Books read March 2019

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.

John Polkinghorne

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 inspirationso 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).

Gigi and La Chatte (The Cat)

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.

Clement Greenberg

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. 

The Art Museum produced by Phaidon 2011

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)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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.

Books read February 2019

BOOKS READ  FEBRUARY 2019

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.

Historian and writer John Julius Norwich

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

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

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

Leigh Sales ABC journalist, interviewer and writer

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.


Dr Peter Adam, systematic theologian, international Bible teacher,

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.

Postulating with Peterson re 12 Rules for Life

Notes from Jordan B Peterson: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote To Chaos, London, Allen Lane/Penguin, 2018, Forward by Norman Doidge.

Clinical psychologist and public intellectual Jordan Peterson has made an extraordinary impact with his online lectures and video presentations which have achieved over 100 million YouTube hits in the last four years. Not bad for a man whom Greg Callaghan, Associate Editor of The Age’s Good Weekend has dismissed on February 3 2019 as a writer of obfuscating drivel!  Somehow I think Jordan Peterson will be making an impact for a long time yet, and well beyond the appearance of both Greg Callaghan in print and indeed The Age itself. I notice in passing that Greg Callaghan has 1059 followers….only a little less than 100 million to catch up to Peterson! Of Course Peterson’s opponents are busy accusing him of being a Nazi for daring to be intelligent about the current philosophical and politically correct narrative; and some conservative Christians think he has no right to quote from and use the Bible because he doesn’t see God the way they do but I am sure he will cope with both of these criticisms.

Norman Doidge’s challenging Foreward is engaging in itself. Doidge suggests that this is not a good age for a book of rules for life but reminds readers that the 10 “rules” in the Bible were indeed accompanied by stories and Peterson’s 12 rules are similarly accompanied by many stories.

Doidge describes Peterson as a former Harvard professor, a successful psycho-therapist, a Mid-West cowboy, someone who thinks at a meteoric rate, someone who  is constantly communicating and who loves to dialogue and be challenged, who makes his own furniture, designs his own house, is strongly committed to helping disadvantaged students, someone “tormented by”  simplistic ideologies of the right or the left as “substitutes for true knowledge” and which inevitably support the idea that a nation could kill its own people for an idea, the author of Maps of Meaning, a “highly complex work”, a brilliant and popular lecturer, one who respects both scientific method and publication but also the profound psychological appeal and wisdom of many ancient stories, one who has read deeply in Nietzsche, Jung, Freud, Dostoyevski, Solzhenitsyn, Eliade, Erich Neumann, Piaget, Frye and Frankl, one who accepts the Buddhist notion that life is suffering, that happiness is a pointless goal that should be replaced by a search for meaning not for its own sake but as a defence against suffering that is intrinsic to our existence,  one who has read deeply in classical psychological theory, who likes hero myths in which the hero must die to overcome the challenge,  one who is controversially opposed to “forced speech’, who dislikes over-protective parents, who dislikes ideologues who pretend they know how to make the world a better place before they’ve taken care of their own chaos,  and all this just for starters.  Doidge notes in particular that when Jordan Edwards would take a liberal stand for free speech, he would be accused by left-wing extremists as being a right-wing bigot.

Doidge himself presents a useful introductory argument regarding Millennials who have, in his view,  been thoroughly taught two seemingly contradictory ideas about morality, simultaneously:

  1. that morality is relative, at best a ‘personal judgment’;  that there is no absolute right or wrong; that moral rules are personal opinion or happenstance or accidents of birth, culture, ethnicity, upbringing or history. Additionally the post-modern left makes the additional claim that one group’s morality is nothing but its attempt to exercise power over another group. So, the decent thing to do is to show tolerance and …just about the most inappropriate thing an adult can do is give a young person advice about how to live.

And so a generation has been raised untutored in what was once called, aptly, “practical wisdom.” which guided previous generations…choosing to devalue thousands of years of human knowledge about how to acquire virtue, dismissing it as passé, “not relevant’ or even “oppressive.” They were so successful that the very word “virtue” sounds out of date, and someone using it appears anachronistically moralistic and self-righteous.  Doidge notes that Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics defined virtues simply as the ways of believing most conducive to happiness in life and vice was defined as the least conducive to happiness….the virtues always aIm for balance and avoid the extremes….By contrast, our modern relativism begins by asserting that making judgments about how to live is impossible, because there is no real good, and no true virtue (as these two are only relative). Thus relativism’s closest approximation to “virtue” is “tolerance”….But it turns out that many people cannot tolerate the vacuum—the chaos—which is inherent in life, but made worse by this moral relativism…so right alongside relativism, we find the spread of nihilism and despair, also the opposite of moral relativism, the blind certainty offered by ideologies that claim to have an answer for everything.

2.   The second teaching that millennials have been bombarded with …they sign up for a humanities course, to study the greatest books ever written. But they’re not assigned the books; instead they are given ideological attacks on them, based on some appalling simplification

Because we do not yet have an ethics based on modern science, Jordan is not trying to develop his rules by wiping the slate clean—by dismissing thousands of years of wisdom as mere supertition and ignoring our greatest moral achievements. Far better to integrate the best of what are now learning with books human beings saw fit to preserve over millennia…If our ideals are unattainable, why do we bother reaching in the first place? Because if you don’t reach for them, it is certain you will never feel that your life has meaning. And perhaps because, as unfamiliar and strange as it sounds. in the deepest part of our psyche, we all want to be judged.  

Jordan Peterson:

p. xxxiii  Overture: How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other?  The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything. But the alternative—the chaos of the collapsed state, the tragic catastrophe of the unbridled natural world, the existential angst and weakness of the purposeless individual—is clearly worse.

p. xxxiv -v  “There”  [“getting there”] is the dividing line between order and chaos…the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life. 

p.1         Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. This rule is copiously explained using the analogy of the establishment of dominance by lobsters and their mating rituals. The victor assumes total dominance. The defeated lobster retreats and retires and fades away into weakness and oblivion. Peterson encourages us to face up to life directly and strongly. (p28 Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.)

p.12    Peterson quotes Mark Twain: It’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble. It’s what we know for sure just ain’t so!  Peterson notes that nature is not static at least not in any simple sense. It’s static and dynamic at the same time. Yin and Yang…chaos and order.

p13- 14  It is also a mistake to conceptualise nature romantically. …We rhapsodise about the beauty of nature but we don’t fantasize about elephantiasis and guinea worms (don’t ask), anopheles mosquitoes and malaria, starvation-level droughts, AIDS and the Black Plague…If Mother Nature wasn’t so hell bent on our destruction it would be easier for us to exist in simple harmony with her.

pp14-15     Dominance hierarchy is built into evolutionary change…. This is why, when we are defeated, we act like lobsters who have lost a fight. Our posture droops, we face the ground. We feel threatened, hurt, anxious and weak. If things do not improve, we become chronically depressed.

p.31  Rule 2:  Treat Yourself like Someone You are Responsible for Helping. 

p33. People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves. What could it be about people that makes them prefer their pets to themselves?

p.34  Scientific truths were made explicit a mere five hundred years ago, with the work of Francis Bacon, René Descartes and isaac Newton [and Gottfried Leibniz]. In whatever manner our forebears viewed the world prior to that, it was not through a scientific lens…Because we are so scientific now—and so determinedly materialistic—it s very difficult for us even to understand that other ways of seeing can and do exist. 

p.35  The scientific world of matter can be reduced, in some sense, to its fundamental constituent elements: molecules, atoms, even quarks. However, the world of experience has primal constituents, as well. The domain , not of matter, but of what matters!  These are the necessary elements whose interactions define drama and fiction. One of these is chaos. Another is order. The third (as there are three) is the process that mediates between the two, which appears identical to what modern people call consciousness. It is our eternal subjugation to the first two that makes us doubt the validity of existence—that makes us throw up our hands in despair, and fail to care for ourselves properly.

Chaos is the domain of ignorance itself. It’s unexplored territory….it’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. 

p36. Order, by contrast, is explored territory..order is tribe, religion, hearth, home and country..the floor beneath your feet, and your plan for the day ..the public façade we’re called upon to wear, the politeness of a gathering of civilised strangers, and the thin ice on which we all skate. …But order is sometimes tyranny and stultification, as well, when the demand for certainty and uniformity and purity becomes too one-sided.

p.41 In its positive guise, chaos is possibility itself, the source of ideas, the mysterious realm of gestation and birth . As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road…Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters ..most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85 percent of men as below average in attractiveness. 

p.43  We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. ..to straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced.

p.44  Order is not enough.  You can’t just be stable, and secure, and unchanging, because there are still vital and important new things to be learned. Nonetheless, chaos can be too much. You can’t long tolerate being swamped and overwhelmed beyond your capacity to cope while you are learning what you need to know. Thus, you need to place one foot in what you have mastered  and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering. Then you have positioned yourself where the terror of existence is under control and you are secure, but where you are also alert and engaged.

p.46  Re nakedness in the garden of Eden…a common nightmare involves the sudden appearance of the dreamer, naked, on a stage in front of a packed house…..It just not appear possible, even for God himself, to make a bounded space completely protected from the outside—not in the real world, with its necessary limitations, surrounded by the transcendant. 

p. 47  The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal. No walls, however tall, will keep that out. …Solzhenitsyn..the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being….Even the most assiduous of parents cannot fully protect their children…It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them….Question for parents: do you want to make your children safe or strong?

p.48   ..the capacity for women to shame men and render them self-conscious is still a primal force of nature. 

p.49  ..the snake features in the Garden of Paradise as the creature who gave us the vision of God (in addition to serving as the primordial and eternal enemy of mankind.)

p.50    In their vulnerability, now fully realised , [Adam and Eve] felt unworthy to stand before God.  If you can’t identify with that sentiment, you’re just not thinking. Beauty shames the ugly. Strength shames the weak. Death shames the living—and the Ideal shames us all. Thus we fear it, resent it—even hate it cf Cain …what are we to do about that? Abandon all ideals of beauty, health, brilliance and strength? That’s not a good solution. That would merely ensure that we would feel ashamed, all the time. 

p.51  Adam hid from God…they are afraid to walk with God. That’s not particularly admirable, perhaps, but it’s certainly understandable. God’s a judgmental father. His standards are high. He’s hard to please …people, unsettled by their vulnerability, eternally fear to tell the truth, to mediate between chaos and order, and to manifest their destiny…we can understand Eve’s error. She was deceived by the best. But Adam! No one forced his words from his mouth.

p.53  Perhaps Heaven [at this point cut off from Adam and Eve]  is something you must build, and immortality something you must earn.

p.54-5  Animals can’t manage [evil] but humans, with their excruciating, semi-divine capacities, certainly can. And with this realisation we have well nigh full legitimisation of the idea, very unpopular in modern intellectual circles, of Original Sin. …Our ancestors chose their sexual partners, and they selected for —consciousness? And self-consciousness? and moral knowledge?   And who can deny the sense of existential guilt that pervades human experience? And who could avoid noting that without that guilt—that sense of inbuilt corruption and capacity for wrongdoing—a man is one step from psychopathy?  …Human beings have a great capacity for wrongdoing. It’s an attribute that is unique in the world of life. ….What then is to be done?…we seek the healing medicament..Perhaps Man is something that should never have been. [cf Peter Singer..the earth would be better of without homo sapiens]. What then is to be done?

p.56  God creates the world with the divine, truthful Word, generating habitable, paradisal order from the precosmogonic chaos. He then creates Man and Woman in His image, imbuing them with the capacity to do the same—to create order from chaos, and continue His work….The moral of Genesis 1 is that Being broth into existence through true speech is Good…we retain an intimation of the prelapsarian state. We remember so to speak. We remain eternally nostalgic for the innocence of childhood, the divine, unconscious Being…[cf C S Lewis: The Weight of Glory: “these things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited..”]   in their perfection [man and woman] were also less, not more, than their post-Fall counterparts. Their goodness was something bestowed, rather than deserved or earned. They exercised no choice. God knows, that’s easier. But maybe it’s not better than, for example, goodness genuinely earned…free choice matters.

p.57 …perhaps it is not simply the emergence of self-consciousness and the rise of our moral knowledge of Death and the Fall that besets us and makes us doubt our own worth. Perhaps it is instead our unwillingness —reflected in Adam’s shamed hiding—to walk with God, despite our fragility and propensity for evil….Could man reach his potential without the challenge and danger?

p.57-8 The entire Bible is structured so that everything after the Fall—the history of Israel, the prophets, the coming of Christ—is presented as a remedy for that Fall, a way out of evil. The beginning of conscious history, the rise of the state and all its pathologies of pride and rigidity, the emergence of great moral figures who try to set things right,  culminating in the Messiah Himself—that is all part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right. And what would that mean?…to embody the Image of God—but to do so consciously, of our own free will..back as awake beings…

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time…

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree…

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of things shall be well

When the tongues of flames are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one. 

(“Little Gidding.” Four Quartets, T S Eliot)

p.58-9      In the latter half of the C20th and into the C21st mass violence has declined but another problem has arisen. Many folk are arrogant , and egotistical, and always looking out for themselves,  but many others have the opposite problem: they shoulder intolerable burdens of self-disgust, self-contempt, shame and self-consciousness. Thus, instead of narcissistically inflating their own importance, they don’t value themselves at all…they believe that other people shouldn’t suffer, and they will work diligently and altruistically to help them alleviate it. They extend the same courtesy to animals they are acquainted with—but not so easily to themselves.

p.59-10   ..”loving your neighbour as yourself” …has nothing to do with being nice …it has more to do with being strong. Becoming a slave to your neighbour or the person in need helps no-one in the long run. 

p.60  …your mistreatment of yourself can have catastrophic consequences for others. This is most clearly evident, perhaps, in the aftermath of suicide, when those left behind are often both bereft and traumatized.

p.61  ..Yet people prevail and continue to do difficult and effortful tasks to hold themselves and their families and society together. To me this is miraculous —so much so that a dumbfounded gratitude is the only response….it is always the wounded people who are holding it together.

p.62   ..You need to consider the future and think,   “What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly.?”…

p.63   Peterson quotes Nietzsche:  “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how”.

p.67 Rule 3: Make Friends with People  Who Want the Best for You.  Basically surrounding yourself with the wrong company can only drag you down to their level. (A summary of Peterson’s early life in the Canadian backwoods.)

p.

85  Rule 4: Compare Yourself to Who You were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today. 

p.87  If the internal voice makes you doubt the value of your endeavours—or your life, or life itself—perhaps you should stop listening. If the critical voice says the same denigrating things about everyone, no matter how successful, how reliable can it be? Maybe its comments are chatter, not wisdom. “There will always be people better than you”— that’s a cliché of nihilism…talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. 

p.92  Be careful when you’re comparing yourself to others. You’re a singular being, once you’re an adult… We must see, but to see, we must aim, so we are always aiming…We succeed when we score a goal or hit a target. We fail, or sin, when we do not (as the word “sin” means to miss a mark. [from Greek ῾αμαρτανειν].

p.94  ..where you start your renovations might not be as important as the direction you are heading…much of happiness is hope, no matter how deep the underworld in which that hope was conceived. 

p.96  ..what you aim at determines what you see…contrasted with sustained intentional blindness. [Dr Daniel Simons’ famous video of a ball game in which viewers were to count the number of times the white shirts threw the ball to each other; but there was also a gorilla walking across…few saw it until they looked again but not counting…www.dansimons.com/videos.html ]

p.98  The Hindu Vedic texts: the world as perceived is maya—appearance or illusion. This means,  in part, that people are blinded by their desires (as well as merely incapable of seeing things as they truly are). This doesn’t matter so much when things are going well, and we are getting what we want (although it can be a problem, even then, because getting what we want currently can blind us to higher callings). But all that ignored world presents a terrible problem when we’re in crisis, and nothing whatsoever is turning out the way we want it to. Then there can be far too much to deal with. 

p.99  …it’s not that ‘life sucks, and then you die’… Life doesn’t have the problem. You do. 

p.102-3  The philosophical study of morality—of right and wrong—is Ethics….Religion concerns itself with the domain of value, ultimate value….it is about proper behaviour…what Plato called “The Good”….You cannot aim yourself at anything if you are completely undisciplined and untutored.  You will not know what to target, and you won’t fly straight, even if somehow you get your aim right. And then you will conclude, “There is nothing to aim for.” And then you will be lost…It is therefore necessary and desirable for religions to have a dogmatic element. What good is a value system that does not point the way to a higher order? And what good can you possibly be if you cannot or do not internalise that structure, or accept that order—not as a final destination, necessarily, but at least as a starting point? …this is not to say ..that obedience is sufficient..there must be vision beyond discipline, beyond dogma…it is for such reasons that Christ said, in the Gospel of Thomas, “The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it.”

p.103  Does that mean that what we see is dependent on our religious beliefs? Yes! And what we don’t see as well! You might object, “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoyekski’s Crime and Punishment..in which the main character, Raskolnikov , decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he has rationalised as a benevolent murder, and pays the price).  You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs…. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act… You are too complex to understand yourself.

p.103-4  Some of our knowledge of our beliefs has been documented. We have been watching ourselves act, reflecting on that watching, and telling stories distilled through that reflection, for tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. ..Part of the knowledge so generated is what is encapsulated in the fundamental teachings of our cultures, in ancient writings  such as the Tao te Ching, or the Vedic Sciptures or the Biblical stories. The Bible is, for better or for worse, the foundational document of Western civilisation (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil)….its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.

p.104 ..Old Testament God doesn’t much care what modern people think. He often didn’t care what Old Testament people thought either…Nonetheless when His people strayed from the path—trouble was certain to follow. 

p.105 The Old Testament Israelites and their forebears knew that God was not to be trifled with, and that whatever Hell the angry Deity might allow to be engendered if he was crossed was real. Having recently passed through a century defined by the bottomless horrors of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, we might realise the same thing….

