Sing for your faith


1462742661-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing! How Worship Transforms your Life, Family and Church, Nashville TN: B&H Books, 2017. 176 pages hardback.

ISBN:  9781462742660. Not yet in Public Libraries.
Online $15 second-hand, $17 new. (My second-hand copy in new condition cost $7)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

What an encouragement to be told that Christians must sing: for the Gettys, congregational singing is both privilege and obligation. They point to many places in the Bible where we are commanded to sing, and, while conceding a place in worship for song as performance, their focus in Sing! is on the central place of congregational singing.

The Gettys make a living from writing and performing songs and encouraging the Body of Christ in music. Many of us have sung their In Christ Alone, an example of a singable melody and strong Biblical content. The chapter headings of Sing! assert that we are created to sing, commanded to sing and compelled to sing. We are to sing with heart and mind, with our family and with our local church. They write of the radical witness when congregations sing, and in a series of ‘bonus tracks’ provide checklists for pastors and elders, for worship and song leaders, for musicians and for songwriters and ‘creatives’.

Each chapter is followed by questions for reflection or discussion in a study group. Sing! would work well as a book club discussion, or a study for the whole congregation.

Sing! invites Christians to consider the first principles of congregational singing. It critiques performances that do not help the congregation to sing. The Gettys affirm the wisdom of a familiar repertoire, limiting the number of new songs and hymns.

In many congregations the idea that singing is compulsory will be controversial. As a musician and priest, however, I am pleased that the case for singing is put so strongly. How much stronger in faith singing congregations can be. How much stronger in faith are families and individuals who sing or listen to the songs and hymns they have sung in church on Sunday. And how much joy is evoked by the beauty and artistry of good music and poetry.

Sing! is not primarily for pastors and worship leaders. They don’t need convincing. A resource for all Christians Sing! will encourage all of us to sing more heartily.

The priesthood: no other life?


Brian Moore, No Other Life, London: Flamingo 1994. Paperback 216 pages,
ISBN 9780006546924.

In W.A. Public Library system.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Brian Moore (1921 – 1999) was a well-known writer of the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote the 1991 screenplay based on his novel, Black Robe, exploring the Jesuit missions with Native Americans in frontier Canada. Moore was short-listed three times for the Booker Prize.

In No Other Life, the black robes of Jesuits are exchanged for the white robes of the White Augustinians, and the cold places of Canada for the warmth of Ganae. a desperately poor Caribbean island.

The Augustinian Fathers run a school where the mulâtre (mixed-race) elite educate their children. The noirs, the blacks, are kept in wrenching poverty by corruption. The island has always been run by a mulâtre dictator backed by the army.

Father Paul Michel wants to increase the number of black children at the school. He rescues a talented boy, Jeannot, from abject poverty. Jeannot is a single-minded boy who declares he wants to be a priest like his mentor. He eventually joins the Augustinians but runs a parish for the poor rather than work in the Order’s school. Jeannot’s oratory raises the hopes of the poor and he is elected President. But the effects of his leadership are ambiguous: is he an old-style socialist rabble-rouser, or is he a saint? The locals think he is their Messiah.

When the Augustinians expel Jeannot, he turns to his mentor. He implies that he would rather give up everything than be stripped of his priesthood. There is ‘no other life’.

Father Paul finds himself at the heart of a dilemma: is a priest an educator of the rich, or the servant of the poor?  Is faith a pre-requisite for the priestly life, and what happens if a priest loses it? From the moment he meets Jeannot he feels a bond with him, but as their friendship grows, Father Paul learns how to love. When violence and chaos erupt from the actions of his friend Father Paul asks how far does loyal love extend?

This is a gripping and beautiful story, written with a sure touch. The events on the island of Ganae are presented in a fascinating manner, but the themes of ambition and identity resonate everywhere.

No Other Life is certainly a book for priests. What is the core of Christian priesthood, and by extension, Christian practice? Is there ‘no other life’ that we can imagine for ourselves? And if not, that goes to our vocation and identity.

But is also a novel that will draw in any person and open us to the love that is in our midst even when we feel it is absent.

Forgetting to remember: Dr Julia Shaw s The Memory Illusion


41knj6fq1dl-_ac_aa218_Julia Shaw, The Memory Illusion: Remembering, forgetting, and the science of false memory, London: Random House 2016,

288 pages paperback.

ISBN 9781847947628,

In the WA Public Library system.
New $30, Used $15 online. E-book $14.99.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The science of false memory is the field of forensic psychologist Dr Julia Shaw’s research. As she discovers more about our unreliable memories, she also uncovers more about how our amazing memories work. Her work could be summarised by the statement that the very unreliability of our memories shows how adaptive the memory system is.

