Fun and a frisson of fear in Mordew


Alex Pheby, Mordew, 2020, Galley Beggar Press.

312 pages
Kindle edition $7.59
Paperback $28
Reviewed by Ted Witham

Alex Pheby’s Mordew is a satisfying fantasy. Mordew (the name is said to be derived from the French mort and Dieu, death and God) seethes with all sorts of life and unlife. There is the Living Mud. There are flukes, non-viable life-forms in the shape of human body parts. Other babies and conceived and born in the normal way by human beings. There are chilling gill men who guard the city’s ports and the houses of the very rich.

A magic glass road leads up from the Slums, through the mercantile section to the Manse where the Master, the creator of this dystopia, lives and weaves his magic.

Nathan Treeves, a boy from the slums, is recruited into a gang consisting of the leader Gam, the Joeys (are they conjoined twins?) and Prissy, whose sister works as a prostitute. Nathan believes they may help him fund medicine for his dying father.

Nathan catches the Master’s eye. We don’t learn the reason for this adoption until much later in the novel. The Master sets Nathan up, under the eye of the faithful Bellows, in luxury in the Manse, where he is educated. The end point of the education is for Nathan to learn the Magic which sustains Mordew and the other worlds.

Where Nathan himself ends up is a surprise, and I am not sure that I liked Nathan’s destination, although the fact that his destructive spree is his destiny is clearly drawn.

The story is fast paced. The many weird and intriguing characters, the vicious Fagan-like Mr Padge among them, help or hinder Nathan on his discoveries.

The last quarter of the book, after the conclusion of the narrative, is a glossary setting out the world of Mordew in detail, how the Magic works, the connection between the material and immaterial realms, the place of time and some of the history of the worlds. I savoured this ‘theological’ section as well, even though it was not necessary to the telling of the story.

If you enjoy dystopian fantasy with a steampunk-like aesthetic, you will find much to like in Mordew.

Blessed are Christians through the Pandemic

We Christians will be stronger and our faith will be deeper – we will be more blessed – because of living through this moment.


Irene Alexander and Christopher Brown (editors), To Whom Shall We Go? Faith responses in a time of crisis, Cascade 2021

Paperback ISBN 9781725289550
Hardback ISBN 9781725289567
eBook ISBN 9781725289574

Available from the publishers, Koorong, or from the authors at holyscribblers.blogspot.com

Hardback $40, eBook and Paperback $25

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Part of us wants to pretend the Coronavirus pandemic has not happened, and that the Church can go back to its old ways after the worst of this is over. I have no doubt, however, that there will be enduring changes, not least in the way Church organisations use technology.

The collective of Christian writers behind To Whom Shall We Go, who call themselves the “Holy Scribblers”, are also convinced of permanent change. Their interest, as shown in this series of eleven essays, is in changes to our spiritual lives more than technology.

The book is loosely structured around the Beatitudes and this structure gives the book an optimistic feel: we Christians will be stronger and our faith will be deeper – we will be more blessed – because of living through this moment. Their grounds for optimism are historical. We have before lived through past pandemics and challenges and emerged changed and stronger.

The authors are an eclectic mix of academics and thinkers who are looking for thoughtful Christian readers, clergy and lay. Two Franciscan Tertiaries, Terry Gatfield and Charles Ringma, are among the contributors. As is always the case with essays from diverse authors, individual readers will find some essays stronger than others. For example, Chris Mercer’s explorations of Desert Father Evagrius’ “eight deadly thoughts” (gluttony and lack of thankfulness for food, sexual lust, sadness, boredom and apathy, vainglory and pride) resonate for me.

I have some quibbles with the structure of the book. Each section gave rise to prayers and questions for reflection. The reflection questions were at the very end of the book. In the eBook format, especially without hyperlinks, this rendered the questions almost useless.

The prayers were crafted along quite traditional lines, so some could be used or adapted, for example, for intercessions at the Eucharist. I found them a bit too stolid, with none of the creativity of the stunningly beautiful prayers of another Australian, Craig Mitchell, in his recent Deeper Water (Mediacom).  

To Whom Shall We Go is a timely book and will stimulate lively thinking about where God is now leading God’s Church.

