Category Archives: Book Review

Thirst for God – Ian Robinson’s new book


This is the long version of the review that appeared in the June Anglican Messenger

If Anyone ThirstsIan Robinson, If Anyone Thirsts: Biblical Spirituality from the Desert, Melbourne, Morning Star Publishing, 2015, paper, 289 pp. including appendices & bibliography.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Jews and Christians first found out about God in the harsh environment of the desert: God’s generous provision of water and bread, meat and safety, all flowing out in abundance when scarcity was all around, and an unbreakable commitment to God’s people.

We look back to the long 40-year learning about God in the Exodus and to the bedrock of teaching surrounding that motif of Israel’s history: our God is first a desert God.

The Rev. Dr Ian Robinson, currently the Uniting Church’s chaplain to The University of WA, has been journeying through the Australian deserts for decades listening for resonances of our desert God. His latest book, If Anyone Thirsts: Biblical spirituality from the desert, systematically explores the theme of desert in the Old and New Testaments, and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers. He introduces readers to Desert movements today trying to reclaim the centrality of desert spirituality in their Christian faith.

Dr Robinson claims that we have missed the emphasis on desert spirituality in the life of Jesus and in the centrality of the Feast of Booths (Sukkot), which is an annual renewal of the learnings from the desert. Not only did Jesus retreat to ‘desert places’ to pray, in John 7 – 8 he went up to the Temple for the days of Sukkot and disrupted the high points of the festival to make his claims that he was the manna from heaven, that living water would flow from him, and that he was sent by God to be like Moses and greater than him.

Ian puzzles as to why we Christians have picked up the Jewish Feasts of Passover at Easter, of Weeks at Pentecost, but not Shavuot. He hints that October would be a good time to add a major feast to our calendar to renew our foundations in desert spirituality. Perhaps this feast could take the form of camping out in a desert place, symbolic or real.

There have been a few attempts to develop a specifically Australian Christian spirituality. From the Anglican Community of St Clare, Sister Angela’s Gumnut Spirituality was promising, but probably only in the areas of aesthetics and environmentalism. The Rainbow Spirit elders in an Indigenous context have focused more on finding the parallels between Christian theology and Indigenous Dreaming.

Dr Robinson concludes from the Desert Fathers and Mothers that the key is not so much to develop an intellectual framework for desert spirituality, but to do it. In the Diocese of Perth, Anna Killigrew and Peter Harrison at Koora Retreat are themselves putting desert spirituality into practice and inviting others to experience with them God in the desert.

Each chapter of Ian’s book, Exodus, Elijah, Ezra, Jesus, etc. begins with a story engaging our imagination, for this is the huge task of desert spirituality: to reshape our imagination. Our pictures of faith are often northern European (snow upon snow at Bethlehem, rolling green pastures in Galilee!) and so tend to sentimentalise our experience of God. But Australia resonates with Palestine’s deserts, and Ian’s book takes us to the desert and excites us about the sturdy God who finds us there.

If Anyone Thirsts would make an excellent gift for your pastor or for any Christian looking to deepen their faith in the Australian context.

Loving One Another: The Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014


It has just been announced that Australia writer Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker prize for his novel Narrow Road to the Deep North. The chairman of the judging panel, Professor A.C. Grayling called Flanagan’s novel a ‘masterpiece’: high praise indeed.

While the story has universal appeal, it is also deeply Australian, asking – and answering – the profoundest of questions: what does it mean to love one another?

The novel takes us to events of World War II when prisoners of the Japanese were coerced to build a railway through the Thai jungle to Burma. Though explicitly fiction, it describes the events fully and exploits what novels do best: it humanises the characters. Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans is a doctor who ends up as Officer Commanding the prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. This is dangerous ground. Australians have made ‘Weary’ Dunlop into a hero and this character is too like the legend of ‘Weary’. But Dorrie Evans believes he is no hero. He is a man just managing to hold himself together in the extreme conditions.

Flanagan shifts the time backwards and forwards between the doctor’s pre-war infatuation with his uncle’s young wife, and his serial womanising after the war. This is not love.

Dorrie Evans’ one real act of heroism may be some years after the war when he saves his society wife and children from a Tasmania bushfire.  This is love of a sort, but not a compelling love.

However on his death-bed, he has a kind of vision of his heroism on the railway. He remembers when the Japanese guards force him to select 200 men to march to another camp. The men are sick and dying, and he must make selections knowing that he is sending the men to a certain death, others he is saving. Yet he moves through the parade, putting his hand affectionately on the shoulder and naming each man chosen. He gets up early next morning, feeling the heavy responsibility for his choices. In his dream, each man comes up to him, shakes his hand or salutes him with a cheery ‘Thank you, Sir,’ or ‘All the best to you, Sir.’ Somehow the little he does, even the mistakes he makes, are seen as heroism, and Flanagan shows us how hollow he feels, almost as though he is a fake, or has been mistaken for someone else. This caring about mates, however flawed, approaches love.

