Lessons from a personable robot


Simon Morden, Bright Morning Star, NewCon Press, 2019.

Kindle edition: $AU 8.75

Paperback: $24.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The cover image for Simon Morden’s Bright Morning Star rather spoils the mental picture I built up for the ‘Robot’ who is the main character of this speculative story.

An alien probe lands on earth and finds itself in the midst of humans fighting. The probe’s task is simply to investigate and report back to Mother (the spaceship in orbit). The probe is self-aware and begins to forensically examine the corpses of victims of a mass shooting.

It then realises that there is intelligent life on earth and decides to study this life-form more fully. It gradually becomes aware that the shooting is part of a proxy war between Russia and the USA. The name of the nation-state which first protects him is not given, but this reader gained the impression that it was a fictional version of Ukraine.

As the probe gains understanding of the ramifications of the war, it deduces that war is inefficient and should be replaced by peace and cooperation. The humans who fall under his influence begin to realise that without international cooperation, the human race will never succeed at space-faring and will tear itself apart.

Bright Morning Star is told entirely from the perspective of the ‘Robot’ and in its voice. Simon Morden has taken a risk in making a logic machine the main character in his novel, but ‘Robot’ learns to behave empathetically and forms attachments with different humans.

I gained the impression that ‘Robot’ was much less massive than the cover image: its emerging personality was writ large, not its physical attributes.

Bright Morning Star is a good read and its appeal to the best in humanity worth hearing again.

End of the World?


Many have noticed the flaws in democracy. These days, you have only to glance at Trump, or watch Britain unravel over Brexit, or notice the hung parliaments and unconvincing votes around the world. Is it time to find a new system?

Climate change has defeated democratic decision making. The main parties are beholden to the big end of town, especially coal and gas, and rather than choosing to oversee a rational transition to renewable sources, politicians have dug their heels in and promoted products and practices that add to harmful emissions. The science is indisputable – or should be.

Don’t imagine that politicians are happy with their alliances with coal and banks. Their overreactions to the #Extinction Rebellion sit-ins have revealed how sensitive they are to criticism. To suggest mandatory jail and cutting protestors’ welfare payments is despotic. Messrs Littleproud and Canavan should note: Blocking roads is not new. I can remember sitting on Riverside Drive at peak-hour in 1969 to protest the danger for pedestrians crossing to and from The University of WA.

 The argument in This is Not a Drill, a series of opinion pieces by supporters of Extinction Rebellion (Penguin 2019) is that the democratic process has failed us by not taking dramatic action to mitigate climate change. In Australia, emissions are increasing, and sales of coal are growing. Younger people fear for their future: coastal flooding, the melting of polar ice, wildfires year-round and cycles of severe drought should cause fear. The mass extinction of many species and the destruction of much of the world’s coral reefs, including the beautiful Great Barrier Reef, should be cause for alarm and grief.

#Extinction Rebellion aims, in part, to shut down capital cities until governments declare a climate emergency. No one likes the disruption to daily life this causes, but it is far less that the disruption that climate change unchecked will bring.

Writers in This is Not a Drill argue that not only must clean energy be generated and coal and gas phased out, but also the whole economy must be re-made. The ‘free market’ with its dependence on growth and consumer addiction to constant purchasing are the cause of climate change. These writers argue for a more distributive economy, local and equitable. As they say if fewer than 10% control more than 80% of the wealth, the system is loaded for reform.

The #Extinction Rebellion street actions have an element of fun. Some placards are humorous, playful floats function as centrepieces. Food shared generously creates a party atmosphere. Rowan Williams, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, pleads for a place for delight: this is God’s world we are trying to preserve, and our Scriptures describe the act of creation as a form of divine play. If there is no joy, but only earnest protest, #Extinction Rebellion becomes a negative, maybe destructive force. With the element of delight, however, the movement is showing what a renewed world will be like.

The claims of #Extinction Rebellion disturb me deeply. Has democracy failed? Can a new and loving politics replace it? I fear the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to act to preserve their world. Democracy will evolve – it must – but we must fight for the future.

RUOK? J.B. Phillips and depression


Vera Phillips & Edwin Robinson,
The Wounded Healer — J.B. Phillips,Triangle, 1983.

From $15 used online. In Public Library system. Reviewed by Ted Witham
110 pages – paper-back

Sometimes an old book comes into your hands at just the right time. I have surprised myself with a severe bout of anxiety and depression: maladies I believed I was exempt from. Apart from the symptoms of feelings of doom, breathlessness and general fatigue, my mental ill-health has stopped me in my tracks, and I have felt I’ve had to give up most of my activities. I’ve stopped (for the moment) teaching French, creative writing and much of my church activities.

