Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book Renews Engagement


Looking through the Cross

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.

Good stocks at St John’s Books, Fremantle. $19.95
Kindle edition available from Amazon for $10.88

Reviewed by Ted Witham. First published in Anglican Messenger, February 2014

Being a Christian requires personal engagement – with God, with Jesus Christ, with neighbour and stranger, with truth, with good and evil. For most of us, being a Christian can be complex and demanding, but we remain committed because we believe that God is eternally committed to us.

A good Lent book refreshes this sense of personal engagement with Christian living. It should encourage, inspire and inform by taking readers both back to when they fell in love with the faith and forward by challenging readers to grow spiritually. Good Lent books are often about the Cross and Resurrection clueing us into the liturgical movement of Lent and the Paschal mystery at its climax.

Graham Tomlin’s Looking through the Cross is a very good Lent book. It is about the Cross. Tomlin tells us that his early chapters are looking at the cross, trying to understand more deeply its meaning for us, and the later chapters are looking through the cross, using the cross as a lens on the world.

In the chapter headings, ‘The Cross and Wisdom’, ‘The Cross and Evil’, ‘The Cross and Power’, ‘The Cross and Identity’, ‘The Cross and Suffering’, ‘The Cross and Ambition’, ‘The Cross and Failure’, ‘The Cross and Reconciliation’, and ‘The Cross and Life’, it is not entirely clear when we change from looking at to looking through. I am sure that ambiguity is deliberate: the cross always both teaches us about itself and reveals how it has changed God’s world.

Graham Tomlin writes clearly. Reading his book is like sitting with the most patient teacher, sharing with us his understanding of how the cross comes alive for him. His explanation of the connection between the cross of Christ and our personal sin is the clearest I’ve encountered in 40 years of reading books about Christianity. ‘Those who have perpetrated evil must be held to account,’ he writes. ‘The evil that has disrupted the world cannot simply be ignored or glossed over: it must be banished, dealt with, put right. Restoration is possible, but only when sin is somehow atoned for.’

Archbishop Rowan Williams commissioned The Reverend Dr Graham Tomlin to write this year’s Lent book. His successor in Canterbury, Justin Welby, ‘could not be more pleased’ with the choice. Centred in scripture, scholarship and pastoral experience, this book seems to me to bridge some of the divides in contemporary Anglican thinking.

The cross demands that we clearly separate Christian faith from the surrounding culture. In the powerful chapter on identity, Tomlin describes how our experience of family christenings obscures the radical change God makes in us in baptism when God gives us a new identity. Using the image of a protected witness or juvenile criminal with a new identity, he reminds us how hard it is to live out of a new identity, and how the old identity will continue to exert a pull on our lives.

But the cross is ultimately the path to life. We are made not to end in death, but in life. Tomlin reminds us of the leap in imagination we need in order to lay hold of this reality, but also rallies us with the knowledge that the new life of the cross and resurrection is ultimately God’s work and not only ours.

It is helpful if a Lent book has some guidance for its use: questions to provoke reflection or small group discussion, suggestions for art response, even a reading program. Looking through the Cross has none. This is a significant drawback in a book promoted for Lenten reading. Even without this, individual laity, clergy and groups will find Dr Tomlin’s book refreshing, challenging and clear. At the end of Lent, the book will help readers emerge at Eastertide re-engaged with their Christian faith.

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Novel Readings of Australian Men’s Emotions


 

I’ve been reading two new and extraordinary Australian novels: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Tom Keneally’s Shame and the Captives. Both deal with the Second World War.

My brother and I were born just after the War. He remarked recently how much the men we had grown up with had been marked by that war. We grew up on a farm, and we saw farmers who spent their time drinking not farming; our nearest neighbours lived with their grandparents, but they turned out to be paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather who shared their house. On a remote farm, one farmer loyally cared for ‘Mad Jack’. Today this eccentric would be recognised as an untreated sufferer of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The novels by Flanagan and Keneally take us to events that damaged many Australian men: the Burma railway and the Cowra break-out.  Both novels, though explicitly fiction, describe the events fully, but exploit what novels do best: they humanise the characters. Both novelists are unusually ambitious. Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans is a doctor who ends up as Officer Commanding the prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. This is dangerous ground. Australians have made ‘Weary’ Dunlop into a hero and this character is too like the legend of ‘Weary’. But Dorrie Evans believes he is no hero. He is a man just managing to hold himself together in the extreme conditions.