Short and Narrow: the charming redemption of Silas Marner


George Eliot, Silas Marner, The Weaver of Raveloe, Capuchin Classics, 2009.

Paperback 250 pages

In Public Library System
New from $AU9.99, used from $AU8.99 online.
E-book from $4.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans 1819-1880) wrote Silas Marner as her version of Pilgrim’s Progress. Like Bunyan’s masterpiece, Silas Marner also has the feel of a universal fable, the redemption of a man from desolation to love and riches.

Unlike Progress, however, the characters in Silas Marner are well-drawn and invite sympathy. Knowing how shabbily Silas has been treated and knowing the inner journey of Silas and the nasty young Squire, makes the reader care about the characters.

Eppie, the toddler who appears in Silas’ life after his precious gold has been taken, is less believable as an individual. She is beautiful in body and soul, humble in aspiration and devoted to Silas. But she is lovely because she is so deeply loved by Silas, her ‘Papa’.

The inner journey Silas makes is not like the ‘ascent’ of Pilgrim to the river and the City of Heaven. Nor is it in the tradition of the ‘ascent’ to God mapped by medieval mystics like Bonaventure and Richard of Saint Victor.

Silas’ journey to redemption stays in the gritty reality of Victorian poverty. Grace – in the form of the toddler he names Hephzibah (Eppie) – comes to Silas once and all at once. The name Hephzibah means ‘My delight is in her’, and it is used in the Hebrew Scriptures as the symbolic name for the restored Jerusalem (Isaiah 62:4). The redemption takes the miser, Silas, with his short-sight and propensity to fitting, and teaches him how to love deeply.

Eliot contrasts the emotional and spiritual poverty of his former state with the richness of loving and being loved: the gold is even returned to Silas and secrets, liberating once shared, are brought to light.

Names are important to Eliot: Silas is named for the companion of the Apostle Paul. The New Testament’s Silas and Paul are put in prison and God releases them. God also releases Silas Marner from the darkness of the cultish Lantern Yard and from his self-imposed prison and. Both the New Testament and the village of Raveloe rejoice greatly at Silas’ release.

Is the name ‘Marner’ a reference to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner published 90 years earlier?  

Silas Marner is my introduction to George Eliot. I found the novel charming and satisfying. There is a central goodness in the novel which will be evident to readers whether or not they are Christian believers. But it is ultimately a Christian novel, an exploration of the journey we all in our own ways make in Christ.

Christians and Jews co-existing in Torquemada’s Spain: an intriguing new novel


Michael Lynes, Blood Libel: An Isaac Alvarez Mystery.

ISBN 978-9948258667

Kindle: $1.57, Paperback from $9.99.

Available as an e-book through the Public Library System

Reviewed by Ted Witham

I was intrigued by this novel set in Spain’s Seville at the time of the Holy Inquisition.  Isaac Alvarez is an official in the city. As a Jew who has converted to Catholicism but is still secretly attending Jewish prayers, he and his family are vulnerable to being denounced. 

A boy is murdered, and the story is circulated that he was killed so that his blood could be drunk in some secret Jewish ritual – the blood libel of the title.

The story is told through the written testimony of Friar Alonso, the assistant to Torquemada, alternating with a third person narrative from Isaac’s point of view. This method of telling the story works so that the motivations of both characters can be explored. 

Occasionally this was spoiled by an attempt to be cinematic, for example, concluding a chapter with one-line descriptions of everyone’s predicament. ‘Isabel is locked in her cell. Isaac is in the bar. Alonso is praying in his tiny cell, etc’. As a means of building tension, I found the device superfluous. 

Generally, the story is professionally presented and edited; a pleasure to read, and a delight to be so carefully taken into 15th Century Spain just at the moment when Inquisitors like Tomas Torquemada were breaking down the fragile peace between Spanish Catholics, Muslims and Jews.

I look forward to reading more of Señor Isaac Alvarez as his work takes him closer to King Ferdinand in the next in the series.

Fire and Spirit


270758-x
Holy Prophets Elijah and Elisha

Sun-God

If god lived in the sun she’d send her friends
a chariot of bubbling gas ablaze;
wheels of turning heat and burning reins of haze:
dynamism to carry off her ends.

The seat fabricate from sheer brace of power,
the floor ignites with planes of burnished flame,
the sun gives power to shape and nail the frame,
all conflagration to extol god’s hour.