I’ve felt a real tension: my therapists warn me of withdrawing from social contact (because being out among people is the best treatment for depression), and yet I simply have not had the energy to keep up with my usual activities.

One of the disappointing symptoms of this depression is that I have lost “the sense” of God. I had had a heightened awareness of the divine when I received communion and in my daily prayers. That has disappeared, just at the moment when it could help.

A friend of mine mentioned that J.B. Phillips, one of the pioneers of translating the Bible into modern English, and the author of Your God is Too Small, suffered from depression. It turns out that Phillips received mountains of correspondence in response to his sales of six million books, and that he answered every letter. Often these letters were to encourage people who opened up to him about their depression.

He also reached out to other notable Christians who had disclosed their depression publicly, seeking their advice, sometimes begging for their help.

Vera Phillips, Jack’s wife, and Edwin Robinson, a long-term friend, have compiled a selection of these letters resulting in a short book (110 pages) of practical help for Christians with depression.

In them, Phillips recounts some of his psychological challenges. He wanted to live up to the perfection he believed his father demanded of him, so was constantly disappointed that he wasn’t the best ever Vicar, or the greatest ever writer. He shows that while these psychological issues were related to his depression, they weren’t the sole or main cause of the illness.

J.B. Phillips was an English evangelical whose faith is attractive and accessible. His voice, the voice of his letters, is practical, compassionate and liberal. I found his advice helpful, and I am sure those who received the letters originally were even more encouraged by their gentle empathy.

Different ways of seeing


https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/P/1925360849.01._SY200_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg

Bruce Pascoe, Young Dark Emu: A truer history, Broome WA: Magabala Books 2019.

Hardcover 80 pages.

$18 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

As kids, my brother and I used to go through phases of collecting Aboriginal grindstones on our farm. These artefacts were ironstone. They weighed perhaps a kilogram and fitted into the palm of an adult hand. A smooth area had been sculpted out of the top. Our Dad told us to look for the other part of the machine, a smaller smooth stone. It was evident that seeds or berries were placed in the scooped-out area and the second stone used to grind.

Grinding stone – booma boyak

There were two inferences we didn’t make as kids. The first was that there is no ironstone near Tambellup. The nearest deposits are in the Mid-West 800 kilometres north. The existence of the grindstones proved there was an active system of trade around the State.

The second inference was that the people who used this device must then have gone on to mix the milled seeds with water and cook them. In Young Dark Emu Bruce Pascoe comments that, if this happened 65,000 years ago, this is the earliest known invention of bread, pre-dating Ancient Egypt by an astonishing 13,000 years. (p. 16)

The basic thesis of Young Dark Emu is twofold: one is that pre-contact Aboriginal culture included sophisticated farming and settled village life, and two that the early ‘explorers’ saw these facts – huge fields under yam cultivation, well-constructed huts that could accommodate 40 people easily – and wrote about them in their journals. By the 1880s the settlers had both deliberately and inadvertently destroyed all this evidence. For example, the hard cloven feet of sheep compacted the soil so that it became too hard to plant yams or seeds.

Once physical evidence had disappeared, Europeans failed to take notice of the eye-witness accounts of ‘explorers’, and soon came to forget the scale of the civilisation they had supplanted.

Young Dark Emu is a version of Bruce Pascoe’s book for older readers, Dark Emu. Young Dark Emu would be suitable for children upwards of 10 years old. Both books are a plea to learn from the land use and fire regimes that Indigenous people developed over 80,000 years (or more) of occupation of this continent. They adapted their crops aquaculture and food storage to the soils and climate of this place.

Text Box: Brewarrina Fish traps - the oldest surviving human construction in the world – Image courtesy ABC
Brewarrina Fish Traps – the oldest surviving human construction in the world

 The book takes its name from the Emu constellation. Traditional Aborigines named constellations not for the patterns made by bright stars, as Europeans did, but by the patterns in the dark spaces between them: a unique way of seeing.

Young Dark Emu invites readers to many levels of diverse ways of seeing. All Australians should read it or Dark Emu.

B.E.L.L.S. without whistles for mission


Surprise the World: The Five Habits of…


Reviewed by Ted Witham

Under $10 online. $6.95 from Christ’s Church, Anglican Parish of Mandurah. Digital version at Exponential (free)

ISBN 9781631465161

Michael Frost, Surprise the World: the five habits of missional people, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016.