At the heart of the novel is Flanagan’s depiction of loyalty between the ordinary men. Just trying to stay alive in a hellish world, they both helped each other and sometimes failed to help each other. The profound cruelty inflicted on these men created something of beauty, a tiny bloom in the dark jungle. We all know and feel the barrier to giving this bond of mateship its real name. Flanagan dares in the novel to call it love.

Richard Flanagan has stated in interviews that he wanted The Narrow Road to the Deep North to be a love story. The novel is a multi-layered exploration of what it means to be human, with the central layer being the layer of love, brutal, surprising, passionate and real.

Picture courtesy the Man Booker Prize

Creeping Across the Chasm: Healing the Anglican Church


Jeffrey W, Driver, A Polity of Persuasion: Gift and grief of Anglicanism,
Cascade Books 2014 (paperback 184 pages) (from $AUD 22 online, or available at St John’s Books. Fremantle.)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Published in Anglican Messenger, September 2014

 

I was born an Anglican. My first memories are of Saint Mary’s in Tambellup, now sadly de-consecrated, with its emphasis on Percy Dearmer – necessarily stripped down to suit the bush environment. I thought, of course, that this simple Anglo-Catholicism was the norm. That’s what all Anglicans were like.

At boarding school, I soon realised that the robed choir and six-altar-servers-on-Sunday at Christ Church, Claremont was the norm. Only on the very eve of leaving Perth to study theology in Melbourne I discovered that there were different types of Anglicans, and they were called ‘evangelicals’. In outlining the differences for me the late Canon Brian Albany expressed great sorrow because he knew he was ending my innocence!

Four decades on, my understanding of the Anglican Communion is a little more nuanced than in 1972. I know that there are shades of grey; and I also know that there are grave differences between Anglicans. It is no longer a matter of simply accepting that we have cousins in Sydney or wherever who though a bit different to us are still family. The divergent opinions thrown up first by the ordination of women and then by homosexuality in the short term are irreconcilable.

Jeffrey Driver, Archbishop of Adelaide, sets out in A Polity of Persuasion to ask whether the attempts of the Anglican Communion to heal these rifts have been appropriate and whether they are likely to bring success. He gives helpful summaries highlighting the principles and theology of each of the reports commissioned by the Communion and leading up to the Anglican Covenant.

He uses the 18-year (or more) process to the ordination of women in the Australian Church as a case study illustrating how big changes need a great deal of time; a preparedness to let go of our agendas and expect new outcomes; effort to be made both through the legal processes; but also, and much more importantly, through informal ongoing contacts where trusting relationships can be built and partners can be persuaded of the rightness of a change.

Driver calls this cluster of elements ‘a polity of persuasion’, and his term has been taken up more broadly than in our national Church.

He insists that differences must be addressed. He notes that the Vatican did not accept the first report from ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) because ARCIC’s aim of finding common ground meant that Rome couldn’t see where Anglican belief was clearly articulated.

Archbishop Jeffrey has been a bishop since 2001 involved in the work on the Anglican Covenant. He proposed enabling legislation in 2004 for the ordination of women to the episcopate. I was not surprised to learn of his background in journalism from the way he demystifies complex debates and principles. His snapshot story of the ordination of Seabury to be the first bishop in the American church illustrates not only the flexibility of Anglicanism, but also Driver’s gift for narrative and humour.

A Polity of Persuasion clearly draws on Driver’s Ph.D. thesis, but it is not dry academia. He outlines the history of our differences over the past generation with clarity, always keeping an eye on the principles and personalities involved. He gives good reasons for the church to be patient and to wait on the Holy Spirit. He calls on Anglicans to treat one another non-violently and respectfully.

This book will encourage those who are directly engaged in the work of the Anglican Covenant and in General Synod, and will inform those who stand on the sidelines of this institutional work but still love the Anglican Church and want it to continue to prosper. Reading it burrows out of you any idea that your Anglicanism is the norm and allows time for the Holy Spirit to lead all of us to the new place.

 

Gazing Prayer: Susan Pitchford’s new book shows how.


Susan R. Pitchford tssf, The Sacred Gaze: Contemplation and the healing of the self, Liturgical Press 2014, (Paperback 168 pages)

Available from $16 approx. online.

Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

Gaze: to look with love into the face of another. Gazing requires attention over time; and gazing brings the one who gazes closer to the other whose face is beheld.

Susan Pitchford, as a member of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis, is the right person to introduce readers to gazing as “Contemplation and the Healing of the Self”, as she describes gazing in the sub-title of this accessible and helpful book. Pitchford uses Saint Clare of Assisi as her springboard for the idea of gazing as prayer, in particular, Saint Clare’s letter to Saint Agnes of Prague, where St Clare invites Agnes to gaze on Christ as a mirror.

Susan Pitchford first places this idea in her academic field of sociology to understand how a loving gaze can lead to the healing of self by correcting the images we have of ourselves.

We begin the journey by acknowledging that we are gazed at: God looks with love on our face. What God sees there, because God is love, is the self that is made whole, not the wounded and sinful self of which we are so conscious. When we discover this true self, we are set free to pray in true freedom. We then can gaze on the face of God.