If god lived in the sun she’d thaw the one
hamstrung in the gospel frozen from fears,
love hobbled in the cold, paused and icy tears;
her church where nothing may be done.

Defiant, Elisha followed him to fire,
felt heat and life, blessed with fierce love entire.

Ted Witham

  • 2 Kings 2:1-12
elijahs-cloak-over-elisha
Elijah’s cloak over Elisha (sculpture by Betsy Porter — betsyporter.com)

Trust and Obey – leaders in the Australian Army


The Association of the U.S. Army, Trust and Leadership: the Australian Army Approach to Mission Command, University of North Georgia University Press, 2019

Reviewed by Ted Witham 

All organisations have leaders who organise and inspire their members to promote the mission of the organisation. Leaders should be accountable for their work as leaders continuously improving their actions.  

Trust and Leadership explores how well the leaders in the Australian Armed Forces have used the official doctrine of mission command. The concept is that leaders should provide orders that clearly state the end result of their troops’ activities. Junior leaders are left free to work out the methods and tactics by which these effects will be reached. The principle is that the closer they are to the action, junior officers will have a better understanding of the situation on the ground, so are the best to decide how to carry out the superior’s orders.  

This book is a series of essays arranged historically from World War I to disaster relief in Queensland in 2012.  The authors are both academics and officers providing a breadth of commentary from the practical to the theoretical. It’s worth noting that some of the serving officers who wrote these essays also have academic qualifications, resulting in a thoughtful and authoritative account. 

The thesis of the book is that the concept of ‘mission command’ has been used by officers since Gallipoli, even before the term entered official policy. Australian soldiers should be adept at taking responsibility at their level, partly because of the Australian character and its scepticism towards authority. 

This willingness of soldiers to forge their own way turns out also to be a weakness. The account of the 2RAR Battalion in Afghanistan is searingly honest. Colonel Chris Smith describes the disbelief of a few soldiers when he attempted to enforce discipline. Their passive-aggressive response to his orders arose from the soldiers’ sense of entitlement to conduct themselves as they saw fit without supervision. ‘It seemed as though some were confusing mission command with “hands-off” leadership,’ Col. Smith comments. (p. 291 Advanced Reader’s Edition).  

In recent weeks, Australians have been shocked by accusations of murder and mistreatment of Afghan prisoners by Special Services troops. These allegations have of course coloured my reading of Trust and Leadership. Is it possible that these attitudes towards mission command and supervision by superior officers created the culture in which crimes could be committed? I hope that leaders’ role in these prosecutions will be carefully examined by the prosecutors, otherwise the concept of mission command will itself be bankrupted.  

As a (retired) leader in church organisations, I found Trust and Leadership to be a helpful analysis of the role of leadership to embody the purpose of the organisation and to inspire others to work towards that purpose. In reflecting on leadership, former Archbishop Peter Carnley AO used a similar concept of ‘subsidiarity’ (decisions to be made at the lowest level possible).  If this book helps our armed forces to continuously improve subsidiarity, it will have served a useful purpose.  

Blessings

Being blessed, for Jesus, is owning your need. You are blessed if you know you need God’s mercy and safety, because God is present with love and protection.


Matthew 5:1-12

The bombers fly over. At this height, you can see that some are your Government’s air force, others come from one of the superpowers, Russia or the U.S.A., both, as far as you are concerned, as bad as the other. The noise and the dust when a bomb hits the apartment block next to yours is overwhelming. You utter a prayer of thanksgiving that, this time, you have survived. As soon as the drone of the bombers’ engines disappears, you sprint down into the street, looking for your brother, his wife and children. All are gone. Grief fills you like rushing water.

Devastation in Syria – AFP Photo

You go back to your apartment. Your family is there, thank God, but there is no water or electricity. The shops are bombed out, so there is no food. You pack up what you can, photos, documents, a few clothes, in a couple of suitcases and, with your family, start the long walk out of your city towards somewhere, anywhere, that it is safer.

That evening, you take out your tattered Bible and read Matthew 5:1-12. It takes a moment for you to realise that Jesus is directly addressing you: you, grieving the violent deaths of loved ones; you, with your nice life collapsed into rubble; you, without a home or a country you can call your own; you, you are blessed.

