at the time controversial purchase of Pollock’s Blue Poles for I think around $1.5 million at a time when many Australians had a quite negative view of expressionist and abstract painting.
I have recently been meandering through the massive 500 page lavishly illustrated The Art Museum, London, Pantheon, 2011 and trying to teach myself to understand and enjoy C20th and C21st artworks. The Art Museum is an exceptional resource with individual artists and movements illustrated in “rooms” as in a live art museum or outside space. In the C20th – C21st section, phases and artists include amongst others, impressionism, post-impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism -Picasso/Braque/Matisse, Viennese Modernism, Klimt, Papier Colé, Futurism, Movement vs Still Life, Du Champ, Delaunay, Metzinger, Gris, Marc Chagall, Russian Avant-garde, German Expressionism, Kandinsky, American Modernists, Primitivism, Brancusi, The Great War: Man and Machine, Wyndam Lewis, Dada, Suprematism and Constructivism, Purism, Bauhaus painters, Neue Sachlichkeit, return to Classicism, Morandi, Mondrian, Metaphysical painting, Surrealism, Dali, Ernst, Sydney Nolan, Miró, the Mexican Renaissance, the Art of the Domestic, Precisionism, Ben Nicholson, Drawing in Space, Giacometti, Art outside the Art School, Collage and Assemblage, American Regionalism, Edward Hopper, De Kooning, Rothko, David Smith, Land Art, Process Art, Conceptual Art, Early Abstract Expressionism, Pollock, Newman, Klein, Gorky, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Kinetic Art, Op Art, Colour Field painting, Pop painting and sculpture, Warhol, minimalism, Judd, Albers, Kelly, Ryman, Agnes Martin, Process Art, Weiner, Matta-Clark, Baldessari, Sophie Calle, Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, Francis Bacon, Arte Povera, Beuys, Body and Performance Art, Serra, Goldsworthy, Studio Ceramics, Kitaj, Kossof, Spencer, David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Identity Art -Feminism/Post Colonial, Neo-Expressionism, Kiefer, Polke, Photography as Witness and Documentation, Sherman, Wall, Richter, Warden, Mangold, Contemporary Abstraction, Video Art, Koons, Bourgeois,Buren, Kapoor, Installation Art, Gormley, Chilllida, Hirst, Relational Art, Chinese Figurative Painting since the Cultural Revolution, Eliasson, Serra, and Twombly just to name a few! This massive book stretches the brain and visual skills as well as the imagination and it makes serious demands on a mind untutored and little trained in C20th art. The multitudinous authors of the textual annotations in The Art Museum have done a brilliant job in elucidating the period, techniques, and, where known, the intentions of the artists involved from all over the world and I cannot imagine a better resource for student or interested observer.
Greenberg’s essays, most limited to two or three pages, but some extended writing, cover the distinction between Avant-Grade and Kitsch, “The Plight of Culture”, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Collage, Georges Rouault, Braque, Chagall, Léger, Lipchitz, Kandinsky, Soutine, the School of Paris, “Primitive” painting, Abstract and Representational art, The New Sculpture, the Crisis of the Easel Picture, Modernist Sculpture, Wyndham Lewis Against Abstract Art, Byzantine Parallels, the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting. and a series of reviews of American artists from the 40s to the 60s including Thomas Eakin, John Marin, Winslow Homer, Hans Hofmann, Milton Avery, David Smith as well as several general essays. The book concludes with four literary reviews of the work of T S Eliot, Trollope, Brecht’s poetry and Kafka.
The visual impact and the combination of having “five hundred annotated museum rooms in your own home” as well as Greenberg’s expert analysis has been absolutely formative for me and for the first time in my life I feel that I can cope with “modern art” with a degree of knowledge, sensitivity and understanding. I am now actually looking forward to my next visit to a contemporary art gallery…something I have tended not to do in the past. 5 stars for both!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together, translated from German Gemeinsames Leben by John W. Doberstein, London, SCM, 2008 (1954) (German, 1939)
German Christian pastor, theologian, theological teacher and martyr, left behind some amazing books including his Letters and Papers from Prison and The Cost of Discipleship. This much smaller book is perhaps more important than either because in it Bonhoeffer provides some key insights into the tricky task of living and worshipping in church and home as Christian community.
The book is full of mature Christian wisdom and makes for salutary reading for Christians and pastors accustomed to being critical of their local church and yearning for some larger, more exciting happening that other people appear to be enjoying.