Pitchford is conscious that this way of talking about prayer can easily be empty words. A useful chapter describes how different personalities can use their imaginations to engage in gazing: for some, this will be visual or verbal, for others auditory or kinaesthetic. All are ways to behold the face of God, to bring our attention to focus on God present with us. How to gaze with words or scenes from scripture or with clay or music attractively detailed. These practical suggestions are a strength of The Sacred Gaze.

Like Sister Ilia Delio in her books on Franciscan prayer, Susan Pitchford traces a threefold movement of prayer: from attention to gazing to transformative action. As Pitchford writes, ‘If our gazing at Christ doesn’t cause us to turn a compassionate gaze at the world, and motivate us to compassionate action, then we need to check on whether it’s really Christ we’ve been gazing at. If we know nothing else about Jesus, we can be certain at least of this; staying aloof from the needs of the world is not his style.’ (page 138)

The Sacred Gaze begins in Franciscan prayer and sociological insight, but roams widely and useful across much of the literature of contemplative prayer. I enjoyed the insistence with which Pitchford connects this material with ordinary life. It is encouraging that ordinary people like me and you can set out on the journey of the sacred gaze, being held in love, discovering the true self, and acting in freedom with compassion for the world.

A thought for a secular Australia


Hugh Jackson, Australians and the Christian God, Melbourne, VIC: Mosaic Resources 2013

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Review first published in November 2013 issue of Anglican Messenger.

 

Is Australia a Christian nation? Or have we been taken over by secularists? It matters. Not only does it affect the place of the churches in Australian society, it also has an impact, for example, on whether God should be mentioned in the nation’s Constitution.

 

In Australians and the Christian God Hugh Jackson weaves a narrative from detailed historical evidence. He shows that convicts resented the desultory attempts to muster them for compulsory church parades. Only a tiny minority of “respectable” citizens were ever converted to evangelical Christianity in the 19th Century.

 

Dr Jackson sketches the philosophical and social environment of the enlightenment.

 

The influence of the churches on society should have been evident in the legislation in the colonies establishing education but the secular view won out in every state. Instead of education that was thoroughly Christian, most colonial education allowed only for visiting special religious teaching and general religious teaching in the curriculum.

 

There was a minor burst of activity in both Protestant and Catholic Churches in the 1950s. The Billy Graham crusades created excitement, but the figures show that there was no increase in attendance in the years following.

 

Across the 20th Century Jackson notes a distancing from God. The evidence marshalled by Hugh Jackson reflects a nuanced reality. Australians may gather in awe and respect for the sacrifice made by fellow-citizens in war, but their attitude to the God of Nicene Creed is a thudding indifference.

 

Hugh Jackson is a reliable narrator of Australia’s connection to the Christian God. He graduated in theology from Cambridge before spending some years in Anglican ministry. His doctoral work and academic career were in history. He remains a deeply committed Christian and a careful observer of the ecclesiastical scene.

 

Australians and the Christians’ God will be the standard in this area for years to come. I recommend it highly for clergy and all with an interest in the church’s place in Australian society.

 

 

From fire and song to imageless Good – Friar Jacopone da Todi


Evelyn Underhill, Jacopone Da Todi, Poet and Mystic–1228-1306, a Spiritual Biography, London: J.M. Dent 1919

(Reviewed by Ted Witham)

It’s no surprise that in reading Evelyn Underhill on Jacopone that you are reading two mystics at once: the 13th century Franciscan and the 20th Century Anglican, Underhill herself.

While unfolding the life of Jacopone, Underhill shows what a great teacher of mysticism she is. Her understanding of Jacopone’s progress in the spiritual life is penetrating and fascinating, and to draw this portrait, she opens up the literature on mysticism in an accessible way.

Jacopone trained as a lawyer, although it seems that much of his time as a student was spent studying poetry and literature. In particular he was fascinated by the new vernacular poetry being created in the dialects of the Italian peninsula with its roots in the love songs of the jongleurs.

He practised for some years as a celebrity lawyer, enjoying the comforts of the good life. He later threw over all the material trappings of success to become a Franciscan Tertiary, spending perhaps ten years in the rough habit of a Tertiary, probably wandering from town to town spreading the gospel message through songs and poetry.

Jacopone

He felt a particular closeness to the ageing Brother Leo still living at the Portiuncula near Assisi and to the zelanti, the party within the friars who emphasised absolute poverty. Eventually he sought entry to the convent at Todi. The friars there took some time to accept him: they were of the more relaxed party, and were perhaps reluctant to accept a strong personality at the extreme other end of the Franciscan movement. Why did Jacopone choose the Todi friary? Certainly the town of Todi was his home. But it may also have been a genuine reflection of his humility. He chose to submit himself to superiors with views quite different from his own, and he agreed to remain a lay brother and not seek the privileges of clerical office within the Order.

He seemed to want the quiet life. But to break a deadlock in the 1294 Conclave his friend, the hermit Pietro Angelerio, was unexpectedly elected Pope Celestine V. Celestine’s administration was a disaster. It appears that Jacopone, the trained lawyer, travelled to assist the Pope, probably at his court in Naples.