p.104-5…New Testament God is often presented as a different character (although the Book of Revelation, with its Final Judgment, warns against andy excessively naïve complacency).  He is all-loving and forgiving…In a world such as this—this hothouse of doom—who could buy such a story? The all-good God in a post-Auschwitz world?….  Nietzsche considered New Testament God the worst literature crime in Western history. In Beyond Good and Evil he wrote:…To have bound up this New Testament (a kind of ROCOCO of taste in every respect) along with the Old Testament into one book, as the “Bible,” as “The Book in Itself” is perhaps the greatest audacity and “sin against the spirit” which literary Europe has on its conscience.

p.107  aim at the improvement of Being….in other words, you decide to act as if existence might be justified  by its goodness—if only you behaved properly. And it is that decision, that declaration of existential faith, that allows you to overcome nihilism, and resentment, and arrogance…..It is that decision, that declaration of faith that keeps hatred of Being, with all its attendant evils,  at bay. And, as for such faith: it is not at all the will to believe things that you know perfectly well to be false. Faith is not the childish belief in magic.  That is ignorance or wilful blindness. It is instead he realisation that the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being. it is simultaneously the will to dare set your sights at the unachievable, and to sacrifice everything, including (and most importantly) your life.   But how?…

p.107 You might start by not thinking—or, more accurately, but less trenchantly, by refusing to subjugate your faith to your current rationality, and its narrowness of view….it means you must pay attention.

p.110 …concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is right in front of you..but do that only after you have decided to let what is within shine forth, so that it can justify Being and illuminate the world. Do that only after you have determined to sacrifice whatever it is that must be sacrificed sot that you can pursue the highest good. ..Consider the lilies of the field…..(Luke 12:22-34).

p.113  Rule 5.  Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything that Makes You Dislike Them.

p.118  Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilising traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people  who do not or will not fit into the categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing. Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilising and dangerous. We have learned to live together and organise our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works. Thus, altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth (diversity springs to mind) is likely to produce far more trouble than good, given the suffering that even small revolutions generally produce.

p.119  Was it really a good thing, for example, to so dramatically liberalise the divorce laws in the 1960s?  …I see today’s parents as terrified by their children, not least because they have been deemed the proximal agents of this hypothetical social tyranny, and simultaneously denied credit for their role as benevolent and necessary agents of discipline, order and conventionality.  They dwell uncomfortably and self-consciously in the all-too-powerful shadow of the adolescent ethos of the 1960s, a decade whose excesses led to a general denigration of adulthood, an unthinking belief in the existence of competent power, and the inability t distinguish between the chaos of immaturity and responsible freedom….there are catastrophes lurking at the extremes of every moral continuum.

p.119-120  The belief that children have an intrinsically unsullied spirit, damaged only by culture and society, is derived in no small part from the eighteenth-century Genevan French philosopher Jean-Jacques. Rousseau was a fervent believer in the corrupting influence of human society and private ownership alike. He claimed that nothing was so gentle and wonderful as man in his pre-civilized state. At precisely the same time, noting his inability as a father, he abandoned five of his children to the tender and fatal mercies of the orphanages of the time. 

p.120 …human beings are evil, as well as good, and the darkness that dwells forever in our souls is also there in no small part in our younger selves. In general, people improve with age, rather than worsening, becoming kinder, more conscientious, and more emotionally stable as they mature. Bullying at the sheer and often terrible intensity of the schoolyard rarely manifests itself in grown-up society. William Golding’s dark and anarchistic Lord of the Flies is a classic for a reason.

p.120 …bluntly put: chimpanzees conduct inter-tribal warfare. Furthermore they do it with unimagined brutality..

p.124 We assume that rules will irremediably inhibit what would otherwise be the boundless and intrinsic creativity of our children, even though the scientific literature clearly indicates, first, tat creativity beyond the trivial is shockingly rare and, second, that strict limitations facilitate rather than inhibit creative achievement. Belief in the purely destructive element of rules and and structure is frequently conjoined with the idea that children will make good choices about when to sleep and what to eat, if their perfect natures are merely allowed to manifest themselves.  These are equally ungrounded assumptions.

p. 125  People often get basic psychological questions backward. Why do people take drugs? Not a mystery. It’s why they don’t take them all the time that’s the mystery. Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery.  How is it that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery. 

p.129f  Discipline and punish must be handled with care. The fear is unsurprising. But both are necessary. They can be applied unconsciously or consciously, badly or well, but there is no escaping their use.

p.130 It’s not that it is impossible to discipline with reward. In fact, rewarding good behaviour can be very effective. B. F. Skinner was a great advocate of this approach with significant success. 

p. 136f Rules should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Alternatively stated, bad laws drive out respect for good laws. This is the ethical—even legal—equivalent of Occam’s razor, the scientist’s conceptual guillotine,  which states that the simplest possible hypothesis is preferable. So, don’t encumber children—or their disciplinarians —with too many rules. That path leads to frustration.  Limit the rules. Then figure out what to do when one of them gets broken. The second principle: Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules.

p.141  Every gingerbread house has a witch inside it which devours children

P.141…time out can be an extremely effective form of punishment, particularly if the misbehaving child is welcome as soon as he controls his temper.

p.142  Parents should come in pairs. Raising young children is demanding and exhausting…Parents should understand their own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful. 

p.143 Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world—merciful proxies, caring proxies—but proxies nevertheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

p.147 Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world. 

p.147f Murderous individuals …appoint themselves supreme adjudicators of reality and find it wanting. They are the ultimate critics. For such individuals, the world of experience is insufficient and evil—so to hell with everything! …..Goethe’s Faust made a pact with Mephistopheles, the devil…in return he receives whatever he desires while still on earth. Mephistopheles is the eternal adversary of Being.  

I am the spirit who negates

and rightly so, for all that comes to be

deserves to perish, wretchedly.

It were better nothing would begin!

Thus everything that your terms sin,

destruction, evil represent—

that is my proper element. 

p.149f  It’s not only the obviously suffering  who are tormented by the need to blame someone or something for the intolerable state of their Being. At the height of his fame, influence and creative power, for example, the towering Leo Tolstoy himself began to question the value of human existence. Tolstoy began to develop thoughts that life is meaningless and evil…Tolstoy could identify only four means of escaping from such thoughts..retreating into childlike ignorance of the problem…pursuing mindless pleasure; continuing to drag our a life that is evil and meaningless, knowing beforehand that nothing can come of it.. the strength to act rationally and quickly put an end to the delusion by killing themselves…. For years he hid his guns from himself and would not walk with a rope in hand, in case he hanged himself.

p.150  Tolstoy wasn’t pessimistic enough . The stupidity of the joke being played on us does not merely motivate suicide.  It motivates murder—mass murder, often followed by suicide. That is a far more existential protest. By June of 2016, unbelievable as it may seem, there has been one thousand mass killings  (defined as four or more  people shot in a single incident, excluding the shooter) in the US in twelve hundred and sixty days. That’s one such event of five of every six days for more than three years. 

…the biblical story of Cain and Abel …described murder as the first act of post-Edenic history…and not just murder, but fratricidal murder—murder not only of someone innocent but of someone ideal and good, and murder done consciously to spite the creator of the universe. Today’s killers tells us the same thing, in their own words.

p.151   A religious man might shake his fist in desperation at the apparent injustice and blindness of God. Even Christ Himself felt abandoned before the cross, as the story goes. Other alternatives include fate,…the brutality of chance…a character flaw in the murderer…why is there so much suffering and cruelty?

p.153  Nietzsche wrote these words: “Distress, whether psychic, physical, or intellectual, need not at all produce nihilism (that is, the radical rejection of value, meaning and desirability). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations….it is also possible to learn good by experiencing evil…Many, perhaps even most, of the adults who abuse children were abused t themselves as children. However, the majority of people who were abused as children do not abuse their own children.

p.155 One man’s decision to change his life, instead of cursing fate, shook the whole pathological system of communist tyranny to its core. It crumbled entirely, not so many years later, and Solzenhitsyn’s courage was not the least of the reasons why. He was not the only such person to perform such a miracle.  Václav Havel, the persecuted writer who later, impossibly, became the president of Czechoslovakia, then of the new Czech Republic, comes to mind, as does Mahatma Gandhi. 

p.157 Responses to suffering other than corruption and anger can include: clean up your life; work hard on your career/job; have you made peace with your brother/family? are you treating your spouse and your children with dignity? do you have destroying habits? start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. 

p.158 …say only those things that make you strong. Do only those things that you could speak of with honour….don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Have some humility….start to work on the subtle things you know to be wrong…maybe then tragedies will remain tragic instead of Hellish. If enough people did this the world might not be evil.

p.161  Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not what is Expedient).

p. 166..  Here’s a productive symbolic idea: the future is a judgmental father.  Another productive idea is sacrifice now, to gain later  as well as sacrifice will improve the future.

Cain and Abel are really the first humans, since their parents were made directly by God, and not born in the standard manner.  Cain and Abel live in history, not in Eden.  They must work. They must make sacrifices to please God, and they do so, with altar and proper ritual. But things get complicated. Abel’s offerings please God, but Cain’s do not.

p.171 The sacrifice of the mother, offering her child to the world, is exemplified profoundly by Michelangelo’s great sculpture, the Pietà, …Michelangelo crafted Mary contemplating her Son, crucified and ruined. It’s her fault. It was through her that He entered the world and its great drama of Being.  Is it right to bring a baby into this terrible world? Every woman asks herself that question. …It’s an act of supreme courage, when undertaken voluntarily.

p.171-2  In turn, Mary’s son, Christ, offers Himself to God and the world, to betrayal, torture and death—to the very point of despair on the cross, where he cries out those terrible words: my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew27:46). That is the archetypal story of the man who gives all for the sake of the better—who allows God’s will to become manifest fully within the confines of a single, mortal life. That is the model for the honourable man.  In Christ’s case, however—as He sacrifices himself—God, HIs Father, is simultaneously sacrificing His son. It is for this reason that the Christian sacrificial drama of Son and Self is archetypal. It’s a story at the limit, where nothing more extreme—nothing greater—can be imagined. That’s the very definition of “archetypal”. That’s the core of what constitutes “religious”.

p.174-5   There is also the problem of evil to consider….Not the least of this is what Goethe called “our creative, endless toil.” [Faust, Part 2 ]…We therefore sacrifice the pleasures of today for the sake of a better tomorrow….[Mankind] was also granted (or cursed by) the knowledge of Good and Evil…once you become consciously aware that you, yourself, are vulnerable. You understand the nature of human vulnerability, in general.  You understand what it’s like to be fearful, and angry, and resentful, and bitter. You understand what pain means.  And once you truly understand such feelings in yourself, and how they’re produced, you understand how to produce them in others.

p.176  Evil enters the world with self-consciousness.

p.177  Life is indeed “nasty, brutish and short,” as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes so memorably remarked. But man’s capacity for evil makes it worse. 

p.178-9 Things do not progress well for Cain….Cain encounters Satan in the wilderness, for all intents and purposes, and falls prey to his temptations. And he does what he can to make things as bad as possible, motivated by (in John Milton’s imperishable words): 

So deep a malice, to confound the Race

Of Mankind in one Root, and Earth with Hell

to mingle and involve—done all to spite

the Great Creator.  [Paradise Lost, Book 2].

p.179-180  “After Auschwitz,” said Theodore Adorno, student of authoritarianism, “there should be no poetry,”  He was wrong. But the poetry should be about Auschwitz. In the grim wake of the last ten decades of the previous millennium, the terrible destructiveness of man has become a problem whose seriousness  self-evidently dwarfs even the problem of unredeemed suffering. And neither one of those problems is going to be solved in the absence of a solution to the other.  This is where the idea of Christ’s taking on the sins of mankind as if they were His own becomes key, opening the door to deep understanding of the desert encounter with the devil himself. “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” said the Roman playwright Terence:  nothing human is alien to me.”

p.180  “No tree can grow to Heaven,” adds the ever-terrifying Carl Gustav Jung, psychoanalyst extraordinaire, “unless its roots reach down to Hell.” 

In the desert, Christ encounters Satan (see Luke 4:1-13 and Matthew 4:1-11). …It means that Christ is forever He who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity…This is nothing merely abstract (although it is abstract); nothing to be brushed over. It’s no merely intellectual matter.  

p.181 In the great and fundamental myths of ancient Egypt, the god Horus—often regarded as a precursor to Christ, historically and conceptually speaking—experienced the same thing, when he confronted his evil uncle Set (fn8 ..the word Set is an etymological precursor to the word Satan), usurper of the throne of Osiris, Horus’s father. Horus, the all-seeing Egyptian falcon god, the Egyptian eye of supreme, eternal attention to itself, has the courage to contend with Set’s true nature, meeting him in direct combat. In his struggle with his dread uncle, however, his consiousness is damaged. He loses an eye. ..

p.183-4 Christ’s third temptation is the most compelling of all ..the kingdoms of the world laid before Him for the taking. That’s the siren call of earthly power: the opportunity to control and order everyone and everything. Christ is offered the pinnacle of the dominance hierarchy …Power also means the capacity to take vengeance, ensure submission, and crush enemies. But, there’s something above even the pinnacle of the highest of dominance hierarchies..as the Tao te Ching has it: 

He who contrives, defeats his purpose;

and he who is grasping, loses.

The sage does not contrive to win,

and therefore is not defeated; 

he is not grasping, so does not lose.  [verse 64]

p.186- 7  Christianity’s achievements in the early centuries of its existence were substantial including its critique of slave owning and the rights of the lowest order of society; its courage in the face of the barbaric cruelty of the Romans; its opposition to infanticide, to prostitution, and to the principle that might means right; its support of the rights of women; mercy to enemies; the separation of church from state. 

p.188 -192    Nietzsche’s devastating C19th  attack on Christianity centred on the twin poles of (i) the enlightenment scientific assault  of the fundamental Christian stories eg the creation account…the idea of God is dead!  and (ii) that Paul and later Protestantism had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ and the importance of “works” and replaced it with a too easy solution of “justification by faith alone, ” as well as the devaluation of earthly life by its emphasis on the hereafter resulting in a passive acceptance of the status quo on earth and an excuse for Christian’s not to take on the earth’s moral burdens.  Nietzsche’s call was to the “Will to Power” and Dostoyevski’s  story of the “Grand Inquisitor” told by his “atheist superman”  Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov exerted a powerful impact on Nietzsche. Nietzsche called his fellow humanity to achievement, ambition and the will to achieve the highest possible position in life.  Peterson argues that the Grand Inquisitor spoke truthfully about a childish, sanctimonious, patriarchal, servant of the state church..a corrupt edifice of Christianity but also argues that the spirit of Christ, the world -engendering Logos, had historically and might still find its resting place —even its sovereignty —within the dogmatic structure [of the church.]

p. 193  Peterson agrees that the dogma is dead, at least to the modern Western mind. It perished along with God. What has emerged from behind its corpse, however, and this is an issue of central important —is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new, totalizing, utopian ideas. It was in the aftermath of God’s death that the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism sprang forth (as both Dostoyevski and Nietzsche predicted they would). Nietzsche, for his part, posited that individual human beings would have to invent their own values in the aftermath of God’s death. But this is the element of his thinking that appears weakest, psychologically: we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls. This was Carl Jung’s great discovery—made in no little part because of his intense study of the problems posed by Nietzsche. We rebel against our own totalitarianism, as much as that of others…

p.193-4 Peterson takes us back behind Nietzsche to Descartes and his doubt. ..to see if he could establish, or discover, a single proposition impervious to his skepticism….He was teaching for the foundation stone on which proper Being could be established. He found it, as far as he was concerned, in the “i” who was aware. …cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

p.194-5  The philosopher Karl Popper, certainly no mystic, regarded thinking itself as a logical extension of the Darwinian process. A creature that cannot think must solely embody its Being. It can merely act out its nature, concretely, in the here-and-now…But that is not true of human beings. We can produce abstracted representations of potential modes of Being. We can produce an idea in the theatre of the imagination. We can test it our against other ideas, the ideas of others, or of the world itself. If it falls short, we can let it go. We can, in Popper’s formulation, let our ideas die in our stead. [1977 lecture at Darwin College, Cambridge]…..Now, an idea is not the same thing as a fact. A fact is something that is dead, in and of itself. It has no consciousness, no will to  power, no motivation, no action.  There are billions of dead facts. The internet is a graveyard of dead facts. But an idea that grips a person is alive. It wants to express itself, to live in the world.

p.196-7  In 1984 , I started down the same road as Descartes… just exactly what happened in the C20th anyway? how was it that to many tens of millions had to die, sacrificed to the new dogmas and ideologies? How was it that we discovered something worse, much worse, than the aristocracy and corrupt religious beliefs that communism and fascism sought so rationally to supplant? No one had answered those questions, as far as I could tell.. Solzhenitsyn wrote , definitively and profoundly , in his Gulag Archipelago..about the Nuremberg trials, which he considered were the most significant event of the C20th. The conclusion of those trials? There are some actions that are so intrinsically terrible that they run counter to the proper nature of human Being….These are evil actions. No excuses are available for engaging in them.

What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no argument. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief…. 

p.197-8 Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. 

p.200 To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want.

p.201 Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient. 

p.203 Rule 8: Tell the Truth—Or, At Least, Don’t Lie. 

p.209 Taking the easy way out or telling the truth—those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life They are utterly different ways of existing.

p.212 If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself.

p.214  The prideful, rational mind, comfortable with its certainty, enamoured of its own brilliance, is easily tempted to ignore error, and to sweep dirt under the rug. Literary, existential philosophers, beginning with Søren Kierkegaard, conceived of this mode of Being  as “inauthentic.” An inauthentic person continues to perceive and act in ways his own experience has demonstrated false. He does not speak with his own voice.

p.217-8 ..rationality is subject to the single worst temptation—to raise what it knows now to the status of an absolute.  cf John Milton Paradise Lost, on Satan…

He trusted to have equaled the most High, 

If he opposed; and with ambitious aim

Against the Throne and Monarchy of God

Raised impious War in Heaven and Battel proud

With vain attempt.  Him the Almighty Power

Hurled headlong flaming from the Ethereal Sky

With hideous ruin and combustion down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In Adamantine Chains and penal fire…..

