Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Basil Street Blues’ by Michael Holroyd

holroyd

1999, 306 p

I generally like reading  historians’ and biographers’ autobiographies.  Not that they are generally more intrinsically interesting than other peoples’ (in fact they’re usually not) but I like watching how, as writers, they turn their skills onto their own lives. I must confess that I’d never heard of Michael Holroyd, and haven’t read any of his biographies.  And I’ll also confess that had this not been a book group selection, I probably would have given up on it after the first fifty pages.

In fact, I was surprised that a professional and published biographer would allow the first chapters of his book to wallow around in genealogy, like an amateur family historian.  He made much of a short story written by Virginia Woolf that mentioned his ancestral family, but unless you had read the short story (which, only with the benefits of Google, I had) it really didn’t add much to his narrative.  For me, it was only once he himself walked into the story, rather than recounting earlier generations’ stories, that it became interesting. He is a good observer, but gives little of himself away.  I got to the end of the book and felt as if he had been deliberately deflecting attention away from himself.

What he did capture brilliantly, however, was the decline of a formerly upper-middle (if not upper class) family, complete with all the eccentricity and  emotional aridity of that type of upper-middle British reserve.

However I have since somewhat revised my lukewarm opinion of the book as biography once I realized that it is actually part of a trilogy (somehow the idea of a three-book autobiography seems rather pretentious). I had been rather bemused by his frequent quotations from his own novel, but now I learn that the novel had been unpublished, on account of his father’s opposition to publication ( so his quotation was a form of publication by stealth, perhaps?) It would seem that the other volumes are more forthcoming on an emotional level, but I don’t feel particularly inclined to follow up on them, or his other published biographies.

Source: CAE

Read because:  CAE bookgroup selections

My rating: 7

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‘The Place for a Village: how nature has shaped the city of Melbourne’ by Gary Presland

presland

2009, 233p plus appendices

“This will be the place for a village!” John Batman wrote in his journal after he sailed up the Yarra River in June 1835 (whenever he wrote it – you never know with John Batman). But what was it that made him decided that THIS would be the place, instead of THAT? Gary Presland argues that it was the geology of Melbourne, and its effect on river courses and soil quality that led him to that decision.  In this book Presland adopts the rather old-fashioned practice of natural history, an omnibus 19th century term that encompassed geology, meteorology, botany and zoology, to recapture the lost landscapes of Melbourne.  Just as the adage goes about everything old becoming new again, natural history closely approximates environmental history, a ‘big’ history,  and one which is prominent at the moment.

By looking for a “lost landscape” Presland goes back even further than the 40,000+ years of indigenous activity in Melbourne.  As books like Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth make clear, indigenous people both responded to but also manipulated the environment so that early settlers did not see a virgin landscape, even though they may have perceived it that way at the time.  Both indigenous people and the white settlers who supplanted them have had to operate within features that were laid down millions of years ago through the geological formations that have shaped Melbourne’s topography.  But, in order to draw in other features like climate, weather, flora and fauna, he has selected 1800 as his nominal Year Zero, as he integrates  written and painted historical information and remnant vegetation data to reconstruct Melbourne’s lost landscape. By choosing a date close to European arrival (1802 for the Port Phillip bay area), he captures the conditions that both indigenous and European people had to contend with.

This book is essentially a reconstruction. The shape and nature of the original landscape of Melbourne, as well as the wide range of natural resources they contained, were a fundamental part of the Aboriginal world. They formed not only the physical context where people lived, but also supplied the very means by which Aboriginal society flourished. The arrival of Europeans placed different demands on those resources but also imposed different influences. The same nature that had sustained a rich Aboriginal society, determined the location of European settlement, even if later it needed to be massively altered to better accommodate the ongoing demands of that settlement. p.14,  15

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, which is by far the longest, reconstructs Melbourne’s natural history in five chapters: Ch 1: The Shape of Melbourne’s Landscapes, Ch,2: The nature of Melbourne’s climate; Ch. 3 Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands; Ch.4 Pre-European vegetation of Melbourne; Ch. 5 Pre-European Animal Life of Melbourne.