Flanagan shifts the time backwards and forwards between the doctor’s pre-war infatuation with his uncle’s young wife, and his serial womanising after the war. His one real act of heroism may be some years after the war when he saves his society wife and children from a Tasmania bushfire.  But on his death-bed, he has a kind of vision of his heroism on the railway. He remembers when the Japanese guards force him to select 200 men to march to another camp. The men are sick and dying, and he must make selections knowing that he is sending the men to a certain death, others he is saving. Yet he moves through the parade, putting his hand affectionately on the shoulder and naming each man chosen. He gets up early next morning, feeling the heavy responsibility for his choices. In his dream, each man comes up to him, shakes his hand or salutes him with a cheery ‘Thank you, Sir,’ or ‘All the best to you.’ Somehow the little he does, even the mistakes he makes, are seen as heroism, and Flanagan shows us how hollow he feels, almost as though he is a fake, or has been mistaken for someone else.

I was gripped by Flanagan’s depiction of loyalty between ordinary men. Just trying to stay alive in a hellish world, they both helped each other and sometimes failed to help each other. The profound cruelty inflicted on these men created something of beauty, a tiny bloom in the dark jungle. We all know and feel the barrier to giving this bond of mateship its real name. Flanagan dares once in the novel to call it love. The novel also acknowledges how the hardships also ravaged Australian men in ways that their children who are Flanagan’s generation – my generation – are only beginning to understand.

For Richard Flanagan, behind unexpressed emotions the laconic Australian male hides a vulnerability, and many are not only vulnerable but fragile too.

 

Our emotions are unexplored territory, and Tom Keneally, from an earlier generation, knows that our lack of familiarity with the world of emotions makes it difficult for us to explore the emotional lives of others. The Italians and the Japanese in the POW camp at Gawell, the fictional palimpsest for the real Cowra, provide Keneally with contrasting case studies.

I was surprised to learn that most of the detainees were not internees but were prisoners of war. The Italians and the Japanese were kept in separate compounds and had very different attitudes to being captured: the Italians were on the whole relieved. Their allegiance to Mussolini was not deep, and in any case Italy was about to fall to the allies. The Japanese seethed with resentment both towards themselves and their captors. Their ambition as warriors had been to kill or be killed in the service of the Emperor. To be so weak as to be captured was shameful, and they bore their shame with difficulty.

The Japanese despised the Australians for looking after the camp according to the Geneva Convention. This compassion was weakness. They refused to cooperate and found little ways to make life difficult for their captors.

The Italians by contrast were happy to work on Australian farms, to attend Mass with Australian families and to reach out for human contact. We follow Giancarlo, or “Johnny”, the work-release prisoner on the farm of a widower and his daughter-in-law. An affair develops between the two, leading to confusion in the novel’s climax when Tengan is re-captured on their farm after the “break-out”.

Keneally shows us the emotional deafness of career Colonel Abecare and his subordinate Major Suttor, whose main interest was writing a popular radio serial, both to their own feelings and to the cultural-based emotions of their prisoners. The shame of Japanese warrior Tengan and his hatred for his enemy is well-drawn. On the other hand, the contempt of the Koreans for their Japanese superiors is hidden from the Australians. They saw the warrior mentality and loyalty to the Emperor as dangerous and meaningless.

The killings and suicides in the break-out shock the Australians who are not prepared for such extreme expression of emotion. Abecare, the old English soldier, is slaughtered, and the Australians are left to muddle through. And the novelist continues to hint at a kind of cultural autism, an inability in Australian men to read the emotions of others, because they cannot read or articulate their own.

My brother is right. We accepted that generation of damaged men just as eccentrics. It has taken a life-time to begin to understand their impact on us and to learn to love and hate, and fear and enjoy, to be angry and disgusted, and to know that these emotions are the essence of life.