…. reason falls in love with itself, and worse. It falls in love with its own productions. It elevates them, and worships them as absolutes. Lucifer is, therefore, the spirit of Totalitarianism…such elevation, such rebellion against the Highest an Incomprehensible, inevitably produces Hell. ..it is the greatest temptation of the rational faculty to glorify its own capacity and its own productions and to claim that in the face of its theories nothing transcendent or outside its domain need exist. 

p.220  Milton, Paradise Lost again: 

The mind is its own place, and in itself,

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

Those who have lied enough, in word and action, live there, in hell—now. 

p.222-3 Culture is always in a near-dead state, even though it was established by the spirit of great people in the past. But the present is not the past. The wisdom of the past thus deteriorates, or becomes outdated, in proportion to the genuine difference between the conditions of the present and the past . That is a mere consequence of the passage of time, and the change that passage inevitably brings. But it is also the case that culture and its wisdom is additionally vulnerable to corruption—to voluntary, wilful blindness and Mephistophelian intrigue. Thus, the inevitable functional decline of the institutions granted to us by our ancestors is sped along by our misbehaviour—our missing the mark- in the present. 

p.225-6  A totalitarian never asks, “What if my current ambition is in error?” He treats it, instead, as the Absolute: It becomes his God, for all intents and purposes. It constitutes his highest value. …All people serve their ambition. In that matter, there are no atheists. There are only people who know, and don’t know, what God they serve. [cf Bob Dylan: “you gotta serve somebody”!]

p.233  Rule 9: Assume that the Person You are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t.

p.237 The past appears fixed, but it’s not—not in an important psychological sense. There is an awful lot to the past, after all, and the way we organise it can be subject to drastic revision…when you are remembering the past, as well, you remember some parts of it and forget others. You have clear memories of some things  that happened, but not others, of potentially equal import— just as in the present you are aware dog some aspects of your surroundings and unconscious of others…You’re not objective, either. You’re alive. You’re subjective.  You have vested interests.

p.242   A listening person tests your talking (and your thinking) without having to say anything.  A listening person is a representative of common humanity.  He stands for the crowd.  Now the crowd is by no means always right, but it’s commonly right. It’s typically right. If you say something that takes everyone aback, therefore, you should reconsider what you said. I say that, knowing full well that controversial opinions are sometimes correct—sometimes so much so that the crowd will perish if it refuses to listen. It is for this reason, among others. that the individual is morally obliged  to stand up and tell the truth of his or her own experience. But something new and radical is still almost always wrong. You need good, even great, reasons to ignore or defy general, public opinion.  That’s your culture. …If you’re reading this book there’s a strong probability that you’re a privileged person. You can read. You have time to read. YOu’re perched high in the clouds. It took untold generations to get you where you are. A little gratitude might be in order. If you’re going to insist on bending the world to your way, you better have your reasons.

p.243 Carl Rogers, one of the twentieth century’s great psychotherapists, knew something about listening. He wrote,”The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.” [Journal article]

p.259   Rule 10: Be Precise in your Speech.

p.271 Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission. 

p. 275  Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily and inevitably poisons the future?…why remain vague, when it renders life stagnant and murky?…why refuse to investigate, when knowledge of reality enables mastery of reality?  If you wait instead until what you are refusing to investigate comes a-knocking at your door, things will certainly not go so well for you.

William Butler Yeats: “The Second Coming”.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

p.280  Precision specifies. ….What you hear in the forest but cannot see might be a tiger. …but it might not be, too. If you turn and look, perhaps  you will see it’s just a squirrel.

p.281 Don’t hide baby monsters under the carpet. They will flourish. 

p.282  You must determine where you are going in your life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction. Random wandering will not move you forward. It will instead disappoint and frustrate you and make you anxious and unhappy and hart to get along with (and then resentful, and then vengeful, and then worse).   Be precise in your speech.

p.285 Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children when they are Skateboarding.

p.306  Peterson identifies two architects of the assault on the values of Western civilisation: 

Max Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School ..1930s. He believed that Western principles of individual freedom or the free market were merely masks that served to disguise the true conditions of the West: inequalilty, domination and exploitation. He believed that intellectual activity should be devoted to social change, instead of mere understanding and hoped to emancipate humanity from its enslavement. 

Jacques Derrida, leader of the postmodernists, who came into vogue in the 1970s  Derrida described his own ideas as a radicalised form of Marxism. When Marxism was put into practice in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, economic resources were brutally redistributed. Private property was eliminated, and rural people forcibly collectivised. The result? Tens of millions of people died. Hundreds of millions more were subject to oppression rivalling that still operating in North Korea, the last classic communist holdout. The resulting economic systems were corrupt and unsustainable. The world entered a prolonged and extremely dangerous cold war. The citizens of those societies lived the life of the lie, betraying their families, informing on their neighbours—existing in misery, without complaint (or else). Marxist ideas were very attractive to intellectual utopians. …Sartres supported Marxism until 1968 (the Czech Spring; then Solzenhitzen).

p.311  Derrida famously said (althoughhe denied it, later):”Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”—often translated as “there is nothing outside the text”. His supporters say that is a mistranslation, and that the English equivalent should have been “there is no outside-text”. It remains difficult, either way, to read the statement as saying anything other than “everything is interpretation,” and that is how Derrida’s work has generally been interpreted.  It is almost impossible to over-estimate the nihilistic and destructive nature of this philosophy. It puts the act of categorisation in doubt.  It negates the idea that distinctions might be drawn between things for any reasons other than that of raw power. Biological distinctions between men and women? Despite the existence of an overwhelming, multi-disciplinary scientific literature indicating that sex differences are powerfully influenced by biological factors, science is just another game of power, for Derrida and his post-modern Marxist acolytes, making claims to benefit those at the pinnacle of the scientific world. There are no facts. …all definitions of skill and of competence are merely made up by those who benefit from them, to exclude others, and to benefit personally and selfishly. 

There is sufficient truth to Derrida’s claims to account, in part, for their insidious nature. Power is a fundamental motivational force  (“a” not “the”) . People compete to rise to the top, and they care where they are in dominance hierarchies. But (and this is where you separate the metaphorical boys from the men, philosophically) the fact that power plays a role in human motivation does not mean that it plays the only role, or even the primary role. 

p.313  If radical right-wingers were receiving state funding for political operations disguised as university courses, as the radical left-left-wingers clearly are, the uproar from progressives across North America would be deafening.

p.335  Rule 12: Pet a Cat When you Encounter One on the Street. 

p.343  What is the link between vulnerability and Being? An old Jewish story, part of the Commentary on the Torah begins with a question, structured like a Zen koan. Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does such a Being lack? The answer? Limitation. …and it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being. That idea has helped me deal with the terrible fragility of Being.  I don’t want to claim that this somehow makes it all [ie intense suffering] all OK…but there’s something to be said for recognising that existence and limitation are inextricable linked. 

Though thirty spokes may form the wheel,

it is the hole within the hub

which gives the wheel utility.

It is not the clay the potter throws,

which gives the pot its usefulness,

but the space within its shape,

from which the pot is made.

Without a door, the room cannot be entered,

and without its windows it is dark

Such is the utility of non-existence. [Lao-Tse: The tao te ching:  verse 11:The Utility of Non-Existence.]

p.345  Being of any reasonable sort appears to require limitation. Perhaps this is because Being requires Becoming, as well as mere static existence—and to become is to become something more, or at least something different. That is only possible for something limited. 

p. 345f  But then what about the suffering? Dostoyevski: It cannot be said that world history is reasonable. The word sticks in one’s throat. [Notes from Underground].  cf Goethe’s Faust Part 11:

Gone, to sheer Nothing, past with null made one!

What matters our creative endless toil,

When, at a snatch, oblivion ends the coil?

“It is by-gone”—how shall this riddle run?

As good as if things never had begun,

Yet circle back, existence to possess;

I’d rather have Eternal Emptiness. 

p.346  Clearly the answer is not to create more suffering ..that only makes a bad situation even worse. And I also don’t think it is possible to answer the question by thinking. Thinking leads inexorably to the abyss. It did not work for Tolstoy. It might not even have worked for Nietzsche, who arguably thought more clearly about such things than anyone in history…it ’s noticing, not thinking that does the trick.  Perhaps you might start by noticing this: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations…there appear to be limits on the path to improvement beyond which we might not want to go, lest we sacrifice our humanity itself.

p.355 Coda. 

Ask, and it shall be given to you; Seek, and ye shall find; Knock, and it shall be open unto you; For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7&8).

p.357 Re arguments: You must decide whether you want to be right or you want to have peace…

p.357  you must be receptive to that which you don’t want to hear.

p.361 Re the world: ..act so that you are not made bitter and corrupt by the tragedy of existence. 

p.365  Re ageing: Replace the potential of my youth with the accomplishments of my maturity….A life lived thoroughly justifies its own limitations…The young man with nothing has his possibilities to be set against the accomplishments of his elders..

Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium

“An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless /Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing /For every tatter in its mortal dress.

p.367  …nothing is going so badly that it can’t be made worse…..The King of the damned is a poor judge of Being.

Books read January 2019

BOOKS READ JANUARY 2019

Philip Yancey:  I Was Just Wondering, Sydney, Strand Publishing, 2005 (1989)

This is one of Yancey’s earliest books…a collection of short pieces written when he was a regular writer for a monthly edition of Christianity Today, a task he commenced in 1983.  Yancey has since written some seriously honest, theologically challenging, spiritually uplifting and  influential books including What’s So Amazing About Grace, The Jesus I Never Knew and Soul Survivor,  which would feature in many Christian readers’ top ten Christian books list. This early collection demonstrates all the quirky, well balanced, widely read, supremely courageous traits which characterise Yancey’s acute observations of the world around him and how Christian believers should respond. 

In his forward Yancey sets a high standard indeed for himself.  Looking around at creation he “wants to express his own sense of awe and love for God’s creation. He quotes Renaissance polymath and mystic Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man which defined the role of humanity in creation as follows: ..the divine Artificer still longed for some creature which could comprehend the meaning of so vast and achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur.  

Whether Yancey has achieved that goal the reader of this collection will have to decide but for me, in these bite size articles Yancey manages to challenge and raise thoughts for me which seem fresh, new and often hurtfully sharp. He asks more questions than he provides answers for but the questions leave the reader troubled enough to soul search for his or her own authentic response. His inspiration is Walker Percy’s book The Message in a Bottle which commences with six pages of questions. Each section of Yancey’s book begins with a series of very good questions indeed.

Some of Yancey’s themes include: comparing running an acquarium with running a universe; wild animals and Job; theology derived from dirty jokes; why high school reunion folks are the just the same ten years later as they were in school; against psychological determinism; Chesterton’s view of the origin of pleasure; the midnight church of alcoholics anonymous which acknowledges dependency; the Bible’s lack of support for smugness eg about the AIDS epidemic; the impact of Christianity on medicine in India; former president Jimmy Carter now building houses for the homeless; missiles for hostages in Iran; comparing Pinochet and the Pope in Chile; Simon Wiesenthal and forgiveness for horrors committed; the liberation of Dachau and a US soldier’s responses; Jacques Ellul’s sense of personal failure to resolve secular activism with his devotional theology ..(love vs power); Henri Nouwen’s decision to give up international fame and influence at its peak to spend the rest of his life caring for one massively disabled and dependent young man; small idols and distractions that edge out God in modern life; growing up Fundamentalist is still better than growing up without any religious faith at all; living in an evangelical enclave compared with the pharisee in the Temple; society’s C20th reversal of William James’ findings in Varieties of Religious Experience; George MacDonald on grace; T S Eliot ..can a liberal intellectual darling become a Christian and stay a Christian? Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn..imprisonment and conversion; Shusaku Endo and The Silence … the fate of persecuted pre-war Japanese Christians; how could Nazism achieve what it did in middle class Germany and how will the US be seen in 70 years’ time? primal passion in Jeremiah; mixed metaphors in Hosea; why the pseudepigraphical Gospels of a miraculous Jesus don’t cut it; the spirit of arranged marriages and why they mostly work; nine possible answers to the riddle of Job; Helmut Thielicke’s view that Americans have an inadequate theology of suffering and why; the world judges God by those who bear his name cf Nietzsche: “His disciples will have to look more saved if I am to believe in their saviour”; black holes and God; whatever happened to heaven..and many more!   5 stars. 

Daniel Defoe: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent, (usually known simply as Moll Flanders), 

New York, The Bibliophilist Society, 1931 (original published in 1722). This 1931 hardback edition includes an introduction by W H Davies, (1871-1940), Welsh “people’s” poet and writer and also contains  outrageous  illustrations of Moll Flanders sexual encounters by American artist John Alan Maxwell. (In a profile of Maxwell in the February, 1948 issue of Esquire Magazine,[8] writer Robert U. Godsoe described the artist:

Here is a romantic painter of dangerously exciting women–women with ‘great mystery in their hair and moisture on their hands.’   (Wikipedia)

I remember reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe when I was quite young and although I found its length daunting I do recall that the old fashioned language was nevertheless direct and easy to understand. Defoe never wastes a word and does not worry too much about adjectives or description of surroundings. The story is everything and it rolls along with plenty of action. Moll Flanders is a rollicking tale indeed. Apparently loosely based on a historical London criminal identity Moll King it certainly soon takes off with a life of its own. The novel highlights the vast disjunction in the  early C18th and probably forever! between the aristocracy and the poor in England and the well-known misbehaviour of sons of the aristocracy with household maids which is where Moll Flanders’ troubles begin. On the other hand there is little moralising or preaching.

The narrative is breezy, entertaining, at times thought provoking, always engaging and leading on the reader to find out what could possible happen next.  Defoe’s Puritan Christian faith emerges very strongly in the prison section but even here there are no artificial conversions or dramatic changes of heart or character.  Nearly 400 years on Moll Flanders ages very well and in all that time I doubt it has very often been out of print.   4 stars.

Michael Glover, Great Works: Encounters With Art,  London & New York, Prestel, 2016.

Great Works:Encounters With Art is a beautifully crafted and richly produced book containing elegantly reproduced photographs of fifty major works of art, mostly paintings but some sculpture. Michael Glover is a London-based poet, art critic and magazine editor and writer.  This book is a collection of some of his many sharp and pithy analyses written mostly for the The Independent UK newspaper.   Many of these works are from British galleries but others are from galleries throughout Europe and the USA.

Many of my favourite paintings are discussed  here including Mantegna’s The Dead Christ from the Brera in Milan, Grünewald’s Resurrection of Christ from he Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France, Caspar David Friedrich’s Traveller Above the Mists  from Hamburg’s Kunstalle, Fragonard’s The Swing, from London’s Wallace Collection, and Massacio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden from Florence’s Brancacci Chapel.  In addition Glover has analysed Japanese woodblock prints, an ancient Assyrian low-relief lion sculpture and a large number of twentieth and Twenty first century artists including Paul Klee, Louise Bourgeois, Cy Twombly, and Marlene Dumas amongst many others. 

Glover’s attention to detail, flamboyantly thoughtful analysis, historical background and richly poetic descriptive language make reading this book a special privilege.  I was constantly amazed by his ability to point to aspects of a painting and minute details in paintings I thought I knew well and have never noticed before.  5 stars +

Alex Miller:  Watching the Climbers on the Mountain,  Sydney, Pan Books, 1998

Alex Miller’s first novel contains all the hallmarks of what in my view qualifies him as Australia’s finest writer since Patrick White, even though he was born in England. These hallmarks include deeply painted, intricate and alive  descriptions of outback Queeensland bush and mountains; equally intricate and crafted insights into characters especially male/female relationships; teasing plot development which several times threatens to terror and then recedes until finally delivering; a devastating study of coming of age for young children in remote outback Australia. 

Beyond all of the above the narrative contains a deeper search for meaning and understanding of being alive and surviving in life.  This is a tragic love story told with psychological tautness and with the occasional gem of a sentence that prophesies the greatness to come in future Alex Miller novels…. eg a  sentence such as old age is the only secure refuge from manhood (p66). This novel grips the reader from the first sentence and does not let go until the end.  I read it in three hours ..could not put it down.  (but then I am the president of the Alex Miller fanclub!); 5 stars.

This is a clever insight into the historical background of Jesus from a world class Danish New Testament scholar who has written in the areas of Early Palestinian Christianity, Early Christian traditions and Pauline theology from both a sociological and psychological perspective. 

Gerd Theissen: The Shadow of the Galilean, translated from German by John Bowden, London, SCM, 1987 (published 1986 in German).

The Shadow of the Gallilean

This text takes an oblique view of the background to Jesus’ ministry and the actual ministry itself with its results.  It is based on events in the life of a fictional non-observant but deeply thoughtful Jewish fruit and grain merchant Andreas from Sepphoris, a large Roman city in Galilee near Nazareth. Andreas had a long standing friendship with Barabbas and was inadvertently caught up in a riot in Jerusalem and imprisoned and questioned by Roman authorities. As a result and to buy his freedom Andreas agreed to be a fifth columnist, reporting to the Roman authorities on Jewish revolutionary activities.  This set up enables Theissen to explore the background religious and political  situation in Judaea and Galilee as it were from an interested but fairly neutral observer. 

Theissen achieves this at several levels.  His study includes a close up look at the Essenes/Qumran community; the wilderness prophets and mystics including Bannus and John the Baptist; the Zealots and sicarii resistance fighters, the Pharisees and Sadducees, first century Greek poets and mystics and of course Jesus of Nazareth.  In addition Theissen carries on a conversation about his writing with a fictitious New Testament historian and scholar “Dr Kratzinger”. This discussion enables Theissen to deal with the many historical, textual, doctrinal and historiographical issues that abound in New Testament studies.  He does this by a comprehensive footnote system which provides up to date and helpful data on all of the above issues. In this process he challenges many mid C20th liberal theological biases in the study of the New Testament text and provides useful insights into alternative ways of looking at the material now backed up by a vast amount of research into first and second century  Jewish and early Christian literature and the pseudopigrapha, and ever increasing excavations of inscriptions and other archaeological data. Of course the book and its narrative can be read for interest on its own without any reference to the detailed footnotes which are kept to the rear of the book. 