Chapter One contains two geological maps of Melbourne, and I found myself turning to them often throughout the book. Presland gives a thorough, if somewhat technical, account of the geological formation of Melbourne over millions of years. He then moves across Melbourne’s landscape by geological formation, but also roughly from east to west: The Nillumbik terrain, the older volcanics, the Brighton coastal plain, the lava plain and the areas of Quaternary deposit.  You do need to know your Melbourne suburbs for this chapter to make sense.

Chapter Two looks particularly at rainfall patterns across Melbourne and the disparity between the east and west, factors which of course have implications for vegetation and fauna distributions. The chapter also contains historical information about the collection of weather data.

Chapter Three, Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands was my favourite chapter in the book.  Again, Presland moves from east to west in his analysis, and again assumes a degree of familiarity with Melbourne, but I found it fascinating to read of streams and waterways (some even without names) that have either dried out or been subsumed completely under drains and roadways.  It was this chapter that made me feel closest to a “lost” landscape- as if it was still here, but invisible.

Chapters Four and Five that deal with vegetation and animal life I found less engaging. They tended to read like a long list. Chapter Four follows the geological features of Chapter one, while Chapter Five is divided into categories like mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes etc.

In Part Two of the book, Presland calls “The Influence of Nature on Culture”. For me, this was the hub of the book, and I was a little disappointed that it was only thirty-one pages in length. He starts this section by talking about why and how he came to undertake this book. He then moves on to consider the Aboriginal connection to the Port Phillip area, then returns to the question I asked at the start – Why THIS place for a village? He highlights the significance of the Falls, and European efforts in shaping the Yarra. He then moves to briefly consider future development.  The book closes with a methodology chapter and lists of indicative vegetation in different types of woodland, and fish in the Yarra River.

This book was based on his PhD, which comes as no surprise although he has subverted the usual PhD structure (introduction, methodology, data, analysis). I’m not sure that this reorganization is completely successful. Although it does keep the most technical information at the back of the book, away from a general reader, the narrative itself is fairly technical and abstracting, despite its adoption of “we” language.  Chapters Four and Five are too “list-y”, with little overarching argument.  I wished that Presland had stepped onto the stage himself earlier, instead of waiting until Part II and page 197 to do so.  I found myself wondering what a writer like Tom Griffiths would do with this material.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this book, most particularly Chapters One and Three. The book was published by Museum Victoria and it is replete with beautiful coloured plates right throughout the text. It’s always satisfying to read a book that shifts you in your perception somewhat, and Chapters One and Three did that for me.  The blurb on the back says that “Gary Presland will literally change your view of Melbourne”, and I think that’s true.

Sourced from: my own bookshelves

 

‘Like a Fading Shadow’ by Antonio Munoz Molina

molina

2017, 308 p. Translated from the Spanish by Camilo A Ramirez

This book takes as its starting point the little-known fact that after the assassination of  Martin Luther King, the chief suspect James Earl Ray spent ten days in Lisbon, trying to obtain an Angolan visa. When this did not succeed, he went to London, where he was arrested.

This thread of the story, based on true facts, is interwoven with the author’s own narrative of the act of writing. This itself is split into two further threads: in 1987 when, as a young writer, the first-person author went to Lisbon to write another story (which we never get to read) set in Lisbon, and then a return journey in 2012,  when the author returns to Lisbon, then travels to Memphis to research the James Earl Ray story for, presumably, the book you are reading.

This all sounds rather complex, but it’s not really while you’re reading it, once you realize that there are two separate author narratives in play.  In a way, it is almost a relief to break away from the increasingly fevered, paranoid world of James Earl Ray which, left unmediated, would be suffocating.  As his money runs out, he is becoming encircled by his own fears and distrust as much as anything else.  When the end comes – as we know it does – Molina jumps ahead to James Earl Ray in prison years later, writing his own narrative that centres on ‘Raoul’, the man Ray claimed to have been behind the assassination. Molina reports this, but sceptically.