At the same time, tensions within the Franciscan Order grew even greater, and, perhaps thinking that Jacopone’s presence in the papal court would help, the friars appealed to Celestine to sort the Order out. Celestine’s solution was drastic. He invited all the zelanti to leave the Friars Minor altogether and to come directly under his protection. Because it would break their connection with St Francis of Assisi, neither the zelanti nor the moderati wanted this, so Jacopone returned to Todi, disillusioned, and probably saddened to watch his friend’s papacy spiral downwards in chaos until Celestine resigned later that year and returned to being a hermit.

Jacopone spent the rest of his life in relative seclusion in the convent at Todi. His poems and songs reveal how he grew spiritually leaving behind the wild joy of his years as a Tertiary, to learn how to order love and to integrate his being as a Christian, and finally to detach himself from everything except God’s grasp of him.

His reputation for saintliness continued to grow in his lifetime, particularly among Tertiaries. Guilds of Tertiaries gathered to sing Jacopone’s songs, often belting them out like rugby fans singing Abide With Me, but also writing their own sensitive spiritual songs in the vernacular.

Jacopone’s story reveals the interplay between the interior and exterior life: how as a Tertiary, he lived la santa pazia (the holy madness). His wandering life reflected the roller-coaster emotions of the jubilo, the interior stage of the soul’s progress, characterised by “immoderate transports, tears, raptures, despairs” (p. 132). This early stage was an inebriation, which, as Jacopone wandered the beautiful Umbrian countryside, he saw reflected in all Creation and in the Creator. (p. 79)

Jacopone strikingly believed that God does not fit with narrow-mindedness.

Dio non alberga en core stretto
tant’è grande quant’hai affetto,
povertate ha si’ gran petto
che chi alberga deitate.
(Lauda LX)

 God does not dwell in narrow hearts,
the larger the heart the greater the desire for God –
poverty has such a great heart
that Deity dwells there.

Eventually Jacopone realised that he needed to be more ordered in love. He passed from Richard Rolle’s stage of “fire and song”, through the stage of intellectual integration, ‘’mentis sublevatio, in which the illuminated mind beholds things above itself” (Richard of St. Victor, p. 231) to a stage of letting go completely to find “Love beyond all language, imageless Good.”(p. 225)

Jacopone writes of this final spiritual stage:


Possedi posseduta
entanta unione
non c’è divisione
che te da lui retragga.
Tu bevi e se’ bevuta
en transformazione
. (Lauda XCI)

You possess – and you are the possessed,
in such a complete union
there is no division
that can drag you away from him.
You drink – and you are the drink
in this transformation.

The saint discovers that God’s love is as ordinary and amazing as gravity, felt as the soul’s weight, carrying it to its right place; God’s love is “the secret of stability, the rule of the Universe”. (p. 235)

From his time as a travelling Tertiary onwards, when he wrote his early songs and ballads, until his death, Jacopone wrote songs, poems and satirical verse in Umbrian. In particular, the Laude (Praises) deserve to be better known. They resonate well with our modern sensibility being both direct and yet clear in describing complexities of the spiritual journey.

In January 2013, HardPress Publishing produced a good quality reproduction of Evelyn Underhill’s 1919 work available online for about $AUD 31, or the original J.M. Dent Publisher version is available for loan (free) through the Australian Public Library System. For those who read Umbrian, the Laude are available online through the Gutenberg project at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/29977.

Saint Louis – patron saint, not patronising


Jacques LeGoff, Saint Louis, University of Notre Dame Press 2009, Hardcover (ISBN 9780268033811) $80 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The name of Saint Louis is often evoked as a patron saint of the Third Order. I realised this year that I had been a tertiary for 30 years and have a rough knowledge of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and perhaps a better knowledge of the Mother of our Lord, but knew almost nothing about our third patron saint.

France’s finest medieval historian Jacques LeGoff was director of studies at l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He has a particular interest in Saints Francis and Clare and the spread of their movement through Europe in the 12th Century. His studies into money and Saint Francis and medieval culture and the church not only provide new insights into Francis, but are also inspirational for Franciscan living. Surely, I thought, from his ten year-long study of Saint Louis, which resulted in this book of nearly 1,000 pages I would both learn more and be encouraged in my Franciscan journey.

Saint Louis is a fascinating book to read. In the first Part, Professor LeGoff draws on all the evidence at his disposal to lay out the life of Saint Louis: he covers his childhood, the influence of his grandfather Philippe Augustus, the early death of his father Louis VIII, his co-regency with his mother Blanche de Castille, Louis’ piety and close circle of advisers, his departure on two crusades, the better organisation of his kingdom under the principles of justice and peace, and his death in Libya.

The king was deeply influenced by the new religious orders. He founded a Carthusian monastery called Royaumont. There were always friars in his retinue, including the Franciscan Geoffroy de Beaulieu, one of his confessors whose biography was instrumental in the king’s candidacy for sainthood. At this time in history the Preaching Friars and the Friars Minor were popular with royalty everywhere. Louis’ brother-in-law Henry III of England also included mendicants in his entourage.