The result is a multi-layered book which retains interest and indeed a high level of intrigue and excitement. Although some of the contacts Andreas made look a little too convenient stylistically this is a minor criticism and the reader understands in any case what Theissen is trying to achieve. This book is a creative, careful and entertaining way of entering into reasonably high level introductory New Testament studies and a reading guide and the footnotes provide many suggestions about further exploration if the reader is so motivated. 

Apart from anything else this study demonstrates firstly that the narrative about Jesus’ crucifixion is very complex and has many threads..there is no single reason for the crucifixion; and secondly that there can be no doubt about the subjective authenticity of the appearances tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-9. [p211]

I enjoyed this book more than I expected and it has left some images and sayings in my head that I won’t forget. One is a convert who says: If he has died for me, then I am obliged to live for him. 5 stars.

Jordan Bernt Peterson: 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos, London, Allen Lane (Penguin imprint), 2018.

Jordan Peterson (born June 12, 1962) is a Canadian clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. His main areas of study are in abnormal, social, and personality psychology, with a particular interest in the psychology of religious and ideological belief, and the assessment and improvement of personality and performance.  (Wikipedia)

Jordan Peterson has been described in the New York Times in 2018 as the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.. I do not normally read self-help books and it is unfair to call 12 Rules for Life just a self-help book. In fact it is very difficult to attempt to summarise or concisely define the elements of this book. Peterson’s erudition covers an exceptionally deep and wide ranging knowledge of both psychological theory as well as current research on a huge array of topics. The Wikipedia article on Peterson alone lists over 16 significant published papers on psychological research in major journals.  His broader lectures and on-line teaching have reached a vast audience.

In 2013, Peterson began recording his lectures (“Personality and Its Transformations”, “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief” and uploading them to YouTube. His YouTube channel has gathered more than 1.8 million subscribers and his videos have received more than 65 million views as of August 2018.

All of this background alone would make for an interesting read on how to live a meaningful life but Peterson’s interests go far deeper than psychology and psycho-therapy.  His knowledge of religious literature is deep and far-reaching including the ancient Sumerian/Babylonian creation and flood myths; the equally ancient Hindu Vedas, the tao te ching, the Hebrew Scriptures, the teaching of Jesus, the early Greek philosophers, and bringing it up to date, an exhaustive knowledge of Marxist ideology and C20th Communist history.  In addition Peterson demonstrates a close reading of Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and Nietzsche as well as the poetry of Yeats, Milton, Eliot and  a host of current writers and commentators on “life in the Western world”. 

Peterson’s comments go deep, they are clear, they are based on sound reasoning and evidence, they are acute and cutting but also humble and careful and many are based on his own personal experiences from a life which has had more  very tough encounters than most.  indeed, Peterson’s courage in challenging many C21st currently held and frequently regurgitated viewpoints and assumptions in the media has earned him as many enemies as friends and makes for stirring and at times uncomfortable home truth reading. 

In his own words his 12 rules are as follows:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone your are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to someone else today.
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
  8. Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street. 

I can only say that reading this book is guaranteed to change a little and perhaps a great deal of how you think and live ..it is deeply insightful, at times humorous, profoundly engaging and important writing…nothing he writes about is fatuous or trivial. There are some weaknesses eg there seems to be some repetition at times and a need for more careful editing in some places but this is carping criticism.  The book is strong meat. The reader needs to concentrate and be prepared to think very hard indeed and then change some things. Those who stay the distance will find much to help them live more fruitfully and effectively in the C21st.   5 stars.

Books read December 2018

Saint Augustine: The City of God, with Introduction by Thomas Merton, translated from Latin by Marcus Dods, the Revd George Wilson And the Revd J J Smith, New York,  Random House (The Modern Library), 1950 [originally commenced  c 413 AD  and written in instalments over 13 years], 892pp including detailed index.

This is a substantial and demanding read by any standards and is more like a spiritual experience or a course of lectures than anything else I can compare it with.  Thomas Merton, wisely I think, encourages the reader who wishes to know Augustine to read first his Confessions, to enable the reader to understand his background and life and his central theological themes and Christian ideals. 

In  The City of God the reader is faced with a vast canvass indeed …a history and time-line of the known world, detailed philosophical analysis, lengthy Biblical summary and analysis, lengthy social analysis; speculative thoughts about Heaven and Hell;  Merton asks: How many Americans will have the patience to follow him through all of this? Good question! 

 We are  plunged into deep thoughts; irritating  digressions; a passion for numerology;  seemingly unnecessary detail about things that can never be known in this world; annoying at times over – allegorisation of Old Testament passages combined with unnecessary literalism in some New Testament interpretation; surprising reliance on apocryphal writings; for C21st readers at times outrageous anti-semitism, sexism and “hate speech”; horrifying physical description in parts including cannibalism; wondrous spiritual visions of the beatific vision; intense philosophical disputations especially with Plato, Cicero, Virgil and Porphyry and the historian Varro; remarkably very little reference to theologians except the occasional nod to Jerome and breathtaking honesty. eg p 741 on Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-11..”I frankly confess I do not know what he means.”  It was refreshing to see Augustine not being drawn to a particular view of the complexities in the book of Revelation including the millennium and other obscurities in some Biblical texts where he confessed to being uncertain of how to interpret them.

Some initial responses for me were:

  1. It was awe inspiring to get a feel for the cataclysm produced by the sacking of Rome and fall of the Roman Empire and how unsettling and terrifying it must have been for ordinary citizens of Rome [interesting to compare it with the 2019 Trump/Democrat based shut down of the US Congress/UK Brexit debate chaos/French yellow vest destroyers of Paris and other cities …the fall of the Western World???etc  In a different way Augustine’s ignorance and scepticism about “the antipodes”  (p532)
  2. A surprising lack of interest by Augustine in “Reformation” themes eg “justification” mentioned only on pp786-7 and the phrase “justification by faith” not mentioned at all; In all his extensive treatment of the OT no reference at all to Isaiah’s suffering servant and Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
  3. The evidently unclear status of the Biblical canon in the early C5th and constant reference to church authorities’ uncertainty about various books which have come to be called the Apocrypha as well as Augustine’s clear preference for the Septuagint over the Hebrew text of the Old Testament where there are differences. 
  4. Troubling anti-Semitic and sexist references; 
  5. Augustine’s obvious admiration for the intellectual strengths of  Plato, Cicero, Virgil and Porphyry and the historical work of Varro (now lost)  mixed with his intense criticisms of all of them whenever their view conflicted with Christian faith; (only one mention of Aristotle and only one of Seneca); 
  6. Somewhat chilling evidence of the rise of the importance of relics of the apostles and martyrs and their value for healing alongside a degree of naivety regarding supernatural healings and miracles…an indication of the dominance Augustine would have over the development of mediaeval theology in the coming centuries; 
  7. The constant and intense analysis of demons/fallen angels and their power and influence
  8. Augustine’s surprising theological flexibility including his strong defence of human free will (and we will still have it in heaven); our ability to remember the past in heaven (p 867); evil in the world before the creation of man (p811); that “God wills many things he does not perform” (p812); that God “killed his own Son” (p575) On predestination and freewill..we embrace both. We faithfully and sincerely confess both. The former, that we may believe well; the latter, that we may live well. (p157); that evil has no positive nature..the loss of good has received the name ‘evil’ (p350)
  9. On the other hand Augustine’s regimented view of the impact of “original sin” on humankind in Book 19 seems to me to misunderstand Paul’s argument in Romans 1 – 11 especially 5:12 (death spread to all because all men sinned). Nowhere does Augustine seem to grapple with the problem of those who have never heard the good news about Jesus although he does allow that original sin’s impact will not hurt the young. He seems unaware of the radical unfairness of the result of one decision of one man at the beginning of creation and the theological impact of billions punished for eternity because of their failure to accept God’s solution in sending his son to die for those who believe the Christian story of redemption. The impact of Augustine’s writing about original sin cannot be over-estimated and I believe still hampers evangelism in the C21st.  

The City of God contains two major sections:  Books 1 – 10 deal with the Greek and Roman gods and Greek and Roman philosophy contrasted with Christian faith.   Books 11 – 22 elucidate the various contrasts and interactions between the two cities ..the earthly city and the heavenly city. Augustine’s demonstrated knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy as well as what was then known of the history of the ancient Near East is impressive. I agree with Thomas Merton that the outstanding books are 19 and 22 and they might be a good place to start on the other hand there is also an ongoing logic in the whole work which gives the last three chapters a substantial power and gravitas which would not be felt without the labours of the first 18 chapters. 

Do I recommend this book?  Only for mature Christians with a healthy background in history, philosophy and  theology and a deep personal faith in God. There is much of powerful value and much to think about.  Most non-believers with a C21st scientific understanding of the world would consider much of what Augustine writes here as arrant nonsense. His book forces Christian believers to consider very carefully indeed whether or not they do believe in the bodily resurrection to eternal life.  3 stars.

Books read November 2018

BOOKS READ November 2018

Shaun Bythell: The Diary of a Bookseller, London, Profile Books, 2017

Jewish bachelor Shaun Bythell runs a second hand book shop in Wigtown, a small Scottish town with a reputation for second hand books in the tradition of Hay on Wye but fewer shops. Bythell has published a diary of his life as a bookseller whose house and private garden is the shop although it is possible some of the events and funny conversations with customers have extended beyond the twelve months of the diary. Bythell has developed an online reputation for being acerbic with customers who ask inane questions or behave badly in his shop and this has resulted in the antics that occur in his shop attracting international interest and folk now travel to Wigtown to experience “the Book Shop”. His extraordinary off-sider Nicky who seems to mis-shelf more books than she places correctly provides much of the humour in this book. As a regular visitor to any second hand bookshop I found this element of the book engaging.

Of additional interest is Bythell and the shop’s involvement in the reinvigoration of a small country town with literary festivals and cultural events. He seems to be indefatigable in such efforts and the results appear to have been significant. A further massive sub-theme of this book is the immense power wielded by Amazon Books and its subsidiary Abe Books over privately run book sellers all over the world. The sheer power of their price-cutting methodologies and the fact that to survive independent secondhand booksellers have little choice but to work through Amazon’s systems means that the industry is constantly under threat as margins reduce. Curiously in an epilogue written two years after the book was written Bythell notes that good second hand bookshops are fighting back successfully. Long may it continue! A third plus to reading this book is its frequent reference to many interesting books both fiction and antiquarian many of which whet the appetite for further literary exploration. Although the diary format can become tedious this book did maintain my interest to the end…but then not everyone shares my love of second hand bookshops! 3 stars.

Nancy Mitford: Love in a Cold Climate, Melbourne, Penguin, 2008 (1949)

Nancy Mitford (1904-73) was the daughter of “the second Lord Redesdale” (Drabble) and clearly grew up in the societal whirl and mores of early twentieth century English aristocracy about which she wrote many novels, of which Love in a Cold Climate is the most frequently read. This story is told from the point of view of the self-effacing Fanny, daughter of the irresponsible “bolter” [based on the real life of five times married Idina Sackville]. In the novel, Fanny describes in some detail the affairs of her cousins the Raddletts including her eccentric Uncle Matthew who is based on Lord Redesdale. This particular narrative concentrates on the showy, fabulously wealthy neighbouring Montdore family especially the dominant, racy and bohemian Lady Montdore, her obscure regular companion “Boy” Dugdale, her later over the top companion Cedric and the life and lovers (or lack of) her coldly beautiful daughter Polly Hampton. Mitford’s whimsical, light and sardonic commentary on the antics of these reckless upper-class aristocrats [Drabble] makes for useful entertainment on a four hour plane flight from New Zealand which is when I read the novel. Diverting, but sadly pointless. 3 stars.

Patrick Kinross, [John Patrick Douglas Balfour, Lord (Baron) Kinross]: The Ottoman Empire, London, Folio Society, 2003 (First published by Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1977, under the title The Ottoman Centuries:The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire.)

This is a masterful work of historical analysis written with verve, style, passion, insight and a deep understanding of the culture and history of both Ottoman civilisation and its European interactions. Kinross was a Scottish historian and writer, served in the British Air Force in WW11 and as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Cairo from 1944 to 1947.

The history covers the early Ottoman rise from the C13th wave of pagan refugees from the Asian steppes fleeing from Mongol dominance and possibly staying and settling in the north west of Asia Minor when the Mongols withdrew. Their founder was legendary Osman, son of Ertoghrul, and initially they were simply one of the smaller populations which survived from the invading Seljuk Empire and the Mongol Protectorate. Assimilated into Islamic faith and culture but maintaining their own complex Turkish language and unique culture they effectively took over the remains of the crumbling Byzantine Empire benefitting greatly from the sacking of Constantinople by Western Crusaders in 1453.

Kinross tells this story based around colourful and powerful key leaders and battles including Murad, the conqueror of the Balkans, Mehmed the conqueror of Byzantine lands in the East, Barbarossa the Pirate conqueror of the Mediterranean, and Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman established the flower of Ottoman culture and military power even threatening the fall of Vienna itself and so close to extending the power of the Ottoman Empire into central Europe. This vast and complex empire covering many cultures and faiths spread at one stage from Persia to the Armenian border with Russia, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt to modern day Rumania, Bosnia and Moldavia in the Balkans and across the north coast of Africa around the Mediterranean. Inevitably such a vast empire with so many different cultures and faiths would suffer decline but as “the sick man of Europe” the Ottoman Empire survived well into the C20th and its story is profoundly interesting.

Kinross’s strength is to maintain interest and excitement in spite of the vast amount of cultural, geographic and historical complexity through his understanding of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of leaders and the key factors in the outcome of battle after battle. The reader is drawn into the Ottomanian dream and compelled to continue. Although the West has often regarded the Ottomans as brutally savage barbarians in need of civilising (and they were responsible for many horiffic massacres), nevertheless this analysis demonstrates that the armies of emerging European powers in the Middle Ages and into the modern period were no less barbarous and responsible for many massacres of their own. I have read few histories as good as this one. Apart from anything else the story explains clearly the basis of the commencement of World War I in Europe and the complex failed negotiations to prevent it as well as the inevitable blood bath in the former Yugoslavia once the Russian backed strongman Tito’s reign was over.

This Folio edition as expected comes with magnificent layout, artistic and photographic illustration and an excellent introduction and updated bibliography by controversial Oxford and Koç University Istanbul Professor Norman Stone who has challenged the Western view of the Armenian genocide regarding these events as a horrific civil war for possession of land. I read this complex work of 628 pages in 2.5 days and could not put it down. 5 stars and rising.

Marilynne Robinson: What Are We Doing Here? London, Virago, 2018

Marilyn Robinson: American novelist and philosopher

Award-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson of Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila fame is also a world-regarded philosopher, moralist and public lecturer. Her teaching home is Iowa State University but she has lectured to large audiences throughout the Northern Hemisphere. This 2016-2018 collection includes lectures from the University of Chicago ( What is Freedom of Conscience? ); Liverpool Hope University (What are We Doing Here?); The University of Lund, Sweden (Theology for this Moment); Brigham Young University (The Sacred, The Human); Harvard Memorial Church ( The Divine); Stanford University (The American Scholar Now); Princeton University (Grace and Beauty); Northwestern University (The Beautiful Changes); The University of Virginia (Our Public Conversation: How America Talks About Itself); San Marino, California (Mind, Conscience, Soul); Regent College, Vancouver (Considering the Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Love); Westminster Abbey (Integrity and the Modern Intellectual Tradition); Harvard Divinity School, Old Souls, New World ); Trinity Cathedral, Little Rock, Arkansas (Slander). In addition it includes a 2016 article on Barak Obama who initially publicised her work, which was published in The Nation.

Robinson’s work is wide-ranging and intellectually demanding, informed by her personal strongly held Christian faith. It also includes a vast array of important yet out of the way historical material. It is also deeply challenging of many strongly held views current in recent Western intellectual discourse as well as some strongly held conservative Christian positions. In one essay she laughs at herself for being the philosopher of unpopular points of view and she certainly takes no prisoners in her assault on many commonly held ideas and writing, clearly demonstrating the lack of genuine historical basis and reference for many of them.

Robinson’s particular targets include amongst many others:
(i) the decline of careful and well researched political and rhetorical writing..now replaced by phantasms of the moment, or the decade…politicians playing to constituencies, by interest groups, by journalism that reflects unreflectingly whatever gimmicky notion is in the air and reinforces it. (p85) [in my view, not assisted by the 24 hour news cycle which by definition must blow up every minor comment into a major news crisis].
(ii) our superficial tourism …reality is that turbulent region out thoughts visit seldom or briefly, like Baedeker tourists eager to to glimpse the sights that will confirm our expectations and put us on shared conversational ground with decades of fellow tourists . We leave trash on Mount Everest, we drop trash in the sea, and reality goes on with life… (p91)
(iii) history writing that is vastly overly dependent on current day concepts of economic determinism (p90);
(iv) American university scholarship which “demonstrates” the collapse of interest in Western civilisation …western civilisation has “dropped” richness in painting, poetry, music, architecture and philosophy as meaningless categories (P91) cf also the losses in our modern understanding of psychology (P268). In general Robinson suggests that we appear to have effectively established “ the right to belligerent ignorance.”
(v) A general “Diminution” …one of the great projects of our time appears to be “dimunition”. (p253)
(vi) The thraldom of modernism (p260);
(vii) the tyranny of scientific and philosophic reductionism (p271 and just about every lecture);
(viii) her decided opposition to positivism (P274).

Clearly three of Robinson’s passions include Calvinism, the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards. In these essays Robinson provides a clear and well documented defence of both Calvinism, and before Calvin, John Wycliffe and the Lollards with their brave attempts to translate the Latin Bible into English before the printing press and their courage under fire in spreading its message. She demonstrates that Calvin’s hard edged teaching on Predestination is a relatively minor part of his vast and clear, well balanced, well researched scholarship and powerfully thoughtful theological output.