Separated by twenty-five years, the older author ‘I’ is a more balanced, reflective man than the younger author, who left his wife with a newborn second baby in order to follow his passion in writing his novel.  As an older man, he is by now reflective about the act of writing, the role of novelization and the narrative imagination.

The last part of the book takes us almost minute-by-minute to Martin Luther King, hanging over the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.  We know exactly what is going to happen, yet Molina manages to wind up the tension as we wait for the finger to press the trigger.

The time shifts in this book are complex, but Molina keeps good control of them.  It’s a taut, controlled book that draws you on, even though you know how it’s going to end.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, encounters, reviews 1980-2017’ by Barry Hill

reason_and_lovelessness

2018, 488p.

This is a big book and it took a long time to read.  ‘Big’ because it’s pushing 500 pages in length, and ‘big’ because it spans  37 years – a whole career.  But it wasn’t just the size that made it such a drawn-out reading experience.  It’s also because the essays are dense with ideas, and I found myself only able to read one at a time.  They were mentally chewy and I wanted to let each one sit for a while.

Barry Hill has hovered on the edge of my consciousness without ever really breaking through.  I was aware that he won plaudits for Broken Song, his biography of Ted Strehlow, and I’ve been vaguely aware of him through the Australian Book Review.  Looking through the long list of publications at the beginning of the book, he’s been writing novels and poems since the 1970s. However, I haven’t read any of them.

I like reading essays, largely because they allow me to meet the author half-way: to sit in on a conversation, if you like.   The essays that I enjoyed most in this collection were where he wrote as a son, writing about his father – an old union man and peace activist-   in ‘Letter to My Father’; or about his mother in ‘Brecht’s Song’.

But many of other essays were more cerebral than emotional.  After an excellent introduction by Tom Griffiths, the book is divided into four parts: Close to Bones; Inland; Naked Art Making, and Reason and Lovelessness, from which the collection takes its name.  Part II (Inland) can be fairly easily characterized as being explorations of  colonialism, with reviews and commentaries on W. E. H. Stanner, Greg Dening and elaborations on his own work on Ted Strehlow.  He has really enticed me into moving Broken Song up from ‘one day’ to ‘soon’ as far as my own reading is concerned. He really does not like Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines at all (I haven’t read that one, either).  In Part III (Naked Art Making) there are several essays on Lucien Freud, John Wolseley and the Australian artist Rod Moss whose work is on the front cover.   Parts I and IV are more diverse, several of them based on interviews with poets, writers and artists. In Part IV in particular there are steps of logic that seem to link the essays together.

But I must confess that for many of these essays, I felt left behind.  I hadn’t read the work or the author he was discussing, and on the few occasions when I had, I realized the richness of what I was missing.  (e.g. his essays on Greg Dening and Robert Manne;  his excellent essay about William Buckley who lived with the Port Phillip Wathaurong people after escaping from the convict settlement at Sorrento in 1803, his essay on George Orwell).  Reading through his essay on Ezra Pound, I asked my very-widely-and idiosyncratically-read  husband “Have you ever read any Ezra Pound?”.  He had  (of course), and then went on to talk about several of the things that Hill discussed. ” Well, have you heard of Rabindranth Tagore?” I asked him.  Again, yes he had, and again mentioned things that Hill had also covered. “YOU should be reading this book!” I told my husband, and I meant it. There’s a conversation going on here, but I’m not part of it.

