I have been luxuriating in the images of Brian Cox’s Universe (BBC 2021), and being amazed by the new discoveries in astronomy. Professor Brian Cox is a friendly guide to a story that spans nearly 14 billion years.
It is intriguing that the BBC uses a mixture of images generated by real telescopes and CGI ‘imaginings’ of far-off worlds. They are all designed to make the viewer gasp with astonishment.
The series has taught me more about the history of how stars are formed and their conglomeration into galaxies. I think I understand a little more clearly the ways in which space and time bend at the extremes, making it impossible for our minds to grasp whether the universe is infinite or bounded in some way.
If viewers’ wonder at the beauty and extravagance of nature is aroused, you would grade the series as a success. The wonder of it all leads me as a Christian to praise the Creator God who is at the heart of it.
Yet there lies a paradox. ‘Science’ is the Professor’s god, yet his story of the origins of the cosmos, ‘where everything begins and ends‘, as the series’ tagline puts, strays from straight science into philosophy and theology. It has to: the themes are so large.
You could expect ‘Science’ to stay within its domains, yet many times, Brian Cox points out the beauty of the stars and the galaxies. ‘Science’ is not aesthetics, but it would be a dull program that told the story just as the interactions of physical and chemical forces – science.
Professor Cox even uses the phrase ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ to describe how the cosmos came to be. I wonder if he was even conscious that that phrase was the title of a 1965 epic film of the life of Jesus! Cox would contest the idea that the Greatest Story Ever Told was the Creator consenting to become part of his Creation.
By emphasising the drama of the Big Bang and the formation of galaxies and stars, Universe tries to give meaning to the formation of the cosmos. The series implies that there is a connection between human understanding (‘Science’) and the reality of the Universe, even though human beings are such a minuscule part of the whole. We humans, asserts this program, are the Universe made self-aware.
This is intriguing speculation: but it is not, strictly speaking, ‘Science’. It lies far outside ‘Science’ and is more the domain of philosophy and theology. This is the language you might expect in a theological book on the Cosmic Christ.
I sympathise with the makers of Universe: to make a film with the tagline ‘the story of the cosmos is meaningless’ would attract few viewers, but the truth is there can be no scientific evidence that the Universe has meaning.
It is at this point that Universe slips into intellectual dishonesty. To ask the audience to respond aesthetically (the Universe is beautiful) or philosophically and theologically (the Universe has meaning) is a request to step outside what science can show. Viewers should be on the lookout for these category errors.
The Transition is the funniest – and best crafted – novel – I have read this year. Well-known in Britain as a poet, this is Luke Kennard’s first novel.
Millennials Karl and Genevieve are struggling to make ends meet. Locked out of the housing market with Karl unemployed, Genevieve is a Primary school teacher. She loves her job, and despite her day-to-day frustrations in the classroom, believes in its importance to society.
Karl writes online ‘cheat’ essays for university students of English literature. He is drawn more into the online world of writing for cash until he finds himself convicted for fraud for his almost intentional participation in an illegal scam.
Instead of jail time, the couple is offered a placement in ‘The Transition’, a program that invites a commitment of six months to turn their finances, and lives, around. They are billeted in the spare room of Stu and Jenna, who follow a mysterious Manual to reform their guests.
‘The Transition’ turns out to be not quite as advertised. As Karl explores the scheme’s underbelly, Kennard reveals a wider community based on inequality, where the poorer middle-class are shut out of the common wealth of their society, and where big data distorts and dictates their lives.
These forces override people’s compassion for mental illness, and Genevieve’s descent into illness is sensitively described.
The themes are serious. Kennard treats them seriously, but with a joyous lightness that helps us sympathise with a couple just trying to make it through the week.
I plan to re-gift my copy of The Transition this Christmas – and I have no feelings of guilt whatever in doing so. It’s the sort of novel you want to share!
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.
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.
Israel Folau has been sacked. Rugby Australia could have handled the situation differently. But in the end, it was Folau’s own doing, and he knew it, so cannot escape responsibility. To his credit, it appears that he accepts his punishment.
Folau knew how his post would be heard. He claims it was
written in love: what he posted was
bound to be heard as the opposite.
I think I have some credibility to comment on this: for four years I was the CEO of an inter-denominational Christian agency. Our main ministry was in a secular context. I learned that I was constrained in what I could say. Very constrained. But paradoxically, I learned that I could say anything at all – if I said it the right way.
Effective communication requires you to think yourself into
the shoes of the audience. It requires understanding their context, and,
specifically, to communicate Christian truth, you must appreciate their
beliefs: what they believe and how they express it.
Israel Folau’s post was based on I Corinthians 6:9-10. He
added to it the command to ‘Repent’ and ‘Jesus saves.’ He invokes God’s mercy
for repentant sinners, a central Christian teaching. However, I Cor. 6:9-10 was
not written for non-believers: it was written for ‘brothers and sisters’. What
is more, it was written for believers of the 1st Century. Its language
does not cut through in the 21st Century; or it cuts through in the
Folau’s Instagram followers include non-believers. If he was genuinely warning sinners to repent, then he should have known that they would not hear his message that way. He had already amended I Cor. 6:9-10 to include mercy for the repentant: he could have ditched “hell” and crafted a sermon to be heard!