Part II of LeGoff’s book interrogates the evidence at greater length to explore how much can really be known about Louis Capet as an individual, given that many 12th Century writers attempted not to write accurate portraits of public figures but to delineate ideal princes. LeGoff concludes that we can dig through the flattering surface of the documents and find an individual.

Part III includes family trees, charts, bibliographies, extensive notes and the text of Saint Louis’ letter to his subjects after his first crusade. Gareth Evan Gollrad has done a mighty job in translating Saint Louis into English. Rarely are you aware that you are reading a translation. I was a little disappointed that maps and charts were not completely translated, so would not be accessible to all English readers. There were occasional surprising non-translations, for example, Saint Benoît is not translated when referring to the Benedictine monastic tradition.

Louis IX is the first person recorded speaking French. He was in the habit of sitting on the ground, partly as a disposition of prayer in his chapel, and partly to put people at ease in the presence of the king. He enjoyed laughter and jokes with his close friends, and in fact, liked laughing so much that he tried to fast from laughter on Fridays!

His personal practice including hearing as many offices recited during the day as possible, adjusting prime to 2 a.m. rather than midnight so he had enough energy to govern the country during the day. His confessors often thought him excessive in his asceticism and talked him out of fasting from meat on Mondays as well as Wednesdays and Fridays. Friar Geoffroy cautioned him to be gentle with flagellation.

He gave alms to the poor. He knew it was his duty to do this publicly in procession, but he also privately fed the poor from his table, feeding the handicapped with his own hands. (These were the days before kings were sequestered from their people in lavish palaces.) Louis was privately generous with money not only with the poor, but with close friends like the knight Joinville who lost everything in the crusade.

He believed he was called to go on crusade: even though a little late in crusading history he was a Christian king of his time. He was a fighting knight but he had learned from St Francis, and his strategy included converting the Muslim leaders. He wasn’t successful, but in captivity he was allowed to keep his breviary. His captors respected his faith as the Sultan had respected Francis’s.

In preparation for the Crusades, King Louis did what no king before had done: he actively sought the forgiveness of his people, sending agents throughout his lands and making good any injustices that he had caused.

Returning from his first crusade, he spent time with the Franciscan Hugh of Digne, and was so impressed with Friar Hugh that he begged him to come to Paris to join his retinue. Hugh refused, but Louis implemented Hugh’s ideas.

The Franciscan’s biggest idea was that everything in the kingdom’s administration should serve justice and peace. In a feudal world, this was radical. It meant, for example, that Louis took direct control of the growing towns, because without his authority, the poor and the lesser people would never see justice. Hugh also apparently persuaded the king to tone down his dress and personal style.

Sainte-Chapelle. Built to house the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the Holy Cross

Louis considered one of the great acts of his reign buying the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the Holy Cross from Constantinople. The purchase price was so high Louis had to raise cash to secure them and have them escorted back to Paris. To house and expose these relics he built the exquisite but also expensive Sainte-Chapelle primarily as his private place of meditation.

In the coronation liturgy, Louis was crowned “the most Christian” king. His aim was to live out that promise. By the standards of the day, he was a holy man as well as a monarch who was wise enough to guide his people on the transition from feudalism to a more central society.

But strangely, for this reader at least, Louis was not a tertiary. He gave equal favouritism to Carthusians, Dominicans and Franciscans. Though critics taunted him by claiming he was a secret Franciscan friar, LeGoff decides there is no possibility of the king belonging to any Order.

Jacques LeGoff concludes that as he came to know Louis Capet, as family man, Christian and king, he

“came to understand why many people had a desire to see him, to hear him, and to touch him, A personal charisma was added to the prestige of his function…This was the charisma of a king who did not need to wear the crown … to impress anyone, the charisma of a tall, thin handsome king with the eyes of a dove whom Salimbene of Parma had seen coming barefoot through the dust on the path to Sens. He was an impressive character regardless of his appearance…. I heard him laughing, joking, teasing his friends, making simple gestures, like sitting down on the ground, with a minimal amount of affectation… And I began to conceive a mixture of friendship and admiration for him, as the historian’s impertinence and distance in time allowed him to forget his position.” (pp. 726-727)

As a Frenchman, LeGoff has a particular interest in Louis’ nation-building; however, for me, as a Christian, the strength of the book was in the sympathy with which LeGoff explores the details of the Saint’s life. Some aspects make us cringe because we live in a different world. Some, like his indifference to his wife, make us cringe in any era.

So while the “real” Louis IX may not have been a Franciscan tertiary, his emphasis on peace and justice and his adaption of the values of poverty and joy make him an appropriate Franciscan patron. Jacques LeGoff has given us a clear and complex portrait of a man of his time authentically living out his vocation. As Franciscans, we may not be able to claim Saint Louis as one of “ours” in any tribal sense, but as a Christian learning from Saint Francis and living a complex life, Louis can be for us a paradigm of embodied Christian living in all its richness and ambiguity.