Matthew wrote his gospel for a community just like this. The Romans sacked Jerusalem in A.D. 70, killed many of the inhabitants, razed the beautiful Temple to the ground, and hounded the citizens out of the city. Jewish refugees spread out across the Empire looking for somewhere safer, the tiny group of Christians swept along with them.

Matthew believes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount applies to these shell-shocked refugees with no possessions or place of their own.  They are blessed. Jesus turns upside down the usual idea of blessing. Normally, we think of blessings as things we have – family, personal talents, possessions, a peaceful life – but Jesus re-defines the blessed as poor in spirit, mourning, meek, lacking justice, wanting to make peace, above all, persecuted.

The Temple destroyed – fallen stones from the southwestern wall.

Being blessed, for Jesus, is owning your need. You are blessed if you know you need God’s mercy and safety, because God is present with love and protection. You are blessed if you know that you need to make peace with the world around you, because your neighbours too want to reach out and make peace with you. You are blessed if you know that you don’t have it all and God and God’s creation will provide for you.

For most of history, most of the world has lived in poverty and insecurity. 21st Century Australia, with our prosperity and peace, is an exception. Because we have so much, the power of the Beatitudes doesn’t register strongly with us.

I take these words of Jesus as an invitation, firstly, to enter imaginatively into the lives of the many who are fleeing danger, the many who are hungry, the many who have no shelter. They are more blessed than I am, according to Jesus: is there something I can do to incarnate that blessing for them? Can I use my power and prosperity to help provide safety, food, water, housing?

Secondly, I take Jesus’ words as a warning to me: in my comfortable life, I become complacent. I, too, can learn to see that I cover up my real needs with material comfort. I ask God to show my where are my needs, my lacks, my shortcomings, so that I can learn gratitude for all his blessings.

Love, only Love

Love God. Love your neighbour. In this volatile environment, the Great Commandment asks new action from me.


Matthew 22:34-40

Over the last couple of decades I have lost my confidence in taking part in a robust debate. I fear that my opponent and I will not be able to learn from one another, let alone find a solution that benefits both of us.

I have different conversations about live sheep exports with my farming family and with my animal activist acquaintances. Apart from a vague desire not to be cruel to animals, I find it frustratingly difficult to get one ‘side’ to hear the viewpoint of another.

And to have a conversation on climate change with people who disagree with you is bound to end in shouting or tears; yet this conversation, perhaps more than any other, is where we need to listen to opposing views, to learn from them, and to find win-win remedies.

We are learning how Facebook and other social media divide us even further. They manipulate us into an echo chamber where we hear only our views reverberate around us. They disgust us with outbursts of hateful trolling which cement our dislike of the trolls.

Jesus has a radical prescription for a society divided like ours: ‘Love God with all your strength… and love your neighbour as yourself.’ The two parts of the Great Commandment come from the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 6:4-6 and Leviticus19:18) and were familiar to Jesus’ hearers.

The Jewish teachers defined love not as a feeling, but as an active commitment to better the lives of others. On that, they and Jesus agreed.

Jesus teaches in the Temple – St Vladmir Orthodox Icon

But Jesus made two profound changes to the Summary of the Law: firstly, he linked loving God with loving neighbour so that they always come together. Love God and you inevitably love your neighbour. Loving your neighbour is a way of loving God.

Secondly, he extended the idea of ‘neighbour’ beyond the circle of family and everyday friends. For Jesus, a neighbour is anyone you meet, anyone near you. It even includes your enemy!

For many Jews, that was a challenge too far. How could you love the Roman occupiers? It’s an affront for us too: how can we love the terrorist who beheads a teacher? How can we love the drunk driver who kills our daughter?

Love God. Love your neighbour. In this volatile environment, the Great Commandment asks new action from me. Loving the neighbour who disagrees with me means taking the effort to maintain a strong connection with her or him, building a friendship on things other than our disagreement.

Loving my neighbour means being careful about joining ‘tribes’. I resist the pressure to join a political party, not because I want to reduce its influence, but because my joining will be perceived as taking sides and not being open to new truth.

Loving my neighbour means I take great precautions around Facebook. It is seriously addictive; and it is designed to divide people from each other. It may be that I should close my account.