On Australia Day in 2013, I blogged as a native, but not indigenous, Australian that we should prize the anger that comes from seeing this day as Invasion Day: anger that fuels social justice and reconciliation. I believed that we should celebrate the Aboriginal culture, with its complexity, subtlety and beauty, that has survived as Survival Day, and even rejoice in the culture that came from Europe but which has now been modified by its exposure to Aboriginal culture.
Australians all, let us rejoice seemed to be the theme of my blog six Australia Days ago. I still think my piece said it well for a whitefella.
But there has been a change in six years. The #changethedate campaign has made Australians more uncomfortable about celebrating on Invasion Day. But that campaign and others has also had another effect: it has empowered Aboriginal people to make something else of Australia Day.
Yesterday on the ABC I watched a smoking ceremony, I was welcomed to Eora country, I heard Yothu Yindi sing Tjapana and Treaty, I thrilled at superb didjeridoo playing, I was intrigued by those who spoke in language, and I felt unexpectedly proud when Advance Australia Fair was sung in an Aboriginal tongue.
It was an ABC concert, so I wasn’t surprised that actor and PlaySchool presenter Luke Carroll acted as one of the hosts, but his presence was a pointer to the extent to which the concert was coloured black! It was an Aboriginal takeover, and I felt moved. I felt pride that this was our land, and I felt warmly welcomed into its deep culture.
There were intense emotions expressed on the streets of capital cities at Invasion Day marches, and it is obvious that not all Indigenous people agree on strategy: should they protest until change happens, or should change happen by changing the mainstream celebration?
Whichever is the most effective strategy, Aboriginal people are speaking loudly. They must say whether Australia Day can be rescued or whether we can only express our belonging together on a day without the historical resonances of invasion and frontier wars.
I for one look forward to a celebratory date with Aboriginal and all Australians.
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.
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.
This collection of nearly 50 poems is the second for Ivan Head. Dr Head is a West Australian priest, former director of AIT and Canon of St George’s Cathedral, who has spent the last 27 years as Warden first of Christ’s College in Hobart and then of St Paul’s College within the University of Sydney. He and his wife Christine are now moving into retirement in Sydney.
Many of the poems have been published in Quadrant (where Les Murray is the poetry editor), the West Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. Their presence in those publications suggests their high quality.
Ivan is a poet who celebrates birds and flowers, trips by train and trips to London and the US. In some the words tumble just to celebrate language:
Montezuma met a Puma going to the fair Said Montezuma to the Puma let me taste your ware. Said the Puma to Montezuma No I prefer my fare rare and so he ate him then and there.
Many of the poems are complex with multiple levels of meanings. I enjoy recognising the double- or triple-meaning, but also knowing there may be more levels that I don’t get. In Swan River, Ivan reflects on boyhood memories of throwing a kylie, or thrusting a home-made gidgie towards a Cobbler. And then:
Aboy knows that prawns rest beneath the sand by day. It is like knowledge of the Pleiades. Under the Narrows Bridge I stood for hours and left a line out all night just in case Something big went past.
After the series of Noongar words and the reference to arcane knowing, the pleasure of ‘Something big’ might mean a fish to catch, or, it might mean deep knowledge of culture, Aboriginal and Western. And it might mean something even bigger.
An undercurrent of Christian faith and theology, which on occasion rises to the surface level of the poems, holds them in a strong web of meaning.
Ivan has a strong ear for the music of words, their sound and rhythm. All his poems are free-form and show the influence of modernist and Beat poetry.
I found real pleasure in their Australianness. The poems are about the plants and animals of Cookernup (near Bunbury), Perth and Sydney. They are about our childhoods in the 1950s. Even when the subject is not directly Australian, Ivan’s attitude is. He punctures pomposity. Here he reduces the English Reformation to Henry VIII’s armour.
…. And now he’s gone, the ghost isn’t in the machine. Just the carapace remains
And what the commentator gawks at for the screen is the gigantic iron cod-piece
With nothing in it.
The Magpie Sermons is printed on quality high-gloss paper and bound simply in a hardcover embossed with gold leaf.
Poetry lovers will enjoy reading, and re-reading, these poems of celebration, irony, contemplation and joy.
Elaine E. Heath, Five Means of Grace, Experience God’s Love the Wesleyan Way, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2017, 80 pages.
E-Pub and Hardback
available from Cokesbury Bookstore for $US 6.79 + postage.
One of the unfortunate unintended consequences of the Uniting Church in Australia is the invisibility of all things Wesleyan in Australia – no more Methodists, no more reminders of John Wesley!
Elaine Heath, Dean of the Divinity School at Duke University in North Carolina, as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, is keen to share the treasures of the Wesleyan tradition with the widest possible audience. This little book is a gem from that treasury.
The book explores Wesley’s five spiritual practices, prayer, searching the scriptures, the Lord’s supper, fasting and Christian conferencing for a contemporary audience. She outlines Wesley’s original conception for these five disciplines, and explains simply how Christians today might apply them to their lives of faith.
Each section ends with questions for reflection and action.
Dean Heath concludes by commending the idea for every serious Christian of a simple rule of life.
The book is designed to fit into a pocket or stack of prayer books. The gilt lettering and embossed design make it a pleasure to hold and use. It is intended for frequent reference for a Christian implementing these spiritual habits for the first time.
It would make an ideal gift for a young member of the United Methodist Church; as well as for young members of the Australian churches with a Wesleyan heritage, the Uniting and Anglican Churches.