Insanity, they say, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We Christians at the beginning of the 21st Century should recognise that kind of insanity: if we expect our usual patterns of worship, however contemporary and relevant,  to continue to draw people into Christ, then we shall continue to be disappointed by the Church.

There is a place for ministry to Baby Boomers using traditional worship, but every member of the congregation is aware that the mean age of our fellow church-goers is increasing. In other words, Baby Boomers are aging, dying and not being replaced by younger people. Older people in their eighties continue trying to keep up the level of Christian activity that had when younger, and are experiencing burnout and disillusionment.

Photo courtesy St John the Divine Anglican Church, 
Courtneay, British Columbia 

The answer is not more of the same. The Anglican pattern of gathering everyone for the Sunday Eucharist is only 60 years old, going back to the Parish and People Movement of the 1950s. We can dare to envisage new ways of being church.

Bunbury’s new Bishop, Ian Coutts, has been circulating copies of Surprise the World! as he visits parishes in his diocese. Bishop Ian states that responding to the Good News of Christ is pretty simple, really. Loving each other so that we want to reach out and love others.

He has chosen a book that all Anglicans can use and act on. The book is about “shar[ing] your faith in surprisingly simple ways.”
Australian evangelist Michael Frost, Co-founder of the Forge Mission Training Network, encourages us to follow his model of B.E.L.L.S.: “We BLESS people, both inside and outside the church.  We EAT together, sharing meals with believers and non-believers alike.  We LISTEN to the … Holy Spirit. We intimately LEARN CHRIST, … [and] we see ourselves as SENT by God to everywhere life takes us.”

The strength of this model is that it does not assume that every Christian is a gifted evangelist. Few Christians are: most of us are to live our lives so that they provoke questions, “living a questionable life”, and answer them simply and directly as they arise out of our mixing with nonbelievers.

Frost emphasises that the B.E.L.L.S. model is not a one-off program, but the cultivation of life-long habits that will feed this evangelistic lifestyle. The model as described is not difficult or complicated, and it sounds fun, social justice will be practised and beauty will be encountered.

I am impressed by this little book. As a Franciscan tertiary, my first aim is to “make Christ known and loved everywhere”. These habits will speed my steps to opening doors to conversations about the Good News.

I am also in ongoing pain, a misfiring of my nervous system. Pain is closely related to depression: if you have pain, the pain will eventually make you depressed. Two spiritual strategies to defeat the depression, and so modulate the pain, are to reach out to others in need and put yourself out in the community (and not hide away in dangerous isolation). B.E.L.L.S. gives me means to do that (BLESSing and EATing) and also shows how to nurture these activities through prayer and Bible study (LISTENing and LEARNing Christ).

There are questions for discussion for each chapter of Surprise the World! These will help readers take in what they have discovered and put the five habits into practise.

I am delighted that Bishop Ian recommended the book to me, and that he is encouraging others to discover B.E.L.L.S. and whistles (no whistles actually!) I read the book in three hours. Now I want to find three people to meet with, discuss the book, and get busy. Hopefully, B.E.L.L.S. will lead away from insanity!

Master of Reform


Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life, London: Penguin Random House 2018.  
728 pages, hardback. 45 full-colour plates.  
ISBN 9780670025572  
$50 online.  

The downside to studying theology at Melbourne’s Trinity College in the 1970s was the lack of explicit input concerning Anglicanism.  The upside, of course, was access to the best lecturers in Australia regardless of denomination, and the cross-fertilisation between Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and Anglicans.  

We needed both, of course; the grounding in our own tradition, and tools to engage with others. Overall, Trinity didn’t do too badly, but I have felt my lack of knowledge about our Anglican tradition – until now.  Reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell was like a semester-length course in the English Reformation with a particularly knowledgeable and clear communicator of Church History.  

The first and obvious thing I learned was that the clichés of Henry VIII starting the Church of England solely to have his marriage to Queen Katherine annulled, and of Cromwell, the systematic destroyer of monasteries, are both wrong.  

Cromwell did become one of Henry’s chief ministers, rising to Lord Privy Seal and Vice-Gerent of the Church before being torn down by enemies like the Duke of Norfolk and finally beheaded on the King’s orders. Henry and Cromwell were both politicians who needed each other, but MacCulloch discerns their subtly different agendas. Henry was at times obsessed with the Queen question, but he also sought to be the Supreme Head of a Church with the best of Lutheran theology and the conservation of many papist ideas, especially the real presence of the Lord in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  

Henry was a progressive Catholic, believing he could achieve a middle way conserving the best of Rome and political stability. Luther had given rise to great instability, so it was wisest while presenting Henry with Lutheran books, not to mention the name!  

