Bourgeois Bacchanalia?


 

Glyn Max1783197412-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_well, Drinks with Dead Poets: The autumn term, Oberon Books, 2012. Hardcover, 200 pages.

$20 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Drinks with Dead Poets was a delightful surprise. A professor of poetry called ‘Glyn Maxwell’ turns up in a mysterious village to teach a term of poetry. He meets his eclectic class and directs them to readings of a series of 19th Century poets. Professor Maxwell is not sure if it is by his doing, or the organisation of Kerri, the efficient registrar, but each poet has been invited to the village on the Thursdays of the autumn term.

The conversations teacher and students have with these poets are the actual words of each poet. Each poet arrives in the village according to their personality. Nature poet John Clare walks in across the fields. Emily Dickinson, visiting from the States, arrives by train. The Brownings, Robert and Elizabeth, their relationship as ambiguous as ever, are fetched in their coach.

W.B. Yeats appears on the island in the middle of the lagoon.

Each poet behaves in character. It takes some time to warm the serious Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, but once relaxed, he speaks with great joy about the craft of poetry.

Although Professor Maxwell has been allotted a little room off the village hall for his teaching, a lot of the action takes place in one or other of the drinking establishments in the village. The professor is occasionally successful in imparting deep insights about the poets.

After a hip-hop celebrity recites a mangled version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s presence, the students tune into the idea of poetry as performance, and look forward to hearing subsequent poets read their work, with questions following.

The professor himself has limited success in asking questions or directing the questions of the audience. One of the students asks each poet, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, and this hackneyed request is met with incomprehension, sarcasm, or gentle correction according to the temperament of the poet in residence.

By using this public reading format, the book avoids long quotations from these poets, providing representative snippets instead.

In November, the professor’s birthday is celebrated in wild style in a nearby country house. In December, Lord Bryon and the students repeat Bryon’s exploit in the Hellespont by swimming across the icy village lagoon.

The professor is never quite sure whether his class is part of the college, or an unofficial elective: poetry is taken not quite seriously by this academy. On the other hand, this professor drinks with students and even sleeps with one of the female students. He would be the subject of disciplinary hearings if he were officially on the staff! These drinks are taken with a suburban bacchanalian spirit which grows out of the playful premise that dead poets can drink with 21st Century students.

I missed out on studying the Romantic poets because of the cycle of the English curriculum at Uni. This wonderful book has partly made up for that. If you love poetry, and you are intrigued by the fantasy setting Glyn Maxwell has created, you will thoroughly enjoy taking Drinks with Dead Poets.

 

 

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Sci-Fi Twist on Reconciliation


Terra coverClaire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia 2017
(304 pages)

$20 paper, $5 e-book

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Set in occupied Australia, Terra Nullius tells three inter-weaved stories: the first is a residential school for Natives run by Settler Nuns headed by a fearsome Mother Superior, Sister Bagra. In this school, Native children have been forcibly taken from their families and are given a basic education so that they will graduate to domestic service in Settler households.

The second story is the escape of Jacky from a similar place. Jacky is determined to find his birth family. He is told that they may be at the former town of Jerramungup, so proudly takes the name ‘Jacky Jerramungup’.

The third group of Natives live fearful lives in a series of squalid camps, always on the run and moving to a new location as the Settlers drive them into the desert. The only advantage of this is that the Settlers cannot live in the desert.

First-time novelist Claire Coleman, a West Australian Noongar, drops little hints that this is not the occupied Australia we know when the British Settlers occupied the land and treated the indigenous people with cruelty. About half-way through the book, she reveals that these Settlers come from a space-faring Empire, and these Natives are black and white survivors of their arrival.

The Settlers are nicknamed Toads by the Natives because they need moisture to survive. Because of the ever-present threat of Settler violence, the name ‘Toads’ is never used in their hearing.

The three main characters, Sister Bagra, Jacky and Esperance, the de facto leader of the ever-moving camp, are vividly drawn, as well as a big cast around them: Sergeant Rohan the indefatigable hunter of runaway Natives; Johnny Starr, the outlaw Settler whose little gang gathers up Jacky Jerramungup on their way to an eventual show-down with Settler power, and Father Grark the reluctant Inspector sent to Sister Bagra’s mission.

