Brian Moore, No Other Life, London: Flamingo 1994. Paperback 216 pages,
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.
Julia Shaw, The Memory Illusion: Remembering, forgetting, and the science of false memory, London: Random House 2016,
288 pages paperback.
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!
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.
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.
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.
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Saint Mark. Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
[Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 NRSV]
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. … … …
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
For the Gospel of the Lord,
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s reading is like a three-course meal without the main course. The compilers of the lectionary obviously thought it is a good idea occasionally to have prawns au tire-bouchon and tiramisu, and no meat and veg in between!
The missing verses tell the stories of the feeding of five thousand, plus women and children, and Jesus walking on water. Both are important stories showing us a great deal more about who Jesus is. We could spend several sermons on each of those stories.
But today we are directed to the prawns and ice-cream, I think for good reason. The first section, the entrée, describes the busy apostles returning from healing and teaching, and telling Jesus the good news of their achievements. It then describes the crowd, so busy they had ‘no leisure even to eat’.
The apostles try to escape to a desert place by themselves, but the crowd walked faster than the sail-boat and arrived before the apostles.
There’s an expression, ‘compassion fatigue’, which you have probably heard. If you care for people, there’s a cost. If you are constantly caring for people, day in, day out, then you can become exhausted. ‘Compassion fatigue’ does not apply only to social workers. There are people in this congregation who care for an adult child with challenges, whether at home or living independently (the child, that is), and that’s a burden. There are people in this congregation who are at this church every day, meeting the people who come to the Op. Shop, caring about strangers. That’s a burden. There are people on the Manna & Mercy roster every week. That’s a burden.
I’m not complaining, or inviting you to, although sometimes a good whine is a healthy response. What I’m saying is that people care for others, all of us do, and it carries a cost. We get tired. We get burnout. Just like the people in this morning’s gospel, the few apostles and the many in the crowd. And sometimes we get to the point where we believe ourselves indispensable.
Jesus may be having a joke at our expense when he says that crowd were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. We all feel, as leaders, that we must be there for the sheep. Without us, who knows what would happen? But really?! most of us have been on Australian farms and we know about sheep without a shepherd. They’re fine. They can eat and drink and lie down to sleep on their own. They don’t need a full-time shepherd.
We get busy caring, and that’s good. But we must at least be aware of compassion fatigue.
I get the impression that the apostles were almost desperate in their search for peace and quiet!
The Jewish concept of ‘Sabbath’ can be helpful. We take it for granted that time is divided into weeks of seven days, but, historically, this seems to have been a deliberate innovation of the Jews.
A seven-day rhythm, with six days of work and one day of not working; six days of work and one day of rest.
You and I grew up when there was no Sunday shopping, no movies were shown, there was no football. It may have been easier back then to keep the work-rest rhythm, but even then, you needed the right attitude, the right reasons.
The Old Testament gives two reasons for Sabbath. Exodus says, ‘Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’ (Exodus 20:9-11)
In other words, we rest after working because God rested after working.
Deuteronomy gives a different reason. ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.’ (Deuteronomy 5:15)
We are not slaves. We are free to not work. Our freedom is a gift. Therefore we should keep the Sabbath as a way of showing our thanks to God.
To this day, Jews make a big thing out of Sabbath. They begin the holy day with a special meal on Friday night, gathering all their family. The men wear their yarmulke, the kippa, which reminds them that there is a God above. The women light candles, they bless God, they put aside all their work and their cares for 24 hours. If you are grieving for a loved one, mourning is put on hold for that time. Jews don’t work on Sabbath. Some Jews don’t even light fires on Sabbath, so that they don’t cook, they don’t turn on lights, they don’t start their motor car. They live within 100 paces of the synagogue so that the walk doesn’t count as work! But the point is not the detailed regulations, it is the spirit of Sabbath which is so important.
Sabbath is not about self-care. It is that, but it is much more. To take and enjoy the gift of Sabbath is to honour God.
My challenge for you this morning is to find or review your regular Sabbath practice.
There are excellent retreat places in WA. I would encourage you to stay several nights in the guest house at New Norcia, meet the monks, join in their daily prayers and bask in the atmosphere of prayer and retreat. Koora, out of Southern Cross, is a comfortable place literally in the desert, run by two Anglican clergy. Maybe an annual visit to a place like these, or St John of God Retreat House in Shoalwater could be part of your life.
Or just spend half an hour in the pews here, or in old St Mary’s when you are in Busselton. We take so much care to maintain these buildings, and that’s part of their purpose.
It’s no good going down to the beach and sitting there if all we do is think about the ones we care for, worry about what we need to do next. That’s not Sabbath!
It’s no good finding a place away from home to stay if we end up doing the same housework we do at home. That’s not Sabbath.
I remember my Mum doing all the housework on our farm, on her own, before mod. cons. She washed clothes in a copper and squeezed them through a washboard. She cooked for seven of us on a wood stove. She cleaned without an electric vacuum cleaner. Then every summer, Dad would take us all away on holiday to Busselton or Albany. Mum commented once that on all these holidays, she washed clothes, cleaned house and cooked without a break.
But I also remember Mum religiously dropping everything every Saturday to play sport. For Mum and Dad, tennis, and later bowls, became her Sabbath. She parked us kids somewhere appropriate for our age and made sport her means of being refreshed as carer.
Your Sabbath should be regular, planned, and have an element of ritual. It is important that you put yourself in a different place where you cannot be reached, physically or emotionally, by the ones you care for.
Maybe a regular movie, or reading fiction, can be elements of your Sabbath. Certainly, a holiday like a cruise can be an annual Sabbath where you are physically cut off from the ones you care for, and others care for you.
So, go and find a desert place, a Sabbath rest, and leave the worry about the sheep to the Good Shepherd.
When we untangle all the busy-ness of the first half of this morning’s Gospel, the coming and going of apostles and many others, we find an invitation to be refreshed by God in our caring.
God knows, like Jesus, we will be back in the fray again soon enough. So we come to the dessert, the tiramisu, the pick-me-up. We imagine people all over the region rushing to bring their sick to Jesus. We know that feeling. But there’s a little detail in the tiramisu that stands out to me. The sick could ‘touch the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.’ (Mark 6:56) Scholars believe this ‘fringe’ is the leather strap Jesus, a good Jew, used to tie his tefillin, the little prayer boxes, on to his forehead.
The healings, it seems, happened because Jesus prayed habitually. In other words, Jesus was conscious of God working through him, and this enabled him to heal many.
We aren’t Jesus. Again, this is a little hint not to care for others in our own power. We may not wear the tefillin, but we should wear the habit of daily prayer, and remember that our power to care is not really ours. It is God, working through us. And that is a matter for thanks. That’s the sweetness in the dessert.