Equally powerfully Robinson defends the Puritans in several essays which effectively demonstrate their non-fanatical, generous and successful peace creating civil laws in both England and Massachusetts which contrasted strongly with the viciousness of Tudor penalties for any deviation from the theology of the day in both England and the Southern American colonies. The Puritans fell apart in England because Cromwell had no logical successor and because of, in the end, unsolvable differences within their own ranks over church organisation between Presbyterians and Congregationalists. In relation to Jonathan Edwards, she regards him yet as America’s finest theologian and suggests, as with Calvin, that superficial scholars pick out one sermon on Hell and use this to dismiss as hotheaded eccentricism his vast and deeply argued philosophical and theological output.

Robinson’s theological and philosophical drive is formidable and yet to be answered successfully to my knowledge. She must truly be regarded as one of, if not the finest American philosophers writing today. 5 stars.

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping, London, Faber, 1981 [1980]

Mariynne Robinson’s Orange Prize winning first novel is a powerful and evocative description of two children orphaned at a very young age and brought up in turns by an assemblage of somewhat ambivalent relatives in an American wilderness town called Fingerbone. The story is told from the dreamy and imaginative point of view of the youngest daughter Ruth and her more resourceful and determined older sister Lucille.

This is no simple read. Robinson writes with such emotional power and with such believable insight into a child’s mind that the reader is both entranced and at the same time traumatised by the drama of the children’s lives. The reader longs for a an upturn of events but resolutions continue to be unexpected. There is no doubt that the novel makes a very strong impression on the mind of the reader which stays with you longer than most. The town and the story is built around a lake and a long railway bridge which straddles the lake. There are images here that indeed could last a life-time. Robinson cuts to the core of deep human longings and insights and although the tale is extraordinary she never resorts to melodrama. 4 stars.

Shadowing Sheridan re God is Good For You

 

The following notes and comments are based on the material in Greg Sheridan: God is Good For You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, Crows Nest Au, Allen & Unwin, 2018.  The bulk of these quotations are from Part 1 Christianity  (pp1-167). There are fewer quotes from part 2 Christians as this section is largely the opinions of the various Christian individuals Sheridan has interviewed for the book…this is not to say they have nothing useful to say but my intention for this blog is to carve out Sheridan’s key line of argument as to “why God is good for you”. Without agreeing with everything in his book I think his attempt is brave, helpful and an enormous wake up call to the Australian and Western Christian church if they are not already somnolent!

i)     Sheridan argues that Western humanity without God could lead to human boredom and confusion and produce deadly consequences. (p1). This may or may not be true. What is true is that Western Society, since Classical Greek society, through the Roman Empire to Christendom leading to Western hegemony throughout the Americas and Africa has been theocentric. The book has not been written on what these societies might look like without transcendent religious principles.

ii)    It is no exaggeration to say that Christianity is in nearly existential crisis in the West (p2)…the West—meaning for the moment  Western Europe, North America and Australia and New Zealand—is trending atheist as the rest of the world is trending religious. (p3) It is hard to dispute this statement. Alister McGrath made the point powerfully in his recent book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea..there are more Christians in Nigeria than in the whole of the USA, Canada, Britain and Australia put together! This is not a good stat for the West! In Australia the predominant growth in active Christian churches has come from immigrants born elsewhere in the world.

iii)    In every age group above 45 years a solid majority of Australians identify as Christian, but in every group below 45 a solid majority is not Christian. (p4) This is certainly true of the average Anglican parish in Gippsland. In our quite vigorous local Anglican Church in Gippsland the average age of parishioners is above 73.

iv)    An Ipsos poll found that 39 per cent of Americans agree that religion generally does more harm than good. (p7) Evangelical Christians, who even a decade ago seemed the most dynamic part of the American Christian churches, are having great difficulty passing their faith. (p8)  I think this is also true of Australian evangelical families today.

v)   Catholic and Christian schools, though they do much wonderful work, have not been effective in communicating even the knowledge of the contents of Christianity to their students, much less in instilling a devotion to lifelong commitment. (p8f) I work as a chaplain in an upper middle class P -12 school of almost 1000 students. Only a tiny percentage of these students would own up to Christian faith.

vi)    Schools are not the most important factor in sustaining religious belief in young people. The family is the most important factor. Schools can’t do what families don’t do. But part of the crisis of belief in Western Christianity is a paradoxical crisis of knowledge….[young people] ..know almost nothing of the history and the content of their civilization. (p9)

vii)  The therapeutic age we inhabit tells us always to follow our dreams, to be true to ourselves, that our life’s project is self-realisation. But often enough our dreams at any moment are a bad guide to what we should do. This is true at all the different stages of life. (p11)

viii)    It is too easy to convince ourselves that what we want to do at any moment is justifiable. (p12) [Without faith,] for quite a long time society will live off its accumulated moral capital. A broad code of ethics will seem self-evident because that’s what people have always believed. But our ethical instincts—liberalism, human rights, even secular and democratic government—came about through hundreds of years of predominantly Christian thinking, refinement and social practice. If God is gone, the basis for our ethics is gone. As the French philosopher Ernest Renan once put it: we are living off the scent of an empty vase. (p12)

ix)    Even the high priests of the new atheism sometimes acknowledge this. Richard Dawkins, author of the bestselling The God Delusion, admits that without God, there is no absolute standard of right and wrong. He thinks humanity, unguided by God, can provide the standard instead. I have less faith in humanity by itself than he does. (p12)

x)     I never see a religion section in a mainstream bookshop now; There are honestly titled ‘self-help’ shelves, or more pretentiously, they are labelled, speciously, ‘spirituality’. (p15)  I agree this is often the case. In the Gippsland town I live in there is an excellent bookshop. They stock Richard Dawkins, Christopher HItchins, A C Grayling, but no Alister McGrath, no Tim Keller, no John Dixon, no N T Wright, no C S Lewis. I buy there regularly. Earlier this year I gave them a list of suggested titles they might consider stocking but none have materialised so far.   Readings in Carlton in Melbourne does have a religion section with some Christian material.

xi)    We have reached the stage where now much popular culture is overtly hostile to Christianity. Much more is just indiffererent.  (p17)

xii)   A lot of this, of course, has to do with the revelations of shocking and terrible crimes of clerical child abuse, a grave subject which any contemporary consideration of Christianity has to address…Now forces hostile to Christianity have used these abuses to try to sweep religion out of the public square altogether. (p17f).

xiii)   If in Australia, as the census suggests, half the population are Christians, then at the very least popular culture does not reflect reality. It is unrepresentative. It discriminates against Christians by blanking them out of the culture just as it formerly discriminated against racial minorities.(p20)

xiv)   Most university-level courses that deal with history or politics or literature or the humanities generally have at their heart an attachment to one form or another of critical theory or some related approach which nominates Western civilisation as the chief demon of history. In the view of all these these theoretical approaches the West is guilty of racism, sexism, colonialism, militarism, exploitation, class discrimination, neo-colonialism, economic imperialism and quite a few other sins. And it is uniquely guilty of these crimes. Because Christianity is so associated with Western civilisation, Christianity is cast as a primary villain as well. (p20).

xv)   Being Christian doesn’t solve the human condition. People still behave badly and do evil. But they also behave well and do good. The sense of Christianity in education has become cockeyed, unbalanced, inaccurately hostile. (p21).

xvi)    On pp22-23 Sheridan traces a line of Christian decline from Mediaeval times as expressed in the C18th Edward Gibbon’s ironic and dismissive treatment of early Christian figures, and especially of early devotional practices alongside the C14th distinction between the spiritual and the physical;  the Renaissance emphasis on the glory of humanity as opposed to spirituality;  to the disunity in Christianity provoked by the Protestant Reformation, the C17th wars of religion through to  philosopher David Hume’s C18th dismissal of miracles alongside the scientific revolution and philosophical Enlightenment and the upheaval of the C19th industrial revolution resulting in increased division between rich and poor and the rise of atheistic Marxism. In the C20th he cites two world wars, the sexual revolution, impact of technology, the gradual decline of family life, French existential pronouncements about the death of God, Freud’s dismissal of religious faith as repressed sexual desire and the development of academic Biblical scholarship’s attack on the authenticity, age and unity of Biblical texts. He cites as the final challenge the sustained affluence of the West through technological advance leading to the view that humanity no longer needs God’s mercy.

xvii)    Sheridan notes that in Australia… the State is starting to restrict Christianity…although in no sense like the way Christianity is persecuted in many parts of the world….In fact Christians are the most persecuted religion in the world, a story often ignored by Western media because they conceive of Christianity as the villain, not the victim. (p24).

xviii) Against this data Sheridan notes that after Government, the churches are the biggest deliverer of social services in Australia. (p25) and religious schools subsidise massively the cost of education in Australia (p26).

xix)    …in the US religious people give about four times as much to charities do non-religious people  [Arthur Brooks: Who Really Cares] (p27) and the US National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper in 2017 titled “Is Religion good for you?” Here is one of the headline results: ‘Doubling the rate of religious  attendance raises household income by 9.1 per cent. (p28) Sheridan cites other data conclusively showing a direct relationship between religiosity and happiness. (p29).

xx)    Sheridan notes that even the long-running Western efforts for governments to take over all the traditional welfare and solidarity functions of the churches and the family are finally an outgrowth of long religious sentiment. (p29f)He cites the Christian background of C19th and C20th liberalism;  the C19th Christian opposition to slavery and support for the working class, the spirituality of socialism under Britain’s Atlee, Papal encyclicals, Wesleyan campaigns for decent wages and working conditions.

xxii)   In the C20th the soul—the embodiment of our deepest integrity and destiny—gave way to the self, as the therapeutic age replaced the age of belief. Now, in our postmodern times, in the world of social media and the universal quest for celebrity, even the self has been supplanted by the brand, the quintessential expression of which is the ‘selfie’.  (p31) A certain panic at the existential emptiness of liberal atheism impels liberalism to a new authoritarianism. Everyone must genuflect to the same secular pieties. (p31) [So also argued in the podcasts of Jordan Edwards!]…Nothing is more powerful now in Western politics, or more dangerous, than identity politics. It sells itself as a way to help disadvantaged and marginalised communities. But eventually everyone wants a slice of identity politics and it sets all against all. (p31)

xxiii)     It has been rightly said that when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in everything. An intolerant atheism is just one variant of a wild miscellany of ideologies and esoteric cults gaining ground in the West. (p31)

xxiv)    Jeremy Corbyn old-fashioned communist banners —hammer and sickle —have featured in big rallies in London. In the murderous violence at Charlottesville in the US in 2017, Nazi symbols were in evidence. The two most evil ideologies, which spawned the two most evil dictatorships in the blood-soaked 20th century, once more find minds so shallow and so ill prepared for life as to be fertile ground for them. (p.32) …If we lose God , we lose something essential of our humanity. (p32)

xxv)    “Materialism, the most boring as well as the least accurate way of experiencing the world and recording experience, is the dominant mindset the Western intelligentsia in our day.”  A N Wilson: The Book of the People, 2016.

xxvi)     Sheridan notes, quoting Jonathan Sacks,  that the Genesis narrative, rather than being myth as such, is rather a polemic against myth. (p38) (referring to Ancient Near Eastern myths e.g. Enuma Elish where mankind is made from the blood of the dead god Kingu. Sheridan further notes that only atheist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins …take it absolutely literally, in order of course to discredit it. (p38) He further notes, correctly I think, that the Old Testament, contrary to popular press, is full of the universality of God, even as it records the special place of the Jewish people. (p39).

xxvii)     None of this proves or disproves God, but it shows what a friend the Judao-Christian God has been to human reason. It is also the case that as the Old Testament progresses, the Jewish knowledge of God becomes deeper, more sophisticated. This is all important to keep in mind when considering the notion that belief in God is rational, because it is not the case that belief in any god, or all gods, is entirely rational. (p39)

xxviii)    That is not to say other religious traditions, many with deep wisdom and the fruits of centuries of human contemplation, do not themselves confirm the rationality of believing in God. (p40)

xxix)     A rational belief need not be a proven belief. A belief can be justified but not proven. Much of the problem comes from popular misunderstanding of what belief is. Belief involves the will as much as the intellect, perhaps more. (p40)

xxx)     Faith, including religious faith, is not the enemy of reason. Faith is the basis of reason. This is because the central question of faith is most often not what you believe, but who you believe. (p41)

xxxi)     One reason most people are neither convinced to believe nor convinced to disbelieve by rational arguments alone is because God is a God of experience. Most people believe in God because they have an experience of God, and that experience of God most often comes through other people. (p42f)

xxxii)     There is today a great effort to bluff people out of their beliefs about God by ridicullng and demeaning those beliefs, claiming that people’s faith is primitive and superstitious….Sheridan quotes Australian poet Les Murray in “The Last Hello”, a meditation on his father’s death. At the end of the poem he writes: 

“Snobs mind us off religion nowadays, if they can.

Fuck them. I wish you God.”   (p43)

xxxiii) Sheridan comments on Thomas Aquinas’ five philosophical proofs for the existence of God: I find Thomas’s approach, including what was termed the argument from design (which has nothing to do with the modern theory of intelligent design), overall convincing. But it is not a knock-out argument, because God is neither provable nor disprovable.

xxxiv) It is one of the central mysteries of the human condition that all truth, like all l ife, requires a dynamic balance. To be true, all truths involve a balance of t truths, and this balance is always dynamic. Nothing inert is alive and no truth is really true if pursued in isolation from other balancing truths. The great fanaticisms of history typically obsess over one intellectual commitment which, if balanced and constrained by other intellectual commitments, could be quite true and quite benign. But pursued exclusively they cease to be truths. Nazism began with a love of country. Love of country is no bad thing, but without all the balancing and limiting truths that constrain it, it goes i insane. (p46)

xxxv)  Sheridan compares religious faith with falling in love. The decision is rational, but reason is only a small part of the process. The decision goes beyond the rational. (p46f) He then quotes Tim Keller: (The Reason For God). ..all of our strongest desires, correspond to a strong reality…(eg hunger, sleep, food, sex). The desire to behave decently implies the existence of decency. The desire for God, therefore, implies God. The vast majority of human cultures seem to be saying, with Les Murray: “I wish you God.” (p47)

xxxvi) It is not inconsistent to believe that Christianity is completely true and that yet other religious traditions contain much truth. And it would be absurd for Christians to hold that only they have ever experienced God directly. So this vast human testimony of the direct experience of God has to be confronted by anyone taking the subject seriously. (p48)

xxxvii) Where does this voice of conscience come from? And who are we answerable to about it? (p48)

xxxviii) Why is there something rather than nothing? (Sacks reports this question being asked at a Jewish function and its receiving the querulous response ‘And if there was nothing, still you’d be unhappy.’) (p49)

xxxix) How come our world is so incredibly receptive to the evolution of life, and of human life? (p94) Sheridan quotes Fred Hoyle: ‘A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics.’  (p49) and he quotes Freeman Dyson: The more I examine the universe in detail and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find t hat the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.’  (p50)

xl)  Sheridan refers to Stephen Hawking’s hypothesis of an infinite number of parallel universes “so that we got the one that was just right’  Sheridan replies: Now God and Science are very different, but if you can believe in an i nfinite number of parallel universes, it’s surely as easy as apple pie to believe in God.  (p50)

xli)    Sheridan comments on the possibility that we are alone in the universe. Perhaps the universe was made just for us. (p50) On the other hand Sheridan dislikes this statistical fact at present the least compelling of all the arguments for God. One lesson that a lifetime of journalism teaches you is that just because something is exceedingly unlikely doesn’t mean it won’t happen…if something is statistically unlikely it is nonetheless logically possible. Sheridan notes that previous ‘God of the gaps’ arguments have fallen on hard times. (p50f)

xlii)   Rather, the grandeur and wonder and majesty of the universe are more suggestive to me of God’s personality. (p51)

xliii)  The only people who evolutionary theory discomfits, unless its claims are exaggerated in a tendentiously anti-God fashion, are extreme biblical literalists. p52)

xliv)  Sheridan opposes Jesuit Theilhard de Chardin’s perfectly cockamamie idea that Christianity itself was evolution and the whole human race was evolving towards God. There was beautiful poetry in his words, but trying to fit good and evil, humanity and God, into a vast plan of evolution which didn’t allow for individual human agency was, in the end, just irredeemably eccentric, His writings could not deal convincingly with evil.  (p56)

xlv)   When those who make mistaken claims for science set out to destroy God, they always end up diminishing human beings. (p58)

xlvi)    On Dawkins’ book The God Delusion Sheridan comments: the universe implies a creator; it doesn’t prove a creator. Dawkins tries to turn this on its head and say: improbable as the universe is, God is even more improbable. But despite all his scientific learning he actually doesn’t provide any evidence that God is improbable..and of course such a question—quantifying the probability of God —is in any event absurd…Dawkins admits he has not studied theology—that is, the wisdom the finest minds of humanity have accumulated from experience, reflection and, indeed, revelation through the centuries—but then makes dogmatic statements about God as though he, Dawkins, were endowed with divine knowledge and we lesser mortals must accept the absolute authority of his pronouncements…eg Dawkins asserts that God could have created complex life unless he himself was complex. And if he is complex the he must have evolved. And if he evolved he was therefore not at the beginning of things. Certainly none of Dawkins’ argument here is remotely proven, or remotely likely, or even a little bit intuitive. It’s atheism by pronouncement, not logic.  (p59f)

xlvii)   Sheridan challenges much in the anti-Christian arguments of Christopher Hitchens, for example, that the Revd Martin Luther King Jr was not really a Christian. (p62) But Sheridan admired Hitchens as a professional journalist..he  had read a lot of books, talked to a lot of people, travelled widely, thought about things and at the end of all this he got in the ring and threw a few punches and saw if any of them landed, expecting all the while to absorb a few rhetorical blows himself ..he was not at all pompous.  Dawkins, on the other hand, is an eminent scientist in one field  but has no particular expertise in other fields. …he constantly misrepresents Christianity by taking i ts most extreme literalist and fundamentalist interpretation and making that stand for the whole of Christianity. He is atheist fundamentalist who apparently thinks that only a semi-deranged, extreme fundamentalist is a true Christian. (p63)

