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.  



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.


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.


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



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


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.

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.

From David’s Harp to Praise Songs in the 21st Century

Tim Dowley, Christian Music: A Global History, Oxford: Lion Hudson Plc (2011)

ISBN: 0745953247 / 9780745953243

263 pages, illustrated, hardcover from $AU 29.50 online.

In Australian Libraries: http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/203573249

Reviewed by Ted Witham


Tim Dowley is a church historian who has written biographies of J.S. Bach and Robert Schumann. Christian Music is an historical survey of everything musical in Christian worship from David’s harp to 21st Century praise music. It covers contemporary Christian music on every continent, including Australian and the Pacific, and every style of music from choral to hymns to instrumental.

It was good to be reminded of the rise of Christian rock and the banning of early practitioners like Larry Norman, 1970s pioneer of “Jesus Music”, and to see his place in the development from Gospel to praise music.

The strength of this book is its breadth, and the clarity with which such a wide range of music is described. It is beautifully and generously illustrated adding a further dimension of understanding: depictions of early instruments with comments on their accuracy are a great aid to understanding a little better how the music of each period sounded. A few screenshots show the development of musical notation and its impact on composition without drowning the reader in technical description, and sensitive portraits make the viewer ponder the sensibility of individual composers.

Seven specialist contributors take the reader to places where Dr Dowley was not so familiar: Dr Mark Evans is the guide for Australia and the Pacific, Lisbon-based Orthodox priest the Reverend Dr Ivan Moody explores Orthodox music.

Of course, breadth leads to mistakes of over-simplification. Gustav Mahler, for example, whose music has a complex and intentional Christian dimension, is dismissed in a sentence: “Gustav Mahler, a convert to Catholicism, confessed he could not compose a mass because he could not affirm the Credo.” (p.165). In contrast the sceptic Verdi and the Jewish Mendelssohn rightly receive one page and three pages respectively for their efforts in writing music around Christian themes (p.162, pp.159-161).

To produce a book like this, charmingly presented, wide-ranging and clearly written, of course involves many choices about inclusions. It is too easy to nit-pick on the basis of what has been left out. What has been left in covers a huge range of material placed in a narrative which reveals the dynamism, inventiveness and beauty of music inspired by Christian faith and used in Christian worship.

It will remain on my shelf as a reference and a companion to treasure.

Dr Tim Dowley

Confession Worth Reading

William Peak, The Oblate’s Confession, Secant Publishing 2014.
416 pages.

$US18.54 (pre-order on-line)


A novel set in a monastery in 7th Century Northumbria? Certainly the promise of the historical religious setting drew me to it. I was pre-disposed to enjoy the tale of Winwæd, given to the monastery at Redestone as a boy – the oblate of the title – and living through changes brought to that enclosed world by disease and by impinging politics.

William Peak’s first novel is beautifully told. Winwæd luxuriates in language, in seeing things aright. His tale is both textured and layered. The details, both of daily life in 7th Century England and in the shifting power of kings and warriors – all lovingly researched and presented – create Winwæd’s world convincingly. The guilt Winwæd carries, and which he expresses in his confession, creates the tension in the story as his understanding of his actions grows, and ours with it.

We experience the changes as he grows in the different friendships Winwæd establishes, from Prior Dagan, who takes him on as a very young boy, to the friendship with the hermit living in the mountain, and to the Brother who runs the furnace, are well drawn.

As Winwæd learns to pray from the hermit, so we too learn mystical prayer from him. The hermit’s story of the young child lost in the forest who runs here, there and everywhere, looking to find his way, is pertinent. The child eventually exhausts himself just at the moment of spying a light coming from a cleared field. He collapses before a thick hedge, unable to find a way or to move forward. At the bottom of the hedge is a small space, just big enough to wriggle through, and thus he finds his way home: such is prayer.

Redestone monastery stands for a Christianity not quite settled in its environment, just as Roman Christianity was returning to Britain, but still remembering its Celtic roots. It may be this sense of being at odds with its society that makes this work of fiction speak so clearly to the reader.

I thoroughly enjoyed Winwæd’s confession. He kept me wondering until the end.