I liked Terra Nullius very much. An atmosphere of dread induced both by the Settlers and the difficulty of surviving in the desert pervades the book. The West Australian settings are familiar but changed. The characters are never reduced to caricatures: most Settlers genuinely believe that the Natives were not human; the Native characters are clear individuals.

The pacing is well-handled. Towards the end, I couldn’t put the book down I was so afraid for Jacky and Esperance, and with reason!

It is a didactic novel. I suspect that Australians sceptical of Aboriginal claims will not be convinced by its premise, and may even be annoyed by its ideas. However, it will appeal to people looking for reconciliation and deeper insights into our shared history, settler and native.

Poems A Head


Head coverIvan Head, The Magpie Sermons: Poems 2005-2017, Sydney: St Paul’s College 2017.  

Hardcover. Available for $35 from 48header@gmail.com 

Reviewed by Ted Witham  

This collection of nearly 50 poems is the second for Ivan Head. Dr Head is a West Australian priest, former director of AIT and Canon of St George’s Cathedral, who has spent the last 27 years as Warden first of Christ’s College in Hobart and then of St Paul’s College within the University of Sydney. He and his wife Christine are now moving into retirement in Sydney. 

Many of the poems have been published in Quadrant (where Les Murray is the poetry editor), the West Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. Their presence in those publications suggests their high quality. 

Ivan is a poet who celebrates birds and flowers, trips by train and trips to London and the US. In some the words tumble just to celebrate language: 

Montezuma met a Puma going to the fair
Said Montezuma to the Puma let me taste your ware. 
Said the Puma
to Montezuma  
No I prefer my fare rare and so he ate him then and there.  

Many of the poems are complex with multiple levels of meanings. I enjoy recognising the double- or triple-meaning, but also knowing there may be more levels that I don’t get. In Swan River, Ivan reflects on boyhood memories of throwing a kylie, or thrusting a home-made gidgie towards a Cobbler.  And then: 

A boy knows that prawns rest beneath the sand by day. 
It is like knowledge of the Pleiades. 
Under the Narrows Bridge I stood for hours and left a line out all night just in case 
Something big went past.  

After the series of Noongar words and the reference to arcane knowing, the pleasure of ‘Something big’ might mean a fish to catch, or, it might mean deep knowledge of culture, Aboriginal and Western. And it might mean something even bigger.  

An undercurrent of Christian faith and theology, which on occasion rises to the surface level of the poems, holds them in a strong web of meaning.  

Ivan has a strong ear for the music of words, their sound and rhythm. All his poems are free-form and show the influence of modernist and Beat poetry.  

I found real pleasure in their Australianness. The poems are about the plants and animals of Cookernup (near Bunbury), Perth and Sydney. They are about our childhoods in the 1950s. Even when the subject is not directly Australian, Ivan’s attitude is. He punctures pomposity. Here he reduces the English Reformation to Henry VIII’s armour. 

…. And now he’s gone, 
the ghost isn’t in the machine. 
Just the carapace remains 

And what the commentator 
gawks at for the screen 
is the gigantic iron cod-piece 

With nothing in it.  

The Magpie Sermons is printed on quality high-gloss paper and bound simply in a hardcover embossed with gold leaf.  

Poetry lovers will enjoy reading, and re-reading, these poems of celebration, irony, contemplation and joy.  

 

 

9661-004-427119f4
Narrows Bridge 1963

 

Wesleyan Treasure


9781501835643Elaine E. Heath,
Five Means of Grace, Experience God’s Love the Wesleyan Way, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2017, 80 pages.
ISBN 9781501835643,
E-Pub and Hardback
available from Cokesbury Bookstore for $US 6.79 + postage.

 

One of the unfortunate unintended consequences of the Uniting Church in Australia is the invisibility of all things Wesleyan in Australia – no more Methodists, no more reminders of John Wesley!

Elaine Heath, Dean of the Divinity School at Duke University in North Carolina, as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, is keen to share the treasures of the Wesleyan tradition with the widest possible audience. This little book is a gem from that treasury.