In five small chapters Bonhoeffer discusses firstly the Christian community largely from a family perspective but which spills over to the church community. The second chapter deals with our daily life as a Christian..how we begin our day, how we “do” our praying especially with the Psalms, how we “do” our bible reading; then Bonhoeffer moves to our church community …our praying, attending to God’s Word and our singing and the way we “do” Holy Communion; finally in this section Bonhoeffer deals with our working day as Christians.
Chapter three is devoted to our personal spiritual lives …being alone and being in community. This is a particularly challenging and relevant chapter for C21st busy-busy Christians especially today (2019) when many Christians are weighing up weekly church attendance and saying “no”, turning to home churches or even just “personal Christian living”. Bonhoeffer deals with solitude and silence, meditation, prayer and intercession.
Chapter four is titled “ministry” and focusses on shared leadership, the ministry of “holding one’s tongue”, the ministry of listening.. He who non longer listens to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God! p75]. Next the ministry of helpfulness and then that of bearing one another’s burdens, finishing with the ministry of proclaiming which is beset with infinite perils (p80) but must be attempted because it is unchristian consciously to deprive another of the one decisive service we can render to him. (p81).Finally, the chapter deals with the ministry of authority in which Bonhoeffer launches a strong attack on “episcopal figures”/ “priestly men” which spring frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men. (p84). For living together in the Christian life I think this chapter might just about be the most significant chapter I have read about the essence of Christian ministry for the individual Christian..pastor or parishioner.
Chapter five briefly discusses confession and holy communion. Interestingly there is no material on baptism. The discussion about confession places a very strong emphasis indeed on confession to another Christian with all the challenges and safeguards such a system demands. This process is I suspect, seldom practised by most Christians today but here is a very powerful argument to reconsider.
I would place this little book strongly in my top five all time best Christian books in terms of practical assistance in simply living the Christian life. Bonhoeffer has a beautiful skill of writing succinctly, directly and cogently about things that matter. 5+ stars and rising.
Edna O’Brien: The Country Girls, London, Penguin, 1968 (1960)
Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, described by Phillip Roth in 2009 as the most gifted woman now writing in English, caused a sensation in her home country when she wrote this somewhat racy book, the reaction to which forced her to leave Ireland and move to England to write. She became extremely popular extending The Country Girls to a trilogy of novels which were banned and sometimes burned in Ireland. She went on to write other novels, plays and many short stories and still plays a major role in absentia in the development of modern Irish literature.
The Country Girls, is a happy/sad narrative based to a degree on her own repressed childhood and providing a window into the lives of poverty stricken children in both urban and country environments in Ireland. The novel also highlights the subjugation of many Irish mothers to their heavy drinking and often violent husbands and the significant need for societal change. In addition the novel highlights the rather cold and intrusive educational model provided in earlier years by Irish Catholic secondary girls’ and probably boys’ boarding schools. O’Brien’s grim picture of Ireland is softened by many moments of high humour and droll commentary especially about the antics of sad and tragic older men who could be easily captivated by beautiful young Irish lasses. O’Brien’s strength is in her captivating descriptive power and her whimsical humour. I enjoyed reading this coming of age novel very much. 4 stars.
John Julius Norwich: France: A History From Gaul To De Gaulle, London, John Murray, 2018.
John Julius Norwich is one of my absolutely favourite writers of history..along with A N Wilson, Paul Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Alison Weir, Norman Davies, Kenneth Clark, Robin Lane Fox, Manning Clark and Michael Grant. All of these writers manage to write with deep learning but also accessibly and in an exciting manner which draws the reader ever onwards, desperate to find out what happens next and proving unerringly that truth in history is always more interesting than fiction!
Norris has written at length on European history especially of Byzantium, Sicily, Venice, the Popes, Shakespeare’s Kings, Mount Athos, the Mediterranean and England. France is, he says, definitely his last book which is sad but he has left a treasure trove of deep reading. HIs knowledge of France and especially Paris, is intimate since he spent much of his boyhood in Paris when his father was the British ambassador to Paris. This knowledge of “small things” adds personality to this narrative.
In a book of just under 400 pages and covering two millennia there is a danger that the reader will get lost under the burden of a brief snapshot of successive kings, consorts, military leaders and philosophes. This is not the case. Key events and individuals are dealt with but in an amazingly relaxed and seemingly personal way. Occasionally one has to turn back to remind oneself of a particular person but the flow is energised and clear in spite of the cast canvass and significantly large cast of players. Even the vast number of “Louises” is made clearer by the sobriquets used. At times a chart of royal relationships would have been useful but these are easily obtained elsewhere. The Book is beautifully illustrated with very clear coloured plates and the index is superb.