Should that matter? I found myself thinking of Montesquieu of all people, and the beguiling ease with which he draws you into his conversation. I rarely felt that same ease with Hill’s essays, beyond the more personal ones about his own family.  Perhaps that’s because in many of these essays, he’s writing as a critic.  Summarizing the content of a work is not part of the role of the critic, and there’s an implicit assumption that the reader is familiar with the work under discussion.  That is the  reader that Hill is writing for; not someone on the outside looking in.  Several of the essays are reflections on interviews and conversations he has conducted with writers –  Christina Stead and Rai Gaita – underlining that he is part of their milieu.  As a poet, he writes about other poets – Fay Zwicky, Shonagon (the author of The Pillow Book)- and he shares in own poetry in several of the essay.

Given that these essays were written over thirty-five years, they have probably been selected to resonate with the 2018 political climate. ‘The Mood We’re In: circa Australia Day 2004’ was given as an Overland lecture, and it captures that strange era of Latham-esque politics.  He still rages over the Bush/Blair/Howard invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and his feeling of impotence when protests across the world were futile permeates his essays ‘The Uses and Abuses of Humiliation’, ‘Poems that Kill’ and ‘Human Smoke, Bared Throats”.  There is not – mercifully- even a breath of Trump.  I suspect that he would find Trump almost beyond words.

This is not an easy book, written by “a truly learned man” as Tom Griffiths notes in his introduction. It demands intellectual chops and familiarity with an eclectic and erudite reading and artistic menu that strays far beyond my knowledge. I felt a bit intimidated by it, frankly.

Sourced from: a review copy from Monash University Publishing.

 

 

‘Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad’ by Asne Seierstad

seierstad

Translated from Norwegian by Sean Kinsella 2018, 448 p.

In October 2013 two sisters, Ayan (aged 19) and Leila Juma (aged 16) left Oslo, where they had lived since 2000 after being accepted as refugees from Somalia. They were on their way to Syria, where they joined jihad by becoming the wives and mothers of IS fighters. In the afterword of this book ‘The Basis of the Book’, Norwegian investigative journalist Asne Seierstad writes that her most important question about the radicalization of these Somali-Norwegian sisters was “How could this happen?”(p. 437)   Further, “Is this merely to do with them, or does it also have something to do with us?”  She lays out the information, but as she admits, she doesn’t really answer her own question:

I offer no explanation, neither of what attracted them to Islamic radicalism nor what propelled them out of Norway. I relate my findings.  It is up to each reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Where did it start? What were the underlying reasons? When could they have taken different choices?…Why did they become more interested in life after death than this life? (p.441)

To my mind, their radicalism began when a group of Somali mothers paid for a Koranic teacher to provide extra-curricular Koranic classes for their children. The mothers, who were themselves marooned in Norwegian society, felt that their children were becoming swamped by their Norwegian schooling and friendship groups, to the detriment of their Muslim background.  The girls were further radicalized by what in Christian circles would be called an evangelical campus program.  They became more devout – something that their parents neither encouraged nor discouraged at first – and gradually grew more supercilious, judgmental and independent. In planning their trip to Syria, Ayan took advantage of credit cards and bought up mobile phones and plans on credit that she then onsold, with no intention of ever making payments for either. Social media amplified and solidified their radicalism.

Once in Syria, they gloated about their access to free housing, electricity and food, appropriated from the infidels who fled or succumbed to the IS influx. They refused to return with their father when he finally located them, and they embraced the communal, cloistered life of an IS wife and mother.  Their father Sadiq, charged by his wife Sara with bringing them back, felt that he had failed; his wife returned to Somalia to give her younger sons the Islamic education and culture that she felt her now-estranged daughters had lacked, and their brother Ismael, who maintained sporadic online contact with his sisters, rejected Islam completely, largely in response to their actions. The two girls broke their family, even though they claimed at first to have acted in order to save it from judgment.

As Seierstad explains at the start of the book, it is a “documentary account” drawn from a variety of sources. It is told as a narrative, switching its focus from one character to another in a largely chronological account. In her final chapter, she explains in more detail how she compiled this “documentary account” which is rather more than just written words. Instead, it is supplemented with interviews, most importantly with their father Sadiq, but also with other people who knew the girls and the family.