xlviii) Dawkins and Hitchens claim to dislike Mother Teresa because they disagree with her views on theology and abortion. When I read their attacks I wanted to ask them both, how many times had they interacted personally with, and t ried personally to help, the poor and diseased and the dirty and the hungry on the streets of Kolkata? (p65)

  xlix)  Christians have a right to be worried about what is happening to their beliefs in the West. The primary challenge is not intellectual but cultural. And it may yet become much more than cultural.Yet most of the world is religious . As I write this I have a full-time foreign editor of an Australian newspaper for more than 25 years. It is impossible to interact with Asia, or the Middle East, South America or Africa for that matter, and think that religion is not central to people’s  lives. (p66)

xl)    ..I am aware that all religious belief looks much more reasonable from within the tradition that it does from the outside. In the swirl of anti-Christian satire and abuse that runs through much popular culture these days, I remember seeing a description of Christian practices along the lines of: ‘so you eat this dead guy’s flesh while a non-human judge in the sky monitors your mind and if you’re guilty of thought crime sends you to burn in a fire forever as punishment’ …..the hostile atheist summer of Christian belief does make a point about just how strange the Christian beliefs are, at least by the standards of today’s culture. (p72)

xli)    On miracles Sheridan comments: It would be extremely perverse to believe in God but believe that he can only do the things we can do ourselves….One thing that the New Testament, the Apostle’s Creed and the general teaching of the Christian churches does not allow you to hold is that Christ was a great moral teacher, a social worker or a political revolutionary, but not divine, or claim to be divine, or to establish a new system of belief, in short a new religion. (p77)

xliii) It may even be that some Christian leaders find it easier to talk about the ethical stuff, in which most people of good-will can find something to feel positive about, and which is certainly indispensable, rather than the actual religious claims of Christianity….lots of Christian beliefs are not really easy. They are liberating. The longer you spend with them, the more sense they make. (p80)

xliv)  Sheridan comments on the search for justice in society. If there is no God… the fate of many in the world is wickedly unfair, unjust. (p81)

xlv) In the Christian view, Christ chose, in solidarity, to share in human suffering on the cross. He chose to stay behind with us, to share in the suffering of the human condition. (p84)

xlvi) The modern mind rebels against the idea of angels and devils, yet readily enough accepts, as we have seen, and without the faintest shred of evidence, the idea of an infinite number of universes, many of them exactly like ours.  (p87)

xlvii) …whatever we do with our lives, [according to Christianity], we too will be judged. This is justice. This, in the end, is the adult responsibility of creatures with the majestic gift of free will, and a creator who takes their decisions seriously. It is a comfortable thought when we think that bad people might be responsible for what they’ve done. It’s not necessarily as comfortable when we think that we ourselves will be responsible for our choices as well.  (p87)

xlviii) On hell, Sheridan quotes Australian evangelical author Roy Williams saying he cannot accept that anyone goes to hell permanently, for all eternity. His view on hell seems to echo a somewhat ambiguous remark by Pope Francis t hat ‘no-one can be condemned forever because that is not the logic of the Gospel.’ (p88)

xlix)  The ragged edges of Christianity, the loose ends, don’t make me think it untrue; rather the reverse. The raggedness of faith is something you can love, something that feels true and human. It is all of a piece with faith. One paradox of faith is that it always involves a dimension of doubt. If it was absolutely self-evident, there would be no need for faith….the absence of absolutely neat and compartmentalised formulas is a sign of life. Only dead things are completely stable.  (p88f).

l)      The atheist has to believe that all religions are all completely wrong, and that the overwhelming majority of human beings who live today and who have ever lived were all deluded about the most important things in life. (p93)

li) …the Christian understanding of God is that God is not just good; he is goodness itself, God is love itself. So when God is a jealous God, he is demanding fidelity to goodness itself. (p94)

xli) What I have always found more perplexing is the idea that we spend eternity in our bodies. Some Eastern religions believe in a purely spiritual eternity…a bodily resurrection, which Christianity teaches, is much more uncompromising, much more radical. [p.94} While the bodily resurrection is a radical idea 1 Corinthians 15 makes it clear that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. What is sown is a physical body ..what is raised is a spiritual body…a body yes but in a perfected spiritual form beyond our existing comprehension.

liii) Chapter 3 title: What did we ever get from Christianity —apart from the idea of the individual, human rights, feminism, liberalism, modernity, social justice and secular politics? (p96)

liv) The first great statement of classical secularism…’Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s….Jesus said: My kingdom is not of this world. (p96f)

 

lv) On sexual or racial  discrimination: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 30:28) …every human being has unique and irreducible worth in their relation to God (p98f)

lvi) Nonetheless, we shouldn’t overcame for Christianity either. There are passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament which imply a toleration of slavery..(p99)

lvii) People get their idea of Christian corruption and obscurantism from films like The Name of the Rose, or, even more ludicrously, The Da Vinci Code. (p101)

lviii) Western science was born because of the attempt to discover the workings of God’s laws in nature. (p103) [cf Kepler: thinking God’s thoughts after Him.]

lix) Sociologist Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity, locates one critical factor in the early expansion of Christianity as its appeal to women. (p104)

lx) Sheridan quotes Pope Benedict’s 2005 encyclical letter, God is Love: the close connection between eros and marriage in the Bible has practically no equivalent in extra-Biblical literature. (p105)

lxi) Sheridan notes that unlike Jesus’ male disciples, both Mary his mother and Mary Magdalene never let him down, and were with him as he died.

lxii) Sheridan quotes Larry Siedentop: Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. (2014)….Siedentop amply demonstrates …that no part of the pre-Christian ancient world supplied anything like the moral, existential, spiritual or intellectual basis on which the idea of the human individual, and all the main ideas behind modernity, could possibly rest ….The most decisive of all was Christianity’s universalism, ….[arising] from the belief that the human condition involves a unique encounter between every human being and God, that each human being has been created in the image of God and possesses an immortal soul and that human beings by their own decisions and outlook can greatly influence their own relationship with God.  (p107)

lxiii)   The intervention of God into Jewish history meant that in some sense history had a direction. Therefore time had to be conceived of as linear, not cyclical, as was the common idea in the ancient world. A linear view of history is liberating, while a cyclical view of history can lead to determinism and fatalism. (p108)

lxiv) Paul not only followed Jesus; he offered the first fusion of Jewish and Greek thinking. (p109)

lxv) Tertullian, who wrote in early 3rd-century Carthage, was the first great Latin author in Christendom. He understood the implication of conscience for religious liberty. …”Nonetheless it is a basic human right that everyone should be free to worship according to his own convictions.”  (p109f) Sheridan notes: It hardly needs to be said that Christians at times spectacularly failed to live up to Tertullian’s insight..(p110)

lxvi)   The lives of the saints, even the spectacle of the martyrs, provided  people with an example of a kind of social mobility. However you were born, you could be a saint. (p110)

lxvii)   In the century after Constantine’s conversion the authority of the Roman empire in any event began to slide. There was a certain disorder in the times. Christian bishops became important figures in cities, projecting order and leadership. With their concern for the poor, the Christian churches instituted what was in effect the first welfare states in some of those cities. (p110)

lxviii) …Saint Benedict emerged to shape decisively one of the greatest forces to influence Western civilisation; the innovation of Western monasticism. (p111)

lxix) …the developing field of church law or Canon law…came to greatly influence secular law.. (p114)

lxx) St Augustine, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries in North Africa ..is himself sometimes considered the inventor of the individual in Western culture.  His Confessions were the first psychological autobiography. (p114)

lxxi) In the 12th and 13th centuries…Western universities, all of them Christian universities, made their appearance. [p117]

lxxii) Sheridan quotes Siedentop: “The example of the church as a unified legal system found on the equal subjection of individuals thus gave birth to the idea of the modern state.” (p118)….in great contrast to ancient law, the Christian conception of natural law transmogrified over time into a doctrine of human rights. (p119)

lxxiii) It is also the case that many Christians said and did appallingly bad things in the name of Christianity during the Middle Ages. Numerous popes said foolish things. Anyone who seeks to condemn Christianity because of the sins of Christians will have plenty of material to work with.  [The argument here has been that the ideas of Christianity developed and led to the birth of modern liberalism….many, many bad ideas were tried along the way. In my view, Christianity has been overwhelmingly a force for good in history. But there is no denying the many bad things many Christians did. (p121)

lxxiv) The Protestant Reformation (or more accurately Reformations) attacked much that was corrupt in the old church. It introduced its own new corruptions as well. Martin Luther had many moral and theological insights, but he advanced Christian anti-Semitism to a kind of hysterical fever pitch. The Reformation shattered the unity of the Western Christian church. Its worst outcome was the series of religious wars that followed. And then both Catholic and Protestant used coercion, sometimes terrible and merciless, to compel adherence to one denomination or another. This was not only an evil in itself; it had a devastating impact on the ultimate prestige and moral credibility of Christianity, especially with intellectuals. (p122)

lxxv) The Enlightenment of the 18th century ..produced scientific and technological advance of a fundamental kind. …but the interesting thing about the Enlightenment is that its chief publicists were literary men rather than the scientists themselves. (p122) Sheridan quotes Stark: “What the proponents of Enlightenment actually initiated was the tradition of angry secular attacks on religion in the name of science.”  (P122) Sheridan concludes: It was not t he scientists who led the charge against religion, for the best scientists understood both the strengths and the limitations of science. (p123)

lxxvi) In chapter 4 Sheridan grapples with the problem of evil. …one of the things our culture likes to do with evil is medicalise it. This helps us avoid confronting the reality of evil. (p125)…everything must be explained in terms of biology and culture and philosophical materialism. Only the spirit cannot be admitted into our explanations….to think of our public culture as therapeutic …actually diminishes the majesty of choice which is at the heart of humanity, and which confronts every person. The ability to choose between good and evil, and among every shade of grey in between, is an ineradicable element of human nature. (p126f)

lxxvii) ,,,the mystery of evil lies within human agency and human choice. The Christian view of evil, which was the view of Western civilisation until five minutes ago, when the culture stopped believing in the transcendent, is that humanity is universally challenged by …sin, that we live in a fallen state. (p127)

lxxviii) Even our sense of moral outrage presupposes God. Just who are we outraged against if there is no God? Not only that: why do we think the universe, our world, our neighbourhood, anything we find appalling, is morally wrong? If our world is just atoms and energy and evolution then whether we l ike it or not, it has no moral character at all. It’s just a question of our own paltry preferences. (p129)

lxxix) ..the straightforward explanation for evil is our sovereignty, our free will as individuals. If we have free will  we have the ability to choose to do and be evil.  (p135)

lxxx) Because we are so affluent in the West, because we hide death in hospitals and nursing homes, becausese we anaesthetise so much pain and provide so sedulously for our own comfort, we sometimes forget that every human being is in need of God’s mercy, that every human life contains its own tragedy. (p135)

lxxxi) One consideration is that God seems to respect his universe. It has its own independence. It follows its own rules. (p135)…Sheridan quotes G K Chesterton: The refusal of God to explain his design is itself a burning hint of his design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. (p137)

lxxxii) What is certainly the case is that merely being Christian does not solve the contradictions of the human condition.  A Christian is not immune [from the reality that] the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. (p139)

lxxxiii …the most systematically persecuted religious minority in the world are Christians [based on research from the non-partisan Pew Reseach Centre….on the other hand: whenever Christianity has been banished, the problems of humanity have got worse not better. (p140)

lxxxix) A. N. Wilson, in recounting his journey to temporary atheism, recalls looking at several religious conflicts and coming to the conclusion that religion caused war. But then he looked at several conflicts where religion was not a f actor, or not a big factor, and decided that the real thing conflicts have in common is human beings and human nature.

xc) The worst crime of Christians in my lifetime is clerical child sexual abuse. This is the most devastating and terrible thing I have learned about Christians and institutional Christianity. (p143)

xci) Looking back does it show that the Christian churches were uniquely bad? In one sense, sadly not. Police figures suggest the vast majority of abuse of children occurs at home. Our society is living through an epidemic of abuse against women and children.  Overwhelmingly the perpetrators are men. What is utterly shocking is that this happened at all on a large scale in Christian institutions. (p144)

xcii) The 1960s also marked a new stage in the hyper-sexualisation of culture. Even in Australia there was a brief period in the early 1970s when some semi-respectable people argued that pederasty, or man/boy love, as it was sometimes called, was ethically defensible.In the context of comprehensive apologies over this issue, Pope Benedict XVI commented: ‘in the 1970s, paedophilia was theorised as  something fully in conformity with man and even with children. This, however, was part of a fundamental perversion of t he concept of ethos. It was maintained—even within the realm of Catholic theology—that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself.’  This kind of confusion had one tangible, terrible result. (p145)

xciii) The churches have to go on, after this shame, with all the tasks they are needed for.

xciv) There is no evolution in the human soul, just social change that can make it harder for easier to fortify a good conscience. Evil never goes away. For Christians, too, it seldom takes a holiday.  (p148)

xcv) Some Christian fundamentalists interpret the Old Testament literally, or nearly literally…..This is an interpretation which has no support in mainstream Christianity.  Judaism also had its fundamentalists  and literalists especially the Karaites, whose origins date back to the 1st century BC. These fundamentalists reject the rabbinic commentaries, or interpretations, of the Hebrew scriptures. Instead they look for the plain meaning of the words. They can accept that a poem is a poem, or a figure of speech a figure of speech. But whatever the meaning was when the text was first written and first read is the meaning they are after. The Karaites represent a tiny minority in world Judaism.  (p151)

xcvi) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is one of the finest interpreters of Jewish scriptures. His reflection on Christian, Islamic and other religious books is also profound and illuminating. No-one, though, writes about the Old Testament books more evocatively, faithful to both their original intent and their utility in everyday life. In his important book Not in God’s Name, Sacks shrewdly observes: ‘Every (religious) text needs interpretation. Every interpretation needs wisdom. Every wisdom needs careful negotiation between the timeless and time. Fundamentalism reads texts as if God were as simple as we are. That is unlikely to be true.’  (p152)

xcvii) The Old Testament always engages in its context. It was inspired by God but written by human beings for human beings. It was inspired by God but not dictated by God. It is not the distilled essence of heaven but the wrestled truth of humanity in dialogue with heaven. (p155)

xcviii) Naturally God will speak in a different tone of voice to different people at different times. Human understanding of God is always limited, although God does not change. I certainly cannot believe that God ever tells anyone to slaughter every man, woman and child in a given population. So let me declare my own rejection that is a lasting message inspired by God.  (p166)

xcix) There’s still a lack of comfort about politicians of faith who talk publicly about the inspiration of their faith. That’s partly because while politicians tend to be more churchgoing that the population generally, they are reported on by journalists who tend to be less churchgoing than the general population.  (p204)

c) John Howard: There is a big difference now even from ten years ago, and t that is a determined and vicious attack on Christianity. The attempt to drive religion out of the public square is quite clear. This has accelerated a lot in the last ten years. But you can’t understand Western culture without understanding Christianity. (p214)

ci) The only truly acceptable contemporary Christianity for Western political culture now seems to be a Christianity which doesn’t mention God and which subscribes to conventional elite wisdom on policy issues. (p218)

cii) Sheridan quotes an Australian monk who quotes French sociologist Jean Baudrillard: ‘The five qualities that postmodernism lacks are depth, coherence, meaning, authenticity and originality.’ (p269)

ciii) Sheridan ventures his preferred option for Christian operatives today: theological conservatives  and operational pragmatists with strong situational awareness, as the military might say.  (p279)

civ) Sheridan quotes Allan Bloom’s 1987 classic: The Closing of the American Mind: ‘there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes that truth is relative. Sheridan comments: If you believe that all truth is relative, then you also believe that truth is not true any longer, that really there is no truth.  (p283)

cv) Sheridan notes Campion College in NSW. It has dedicated itself to immersing its students in the great tradition, based on the great books, of Western civilisation. This is not such a novel idea overseas. Campion College is Australia’s only liberal arts college, but such beasts abound in the US (p285)

cvi) Christians in the West now live in exile. They have been banished from Christendom, however imperfect and unsatisfactory Christendom was when it existed. Their situation is perplexing, full of paradox and difficult to understand. But Christians and their churches and their leaders won’t be able to respond effectively unless they understand the dimensions of their situation…The Christian churches in Australia and in the West generally have poor situational awareness. Until five minutes ago many of them thought they still represented a consensus view of life and social goods, and indeed ultimately of human meaning, in our society. That is no longer true. As this book has argued, Christianity in the West is in crisis. He cites Jesus in Mark 13:13 you will be hated by all because of my name. (p317ff)

cvii) Sheridan notes that in today’s Western environment Christian ideas are seen as stale and dull. (p321)

cviii) English Anglicanism is in its weakest position since the Reformation. Its decline is radical, rapid and dizzying. A tiny proportion of English young people regard themselves as Anglican. So whatever the virtues or otherwise of the English Anglican strategy, it is impossible to argue that it has worked. (p323)

cix) When mainline Christian churches have attempted to be culturally and socially relevant they have typically tended to fall into one or both of two traps. Trap one is that in trying to make their message more culturally acceptable they have actually watered down the content of their message. This is not only wrong in principle but, paradoxically, it seldom if ever works even in marketing terms…the other typical mistake is that in choosing to ape the secular culture, they don’t actually do contemporary cultural expression very well, while abandoning the transcendent beauty of their own traditions. (p329)

 

Books read October 2018

BOOKS READ OCTOBER 2018

Oliver Goldsmith: The Vicar of Wakefield/She Stoops to Conquer, New York,  Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1965 [1766].

Oliver Goldsmith was born in Ireland, educated at Oxford and travelled throughout Europe before settling down to write in London. He would perhaps have not achieved recognition except for the friendship and patronage of Dr Samuel Johnson. The Vicar of Wakefield is his only novel and can be regarded as a novelistic version of the Biblical Book of Job. Wakefield describes the ministry of a well meaning and devout country vicar and his family whose fortunes take several turns for the worse, finally resulting in total destitution and the imprisonment of the vicar in a very ordinary prison.  The plot which, on his own admission, is full of wild improbabilities, nevertheless makes entertaining, humorous and beguiling reading. The vicar’s sincere but sometimes foolish simplicity is tempered by the author’s presentation of the value of the vicar’s simple faith in the Christian God and human communion.* 

There is something in this novel of the initial despair of the two eldest daughters in Austen’s later Sense and Sensibility.  The steady stream of horrific and unlikely unhappy outcomes followed by the joy of the final chapter compare exactly to the final chapter of Job which describes Job’s rehabilitation after the most horrific hardship.  Goldsmith succeeds in creating a novel which can still raise a smile and a sense of moral uprightness even after 250 years.