What surprised me was the seemingly endless tension between France and Britain. I was aware of course of the Norman conquest and the earlier wars for occupancy and title including Agincourt but the testy relationships in later years including right up to the close of the Second World War was all new to me. It was news to me also that there was a almost constant warfare throughout Europe throughout two thousand years of its history. One is aware of the 100 years war and the 30 years war but there was virtually never a time when war was absent in the whole of Europe.
Norwich also manages to keep the reader abreast of the inevitable impact on colonies overseas of European tensions especially in central and north America. In France the deep current of antagonism between the “Proletariat”, the church and the nobility also emerges with striking power throughout French history as was the constant and horrific persecution of the Huguenots. It was also surprising to read of the World War 11 tension between General de Gaulle and President Roosevelt/Winston Churchill and especially the fact that de Gaulle was not invited to the Yalta Conference on the post-war future of Europe.
For a dynamic overview with all the key characters drawn with intimate perspicuity and without overwhelming and undigestible detail, this is a wonderful read. 5 stars.
Alan T Kerr: Guided Journey: Some Experiences of a Lifetime, Gundaroo AU, Brolga Press, 1998.
Alan T Kerr, founder of Kerby Furniture and international Christian leader in Scripture Union, Unevangelised Fields Mission (UFM), Church Missionary Society and Ridley College amongst a vast number of other involvements.
Alan Kerr could be arguably regarded as Australia’s most significant Christian layman of the C20th. Born in 1918 in Victoria, Alan suffered severely as a child from tuberculosis and partial deafness and his weakened constitution kept him out of school completely and caused him grave concerns frequently throughout his long life. Notwithstanding these two handicaps and the early death of his first wife, Alan lived an extraordinary life, creating what became Australia’s largest furniture making company (the Kerby group) with factories in six states and over 800 employees (all from an 8 year old making wooden toothbrush holders to sell for pocket money!). Like most Australian furniture makers this company was eventually defeated by labour costs, flat packing and overseas imports. Taken over by Rank Industries it was eventually subsumed and sold off.
In reality, despite his passion for management and industrial vision Alan Kerr’s first love was Christ and making Christ known to the world. Alan expressed this vision not by writing books or preaching sermons but by using his leadership, financial acumen, business and entrepreneurial skills to create and/or lead some of the world’s largest evangelical organisations including Scripture Union International, the Church Missionary Society, The Council for the Unevangelised Fields Mission (UFM) which lead him to make many hair-raising flights and journeys to Papua and New Guinea to places seldom visited by whites, Campaigners for Christ, Ridley College, The Billy Graham Organisation, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, St Andrews Hall Missionary College, building programs in two Anglican churches and a vast number of smaller Christian and Anglican organisations. Until well into his seventies Alan was deeply involved (often for over thirty years) in more than 30 complex Christian organisations including sub-committees. This on top of his stressful business career, a family of three boys and their children and a passion for extensive travel and a love of musical and theatrical concerts as well as AFL grand finals and his beloved Bombers and his legendary hospitality, frequently opening his home for events and for holidays for overseas guests included John Stott on two occasions.
To tell the truth Guided Journey is an exhausting book to read! One wonders how any one person could achieve all of these things in one life. On the other hand it is also a searingly honest account of Alan’s life. He does not hide his anguish over aspects of his own personality, financial and business errors and events that could have been handled differently. Alan is his own greatest critic. Throughout this book his deep love of God shines through along with his commitment to Biblical studies and to building up the faith and work of others. I worked with Alan for many years on the Council of Ridley College and also came to know him as a personal friend and mentor when we worshipped for many years in the same church, St James’ Ivanhoe in Victoria and sharing ministry with his son Marcus and his wife Barbara. Alan Kerr’s life was indeed a journey guided by God. 4 stars.
Daniel Hammet: Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries and Meaning of Language, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2017
Daniel Hammet is a high functioning autistic savant..an author, essayist and translator in many languages, born in England and now living in Paris. His understanding and knowledge of a vast array of languages and the basis of language itself is formidable.