Important new book on faith education


Richard Robert Osmer and Friedrich Schweitzer, Religious Education between Modernization and Globalization: New Perspectives on the United States and Germany (Studies in Practical Theology), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. From $18.00 from online suppliers

SUMMARY –Reviews and reflections to follow…

This book is probably the most important book on faith education that I have read in two decades. I plan to firstly summarise it here, and in the coming weeks to write reviews for my colleagues in congregations and schools.

It explores the trends in Religious Education in the US and in Germany during the 20th Century and outlines some of the challenges Religious Education will face in the 21st Century. It defines Religious Education as broadly as possible. Religious Education includes the passing on of faith from one generation to the next, but is more than that. It includes congregational programs, but it is more than that. It takes place in schools, but its scope is wider than that. It is both intentional and a side-product of other faith activity. It is specifically Christian Education but is broader than that.

Importantly for the comparative descriptions in this book, Religious Education is at least both a congregational practice and a subject studied in State and church schools.

Richard Osmer is an educator who understands Religious Education in the round. Rather than pick up one strand of the Religious Education story, he elects to study the whole picture. This global approach is particularly useful when Christians are often either hammering away at congregational programs even though children have deserted many churches, or putting all their effort into school R.E. programs, even though students are turning off the subject.

I am impressed with Professor Osmer because he is brave enough to name dysfunctions in our approaches to faith education, and visionary enough to shed some light onto the path ahead.

Religious Education between Modernization and Globalization situates the practice and study of Religious Education both within the changing context of Practical Theology and wider philosophical trends. The study is particularly concerned with the effects modernisation had on Religious Education in the first half of the 20th Century and the move to globalisation in the second.

Modernisation is a process arising from the longer tradition of the enlightenment. It promotes independent thought and requires a greater dependence on empirical evidence. Its effect on education generally was to encourage teachers to foster more sceptical thinking; not to take things on trust and to question the word of authorities. Applied to Religious Education, modernisation invited Christians to move away from dependence on authority to more autonomous ways of thinking, which included the need to recognise the then new historical and critical approaches to scripture, and to find ways to enable Christians to think independently about their faith and the wider world.

Globalisation compresses the world into “a single place” (p. 61) and relativises different cultural patterns and beliefs. Globalisation inflates the importance of the economy at the expense of other exchanges. Globalisation goes alongside postmodernism, which denies the authority of a meta-narrative, a single comprehensive lens to consider the world and particular situations. For the postmodern thinker, there is no one answer to any problem or question. Postmodern people believe that in all cases, “it depends”.

Osmer and Schweitzer draw attention to the contradiction at the heart of postmodernism. It proclaims that every situation is contingent, that there is never one single approach – except insofar as that statement itself is an over-arching belief. In other words, postmodernism tries to believe that in every situation “it depends”, except in the belief that that relativism itself is always constant.

The authors divide the century into phases; in my opinion, not very clearly or convincingly. Effectively, the Second World War divides the century into two halves with very different outcomes for the US and for Germany.

Osmer and Schweitzer then summarise a key work of one Protestant Religious Educator in each country before and after the war. Friedrich Niebergall is described as a “liberal reformer” responding to modernity in Germany (p. 99 ff.) In the United States, George A. Coe also applied the insights of modernity to Religious Education. The effect of modernity on both writers was to turn the spotlight of modern thinking onto the Church itself, both to use the insights it brought to the practice of education and to provide a new framework for thinking about faith and religion.

The influential North American Religious Education Association was founded in the years after 1900 as a concerted response to modernity. It became identified with liberal thought around World War I and into the twenties. The fundamentalist movement, emphasising the evangelical fundamentals was in part a reaction to REA.

Religious Education, for example, picked up the insights which changed education from a teacher-centred activity to a child-centred activity. In Italy, and later Holland and India, Maria Montessori was one champion of child-centred education, both religious and general, and her influence could be placed alongside that of Coe and the liberal reformers in Germany.

In the US, this encouraged Religious Education to see itself more in terms of the way faith is appropriated, and in the post-war period, John H. Westerhoff III, the representative thinker summarised in the book, conceives of Religious Education primarily in the congregation. The audiences for Religious Education of self, family, schools and the wider community were pushed to the edge. In the US after World War II, Religious Education was pushed out of schools entirely.

Westerhoff’s reliance on his previous work in social anthropology emphasised the importance of formation, but for him, this was not at the expense of information and transformation. Incidentally, I studied with John Westerhoff from 1985-1987 and returned to Australia understanding that the task of Religious Education was strongly congregation-centred .

In Germany, by contrast, both the discovery of new ways of thinking about faith and the need after the War to educate a rising generation away from the destructive ideologies of the Nazis, the Religious Education effort was put mainly into schools. In Germany, Religious Education has been a compulsory subject in all State schools. Karl Ernst Nipkov and in particular his 1969 work Christliche Bildungstheorie und Schulpolitik trace these developments.

In the 20th Century, Osmer and Schweitzer argue, Religious Education became restricted to the contexts of congregation in the US and the State School in Germany. It also became restricted more and more to academic and professional specialists. The US witnessed the rise of a new professional in the congregation – the Director of Religious Education.