Moving Stories


REVIEW:  Robert Béla Wilhelm, Perfect Joy in Holy Week: Walking with St Francis of Assisi in the Footsteps of Our Lord, Storyfest Productions 2013 (Volume 3 of the Collected Works of Robert Béla Wilhelm).

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Dr Robert Béla Wilhelm was our keynote presenter in the Third Order Conference in Perth in 2006. People warmed to Bob and his gentle style of telling stories about St Francis.  Quite a few Tertiaries have kept in touch with Bob since then.

Bob’s style of story-telling moves me, sometimes to tears. I sometimes find them hard to read to others without tearing up. His story-telling evokes an emotional depth to help the listener connect with the richness of his stories.

Perfect Joy in Holy Week is a series of six stories about St Francis for the six days of Holy Week. Each story has a short version and a long version, and each story is introduced by the Scripture readings set for the Eucharist of the day and concluded with provocative reflections.  These stories are accessible to anyone and speak strongly into anyone’s life.

The stories can be used in worship, particularly at an appropriate Eucharist, at an Area/Region meeting or in your private devotions. You can read or tell the story yourself, or, in the iBook version, hear Dr Wilhelm himself bringing these stories to life.

Bob is also an icon writer. Perfect Joy includes traditional icons and paintings as well as some of Bob’s own. So prayerfully are they written I find I have to look carefully to see which are the traditional icons and which are Bob’s.

The attention to detail in this book is obvious. He includes not only the lections for his home Roman Catholic tradition, but also the Anglican and ecumenical lections where they differ. Design values are high even in the E-book versions. The pages were lightly textured and the layout easy to use, colourful and easy on the eye.

While they follow the great events of Holy Week, the stories and reflections can still be enjoyed at any time of the year. Rae and I didn’t get around (typically) to using these stories until Easter week, but we still found them to be fresh, inspiring and encouraging.

The easiest way to obtain either a print or electronic book is by visiting the Storyfest bookstore at http://www.sacredstorytelling.org.

***

Review first published in the Pentecost 2013 Newsletter of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis, Australian Provinnce.

More than Human?


Martin Higgins, Human+,

Kindle E-Book $US 3.99, Paperback 230 pages (online) from $AUD 18.26

Reviewed by Ted Witham

This book and I did not start well together. The narrator initially sounded like science fiction’s clichéd young male narrator who is attempting to channel Raymond Chandler and whose only friend is the barman.  But within a few pages, I was surprised to realise that I was inside the head of a schizoid drug-user with heightened paranoia. I changed from groaning to admiring the writing.

David, the drug-user, turns out to be a select adept at psychological precognition – mind-reading. He has the ability to tune into people’s thoughts, moods and memories. A mystery organisation recruits him and offers to train his precognitive gifts. He befriends the trainers and discovers that his talents outshine theirs.

The organisation engineers a high-profile position for him, inventing a back-story with academic papers and university records. Lawrence, one of the trainers, seemingly deserts the organisation, and David is left to wonder whether being caught up in the world of high capitalism is the best use of his supra-human gifts.

To its credit, the book does not give a pat answer to this question, but leaves the reader with complex possibilities: with the help of nanotechnology, will human beings ever develop advanced communication abilities? Can capitalism deliver the most ethical future for humanity? Will there always be people left behind by human progress – will the poor always be with us despite all the promises of technology? Are reading and story-telling technologies by which we enter the thought-worlds and moods of other humans and transform ourselves into more than humans?

At the end of the book, I was surprised how much I had enjoyed it. I enjoyed the company of the first person narrator, I was intrigued with the bigger questions raised by his experience, and I continued to wonder where the hard science ended and the fiction begun. That’s a mark of good science fiction.

The book was professionally presented, so I did not have the common experience with E-books of being confronted by spelling and grammar clangers. The story kept me interested until the end, and it was altogether an enjoyable and worthwhile read.

Hope for Palestinians


 

Michelle Cohen Corasanti, The Almond Tree, Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing

Paperback from $AUD 11.22 (online) or Kindle E-book: $US 3.49

Reviewed by Ted Witham

I wept frequently while reading this outstanding first novel.