The book explores Wesley’s five spiritual practices, prayer, searching the scriptures, the Lord’s supper, fasting and Christian conferencing for a contemporary audience. She outlines Wesley’s original conception for these five disciplines, and explains simply how Christians today might apply them to their lives of faith.

Each section ends with questions for reflection and action.

Dean Heath concludes by commending the idea for every serious Christian of a simple rule of life.

The book is designed to fit into a pocket or stack of prayer books. The gilt lettering and embossed design make it a pleasure to hold and use. It is intended for frequent reference for a Christian implementing these spiritual habits for the first time.

It would make an ideal gift for a young member of the United Methodist Church; as well as for young members of the Australian churches with a Wesleyan heritage, the Uniting and Anglican Churches.

3698690

A Distinctive Australian Spirituality?


art-9781922235763-cover-printWayne Hudson, Australian Religious Thought,
Clayton, VIC: Monash University Publishing, 2015
ISBN (pb): 978-1-922235-76-3
ISBN (e-book): 978-1-922235-77-0

From $AU32 online,
$32 e-book (limited free access online at nla.gov.au)

In Western Australian and Australian public library systems.

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Richard Dawkins once dismissed Genesis 22 as ‘an infamous tale’; he thought that Abraham’s actions as at the least, were ‘child abuse, ‘and if he had actually carried through his plan to sacrifice Isaac, we would have convicted him of first degree murder.’ [1]

I thought it a great pity that Professor Dawkins, who writes so eloquently on biology, missed the fact of 3,000 years of complex thought and interpretation of the Binding of Isaac that rabbis and Christian scholars have recorded. Any good scientist would not regard his experiment as the truth without taking into account the work of scientists before him. Einstein built on Newton. He certainly didn’t ignore him!

In fact, Dawkins’ hero, Charles Darwin waited 15 years before publishing On the Origin of Species. It wasn’t that Darwin doubted his findings: on the contrary, Darwin respected the fact that others had given serious thought to these topics, churchmen and enlightenment figures alike, and had come to different conclusions. Added to that the concern that Darwin had about publishing theories that would appear to deny the evangelical Christianity of his wife Emma, and Darwin’s very different attitude to Dawkins’ is revealed.

Wayne Hudson’s wide-ranging survey of Australian religious thought from 1788 until today shows that we are like Richard Dawkins in our inability to see the richness of religious writings in our country.

According to the publisher’s blurb Australian Religious Thought is ‘the first major survey of this field.’ Wayne Hudson is a Professor in the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland. He is widely read in history, theology, philosophy and literature from 18th Century Europe and on through Australian European settlement. From this store of intellectual life, he shows the surprising amount of religious writings that have been produced in Australia. He is generous about the quality of distinctive Australian theology, but demonstrates that religious thought is much wider than Christian theology.

Dr Hudson explores six themes in writings about the sacred: Shapes of Disbelief, Sacral Secularity, Religious Liberalism, Religious Thought and Philosophy, Theology in Development, and Postsecular Consciousness. His book aims at the general reader, and most readers will applaud the extraordinary range of references. There may have been a cost factor in the decision not to include a formal bibliography which would have added another third to the size of the volume!

I particularly appreciated the ways in which Australian writers have stretched the concept of God. I recently reviewed Lorraine Parkinson’s new book, Made on Earth,  which argues that the divinity of Jesus was not intended by the Gospel writers and so we can discount the doctrine of the Trinity.  The joy of Australian Religious Thought is to discover that this is not a new heresy in 2016. Hudson quotes Charles Strong founder of the Australian Church who was a proponent of this view from early in the 20th Century. In addition, he traces the proposition back to German historian Adolph von Harnack and celebrity missionary Albert Schweitzer.

Hudson laments the lack of sources showing the impact Aboriginal spiritualities have had on the wider culture, but explores sufficient writers to prime my curiosity.

He suggests that, far from simple secularity, Australians are developing a distinctive religious sensibility. Its nature is partly encompassed in the phrase ‘sacral secularity’. For me, as a Christian reader, this book was like being in a closed room and suddenly having the doors thrown open to disclose a far bigger house. It is good to have more light stream in even as I continue to regard my room as my home.