The Memory Illusion is written in an accessible style with many illustrative anecdotes and stories behind scientific discoveries.

Memories are made from networks of neurons. Strong pathways between neurons lay down the memory. Dr Shaw gives two reasons we should not, however, expect accuracy from our memories. The first is that our perception of the world in the first place is a kind of fiction, where we interpret some of the sense data received by our brain as a picture of the world. Secondly, every time we review our memory, we take the memory ‘out of storage’ and rework it, strengthening it with more detail or a slightly different story-line. The memories with which we do this strengthening become over time less and less accurate.

Dr Shaw reminds us of how childhood memories of the same event are remembered differently by family members. While we are sure we have remembered accurately, our siblings will often disagree. Research shows this dissonance to be the norm. At least one person’s memory has degraded over time!

From an opposite standpoint, some married couples reminisce over time and ‘construct’ a memory together, and so agree on its accuracy.

Chapters on false memory in child sexual abuse, in remembering where we were when 9/11 or other ‘flashbulb’ events are fascinating. I remember learning that JFK had been shot in 1964 in the Year 11 dormitory at my school. Someone had heard it on an illegal transistor radio. I am sure that’s right; but after reading The Memory Illusion, I would now need to check whether others present remembered the same event to have confidence in the accuracy of my own memory.

The advantages of our memory system, which seems set up to fail, is that it gives our brains great flexibility without brain overload.

Researchers have shown that brain games do not improve memory. The improvement that participants note is improvement in playing the game. These gains are not transferable. However, mnemonic training like memory palaces and techniques involving WEIRD do help memory by maximising the associative nature of memory. Shaw uses the example of ‘Do not think about pink elephants’ as a good example of WEIRD techniques. We automatically do the opposite of what we are told, that is, we hold pink elephants in our mind. Moreover, ‘pink elephants’ itself becomes a good way of remembering the principle of WEIRD in memory.

What can my baby boomer students of Latin and French learn from The Memory Illusion? They can take comfort that it is harder to remember things as you get older. They can associate new things to learn with things they already know. They can use repetition to strengthen these networks of association. And they can console themselves that synaptic pruning is an important process in memory, always creating possibilities for new learning however aged the learner!

 

Magpie remedy


 

0648146618-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Steve Heron, Maximus, Serenity Press 2018

191 pages, $21 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Eleven-year-old Mitch feels a little out of place when his Fly In – Fly Out (FIFO) dad’s behaviour becomes erratic. Mitch makes friends with an ailing magpie, whom he names Maximus, and they heal each other.

This inventive novel deals with themes of self-esteem, family love and first love with tenderness and skill. It draws on Steve Heron’s long experience as a worker with children. Steve, the founder of the BUZ programs (Build-Up Zone) for primary-aged children, has written before, but this is his first full-length novel for children.

I enjoyed it. Be-friending a magpie is obviously drawn from experience. The book contains a brilliant description of an inter-school football match.

Maximus means ‘the Greatest’ in Latin, and Steve shows the journey to greater self-esteem in a way that will appeal to middle- and upper-primary readers.

I am a friend of Steve’s and a former colleague, and I am proud to commend this engaging story.

Review of Stringybark’s Timber!


TImber cover

David Vernon, editor, Timber! – thirty-seven award-winning stories from the Stringybark Short Story Awards, Hall, ACT: Stringybark Publishing, 2018.

E-book from www.smashwords.com/books/view/843836 [$3.99]

Paperback in press from www.stringybarkstories.net [$14.95 postage included]

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Canberra-based David Vernon has been running the Stringybark Story Awards since 2010 to promote Australian short story writing. Writers are rightly sceptical of contests where you are asked to pay a fee to enter and then pay to purchase the collection. This would be vanity publishing. In Stringybark’s case, there is an entry fee and the e-book collection is then free to all the authors included. Having entered three or four Stringybark awards, however, I am satisfied that David Vernon’s enterprise is good for writers.

This year 249 entries were received and a panel of four judges including Vernon made the selection of 37 stories.

This year’s selection range over a diversity of themes and styles: there are stories reflecting on mortality and birth, drought and love, children’s imagination and loneliness – the human condition with an Australian accent.

Unlike some contests where the requirements of the contest cause a certain uniformity in the stories, the story-telling in Stringybark is diverse. All are well-crafted, some are strong on dialogue, one is a framed monologue, some are vernacular, others more literary.

It’s hard to review such a variety, but I enjoyed nearly all the stories. Some like Mark Scott’s The Jam Tin evoke the quotidian feelings of diggers in the trenches in World War I. Roger Leigh tells the story of a day-dreaming boy Missing in Action whose fantasies contribute to an actual kidnapping. His ability to show us the boy’s perspective stayed with me long after reading it.