This book is initially hard work as Hammet’s description of his non-verbal childhood and his struggles in learning to read are painful and sometimes difficult to understand. Nevertheless the final gain is worth the effort as we travel with him in his journey of discovering his own voice and eventually his writing gifts and also share in some of his delight in language.
Topics covered include teaching English in Lithuania; the amazing achievements in children’s learning pioneered by sociolinguist and ethnographer Shirley Brice Heath and lexicographer Erin McKean; Hammet’s discovery and personal friendship with Australian poet savant Les Murray; penetrating the almost lost language of the Nahuatl people of Mexico, descendants of the Aztecs; a mini-history of the development and understanding of Esperanto; the battle for the salvation of the Kikuyu language in colonial Kenya; The Icelandic “Person’s Names Committee” which regulates which personal names can be used and which guards the purity of the unique Icelandic language; the fight to save and reclaim the almost lost Manx language of the Isle of Man; The story of L”Academie Française and its remarkable English chairman Michael Edwards, the guardians of the purity of the French language; The remarkable novels and literary work of Georges Perec and the Oulipo group; the development of signing language for the deaf and the “threat” from cochlear implants; a mini-history of the translation of the Bible including the remarkable author and translator Erri De Luca, self taught in Hebrew, Swahili, Russian and Yiddish who has created unique and remarkable translations of the Hebrew Bible, Jerome, Augustine and Luther; the breakthrough in human communication created by the telephone; and an analysis of whether chatbots will ever be able to communicate humanly. He thinks not!
Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible, London, Faber & Faber, 2000 (1998 US)
Barbara Kingsolver is an American writer with qualifications in Biology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and she is married to an ornithologist. For a short while she lived with her medical doctor parents who worked in public health in the formerly Belgian Congo. Kingsolver is at pains to point out that the parents in her novel are quite unlike her own parents! She has a passion for the relationship of humans with their natural environment and for folk as far as possible producing their own food. All of this comes together in this powerful invented story of a fundamentalist Baptist preacher, a decorated injured military man who takes his wife and five children (four of them teenagers including one seriously disabled child) to work for the Gospel in Belgian Congo in its last days prior to independence and in the chaotic years to follow. This mission was not authorised by any sending organisation with the exception of a $50/month allowance which ended after independence when the family refused instructions to withdraw with dramatic and at many times tragic results.
This book is notable in many ways. For its keenly intense and subtle description of the equatorial African jungle, its wildlife, vegetation, droughts and endless rainfall; for its knowledgeable exploration of the lifestyle of subsistence Congolese remote village life; for its humorous treatment of the ups and downs of such a dramatic shift in living standards seen repeatedly through the eyes of youngish children and written at times very engagingly with their spelling as well as calling into question the outlandish oversupply and overspending in America’s middle class; for its sensitive and finely drawn description of high functioning autism in some children; for its scarifying assault on inappropriate Christian mission work undertaken unofficially and without adequate training; for its acerbic criticism of the role of European and American self-serving political interference in the future of independent African nations; for its searing account of the temptations of greed and power for newly minted native political rulers (and their first world “supporters” for that matter; and finally for its celebration of the human spirit in its ability to overcome and survive the most horrific and chaotic circumstances.
Kingsolver references the poetry of Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams to good effect and raises a curious tension between the at times ridiculousness and the strange necessity of some sort of religious sensitivity to life on our planet. Whilst at least one of the characters (Rachel) borders on caricature the familial tensions, joys and sorrows of a family living under intense stress is delicately and sensitively drawn. 5 stars.
Heather Morris: The Tattooist of Auschwitz, London, Echo, 2018.
Heather Morris is a New Zealander living in Australia and working in the Social Work Department at the Monash Medical Centre. This story is a work of historical fiction which, like all literary genres covers a wide array of literary works. Alison Weir and Hilary Mantel have published both exceptional histories and also other works of historical fiction but one is aware with both Weir and Mantel that there is a vast depth of recognised historical scholarship behind everything they write. This story is different again. Lale Solokov, (born Ludwig Eisenburg) a Slovakian Jew living in Melbourne, was alive when he met Heather Morris and told her his life story. On the other hand Morris is also deliberately writing a love story, prepared initially as a film script but now turned into a book. As well the story is a glimpse of one of the worst atrocities in history, the Nazi holocaust in central Europe in World War 11 in which over six million Jews, Romany Gypsies and disabled folk were murdered in the vilest manner conceivable.