It is only at the end of the book that she reveals just how fundamental Sadiq was to the writing of the book.  We have read much of the narrative through Sadiq’s eyes, where as well as distraught father we also come to see him as a fantasist, liar and man who flirted with the idea of criminality as a way of getting the money to ‘rescue’ (i.e. kidnap) his daughters who did not want to return to Norway.  She reports all these things, but does not comment. In hindsight, I find her uncritical acceptance of Sadiq’s narrative in the main text problematic.  It was only when I checked back in my reading journal that I found that I had read Seierstad’s earlier book ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ (before I started this blog) where I was likewise conflicted about Seierstad’s readiness to accede to her narrator’s viewpoint without challenging it or interrogating its effect on the story she is telling.

That said, I found the book compelling.  I feel that I have a better understanding of Syria, and its tumultuous last decade.  It had the page-turning drive of a thriller, and I found myself squirrelling away opportunities to read, just to find out what happened. I alternated between gratitude to Norway for its generosity in picking up the pieces of this shattered family, and resentment at the Juma family’s exploitation of that same generosity.  It has both made things clearer, but complicated them as well.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5

Reading challenge: A Norwegian book in translation!

 

‘The Unusual Life of Edna Walling’ by Sara Hardy

hardy_walling

2005, 320 P.

Have I ever seen an Edna Walling garden? I don’t know if I have, having never visited Cruden Farm.  I know what they look like, though: lots of stone walls, curved paths, and a mixture of deciduous and native plants. This book, however, is only tangentially about gardens.  Instead, it is about landscape architect Edna Walling herself, through the houses and places she made for herself.

The author, Sara Hardy, is a playwright whose work has focussed on strong, educated women and the complexities of their relationships.  Is there a pun perhaps, in the word ‘unusual’ which she uses to describe Walling’s life?  Because with her masculine dress, short hair and succession of close friendships with women, the supposition today would be that she was gay -or to pick up on the title, ‘queer’ – and certainly Hardy circles around this question.  She does not, however, definitively answer it because she cannot find the evidence to assert it with confidence.  For a book that flows so easily, Hardy is actually a disciplined biographer. There are no footnotes, but there are long endnotes that cite the sources for assertions including interviews, books, letters and Walling’s own writings. There are hints about her sexuality. The single surviving overwrought letter written by the 40 year old Walling to her close friend Esme.  The night in a single bed, when another friend, Olwyn arrived late at night.  An observation that ‘we’ enjoyed watching the birds in the garden outside from bed. But there’s no hard evidence.  Hardy notes that

Edna named her otherness as ‘misfit’ or ‘odd’ – her half joking way of saying she didn’t fit the standard female mould.  She may have recognized her otherness as an aspect of her sexuality, or she may not.  There are subtleties rather than clear-cut certainties.  Even Edna’s understanding of the term ‘sexuality’ would have been a world away from the informed and liberated use of the word today. (p.83)

It was a different time – in the first half of the twentieth century – and silence cloaked what we would now see differently

…many women who would now be called lesbians didn’t recognize their intensity as sexual desire; they simply loved their very best friend- who loved them in return. They would have been horrified by the suggestion that their love was anything but pure, and if they did have an inkling, if they did share their bodies,as well as their hearts, why then – they kept quiet about it, and who could blame them? (p.83)

Walling told her niece Barbara in a letter

Often I wish I were in double harness & pulling with someone & then the inner voice says ‘you be grateful you’re not living with the wrong person – that’d drive you mad’  (p. 237).

She was friends with other women who lived openly in  a partnership, like bookshop owner Margareta Webber and Dr Jean Littlejohn, and landscape architect Mervyn Davis (she had a Welsh name) and Daphne Pearson. There seems to have been a succession of close female friends who threaded through her life, but they tended to marry and move on. Some acted as helpers in a domestic sense, others as professional colleagues who laboured with her in paid and unpaid jobs.  As she grew older, some were carers. When she designed the English-style communal village Bickleigh Vale, now in suburban Mooroolbark, it was known locally as ‘spinster’s row’.