Loving God means seeing the humanity in people who disagree with me. It means being loved by God so that I may have the grace to love radically as Jesus did.

Whose Image Do You Bear?

…we are to be the images of God in the world. People see us and should see something, some aspect, some likeness of God.


Matthew 22:15-22

To consolidate his power, the Roman Emperor had coins minted with his likeness engraved on it. These reminded the people to whom honour was due. Like his forebears, Tiberias, the Emperor at Jesus’ time, believed that he was divine, and proclaimed this on his coins. Each silver denarius was a command, not only to pay taxes, but also to worship the Emperor as god.

So it’s a surprise in today’s story when his enemies were setting a trap for Jesus, that one of them produced a denarius. A Jew who took seriously the commandments would not possess such a coin, and certainly not produce it in the Temple. The coin was a ‘graven image’, a blasphemous object.

As soon as Jesus asked. ‘Whose image is it, and whose title?’ (v. 20), a Jew would immediately recall both the scripture forbidding graven images (Exodus 20:4) and the passage teaching that human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26).

So Jesus turns the question back onto the questioners. ‘Whose image is imprinted on you?’ Is it the Emperor’s, or is it God’s? Whom do you call on as God?

Because God had beat the Emperor to it. Every human being is like a coin. Each one of us bears God’s image. God sets us into circulation, and we should both recognise our family likeness in each other and acknowledge God as our common authority. Our task is like that of a coin which recognises the value of human labour. We too are to recognise the value of human beings in our interactions.

To be like circulating coins, we cannot remain pure and separate from the world. We must ‘pay back to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor’ (Matthew 22:21). For example, whether we like it or not, a sizeable proportion of our taxes buys weapons for war. When we buy a shirt, it is difficult not to exploit a worker in Bangladesh. We circulate in the world and are caught up in its compromises.

But through all this, we ‘pay God what is God’s’ (Matthew 22:21), we are to be the images of God in the world. People see us and should see something, some aspect, some likeness of God.

The Bully King’s Party


Matthew 22:1-14

What a capricious king in this parable!

You wonder why the first group of invitees turns down the summons. Most people don’t experience a royal invitation, but if they do, they accept. They attend, even if only out of curiosity or to rub shoulders with wealthy and famous guests.

It may be that these invitees knew their king and were protesting his bullying ways.

The king invites a second group with a sales pitch, ‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ (Matthew 22:4). When this group turned down the invitation, some with indifference, some with violence, the king was enraged. He destroyed the rioters and burned down the city!

This king throws a tantrum if he doesn’t get his own way.

He then rounds up all the homeless, all the street people, ‘both bad and good’, to eat the banquet. But, instead of being happy that he has at last found people to party with, he is speechless with anger at the man who is not dressed properly. He orders his servants to ‘bind him hand and foot … and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 24:13)

This king does not remind me of God. This man reminds me of King Herod, or perhaps one of the modern tyrants in our day.

The parable begins, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has been compared to a man, a king, who made a wedding for his son.’ (Matthew 22:2). Yes, some people may have compared the kingdom of heaven to Herod’s kingdom, violent and capricious, but the opposite is true.

The invitation to the reign of God right from the start is for everyone; not just the important people in the parable first invited to witness the son’s wedding, a political event. By contrast, the reign of God is not about earthly power, but about heavenly grace for all people.

Secondly, God does not respond with violence when people reject his invitation. There are no power-tantrums in the kingdom of heaven. If people refuse the invitation, God goes on inviting, leaving the invitee free to respond as and when they wish. This is surely good news for those of us with family members or friends who are yet to accept the Gospel invitation.

God does not destroy communities to bring people to God. The Good News is that God creates community. God fosters life.

Thirdly, God does not throw out of the kingdom anyone who chooses to attend his feast, even if they are not appropriately dressed. God makes every effort to put every guest at ease, even, in a parable recorded by St Luke, inviting the guest in the lowest seat to ‘move up higher’ (Luke 14:10).

It may be true that St Matthew intended this parable to help his own community understand why their fellow-Jews had rejected the invitation to the wedding of the king’s son, but for us, the parable shows what the Good News does not include.

I’ll heed the invitation to the peaceable kingdom any day, where God rejoices in all who come.