The result is a most remarkable love story; the real life love story of Ludwigh Eisenburg who changed his name to Solokov after the war, and Gisela Furhrmannova (Gita Furman) whom he met in Auschwitz. The love story is told with tenderness and sensitivity and in such a tantalising and tense way that almost forces the reader to keep on reading to find out what happens next.
Holocaust experts such as those from the Birkenau/Auschwitz 11 Memorial Centre are unhappy about some of the detail of the narrative such as how many of the gas chamber buildings were actually blown up by Jewish sonderkommando rebels; whether penicillin was even available any where at that time when Solokov obtained some to cure Gita; whether there was indeed a bus that Jews were pushed into at Auschwitz which was used as a gas chamber, and above all how did Morris get the wrong tattoo number for Gisella/Gita. In return Morris accepts that some of the story details were made up, for example Lale and Gita were not together when Auschwitz was emptied due to the Russian threat and some other details. On the other hand, in general the story is as Lale told her and other characters such as Cilka and Baretski were real people: Cilka sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Siberia for being a Nazi conspirator and Baretski tried and sentenced in Frankfurt for war crimes in 1961, later committing suicide.
It is completely understandable that Solokov waited so long and after his wife’s death to tell his story. In agreeing to be the tattooist Solokov was serving and working for the Nazis, inflicting the most hated symbol of all on the body of each prisoner as they arrived…the death symbol numbering the despised ones to be destroyed. As a fluent Russian speaker and a citizen of Slovakia then part of the Soviet Union Empire of Republics his part as a Nazi collaborator at Auschwitz, if it had become known, would have been a death sentence. It is also a story of determined survival, of trying from the moment of capture to find a way to keep alive and thinking. The number of positive stories to emerge from the horror of Auschwitz was tiny. Here is one such story and I am glad I have read it. 5 stars.
Leigh Sales: Any Ordinary Day, Melbourne AU, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2018
When I was a new principal at St Paul’s Anglican Grammar School I can remember going into a morning staff meeting and saying “when is there going to be an ordinary day at St Paul’s?” I realised before long that there never would be and when I helped to write the twenty year history of the school we called it No Ordinary Days. Leigh Sales has done something similar with her title Any Ordinary Day, because this is a large book full of anything but ordinary days.
Leigh Sales is one of the most visible faces on Australian news television, daily anchoring the ABC’S 7.30 and having snared interviews with the Dalai Lama, Paul McCartney and James Comey, former Head of the US FBI. She also worked as the ABC’S reporter in the US covering the New Orleans floods amongst other stories. She regularly has to deal with stories of deep trauma in her daily news grind but this book contains a completely separate set of interviews and research with folk who have been involved in the most deeply tragic losses and events. Sales can be an emotional presenter and I have twice seen her weep tears on national television. She has also been through her own serious difficulties including near-death during the birth of her second child, the significant special needs of her first child and the breakdown of her twenty year marriage.
The reader of this book needs a deep well of compassion themselves because it is a study of exceptional tragedies in the lives of ordinary Australians whose losses when accumulated in this way can become almost overpowering even though her writing is calm, measured and carefully nuanced. So here we are introduced to survivors or relatives of the Port Arthur massacre, the Lindt Café siege, Stuart Diver’s miraculous survival following the Thredbo landslide that killed many, James Scott’ remarkable survival of more than fifty days on Everest and many other Australian tragedies. We are introduced to reporters, witnesses, prime ministers, coroners, counsellors, police officers and simply family friends and supporters who have been there for those in the trough of deep trauma.
This is a book of careful and annotated research and notation with very careful notes and online references that can be followed up if required. It is also an extremely honest narrative with Sales admitting that journalists can and should have done much better at times in their dealings with trauma victims. Sales does not spare herself, revealing interactions and presentation of which she is still ashamed. Sales notes Psychologist and academic Dr Elana Newman’s comment that there is an historical avoidance of scholarship regarding trauma and journalism. (p104). She also explores why so many of us are uncomfortable and emotionally incompetent in dealing with those who are suffering deeply, even when we are their closest friends. (P141).
Useful topics in this research also include the sometimes contested introduction of “therapeutic jurisprudence” into the legal profession (p-141- 146 which asks judges and lawyers to give consideration to the personal feelings of those caught up in the legal system instead of perhaps hiding behind legal impersonalise. Sales also discusses the notion of “posttraumatic growth” pioneeered by American academics Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi. (p206ff). Interestingly Sales admits to being surprised by the discovery that many of these deeply traumatised interviewees had been immeasurable helped and supported by their Christian faith. Sales is not herself a believer these days but willingly here acknowledges the fact that millions of people around the world are encouraged in their daily living by their religious commitment.