This book is a plea for to loosen these restrictions and to restore Religious Education both to ordinary people and to its other traditional audiences, in particular the family and the wider community.

Osmer reprises his earlier description from A Teachable Spirit (1990) of Religious Education as catechesis, exhortation and discernment. Families need to be more empowered to open to their children the world of faith, which is part of the work of catechesis. Particularly in the US where creationism is believed by a majority, stronger connections between catechesis and science should be forged. Individuals need the moral teaching of religious education in the process of identity formation, and exhortation is the pathway to healthy moral growth. Christians need to be able to “discern the signs of the times” and speak a constructive word from faith to the world.

The book critiques some of the strategies of the 20th Century. Small groups for example create intimacy with people like us, but offer few opportunities to explore the doctrines and creeds of people different from us (p. 246). Small groups do teach us to love one another, but not why we are Anglicans or Christians. Small groups also miss out on the missio Dei to “the wider human community” (p. 247).

The authors offer powerful arguments for the right of every child to receive Religious Education. “The right of children to a religious education rests upon their right to have some of their heartfelt inquiries about their world listened to with respect and responded to with care.” (p. 262) These questions include death and dying, self and identity, morality, religious pluralism and ideas of God. (pp. 262-265). The authors assert that only religion and its exploration can respond to these questions. (p. 266)

They suggest that all resources for Religious Education be written not only for academics but for ordinary Christians. Family ethics, ongoing religious and moral education in the home responding to teachable moments should be supported by good programs in the congregation.

The authors invite Religious Educators to expand their thinking beyond Christianity: for example, they believe the problems of globalisation can be explored in an interfaith context as Christians and Muslims together learn of the roles of the oikumene and the Umma. Discernment includes not only world events, but aesthetics. Christian engagement in the arts both as artists and critics is a contribution to society and is part of Christians’ educational activity.

This public education takes place not only in schools but through mass media and social media. My fellow-tertiary Paul Hawker, the current producer of the ABC TV program Compass is an important educator in the public sphere in Ausrtalia. Christians as individuals can learn to use social media (Facebook, Twitter and the media growing out from them) to bring that leaven of faith education to society.

Religious Education between Modernization and Globilization is a volume in a series of Studies in Practical Theology. It is both practical in providing ways of thinking and strategies for action in faith education, and theology in its analysis of the 20th Century church and the currents that shaped it.

Rugged and painful past


Cavan Brown, The Blackfellow’s Friend, Perth: Access Press, 1999.

Paperback 296 pages. (Approx $34 from online suppliers, or borrow through the public library system.

Reviewed by Ted Witham (re-posted for National Sorry Day).

Some years ago, I was at an ecumenical, outdoor service in a country town. To begin the service, a local Noongar elder welcomed us to his country, “where Noongars have roamed for tens of thousands of years.” The congregation (two-thirds “wadullahs” (white people)) listened with a stillness of respect.

When aboriginal formally welcome wadullahs to their country, the welcome is always an offer to receive a gift. The tone of the welcome is totally hospitable. “This is our land,” they say, “and we positively want to share it with you.”

Reading any story of aboriginal-white relations over the past 200 years makes me reflect how astoundingly generous and forgiving towards Europeans the aboriginal people have been.

Cavan Brown’s new biography of The Reverend John Gribble is a novelised account of the failed attempt by the Anglican Church to set up a mission for aborigines near Carnarvon in the 1880s. The story traces the fascinating, if somewhat depressing, events in which the passionate motivations of Gribble were crushed and terminated.

On his arrival in Carnarvon, Gribble held high hopes for his mission. He gave to the mission near the town the name of Galilee Baba, after the Sea of Galilee and the Ingarra word for water. His vision was to provide a place where aborigines could live in reasonable conditions, not in the dust and dirt of their camps, where the sick could be cared for, and where aborigines could learn to read and write.

Soon after his arrival, he travelled to the site of his remoter mission. As he travelled through station country, he observed the ways in which some station people treated aborigines: rounded up for work on the stations, imprisoned if they ran away, bound by the Masters and Servants Act, for which they could not have given informed consent. He observed sexual exploitation of aboriginal women, and degrees of cruelty towards all the aboriginal people there.

Being a man of high principle and precipitate action, Gribble complained loudly about these practices, both locally, and in the Perth newspapers.

The response came quickly and vigorously. Bishop Parry initially supported Gribble’s comments. However, pressure was brought to bear on Bishop Parry and the mission committee he chaired. Influential families and pastoral lease-holders joined in a condemnation of Gribble. Cavan Brown’s telling of the story reveals how the Diocese caved in to this pressure, believing that it was better to avoid dividing the small community than dealing with admitted injustices.

Because of his comments, Gribble was assaulted, and his complaints were dealt with slowly and inadequately. Gribble’s temper became more aroused. British justice could not even be meted out to him, a European. What hope did aborigines have?

Eventually, Gribble returned to NSW, bitter and defeated. The Bishops in the Eastern States continued to support him and his mission work with aborigines.