[From https://www.bickleighvalevillage.com.au/%5D

Walling was born in England, and it was an idealized English landscape that influenced her early garden designs, with walls and deciduous trees and cottage plantings.  Over time, she became more enthusiastic about native plants, and was greatly exercised about the ugliness of road construction and the sterility of the roadside.  Interestingly enough, by the time she retired to Queensland, she had re-embraced exotic plantings again. So, too, her politics shifted, from conservative to left-wing.

She wrote gardening columns for many years, mainly in Home Beautiful, which greatly increased her profile.  She was obviously a forceful woman: some bridled against her control at Bickleigh Vale, and she had definite ideas about how her gardens should look. Her work brought her into contact with wealthy people (the Murdochs, Dame Nellie Melba) and her creativity brought her into intellectual circles as well.  She didn’t make her fortune from her gardens though: some wealthy clients refused to pay.  For a woman so attuned to place, she suffered three fires in her life: the first in England caused the family to emigrate; the second took her first home ‘Sonning’; and the third fire engulfed East Point at Eastern Beach near Lorne, just after she had given it to the Bird Observer’s Club.  Her first houses, at Bickleigh Vale, were a consciously constructed  landscaped scene, highly reminiscent of England, where she imposed a covenant over the design of houses and their gardens. By the time she built East Point, she built the house to respond to the landscape, re-aligning walls and incorporating rocky outcrops into the design of the house itself: a shift to the natural not unlike her shift from exotic to native plants.

Walling’s own columns were written in a jaunty, jolly-hockey-sticks sort of way, and Hardy’s text seems to have picked up a similar tone.  While she does not go beyond the evidence available to her, she does break into present-tense imaginings that embroider and bring to life some of the events she describes.  These imaginings are well sign-posted as conjecture, and as a reader I’m inclined to trust her renderings, given the rigour with which she supports her work otherwise.

An unusual life? For its time, certainly. A queer life? Most probably, but along with Hardy, I suspend judgment over that.  She may have died as an elderly woman living on the Queensland coast, but her life was richer than such a mundane death suggests.  New owners have taken over many of her gardens, imposing their own visions onto them, but they remain at heart Edna Walling gardens.

Read because: It was a CAE bookgroup choice

My rating: 8.5/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

I have included this review in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

‘How Jesus became God’ by Bart D. Ehrman

ehrman

2014, 371 p & notes

It seemed rather appropriate, if somewhat transgressive, to read this book over Easter. As a Unitarian, I don’t celebrate Easter but there’s a lot of God going around at Easter, particularly this most recent one which coincided with Passover. The author Bart D. Ehren is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, and he has written over thirty books about Christianity. He used to be an evangelical Christian, but is no longer. In fact, it sounds as if his distancing from his faith is very similar to my own, when he describes the way that he found that he could subscribe to less and less of the Nicene Creed. The exact same thing happened with me.

In this book Ehrman traces the historical development of the idea that Jesus was/is God.

He starts his book by noting that the divisions between the divine and human were not clear-cut, either in the Greek or Roman worlds in which Jesus operated, or indeed within Judaism itself.  In Greek mythology, there is constant slippage as gods become temporarily human, and humans become permanently gods.  In the Old Testament, there is the Angel of the Lord who appeared to Abraham, Hagar and Moses, and humans like Enoch who became angels. There’s the Son of Man figure and Wisdom and the Word, and the King of Israel.