I could not say this is a book to sit down, enjoy and savour…but as someone who is at times uneasy with emotion, I have to say this book challenged me to more alert to the needs of those around me who do suffer loss and more thankful for every moment of being alive …in both the good times and the tough times. 5 stars.
Peter Adam: Esther: For Such A Time As This, (Reading the Bible Today Series, Editor Paul Barnett), Sydney South AU, Aquila Press, 2018.
Peter Adam is a formidable systematic theologian, an internationally acclaimed Bible teacher and preacher, for twenty years the Vicar of St Jude’s Carlton and still vicar emeritus. I have known Peter since we were still teenagers and we were both at Ridley as students in the 60’s, me studying Arts, and Peter Theology. We were at Ridley together again in the 70’s when he was my Church History tutor and we worked together again at Ridley in the 2000s when he was Principal and I was Chairman. Ann and I have maintained our friendship with Peter for just on fifty years so it is with some trepidation that I review his most recent book Esther: For Such a Time as This.
This is the 24th publication of the Reading the Bible Today Series and Peter’s third contribution having written on Hebrews and Ezra/Nehemiah. The series is written by Australian theologians writing at “great depth without being too technical” as Dr Michael Youssef writes on the back cover.
The Old Testament book of Esther is problematic in that it is the only Biblical book that does not contain the name of God and neither does it reference any standard Biblical themes like covenant, atonement, torah, wisdom, prophecy, apocalyptic or creation. Furthermore it concerns Jewish families settled in far away Susa in the Persian Empire, not returnees to Jerusalem or those still settled in Babylon.
The story line is taut, graphic, easy to read and full of shocking power games, sexual intrigue and bitter persecution and it is has the “feel” of a Wisdom narrative and yet its royal Persian king is deeply rooted in history. Commentaries are not normally read straight through like a theological treatise but slowly with the text ruminating and tricky questions dealt with in extended essays. In this case however I found myself reading Peter’s book straight through in two days because it is exciting, readable (not verse by verse analysis), current and remarkably, and I am still not sure how, Peter has managed to squeeze in just about a complete Biblical theology in a commentary on a book that does not mention “God”. Not bad! He achieves this in part by having sections in each chapter on “reading Esther in the light of the Old Testament” and “reading Esther in the light of the Bible”. There is a wealth of Biblical thinking here to challenge, teach and strengthen the soul!
Chapter 1 is helpful historical background. Throughout the book Peter has inserted material from Herodotus’s ancient and detailed history of the Persians and demonstrates the historical veracity of the biblical book of Esther. Chapter 2 reminds us that a verse is not a text .. a book is a text and we should read the Book of Esther first as a whole. Chapter 3 focusses on the materialism of King Xerxes and his kingdom and relates strongly to our oversupplied Western society. Chapter 4 is about Exile and we are reminded that all Christians today are in exile and we need to pay attention. Here I read that God uses sinners to achieve his good purposes. (p62). When you think about it, who else could he use? Chapter 5 is about ethnic cleansing, evil and disproportionate rage and is very close to home. Chapter 6 is about persecution and courage and us..for a time such as this…each moment of our lives is an opportunity..courage is grace under pressure. I think this is the central thrust of this commentary.
Chapter 7 is about providence and Peter reminds us of Puritan John Flavell’s comment that sometimes providences, like Hebrew letters, must be read backwards. (p126) Just to keep us off balance Peter throws in a challenging and demanding word from Sören Kierkegaard and even more from William Carey: we should expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God. Chapter 8 is about overturning, retribution and justice. Chapter 9 is about sorrow turned to joy but that persecution will always be there. Peter has us grappling with Neusner, Pascal and Calvin and reminds us that in the West our news outlets are silent about God and that persecution will only increase in coming years, as our societies claim to be tolerant, but will tolerate anything except Christianity. (p176) Peter takes us to the Book of Revelation to help us understand Esther and our own plight. The Commentary finishes with a deeply challenging analysis of Reading the New Testament in the light of Esther.
Study group questions, a list of Esther commentaries and related books and a further list of books referred to in the text make this a very useful commentary indeed. A good red wine improves with age. Dr Peter Adam just keeps getting more and more challenging and helpful. 5 stars for me.