Cavan Brown explains in his Preface that he chose deliberately to write the story of Gribble in novel form, rather than as straight history. His purposes were twofold: to make a more readable story through reconstructing dialogue, and to bring to light the motivations of the various characters.

His imagined conversation between Bishop Parry and his Presbyterian friend, George Truscott, explores most sympathetically the dilemma into which the Bishop had fallen. The immediate threat to the Diocese came from pastoralists who would remove financial support for the Cathedral. This explains the immediate conflict into which Winthrop Hackett, Charles Harper and other prominent Anglicans placed him. However, the Bishop’s deeper intention in withdrawing support from Gribble appears to have been a long-term strategy. He hoped to win slowly and surely an understanding from the white establishment about the treatment of aboriginal people.

The title for Cavan Brown’s book, The Blackfellow’s Friend, may produce controversy today because of its lack of political correctness. The title is in fact taken from Gribble’s tombstone in Sydney, and was intended as a tribute for Gribble’s life work. But even in the 19th Century, a phrase like “Blackfellow’s Friend” was used by Gribble’s opponents as a way of insulting and belittling his positive disposition towards aborigines.

Equally controversial may be Brown’s attempts to write down aboriginal Creole. He has transcribed the sounds and untaught grammar of aboriginal speakers in a way that some readers may find offensive. On the whole, I think Brown has succeeded in achieving a balance between arousing cute contempt for the limited English spoken by aborigines and a sense of realism.

Cavan Brown, as a Baptist pastor, has not been so successful in describing the peculiarly Anglican world of Bishops, Deans and Archdeacons. Perhaps only Anglicans will notice that Bishop Parry’s responsibility for Western Australia is described several times as a “parish”, when it was, by definition, a Diocese. I doubt very much that Anglican clergy were addressed as “Rev.” in the 1800s. The English pattern was to call the ordained “Mister”, and use the full form, “Reverend” only in writing about a priest.

For non-Anglicans, these may be quibbles. They certainly do not destroy the vigour of the story telling, but they do betray, along with numerous typographical errors, hasty sub-editing, which does detract from the enjoyment of the book.

In sum, I recommend this book strongly. It is a courageous and enticing piece of historical story-telling that will open perspectives both on the legacy of Church matters and also on the rugged and painful history of the way whites have treated the original owners of Australia.

First published in The Anglican Messenger.

Followers on the Web


There’s a wide range of self-publishers. Each of us has different motivations for doing the work of making books, either electronic or paper. For me, self-publishing is a way of extending my audience a little beyond face to face. While I fantasise about selling a million copies on Amazon, I realistically look to only a ‘pocket distribution’, say about 200, for my self-published books. My Upside Down World of St Francis has sold 100 physical books and about 30 e-books.

My friend Simon Haynes has a different motivation. Simon is the author of the Hal Spacejock novels. He writes in the specific genre of comic space opera. Simon started with self-publishing, then after some success with mainstream publishing has now returned to self-publishing where he has more control of marketing. His ‘platform’ is homogenous, and with each new book in the series, all he has to do is to find similar readers to grow his platform.  Simon advises, ‘Work on gradually increasing your audience, and write more of what they want.’

Austin Briggs’s manual is for writers wanting to know how to build their ‘online platform’, which he defines as ‘a following of people who find your work through the World Wide Web’. How does a writer set about increasing the audience for her book?

Austin Briggs writes historical fiction based on his ten years researching the Aztecs and is gathering readers for this particular genre. His manual invites people to build on his experience, first by recommending blogging as a way of establishing credentials as a writer, and then by reaching out to other bloggers and through social media. The manual concludes with a detailed 90-day calendar culminating with an online launch.

I probably won’t have any need for the details of 90-day calendar: my audience is quite different to an audience of genre readers, and I have no immediate plans to publish a full-length book. However, I think the calendar would be helpful to new writers of genre fiction or general non-fiction.

The strength for me of How to Build a Powerful Writer’s Platform is in the clear explanations of the principles and practicalities of online networking. The changes of the last four or five years in publishing and the growing presence of the Web in everyone’s lives are enormous, and as writers we need to resource each other with the skills necessary to achieve our goals in writing and self-publishing. Austin Briggs has been generous is sharing his experience.

He notes that it is hard work to build an audience, but encourages the reader to build up, and to keep augmenting, a repository of blogging, so that visitors to the blog are able to find useful or interesting content. He stresses the importance of online mutuality, offering to ‘guest blog’ and to host guest bloggers, to really communicate with followers and friends on Twitter, to be professional and generous with professional knowledge on LinkedIn, and to master the technologies needed for gathering an email list of ‘insiders’.

How to Build a Powerful Writer’s Platform is clearly written and well-produced. I didn’t trip over spelling and basic grammar errors. It was well-designed for the Kindle – the links in the Table of Contents worked well, and the frequent pull-quotes (white script in black text boxes) were legible and pertinent reminders.

I finished this book both encouraged and with new skills.

E-Book available from http://austinbriggs.com/ (Approx. $AUD 8.00) or from Amazon.for US 4.99