Different ways of seeing


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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.

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!