MacCulloch, who is Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, argues that Thomas Cromwell pursued a consistent ‘evangelical’ agenda, ‘evangelical’ being the term he chooses to describe those pressing for reform. Cromwell knew how to use the power King Henry gave him as his Vice-Gerent of the Church. He put himself above all the bishops, even above his friend Archbishop Cranmer of Canterbury. He invited scholars from Geneva to bring reformed ideas to England. He promoted his ‘evangelical’ friends to important bishoprics. He encouraged printers to produce tracts that expressed his ’evangelical’ ideas, and was not afraid to explore even more radical views.  

Cromwell ’s role in the dissolution of the monasteries is dissected with clarity, explaining why Cromwell ordered some to hand over their property to the king, while remaining friends with the Abbots and Priors of others.  

Following his early mentor Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell wanted to reform monastic life. In particular, he wanted them to become centres of bible study, social justice (including proper provision for the poor) and morality. Cromwell made sure there were proper pensions or livings for the monks after the lands of their monastery were distributed to the wealthy. The Anglican Church never condemned the principle of monasticism, just its corruption.  

Frontispiece of the Great Bible

He promoted the principle of ordinary Christians reading the Bible, sometimes risking the King’s anger. He manoeuvred the King and Parliament into insisting that every church have an English Bible. Henry finally took pride in the Great Bible whose influence carried through all English translations. Cromwell often turned to the friar Miles Coverdale to carry out the work of translation.  

It was the King, particularly when he needed more and more money to build up the coastal defences, who saw the dissolution of monasteries as a cash cow. He often left the details, and the blame, to his minister.  

Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell was skilled in getting things done. He generated the contacts, he used his power ruthlessly, and he did more than others in centralising the organisation of the kingdom. He divided Wales into shires and put in charge there a trusted lieutenant. He tried the same, without great success, in Ireland.  

Cromwell played a leading part in turning Tudor England from an island backwater into a major power. As a Member of Parliament responsible for managing the King ’s business first in the Commons and then in the House of Lords, Cromwell threw himself with great energy into the detail of legislation and process.  

It may well be that Thomas Cromwell was the reason England did not experience the same violence as did Germany and other reforming countries.  

The mystery of Thomas Cromwell is how he rose from the yeoman class to the most powerful Lord in the land after his King. Little is known of his early life, although MacCulloch has more information than other biographers. He learned several languages, presumably while in Europe. It was probably then that he developed his interest in the reform of the Church. He made friends with a number of Europeans, and used them to grow an import business. At some time, he was picked up by Cardinal Wolsey who trained him as a politician.  

Professor MacCulloch traces the life of a great man whose influence in the development of England and the Anglican Church was long-lasting. Cromwell teased out the interdependence for England of Church and State. He served Henry VIII, that difficult master, with deep loyalty. He also inspired deep enmity, and conservative noble churchmen like the Duke of Norfolk were ever ready to bring down the upstart.  

Though they succeeded, within a year, the King was complaining that he had lost his best advisor. Many of the men he had put into positions of power remained there after his death and extended their mentor’s influence in their lifetime.  

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written a highly readable biography which should be a standard text for students of Anglicanism. For me, I am grateful that a large gap in my theological education has been filled so thoroughly and enjoyably. 

Laugh-out-loud descendant of Don Quixote


Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote, London: Penguin Books, 1982.

In public library system.

256 pages, paperback. New $15, Used $10, online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Graham Greene’s modern take on Don Quixote made me laugh out loud. The way simple parish priest Father Quixote becomes a Monsignor is delightfully unbelievable. With a vague ideathat he is like his ancestor Don Quixote, the new Monsignor sets out on adirectionless road-trip with deposed Communist mayor ‘Sancho’ Panza. He nameshis ancient Seat motor car Rocinante after Don Quixote’s steed.

Fortified by a few sausages and a great deal of wine of La Mancha, the priest and the mayor, old friends and sparring partners, find themselves hilariously tilting at the Guardia Civil, the modern equivalent of windmills.

The two friends discuss faith and communism, friendship and authority, and sleep off the wine. The exploration of these deep topics is playful but insightful.

Greene’s writing is lucid and engaging. I don’t know how I missed this, Greene’s ‘best novel’ according to the Spectator, but it was great fun.