At the same time as writing a humorous and engaging moral tale Goldsmith takes the opportunity to expatiate on his favourite issues of the day including politics (chapter 19) in which he defends liberty and the monarchy but opposes the accumulation of wealth to the few;  a minor sub-plot which describes the attempts of his son to make his fortune by various entertaining means, at first in London and then in various parts of northern Europe (chapters 20 and 21); and an essay on the best way to encourage reformation of prisoners in gaol (chapter 26). Goldsmith’s generous and clever good humour refuses to be defeated by a potentially shabby and destructive C18th moral environment and his generous and gentle mode of argument would be welcome today in our C21st lust for entrenched oppositional  hatreds and certainties on Facebook and in the media.  This is a novel totally out of date and fashion but still very readable.  3 stars.

*taken from the Introduction to this edition by R. H. W. Dillard,pxix.

Oliver Goldsmith: She Stoops to Conquer, 1773. [publishing details as above]

Goldsmith was singlehandedly responsible for turning the mood of the English theatre scene from the choice of the somewhat wooden and immoral world of Restoration Comedy and the sanctimonious sentimentality of the London stage in the mid C18th. Goldsmith’s play is simply laugh out loud funny and is still so today and still presented for the joy and amusement of the many. It is a complete farce but in a believable and elegant way which would have made Noel Coward proud.  I really enjoyed reading this play and did laugh out loud!   5 stars.

Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own,  Frogmore, St Albans UK, Triad Panther, 1977 [1929]

Virginia Woolf is one of the twentieth century’s finest authors and this essay is about writing, in particular about women writing. The genesis of the novel was a request for her to give two lectures to the Arts Society at Newnham and Odtaa Colleges at  Girton, UK  in October 1928. The lectures are written in the form of a story or short novel and are written with all the exceptional grace, fluidity, imaginative force, elegance and learning that has marked her substantial works of fiction, literary criticism, memoirs and published letters.

Woolf’s key point about women writing is that before they can write they need both money and a room of their own in which to write.  Written just ten years after women in England were given the right to vote and where women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were hard to find and substantially under- endowed this essay is yet written without anger or to make a particular case.  It simply states the fact that prior to the nineteenth century women did not have money of their own and anything they did earn was their husbands; and secondly that even if they were well off and encouraged by their husbands they did not have a room of their own to write in but had to write in sitting rooms where there were always other folk present, making demands and needing to be spoken to. The first of these barriers (money) she admits is true also of men…men also need money so that they have time to give to the serious business of writing and she cites a detailed article proving this by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: The Art of Writing. (on page 101).

Woolf cites many other reasons why so few women wrote apart from the above and the fact that “scribbling” was not considered an appropriate thing for women to be doing. These barriers include the fact that writing usually demands a wide experience..travel, contacts, experiences that were rarely open to women prior to the nineteenth century. She also looks deeply into the “state of mind” of writers..which is hard to determine, but good writing should be free of anger; good writing simply is good writing and is harmed by bitterness or deep regrets of the past or anything else that gets in the way of the finest wisdom and words that humans can put together.

. In establishing the foregoing arguments Woolf manages to include a vast array of female writers in England from Elizabethan times onwards and also finds space to make some useful comments about the relative merits of various male English writers and in particular the atrocious, ignorant and baleful negative comments about women’s writing from several otherwise highly regarded literary critics.

I found this to be a moving and elegantly written piece of writing which left me with several images of beauty and the difficulty faced by the first women “scribblers”  that will be hard to forget.   5 stars.

David Attenborough: Journeys to the Other Side of the World: Further Adventures of a Young Naturalist, London, Hodder & Stoughton/Two Books, 2018 [1981]

I first approached this book with some nervousness thinking it might be a rather dry scientific analysis of a number of obscure creatures and plants from equally obscure places. I was delighted to be immediately enjoying Attenborough’s engagingly urbane, humorous and indeed exciting writing style. Attenborough’s courage, energy and determination captivated me immediately and I found this beautifully photographed and illustrated book difficult to put down.

This book is a follow up to his 2017 Adventures of a Young Naturalist and is an abridgement of three already published Attenborough works: Quest in Paradise (1960 ..a search for birds of Paradise in New Guinea); Zoo Quest to Madagascar (1961) and Quest Under Capricorn (1963..Northern Territory journeys).

The New Guinea material is extraordinary. Even in the 1960s New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland) was largely uncharted.  Attenborough and his intrepid cameraman journeyed where only one or two white explorers and administrators had ever been in search of birds of paradise. The hardships, climate, dangers of all kinds were extreme and the communications severely limited. Apart from anything else it is a story of survival and of powerful interest.

The Madagascar journey was historically and biologically very worthwhile but perhaps the least interesting of the three sections.   The final third of the book detailing 1960s journeys through the Northern Territory is mesmerising, humorous, revealing and challenging. The interaction of white Australia with indigenous ancient Australian culture in the 1960s is thrown into new relief when viewed from an outsider’s perspective.

I think this is a book I will long remember and return to.  5 stars

Greg Sheridan: God is Good For You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2018.

Greg Sheridan is a well known Australian media commentator on current affairs and since 1992 has been the Foreign Editor of The Australian newspaper. Sheridan is a committed Roman Catholic and his wife is a Sikh believer and they have three sons who are members of the Sikh community in Australia. He has written six books on Australian/International relationships and issues. This is his first book on religion.  Sheridan has clearly spent a considerable amount of time researching the material for this book and has interviewed in some detail a large number of political and religious figures in the process.

The book is divided into two quite different sections.  Part 1 is a defence of the validity and enduring value of the Christian faith even as it fades away in the West. The book has particular reference to Australian believers but with more than a nod to the Western world in general. Sheridan’s coverage includes an analysis of “the sins of Christians” including ancient scars such as the inquisition and the Crusades as well as the recent uncovering of horrific pedophile scandals. Sheridan writes as a committed Roman Catholic but has clearly researched deeply into many Protestant Christian communities and demonstrates an excellent understanding of their approaches and functioning.

Part 2 consists of a series of interviews with a significant number of politicians who espouse Christian faith from both sides of the political divide and other chapters on outstanding Christian leaders and spokespersons of a wide range of denominations and involvement including Planetshakers, Focolare, Monastics, Campion College and many others. Sheridan also devotes chapters to descriptions of vigorous “signs of life” in many Christian communities, new styles of church and worship  and organisations that are making an impact on Australian society. He closes with some advice to Christian leaders and churches on what needs to be done to reignite Christian faith in Australia.

Sheridan’s very up to date examples, his well known pithy and sharp style, his sensitive assessments of individuals and shades of difference in religious beliefs, his courage in fronting some formidable political leaders and his sympathetic attempts to get inside the real thinking of individuals about a topic which is seldom discussed in public make this book hard to put down. This book is half way between  serious research and serious investigative journalism. Insiders will quibble at some of his analyses and outsiders might think he spends too much time on some issues.  In my view he has sharply hit on just the right tone.

If Australian Christians don’t accept that their time in the sun is over, that their once privileged position no longer counts in Australian society, that in fact they are facing and will face increasing hostility and abuse for their views and that if they don’t regroup and reignite they will face oblivion, then it will not be Sheridan’s fault. He has sounded a bugle call for what needs to be done and given some fine examples. Ordinary Christians will sense a real challenge and excitement here. Church leaders and key operators should take careful note and read it twice. Truly a clarion call to the Australian church…Wake up ..get going…be alive and be faithful…don’t lie down and don’t water down. This is not the work of a professional theologian or of an ordained priest…it is the carefully delineated thoughtfulness of a highly committed Christian thinker and an at times brutally even-handed but also  highly competent  and sympathetic Australian journalist.  5 stars.

Andrew Moody: The Will of Him Who Sent Me: An Exploration of Responsive Intra-Trinitarian Willing, Bletchley, Milton Keynes UK, Paternoster, 2016.

Coleridge, in his once very popular Aids to Reflection (1825) wrote: …I have not entered on the Doctrine of the Trinity….[this doctrine] demands a power and persistency of Abstraction, and a previous discipline in the highest forms of human thought… (In Aphorism 96). I note also the Psalmist in Ps 131:1b ..I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me….

I should have taken both pieces of advice to heart before starting on Andrew Moody’s extraordinary  account of his Doctoral thesis which seeks to search out the possibility of an inter-trinitarian response from the Son to the Father within the one will of God who is Father, Son and Spirit. Needless to say this book is a difficult read even for someone well versed in theology. Three reasons for this difficulty stand out immediately, one practical and the other two inevitable.

On the practical side there are some problems with the layout printing of the book as the extensive footnotes often extend beyond the page of their notation requiring much turning forward and back and the footnotes can’t be ignored because much of the “juice” of the argument is contained within them. In addition there are numerous proofing errors and some web-references especially have been distorted by a copying process which makes them difficult to read.

The inevitable further  difficulties are first, the specialised language especially with terms emerging from analytical philosophy.  Immediately the reader is confronted with words like causal taxis, perichoresis, dyothelitic and monothelitic theology, aseity, innascibility, condescent, ectypal, supralapsarianism, apophatic,  decretive and so on which one hasn’t used since third year systematic theology research if even then.  Secondly of course is the Latin! I have good Biblical Greek but never studied Latin. The first chapter of this discussion focussing first on the “Pro-Nicene Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus), and followed by the magisterial work of Augustine and the Mediaeval Western synthesis after Augustine in chapter three inevitably involves extensive use of Latin sentences not all of which are easily translateable and to a non-Latin student this is a very tough beginning.

With all of these precautionary warnings this book is yet a vigorous and thought provoking read. Moody bravely jumps into the fray of tensions between the competing ideas of the subordination of the Son to a Monarchic  (and masculine) Father  verses a theology of total equality of the three persons of the Trinity, not least in lively disputation with his former teacher Kevin Giles amongst many others. After a while the reader becomes genuinely interested and excited by the whole notion of “ responsive intra-trinitarian willing” (RITW), which seems at first  an obscure central argument for a substantial book. Inevitably also these arguments tie in with current debates within evangelical circles between complementary and egalitarian models of Christian ministry. Moody steers a bravely fair and moderate path between these attached and divisive issues pointing out with clarity the strengths, weaknesses and challenges on both sides.

Another exciting part of the book for me is Moody’s helpful exploration into the current revival of Orthodox approaches to the mystery of the Trinity especially in the work of George Palamos and in addition the revival of Hegelian dialectic in various ways in Moltmann, Pannenburg and Robert Jenson, and in addition the revival of Christian Neoplatonic ideas in the work of Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart, with even a glance at the “radical orthodoxy” of John Milbank. A strength of this book is the vast array of primary and secondary resources and books referred to. Having all this material together in one place is a substantial achievement and very helpful for anyone wishing to do further work on Trinitarian studies.

In the end for me, with my no doubt  too simple view of things,  there seems to be no realistic way to define finally the notion of the Trinity in Christian thought. Some approaches such as Arianism and tri -theism are definitely out; but when it comes to further delineation every writer, no matter how careful, in prosecuting their case, and trying to find analogies, will inevitably move at times towards either  modalism or put too much stress on the individuality of the “persons” within the Trinity.  The reasons I draw this conclusion are threefold. (i) the complex   philosophical terms inevitably required to define the indefinable are themselves subject to varying interpretation; (ii) The sheer extraordinariness of the incarnation of the divine Son of God as the man Jesus of Nazareth puts almost impossible stress on the notion of divine willing since Jesus has both a human and a divine will and as Moody shows some writers arbitrarily use this fact to decide that some Biblical events relate to the Son’s human will and some to his divine will and do so inconsistently (iii) any attempt to adequately define the reality and nature of “God” in any religious faith is doomed to inadequacy because in the end there is inevitably mystery here beyond human understanding.

This book is a tribute to Moody’s amazingly elastic and deeply penetrating mind and his grasp of many of the threads which make up current theological discourse. If you are looking for a simple and straightforward guide to the theology of the Trinity don’t start this book. If you seek a genuine exploration of the power and purpose of the trinitarian revelation of God to mankind according to the Church’s finest thought leaders throughout the last 1500 years then this book is an excellent place to start. It will set your mind to exploding in five directions at once. It has for me!  Five stars!

 

Navigating around naturally nature-filled New Zealand  23 Sept – 6 October 2018

Ann at SilverleavesWhy do we have to go to New Zealand? It’s so comfortable here on Phillip Island!

23 September: 5.30am start to drive 2 hours to Tullamarine airport for a 3.5 hour Qantas flight in a very long, narrow and tight tin can Boeing 737 packed to the gunwales. Landing in Wellington and  escaping through customs,  we renegotiated a hire car to include an incar sat nav (blue Ford Mondeo wagon with fabulous turning circle) and found our way through pre daylight-saving darkness  to the Grand Chancellor hotel Wellington where our room wasn’t really all that grand and not much was happening on Sunday evening!  Found some yummy Chinese food next door and happy to have arrived safely.  Note to future self drivers hiring a car in NZ …don’t go into detail about your itinerary.  Hire companies don’t like you taking your hire car across Cook Strait on the car-ferry! They will try to persuade you to change to a different vehicle on the other side which can by annoying. We were very pleased to have our Mondeo for the whole two weeks and two ferry crossings.

 

NZ Mondeo

24 September;  Walked our feet off all day in wonderful Wellington with cool sunny weather (which remained with us for two whole weeks!). Our first stop after the tourist centre for some up to date free maps was Te Papa, the People’s Museum which is an exceptional exhibition and includes an award winning ANZAC historical recreation using real N Z heroes and was certainly the most moving and powerful recreation of Gallipoli I have ever experienced..deeply emotionally involving.  In addition the Maori history, artifacts and  guided tour were all sensational especially an original and complete early  thatched  meeting house celebrated on a very popular 1935 2d orange stamp.

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View of Wellington Harbour from the top floor of Te Papa, the Museum of the People.

NZ Te Papa Museum Wellington.jpg

Amazing Te Papa Museum (Museum of the People) in Wellington  (tour guides fantastic ..need a good 2 hours plus here)

NZ"The Beehive" Wellington's Parliamentary building.jpg

“The Beehive”  ..New Zealand’s impressive Parliamentary Buildings in Wellington.

Next stop was the very short cable car ride to the top of the hill overlooking Wellington and a very steep but beautiful walk around the Botanic Gardens. NZ in Spring is an amazing mix of new leaf deciduous trees (larches and poplars especially contrasting with evergreen pines), pink and white blossom everywhere and exceptional rhododendrons and camellias in full bloom as well as the native yellow gorse flowering all over the hillsides and because their Spring is later than ours, daffodils, jonquils and tulips  everywhere also.NZ Wellington cable car.jpg

Finally we walked to the other end of town to one of  the largest wooden Gothic cathedrals in the world, Old St Paul’s Cathedral, now maintained by Government support and  not far away from the brand new cathedral on the hill, close to the Beehive Parliament building and  the gracious law school library. The new cathedral is also impressive and makes a remarkable contrast to the small wooden cathedral of old. We certainly used up some shoe leather in Wellington. It is a vibrant, friendly and creative city.

NZ Wellington Anglican Cathedral.jpg

Wellington’s “new” Anglican Cathedral replacing “Old St Paul’s”..a remarkable wooden Gothic cathedral now maintained as a working church with Government support.

"Old St Paul's" in Wellington.jpg

“Old St Paul’s”  Constructed in 1866 and one of the finest examples of wooden Gothic Revival architecture in the world. Still retained as a place of worship although no longer Wellington’s Anglican cathedral

Dinner at the Grand Chancellor was casual and we were overwhelmed by the friendship of locals who overheard our complex plans and gave us very good realistic advice and suggestions which were very helpful indeed.

25 September:  We headed north from Wellington and after an initial fight with the SatNav about finding a voice as well as the map for directions (which was eventually solved by a friendly Ford dealer in Lower Hutt (it took him 10 minutes..I didn’t feel completely stupid!) and commenced our driving tour. We drove first  cross-country from Lower Hutt through haunted hills and deep forest and very curly roads to the West coast of the North Island and the seriously blue/turqoise ocean of the Southern Pacific …what a sight as you turn a corner from the forest and find a turquoise ocean.

NZ North Island southern ocean.jpg We moved on to the small town of Otaki. Why I hear you ask? Because in Otaki is J R Mowbrays Collectables Ltd, NZ’s and one of the world’s largest philatelic dealers. I have been bidding online in their auctions for many years and it was a delight to meet John Mowbray himself and his staff and see the whole very large set up in action.

 

NZ Richard at Mowbrays Stamp Dealers Head office in Otika

Richard at Mowbray Collectables  Stamp Dealers in Otaki where he met John Mowbray, the founder,  in person.

Continuing north we stopped in at a very helpful “possum and merino” clothing outlet and succumbed to several of their beautifully created knitted garments. Hitting the highway again we finished up at Lake Taupo.. NZ’s largest lake and a very popular holiday spot.

NZLake Taupo North Island.jpg

Lake Taupo..huge lake; very pleasant town with two impressive art galleries.We had a little cottage to ourselves here for two nights and enjoyed the relaxed vibe and friendly environment of the town. Needless to say the scenery en route whether ocean, mountain pass or forest was always impressive.

26 September:  From our base in Lake Taupo we journeyed north through stunning snow capped mountains and plateaux to Rotorua and its powerful Wai-O-Tapu geyser and many other geysers besides in the Te Puia  geo-thermal park and artistic school. Students from all over NZ come here to create exceptional works of art in the Maori tradition and work with wood, fabric, steel, precious stones, musical instruments. and just about every other medium to produce works of art of exceptional quality.  As well as the bubbling mud-pools and excitable geysers we were able to catch a glimpse of our first real kiwi . a small black flightless nocturnal  bird which is the NZ’s national icon also recognized on an equally popular 1935 1d red NZ stamp. Te Puia has a special “nocturnal reversal house” which enables guests to see a kiwi in action although I have to say it was still pretty dark and it was just a glimpse of a very shy critter indeed!  Te Puia was a fabulous experience and our Maori guide was impressive.