The old lady’s vendetta in Gab Gardner’s Timber! kept its surprise till the last paragraph. An Indian kid included in a game of cricket, a dance instructor in a country town finding a way to make dancing cool, funerals, starting afresh – the plots go on. Martin Lindsay scared me on a Lonely Stretch. There’s even a gentle story by this reviewer about a West Australian con-man.

Timber! is a collection to enjoy and to come back to. I will be looking out for future Stringybark anthologies, and more and more content to enter their contests.

 

Warm and helpful apologetics


Greg Sheridan, God is Good For You: A defence of Christianity in troubled times, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2017.

$24 paperback (online), $14.85 Kindle Book.

Reviewed by Ted Witham.

Greg Sheridan is a foreign affairs journalist at The Australian. From the few pieces I have read I have the impression that he takes a conservative political line in his journalism and that his style can be heavy-handed.

Sheridan’s new book God is God for You was recommended, and for that reason alone I added it to my Kindle as holiday reading. I was pleasantly surprised in every way.

God is Good for You is certainly, as the sub-title says, a defence of Christianity. It is a well-argued, highly informed piece of apologetics. Sheridan’s voice is quiet, reasonable and forceful. He engages the so-called new atheists with strong evidence that belief is more reasonable than non-belief. He shows that many of the benefits of Western democracy come directly from Christianity, and he invites us to explore Christian responses to evil and suffering.

In Part 2, he interviews Christian politicians and national leaders from the major parties, and insists that many politicians are motivated by their faith. As one politician says, ‘You find more Christians in Parliament than in the general population.’ He explores new expressions of Christianity, including Pentecostal churches like Planetshakers in Melbourne and the counter-cultural movements of traditional and new monasticism.

He confesses himself surprised by the pervasive reach of the Focolare movement and interviews its Australian leader, Lucia Compostella. In Perth, he visits Providence City Church with its steady gaze on the new place of Christianity in Australian society – not persecuted, but a minority in exile from the old paradigm of Christendom.

He critiques limited understandings of leadership in the mainline churches and their weak use of traditional and social media.

I was pleasantly surprised at the catholicity of Sheridan’s gaze across the whole church scene, and at the open tone of his writing. There were points of disagreement for me. While I agreed with his statement that Christian faith makes radical claims of transcendence, he made too easy an equation between transcendence and the supernatural, a concept I wanted him to at least qualify. However, points of disagreement were actually few.

This book could safely be offered to any thinking citizen, Christian or not, for its reasonableness, and to any optimistic Christian for its clear-eyed analysis of where we are in modern society and its remedies for the future.

 

How to Use Power to Make a Better World


1743540132-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Jeremy Heimans & Henry Timms, New Power: How power works in our hyper-connected world – and how to make it work for you, Sydney: Macmillan 2018.

ISBN 9781743540138; Available online from $25

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham

You would have to say that the Coalition Government is terrified of the progressive membership organisation GetUp! Not only are there more members of GetUp! than there are of the two main parties combined, but GetUp! has proven expert in using ‘New Power’ to advance specific agendas. Despite two attempts to pass legislation to clip GetUp’s power, the Government has not succeeded in destroying the organisation.

New Power reveals some of the thinking behind GetUp! and its international counterpart Avaaz. Heimans and Timms describe ways to mobilise a community using social media, how to spread ideas, raise funds, and gather participants for action. They use case-studies like Uber, Donald J. Trump, #MeToo and Reddit to show how people seeking change blend old power with new power to influence others.

 

Participation Scale
page 71

 

Some like candidate Trump used new power to consolidate old power values. The TED organisation spreads ideas by mixing old and new power to retain quality control of TED talks and invite wider participation through TEDx talks. Through this blend of power, Pope Francis and Candidate Obama are ‘Crowd Leaders’ using new power techniques to further new power values. After his election, however, President Obama became more a ‘Cheerleader’ using the old power structures of the presidency to further new power values.

ISIS is a clever manipulator of new power techniques in the service of old power.

The authors of New Power, Australian Jeremy Heimans and Briton Henry Timms write from experience. Heimans, co-founder of GetUp, began that organisation in 2005, before smart-phones and the spread of social media, with the intention of harnessing the internet to spread progressive ideas and change Australia for the better.  Timms is CEO and President of 92 Street Y, a ‘cultural and community center that creates programs and movements that foster learning and civil engagement’.

I read the 324-page book in a 48-hour period. The writing is engaging; the stories are fascinating. The implications for action, whether in leadership or in engagement with one’s community are clearly described.

Anyone interested in changing the world – bringing home the refugees from Nauru, stopping the environmental depredations of Adani, or just reminding your politician that you vote – will find good food for thought in New Power.