The book will appeal to all Australians seriously interested in the development of distinctive Australian culture.

—–o0o——

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, London: Random House, 2006, 265

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Helpful Whiff of Heresy


5111brslwkl-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Lorraine Parkinson,
Made on Earth: how the gospel writers created the Christ, Richmond, VIC: Spectrum Publications, 2016.
ISBN 9780867862546
Online: Paperback $49, Kindle $11.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

For some years, I’ve held lightly to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. It’s not that I wish to demote the importance of Jesus, which was the purpose of the original dogma. It’s more that a pre-modern conception of divinity does not do justice to the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth actually  connects me with the sacred world.
Lorraine Parkinson’s new book Made on Earth helps me on my journey of belief by adding to the ways in which I can articulate my unease about Christology. She systematically works through the gospels in the order of their writing – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – to show how the message of Jesus about the kingdom was deliberately transformed into a message about the identity of Jesus as the expected Messiah.
Lorraine Parkinson is a retired ordained minister in the Uniting Church based in Victoria, and is in demand as a speaker for meetings of progressive Christians around Australia.
She tells the story crisply of how the infancy narratives appear to have been added to Matthew and Luke inventing the idea of Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thereby being God’s Son. She reveals how the life of Jesus was fitted into the typology of Moses or Elijah to further the argument for Jesus’ more than human status. The gospels

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incomprehensible?

were a sermon to persuade readers that Jesus had transcended Judaism and that his followers needed to distinguish themselves from the Jews.

 
She makes a plea for ‘progressive Christians’ to turn back to the original teachings of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus as the one Messiah  has led to a church that

  1. relies on fear (making sure you are right with God so you can enter the afterlife),
  2. that promotes anti-Semitism (the Jews are depicted as Christ-killers), and
  3. that ends up as Christendom (the Church as a new Roman Empire focused on power).

Returning to a simple reliance on the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus will invigorate individual followers of the Way of Jesus and remove the weight of having doctrinal commitments to a divine Christ.
She asks us to remember that the Gospel writers were ordinary human beings who believed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Her arguments here appear to be based on common sense alone and I would have liked her to wrestle with the theology of inspiration a little more deeply. As followers of Jesus, understanding God’s truth and how we know it is an important issue.

 
This book is dangerous. It emits a whiff of heresy. I admire Lorraine Parkinson’s honest courage in questioning the 3rd and 4th Century interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel. We need prophets to show the way forward for followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and Made on Earth is an important step on that path.

sermon-on-the-mount
Sant’Apollinare, Ravenna – mosaic

Anzac re-visited


Stephen Daisley, Traitor, Melbourne: Text Publishing 2011, paperback 291 pages

from $AUD16 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Traitor is a sensitive exploration of the Anzac myth through the life of David Monroe, hero of Gallipoli and the trenches of France. While wounded, David takes it on himself to guard a young Turkish doctor, Mahmoud, who had been captured when the two of them were trying to save the life of an Australian boy. He forms a deep friendship with Mahmoud, who teaches him about Sufism and the poetry of Rumi. He decides to help Mahmoud escape to his home village, but they are betrayed by their Greek boatman. David is sentenced to death for desertion, but the war ends and he is pardoned.

David then returns to the quiet life of a shepherd in New Zealand, unable to ever make good in a society which never completely forgives him for his ‘treachery’.

Traitor is Daisley’s first novel, and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2011. Daisley is a West Australian writer who delves deeply into the Australian psyche. I found myself coming back to the book again and again, unable to put it down. The story begins with David being questioned by intelligence officers, a scene with a Kafkaesque edge, and then unfolds as the past impinges on the present.

I was impressed by the lightness of touch in the story-telling: it is beautifully crafted, and the reader is rarely aware of the mechanics of the story. I felt I was in David’s world, and that the little things in his present really did touch off his memories. I felt I could taste the cold in the New Zealand air and smell the after-birth as he moved about the lambing flats, and I felt nauseated by his descriptions of death in the trenches, and genuinely moved by his love for Mahmoud and the woman he could never marry, Sarah.

I am looking forward to diving into Stephen Daisley’s second novel, Coming Rain.