 

NZ Rotorua geyser

Wai-O- Tapu  “going off” at Roturoa!

We returned the same day  to our Lake Taupo cottage

27 September:  From Lake Taupo this time we drove south east to the seaside resort of Napier in the Hawkes Bay region with our first sight of a black stony surf beach…it takes a while to get used to the idea.  In 1931 a devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake destroyed the area, killing 256 people and injuring thousands. The town of Napier was destroyed and when it was rebuilt it was the height of the Art Deco era.  The centre of town has retained and indeed celebrated these amazing shop fronts and major buildings and even many new buildings and homes are created in this style. It is a very stylish town but black stony surf?? I don’t think so!

NZ Napier black stone surf beach

What do you think?

Our trip back to Wellington had to be rerouted because of landslips in the Thompson Pass area but whichever way you travel through the mountains back to Wellington from Hawkes Bay area the driving is challenging, beautiful and needs care.  One interesting small town on the way back was Woodville which has two very impressive collectibles shops in one of which Richard found a treasure trove of early Dinky Toys and Micro Model cars.. a collector’s heaven.   We stayed that night back in Wellington at the St Paul’s apartments which were undergoing refurbishment so we had a good deal, but no outside view!

28 September:  After a slow start relaxing and reading we drove to the Inter-Islander port, one of two major ferry companies taking vehicles across Cook Strait. On both of our crossings we enjoyed good weather and calm seas. The journey takes about four hours and there is plenty to do on board including excellent dining facilities, films and many places to view the scenery or for children to be involved in activities. Our destination was the seaside village of Picton which has a glorious harbour at the head of Charlotte Sound and is again surrounded by hills. The one flaw of the Mondeo is that the vibration of the ferry upsets its burglar alarm. On both crossings I was called up to go down to the hold and unlock the car to stop the alarm!

 

NZ Cook Strait Car Ferry

Picton, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound is one NZ’s most picturesque towns with many inviting galleries and restaurants and even a useful second hand bookshop! It has its own little Sydney Harbour Bridge which is still quite a steep climb!

NZ Picton harbour)

Picton Harbour looking out over Queen Charlotte Sound. Gorgeous town for just sitting and relaxing!

29 September:  We made an early start from Picton on Highway 1 to Christchurch. This is one of the most spectacular journeys anywhere in the world by car or by train.  But in 2016 the massive Kaikoura earthquake, magnitude 7.8 destroyed large sections of both the highway and the railway and produced structural damage as far away as Wellington as well as two major tsunamis. Fortunately the area at the epicentre of the Kaikoura earthquake is not heavily settled and only two deaths were attributed to this massive earthquake. The highway has only reopened this year and there are still many one lane only hold ups. The railway has not yet reopened. In spite of the many pauses this journey is one for the ages.  Massive surf beaches and sea-scapes, spectacular snow clad mountains, vast tracts of forest and beautifully manicured vineyards and orchards especially in the Marlborough region.  The “wow” factor is very much present on this journey.

In spite of hold ups we managed to make our Christchurch destination in good time to walk the 20 minute journey to the centre of the city. Christchurch is the second largest city in NZ and here once again we came face to face with yet another seismic catastrophe. In 2010 a magnitude 7.2 earthquake weakened the structure of many Christchurch buildings and in 2011 a 6.2 magnitude earthquake closer to the centre of Christchurch caused massive damage right in the middle of the city. The quake killed 185 people and turned the centre of the city into molten lava.  The magnificent brick Gothic Anglican Cathedral was severely damaged, many thought irreparably,  but in 2017 a decision was taken to rebuild the cathedral in its traditional Gothic style. In the meantime Anglicans have been worshipping in a nearby “Cardboard cathedral” which has its own unique beauty and simplicity (and many would wish it would remain the cathedral).

 

NZ Christchurch cathedral damage

 

 

 

 

NZ Christchurch Cathedral 2018A terrible sight but nothing compared with the trauma of the death of 185 people and the complete destruction and disruption of the business and transport centre of the city! Cathedrals can be rebuilt but the impact of seismic savagery will last for genderations in this city.NZ Christchurch Cardboard Cathedral

The temporary “Cardboard Cathedral” in Christchurch.  The interior ceiling is indeed made out of reinforced cardboard!

 

We wandered through several of Christchurch’s glorious parks and gardens ( there are over 90 in Christchurch) Christchurch is the second largest NZ city after Auckland and has its own style, not only its array of botanic gardens but also its old style trams in its centre (including a shopping mall with a tram running through its centre); a casino and some very funky restaurants (including an American style Route 66 eatery with wonderful fifties music where we had dinner.

 

NZ Christchurch USA Route 66 Cafe It is a city which seems to breathe the beauty and grandeur of New Zealand alongside its vulnerabilty and the warnings inside the various motel rooms we occupied were salutary. We arrived back in our motel room in time to catch the exceptionally tense last quarter of the AFL Grand Final between Collilngwood and West Coast and had to commiserate with the many Magpie supporters in our extended family. I have to say for Aussies one of the amazing things about NZ newspapers is the complete absence of any reference at all to AFL issues.

30 September.  From Christchurch we took another 300km+ drive to the very popular holiday destination of Wanaka just 40 minutes by car north of Queenstown. The drive from Christchurch was memorable once again with spectacular scenery including snow clad mountains, forest and agriculture, rivers,  attractive small communities and very well built roads. It is ridiculous how frequently we would turn a corner and let out an involuntary “wow” at the rich vistas  laid out before us.  We arrived in good time at Wanaka and found a very useful motel/park with very practical laundry facilities enabling us to catch up on some clothes washing. Like Taupo, Wanaka sits on a beautiful elongated lake and our weather here was warm and dreamy.  Here we made use of the local supermarket and cooked our own dinner for two evenings. Wanaka is a seriously relaxing place.

1 October .  From Wanaka we celebrated NZ’s commencement of daylight saving with an amazing “over the mountain” drive to Queenstown past the Cardrona Hotel, one of only two remnant buildings from the goldrush in the area in the 1860s.  The climb to the top past Cardrona needed careful attention (as did the climb down into Queenstown) but the view from the top was well worth the effort. We felt on top of the world.

 

NZ view from Cardrona pass peak

Queenstown once again boasts spectacular scenery with huge mountains on three sides and a smooth flowing quiet river on the edge of a seriously bustling town. Traffic here was excitable and the city radiates youthful energy with adventures of every type on offer in many places.  We enjoyed the vibe of Queenstown but were happy to retreat to Wanaka via the longer and flatter route through rich fruit growing areas (where yummy home made ice cream was a roadside treat.)

 

NZ Queenstown

Gloriously situated Queenstown surrounded on all sides by protective mountains with a beautiful river to sit and watch a busy town go by.

2 October.  We were sad to leave Wanaka but also were looking forward to our  300+km drive towards the South Island West Coast through some of its highest mountains including Mt Cook to the West Coast and once again were treated to quite inspiring landscapes and ever-changing vistas. After the forest came the spectacular Southern ocean with nothing between us and Antarctica. One highlight of this journey was lunch at the rather strange Hard Antler Bar and Restaurant in Haase. This wild west establishment had a distinctly “take it or leave it” style and the ceiling was literally covered with the antlers of vast numbers of deer that are hunted in the area (as an introduced pest).  [It is interesting to go online and see the warfare between antler bars all around the world and the attention they get from vegetarian and vegan protestors].

 

NZ Hard Antler Bar and Cafe Haase

Huntin’ and shootin’ Hard Antler bar and restaurant..not to everyone’s taste but we found the food was good!

Our goal was the Franz Josef glacier and appropriately it has produced its own town! With daylight saving help we arrived in time to walk the approximately 2km up and down walk into the glacier past a series of fine silvery waterfalls. Due to safety precautions it is no longer possible to actually set foot on the glacier without reverting to a helicopter and guide landing but it was exciting to be within a stone’s throw and see in reality a geomorphological feature I recall studying so carefully in the Melbourne University Geography department in the 1960s!  An additional highlight was the outstanding food provided by the chef at the Alice May restaurant in the village of Franz Josef Glacier.  This was a meal to be long remembered and a quite unexpected treat.

 

NZ Franz Josef glacier

Retreating Franz Josef glacierNZ North Island waterfall

Impressive “trident” waterfall  on the walk into Franz Josef glacier

3 October.  Our West coast journey continued with another dazzling surf, forest and mountain 300+km drive to the sleepy town of Westport. Our lunchtime stop this time was quite a contrast to the “outback” town of Haase. We were treated to the far more civilised and prosperous “greenstone and gold” town of Hokitika, made famous in recent years  by the widely book club read and Man Booker prize winning 1860s gold rush novel Luminaries, the second novel by Eleanor Catton. Hokitika is a stylish town with its own art deco cinema whose restaurant sells  seriously good meat pies of great variety and in addition some outstanding pastries.  Hokitika also has at least four major greenstone shops  (NZ jade whose sale is controlled by the Maori population) and in addition  The Gold Room, ; run by an outstanding jeweller this retail outlet is  a quite remarkable shop full of historical material about the gold rush days but also impressive for its high quality gold workmanship.

I have to say after all these highlights that the surfing town of Westport was somewhat of a letdown but nevertheless we had a comfortable motel with an attractive garden setting and in any case a good rest was needed.

4 October.  Our final South island journey was yet another 300km+ journey back to the Picton ferry through spectacular mountain gorge scenery, quiet little towns and finally the fertile Marlborough plains, source of so much of the sauvignon blanc and pinot gris downed in quantities by Australian quaffers. A particular highlight was the delightful rural town of Murchison which currently is lucky to have a gold star French pastry chef and his wife who have created a quality of coffee and cake which I believe it would be hard to match anywhere. Quite remarkable! How long can he last in this quiet little town?

In Blenheim near Picton we discovered the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre and the Omaka Classic Car display centre.  Local flying enthusiasts commenced this collection of classic aeroplanes and the chairman of the Centre is extraordinary Film Director and entrepreneur Sir Peter Jackson of the Lord Of the Rings films fame who is also the creator the impressive Wellington War Memorial.  The Omaka Classic Car collection of 140 vehicles is personally owned by Blenheim dentist and business man Ron Stewart and includes about 8 Jaguars, 3 impressive Daimlers, an Austin A105 in immaculate condition, many Holdens and Fords and a host of other now quite rare vehicles including a Super Shadow Rolls Royce. (But no Triumph Mayflower!]

austin A105

Immaculate Austin A105 and Wolseley 16/60 (Omaka Classic Cars

Rolls Royce Silver Shadow

One of 9 Jaguars in Ron Stewarts Omaka Classic Collection

jaguar-c-type-recreation

recreated C type Jaguar – very few originals anywhere in the world

After finally extracting myself from the Car Display we returned to the same amazing motel in Picton and enjoyed this stunningly calm and peacefully beautiful fishing village at the head of Charlotte Sound.

sad to leave Picton

5 October.    We mooched around Picton for the first half of this day enjoying the scenery, the Jewellery shops, the second hand bookshop and just the peace and quiet with very little driving!  In the afternoon we rejoined the InterIslander ferry and passed through gorgeous Queen Charlotte Sound back to the North Island.  Our motel on this evening was in trendy yuppy Lower Hutt and we truly enjoyed the wonderful dinner provided by the very crowded Buddha Stix restaurant.

 

5 October.  Our final day in NZ  was spent In Wellington at the Weta Conceptual Design and Manufacturing Workshop responsible for the amazing Peter Jackson visual characterisations which brought The Lord of the Rings to the screen as well as much of the visual wonder  of James Cameron’s Avatar movies. In addition Weta was also the company that animated the original UK produced Thunderbirds Are Go puppet tv programs into a new six dvd series. This guided tour workshop is simply an amazing place and the company maintains a huge staff employed in a variety of roles.  A highlight of this visit was lunch at The Larder, 500 metres up the hill from the Studio with the most sensational menu and food.

NZ Weta Design Studio troll from Tolkien

Richard outside the Weta Design Studio with a model of a Tolkienian troll

In the afternoon we sadly bade farewell to our faithful Mondeo and enjoyed the hospitality of the Wellington airport as we awaited our return flight to Melbourne. New Zealand had stolen our hearts…a peaceful, stunningly beautiful and energetic place. We are glad we went!

 

Books read September 2018

L. Frank Baum:  The Wizard of Oz, Camberwell Au, Puffin, 1994 [2000]

Lyman Frank Baum worked in the theatre, newspapers, magazines, inventing, retail and poultry farming before turning his hand to writing children’s books, (originally his own children).  His much loved story of Dorothy and Toto her dog, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the cowardly Lion, the mighty Wizard of Oz, the wicked and good witches, the Munchkins, the Winkies, the Quadlings, the Hammer Heads and much much more has become one of the most loved children’s books of all times.  The 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, one of the earliest technicolour movies, has become an all-time classic in its own right.  The Wizard of Oz also has its own psychological and moral message….look inside yourself for the brains, the heart and the courage you need to live a happy and effective life and at the same time don’t just take authority for granted without testing its validity and truthfulness. As for the compulsory green spectacles for all in Oz, things aren’t always what they seem!  An exceptional moral story for children, well before Narnia and Tolkien.  5 stars.

Anh Do: The Happiest Refugee: A Memoir, Crow’s Nest Au, Allen & Unwin, 2010.

One of the funniest and most powerful biographies I have ever read.  Anh Do’s extended family were refugees from Vietnam following the Communist North’s victory in 1976. The harrowing account of their boat trip to Malaysia assailed by pirates twice and finally without water, food or an engine! makes harrowing reading. Following resettlement in Australia as refugees Anh Do’s family work voraciously to establish a new life for themselves. The account of their financial ups and downs, Anh Do’s education in a Sydney Catholic school, his university studies, countless interesting jobs, his marriage and gradual emergence as a stand-up comic and an artist are told with fast humour, integrity, truthfulness (we get the good and the bad) and energy. This is a laugh out loud book but also a book which deals with serious change in Australian life in terms of attitude to racism, opportunity and amazing resourcefulness.  Serious challenges in the lives of his extended family are also dealt with sensitively and powerfully.  A book with serious energy that energizes the reader.  5 stars.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera, trans. Edith Grossman,  Melbourne Au, Penguin, 2008 [1985 in Spanish]

Regarded as Colombia’s greatest writer the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez has also been described as the most important writer in Spanish since Cervantes [ but what of Borges? Lorca? Neruda?] Love in the Time of Cholera is probably his most frequently read novel after One Hundred Years of Solitude and by and large is written in realistic style rather than that of magic realism like hie earlier work, with the possible exception of its concluding pages.

Based on the love affair and eventual marriage of Marquez’s parents which was strongly opposed by his grandparents Love in the Time of Cholera tells of the excruciating love life of Florentino Ariza and the beautiful but cold Fermina Daza.  Childhood sweethearts their friendship was forbidden by Daza’s father and she eventually married the outstanding young doctor Juvenal Urbino who became a national hero for his cultural, medical, musical, artistic and engineering skills. Their marriage lasted until they were in their seventies. His story and “battle” with old age and with Daza is the second major plot in the narrative. But Florentino Ariza never gives up and eventually, after Urbino’s death,  in their old age and dotage Florentino and Fermina truly fall in love.

All of this would make for engaging reading on its own as a story of indomitable love conquering all and it is indeed in this respect a thoughtful and powerfully written narrative especially about the importance of sexual pleasure in old age.  In the intervening years thirty years  of waiting, however, Marquez has Florentino engage in a literal avalanche of raunchy love affairs, many of which are described with joyously flagrant and literally “fragrant” detail because it is a novel in which perfume and bodily odour both play a major part! In addition Florentino’s role in these relationships can “from the outside” only be described as a hunter (a term the translator uses), a rapist, a man sick with  fixation with his own sexual drive,, a regular inhabitant of brothels, and on several occasions as a groomer and eventually a molester of young girls resulting twice in suicides. This appallingly immoral and destructive  behaviour is made worse by the  deliberate cultivation of a reputation for himself as a homosexual, uninterested in women, a pose which gains him unsuspecting access to women he intends to seduce. At the same time he manages to build a successful business career for himself eventually becoming Company Director and Chairman of a major river transport company, where he again used his power and office to seduce any woman who came his way. Marquez never at any stage makes any moral judgment about Florentino Ariza. It is simply “love in the time of cholera..it is what it is even if young people’s lives are destroyed by a dirty old man.

There is of course, a moral compass, not necessarily a Christian compass,  in D H Lawrence, in Tolstoy, in George Eliot, In Flaubert, in Zola and even in Borges. I struggled fifty years ago in English tutorials at Melbourne University because I insisted on bringing morality into the discussion of the worthiness of a novel or a poem. I guess I haven’t changed my view that, in the end, good literature lifts up and throws thoughtful and challenging light on what it is to be human, to live, to love, to be faithful, to make mistakes, even to be tragic but not to honour evil, destructive and fetishistic behaviour.

Only in one sentence in the last two pages does Marquez throw the book at Florentina Ariza.  When they persuade the captain of their riverboat cruiser to throw of all the other passengers for their return journey so they can be open lovers the captain flies the cholera flag which entitles them to leave passengers behind but when they come to their home port they are directed to quarantine dock for two months.  They decide to return and sail on for ever and the novel ends but not for before Marquez blames the ships companies of which Ariza was the key player for the destruction of the river industry for not caring for the river and preventing settlement along its banks resulting in the destruction of the jungle and the wild life ..the main reason for the cruising and also the destruction of the river by siltation. This one sentence does not do it for me. I give this novel just two stars, for the sheer brilliance of Marquez’s eloquent analysis of the delicacy of human relationships and the finely and brilliantly drawn flawed character of Juvenal Urbino but none for cruel and sadistic approach to the potential beauty of human sexuality.  2 stars