The Almond Tree tells the story of Ichmad Hamid, a gifted Palestinian boy whose family home is destroyed to make way for Jewish settlers. They lose their orchard and, after some years in a tent, are able to build a one-room cement-block house on the tiny patch of land the Israelis leave for them. Ichmad’s beloved Baba is sent to prison for 14 years after 12-year-old Ichmad helps radicals bury weapons in their backyard.  Their small home and all its possessions are again destroyed by Israeli soldiers.

In his father’s absence, Ichmad takes on the role of provider for his family, working on Israeli settler construction sites for far less wages than the suspicious Iraqis and Russians who work with him. Following his father’s advice Ichmad tries to choose always the way of peace, and despite endless provocations, not to return hatred for hatred.

Teacher Mohammad offers to tutor the gifted boy every evening after work. Ichmad wins a scholarship in Maths and Physics to Hebrew University, and sets out on a stellar academic career. He collaborates with his Professor, a bitter Jew whose family was murdered in Auschwitz. Eventually the two become close friends and win the Nobel Prize jointly for their work on nanotechnology.

Ichmad continues to support his family on his Professor’s wage at Harvard, and maintains close contact with his village. He identifies with their life-giving almond tree with its roots deep in Palestinian soil. At every turn in his story  he encounters tragedy, much of it caused by the brutality of Israeli occupation, and Ichmad’s desire to choose peace almost always – eventually – turns the tragedies into something deeper and positive for his people and his family.

This is a powerful first novel by a courageous Jewish-American woman. I did not need to be persuaded that the occupation of Palestine is anything but a disaster for the Palestinians. It would be wonderful if this novel helped others to see the human cost of providing a secure and secular state for the Jewish people. It may just be sufficiently powerful to do so.

 

Human consciousness: complete and inconsistent?


Robin Craig, Frankensteel, Thoughtware Publications 2012
(Kindle edition: Amazon price $US1.99)

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham in TableAUS (Australian Mensa News)  September/October 2012

 

Robin Craig’s “Philosophical Reflections” in TableAUS often provoke replies both polite and unmannered from Mensans. In these “Reflections”, Robin presents his highly rational and positivist world-view using the rhetoric of the philosopher. I enjoyed reading a new side of Robin in his novella Frankensteel.

 

Frankensteel tells the story of an anthropoid robot equipped with an organic brain whose intelligence grows from a few simple learning algorithms. The robot at first appears unable to speak, however, but just the fact of its invention throws the authorities into panic mode. They order its maker Stephen Beldan to destroy it. Frankensteelhas quite a presence in a room, and its first spoken words are effectively a declaration to its maker that it would be inhuman to destroy it. Though the scientist locks the robot away, it inevitably escapes and seeks out the company of Professor David Samuels whose expertise in human consciousness may help it understand whether it is human or not.

 

Special Investigator Miriam Hunter is ordered to hunt “Steel” down and finds herself drawn into the moral dilemma at the heart of this story:  whether this human creation with its intelligence should be destroyed or not.

 

The story has been told before. Any writer since Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic attempting a re-write of the Frankenstein myth must have a stand-out factor to distinguish it from its predecessors. Its factory setting and its police hunter skilled in dark arts of pursuit and assassinationgive Frankensteel a modern “industrial” and almost noir feel.  The character of the professor, in particular, gives Robin Craig the narrative licence to develop arguments for and against artificial intelligence and its relationship to human consciousness. Frankensteel brings the old myth up to date bytaking into account recent developments, both in neuroscience and artificial intelligence.

 

Set against these protagonists are the shadowy Imagist cult, believing that only human beings are made in the Image of God, and therefore set against machine consciousness. These radicals are capable of serious violence, but the robot uses his intelligent understanding of human beings to survive.

 

Frankensteel is a novella length story which I read in a few hours. Its chief problem is that the characters are not sufficiently developed for me to care what happened to Frankensteel or any of his friends. It might be stronger if it was compressed to a short story length and then told through the eyes of just one of the characters, Frankensteel himself perhaps, so that readers both identified with his nascent humanity and were also drawn into the discussion about machine and human consciousness.

 

But I salute Robin Craig for imaginatively raising the issues: I enjoyed meeting Frankensteel.