He then turns to the question of what/who Jesus thought he was, and whether he talked about himself as God. He starts by considering the methodological problem of dealing with the source texts.  Paul’s letters were written twenty to thirty years after Jesus died, but Paul himself never met Jesus.  The gospels themselves were not written by eyewitnesses, and they were written between 35 and 65 years after Jesus’ death, based on oral stories. He notes that Matthew, Mark and Luke have both stories held in common, and some unique stories that do not appear elsewhere.  He characterizes Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet,  who predicted the end of the current evil age, who believed that God would intervene soon to destroy everything and everyone opposed to him. God would then institute a new kingdom on earth, and he (Jesus) would be king in that kingdom.   This was not a unique view: it could be found in the teachings of other apocalyptic-oriented Jews of his day.

He then turns to the resurrection.  There are many discrepancies between the gospels, so many that it is almost impossible to make a single narrative that combines the ‘facts’ of all four gospels.  We don’t really know whether he was buried, or whether there was an empty tomb.  But we do know that some of Jesus’ followers believed that he had been raised from the dead, that some of them had visions of him, and that the belief that he had been raised from the dead led them to consider him, in some sense, God.

The earliest Christians thought that Jesus had been ‘exalted’ and lifted up and given divine status after his crucifixion i.e. that he was a human who became God.  Others moved the moment of ‘exaltation’ further back in Jesus’ life:  the moment of baptism with John the Baptist and the dove, the moment of birth in the stable; the Annunciation.

Others- and this view came to dominate- saw him as already God, who became human i.e. became ‘incarnate’. This was the big change, and it occurred in the first twenty years after Jesus’ death. Jesus came to be seen as a pre-existing divine being, who became human.

He turns to Paul’s letters and John’s gospel at this point.  In particular he looks at Paul’s second letter to the Philippians, where the text suddenly breaks into a quite different rhythm and vocabulary. (Who, although he was in the form of God did not regard being equal with God something to be grasped after etc.) This, he suggests, is a poem that Paul is quoting.  In the book, the poem is presented broken up into poem-like metre, and it’s amazing how typography can change the way a test is read.   Likewise, he looks at John 1 (the ‘in the beginning’ prologue) and its reflection of Old Testament texts. I found this part fascinating: the idea that the gospels are a palimpsest of oral and poetic traditions, that can be traced backwards and identified by concepts and language that do not appear elsewhere.

He then shifts to the different heresies that arose in the second, third and fourth centuries:  the divine/human nature of God and Jesus;  whether there was ever a time when God existed but Jesus didn’t; whether they are one unitary being or two (or even three) separate entities, and the resultant concept of the trinity.  He then turns to the Nicean creed, our mutual stumbling block, which he demonstrates as not so much an affirmation of faith, as a refutation of the various heresies that were circulating the Christian world.

A good summary of his argument throughout the book appears in the epilogue:

To use the older terminology, in early Christianity the views of Christ got “higher and higher’ with the passing of time, as he became increasingly identified as divine. Jesus went from being a potential (human) messiah to being the Son of God exalted to a divine status as his resurrection; to being a pre-existent angelic being who came to earth incarnate as a man; to being the incarnation of the Word of God who existed before all time and through whom the world was created; to being God himself, equal with God the Father and always existent with him. (p.352)

This is almost the mirror opposite of his own beliefs about God (and a trajectory I have also followed), where Jesus became “lower and lower” until he understood him as a human being, no different to any other human being.  He now understands Jesus as “a true religious genius with brilliant insights”, but a man of the first-century Palestinian Jewish apocalyptic milieu.  He says that he resonates with the ethical teachings of Jesus (as do I) but that these, too, were delivered in a first-century apocalyptic format.  He argues that the views of Jesus have changed over time, and continue to change as Jesus is recontextualized, on an ongoing basis by each generation.

I enjoyed this book, which is very clearly set out with discrete sections and subheadings, and clear previews and summaries topping and tailing each chapter.  He interweaves his own personal spiritual journey through the telling, which I identified closely with.  I don’t know if I’ll read other books of his, though, because from their titles alone, they seem to be further elaborations on the themes in this one.  This book was a New York Times Bestseller, and perhaps that’s the level that I’m happy to leave my reading at.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it’s Easter

My rating: 8.5